Bilahari Kausikan: Why Small Countries Should Not Behave Like A Small Country

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The following is an edited transcript of a talk by Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore. It was delivered on 11 October 2017 at our monthly Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue.

THE RELEVANCE OF SINGAPORE ON THE WORLD STAGE

I’m going to take some liberties with the topic. I’m not going to talk about the role of small states between East and West, but I’m going to talk about small states. I’m going to talk about why small states should not behave like small states—not if they want to remain states anyway. Now if you are a small city-state, which historically does not have a very good record of surviving, you have to start from a very stark and simple premise—you are intrinsically irrelevant. You perform no irreplaceable function in the international system. If you disappear from the face of the Earth, by this, I mean disappear as a sovereign and an independent entity, you will not make a whit of difference to anything.

After all, Singapore has, as a sovereign and independent entity, only existed for 52 years. That’s just a blink of an eye in the long sweep of history.

Now, what do we mean by small? I mean physically small. This is essentially one city and, in some context, not a very large city. In a Chinese context, you are a second-tier city, about five to six million people. Now, of course we are not going to disappear, but your sovereignty and independence can be severely compromised. And that is actually the case of most small states today. There are about 196 sovereign states, and 193 members of the UN. Most of them have a seat at the UN, a vote at the UN, a flag, a national anthem, but that’s about it. Their autonomy and their ability to carve their own destiny is, more often than not, severely compromised. Now, I said physically small. By some other matrixes, we are not so small. As a port, a sort of logistics centre, a financial centre, or a trading hub, we are not that small. But physical size does matter.

Why do I say that? Well, let’s take your role as a logistics hub and trading centre. We have performed that role, according to some accounts, since the 14th century. We have certainly performed that role as a British colony, and as part of Malaysia. Of course, the manner in which we perform the role has evolved, but it’s essentially the same role. So you don’t have to be sovereign and independent to do these things. You cannot take your relevance as a sovereign and independent country for granted.

Relevance for a small country and a small state is an artefact. That means something created and maintained by human endeavour. How do you create relevance? Relevance is a contextual concept. What makes you relevant today may be quite irrelevant in a week, in a month, in a year, or in a decade. What makes you relevant vis-à-vis country A, may be quite irrelevant vis-à-vis country B. What makes you relevant on issue X vis-à-vis country A, may be irrelevant vis-à-vis issue Y. For the purposes of this talk, I’m not going into the details of that, but you can ask me questions about that later.

That said, the bedrock of relevance is success. Before I retired from the foreign service, I used to tell our junior officers that if Singapore’s foreign policy had any success, it is not because—or when I’m in my kinder moments, I say “not only because”—of their good looks, their natural charm, and the brilliance of their intellect. It’s because Singapore is a successful country, and you represent a successful country. Therefore, what you say is taken with some seriousness and some credibility. If you serve in the UN, as I have, you will find many individual diplomats from many countries who are absolutely brilliant, but they are not being taken seriously. Why? Well, it’s simply because they are representing countries that are not taken seriously.

A SUCCESSFUL COUNTRY

Photo: Zehpylwer0 / Pixabay

What do you mean by a successful country? Here, I have to be very crass. Success, first of all, has to be measured in economic terms. If you are a basket case or a barren rock, nobody will take you seriously. You cannot be successful by any other criteria. Of course, that is the foundation, but that is not the end of it. Economic success gives you options that are not available to countries that, to put it crudely, do not have the cold hard cash in order to create options. Now, I’m not going to go into how to be economically successful. There are many pathways, and it is also in a state of constant change. But one thing is constant: even as you adapt to various changing circumstances to keep yourself successful, and adaptability is one criterion, you cannot be just ordinarily successful. You have to be extraordinarily successful. You can’t be successful as, let’s say, countries around you because every country around you is bigger than you. Brunei, is smaller in population, but is well-endowed with natural resources; oil and gas. Everybody else has natural resources. Therefore, even if you are as successful as everybody around you, why should they take you seriously? You don’t have any natural resources, and they might as well deal with a country larger than you.

Hence, you have to be exceptional. You have to be extraordinary. It doesn’t always make you loved, by the way, but that is the existential condition of being Singaporean.  To survive and prosper, you have to be exceptional; in being exceptional, it sometimes creates resentment. You just have to deal with it and manage it. It follows, therefore, that you cannot take the advice of my former colleague, who advocated in a rather stupid article that small countries should behave like small countries. If Singapore had behaved like a small country in 1965, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking to each other, or we would be talking in a different language. At least it wouldn’t be me addressing you all, because I am not a bumiputra.

Now, that does not mean we should not be aware of the constraints of being small. Of course, you should be aware of the constraints of being small, but you should not allow yourself to be limited by those constraints. You should not allow your ambition to be bounded by your mere size because that is precisely what when we had independence thrusted upon us. Don’t forget that Singapore is quite unique. We never sought independence, we had it thrusted upon us. And, in fact, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew is on record as saying small island states are a political joke. That’s why he sought independence within Malaysia. It didn’t work out, and we had to make it work. If at that moment of anguish, when we were thrown out on the perilous seas of independence, we behaved like a small country, we won’t be speaking here because that is precisely what the Malaysians wanted us to behave like. They had three powerful instruments. I won’t go into details, but the first instrument was the armed forces. During the crucial years of 1965-1969, we do not have an armed force worth talking about. Second, the economy. Singapore was still largely an entrepôt, whose hinterland was Malaysia and Indonesia, and both were out to replace us in that role. The third instrument was water. Essentially, the assumption was these three things would either bring us crawling back or keep us as a small country tamely to heel. The story of Singapore since 1965 is how we overcame those challenges by being exceptional.

Now, one element of Singapore’s exceptionalism is the organising principle of Singapore, which is multi-racial equality and multi-racial meritocracy. I’m not saying that we do it perfectly. In fact, we are far from perfect. But there is no perfection to be found outside heaven, if there is a heaven. I don’t quite believe there is a heaven, so there’s no perfection to be found. But even if you believe in heaven, at least the Christian heaven, there is also no equality, there is hierarchy; there is God, there are angels of various kinds etc. And if you look around Singapore, as imperfect as we are in implementing the organising principle, it is nonetheless unique and exceptional. Look around Singapore, not just in Southeast Asia, but from Northeast Asia to South Asia. Most countries are organised whether explicitly—in the case of Malaysia, where the principle of Malay dominance is enshrined in the constitution—or implicitly. It’s bumiputra over non-bumiputra; it is ethnic Thai Buddhist over Muslim Rohingya; it is Sinhalese Buddhist over Tamil; it is Han over non-Han. Even in a very liberal democracy like Japan, it is ethnic Japanese over Japanese-Koreans or Ainu; it is Hindu over non-Hindu; it is Buddhist over non-Buddhist; there is no end. You just think about what’s around us.

Even beyond that, in Western liberal democracies, there is a reassertion of hierarchy; it should be white Christian first. That is the meaning of the Trump phenomenon; that is the meaning of Brexit; that is the meaning of these right-wing movements that have arisen on continental Europe. They don’t always say it so explicitly, but when they are anti-immigration, for example, that’s what they mean. And this foundation which makes us unique is under pressure. It’s under greater pressure today than it ever was before because part of the backlash against globalisation is a cultural backlash. It is the assertion of identities of various kinds as superior over identities of other kinds. Now, there are many such assertions. There is the assertion of an Arabised form of Islam as more authentic than other forms; and there’s an assertion of various kinds of evangelical Christianity as more authentic than other kinds.

Similar ideas have crept into Singapore such as radical Hinduism and radical Buddhism. If you think about the fundamental tenets of these religions, it’s an oxymoron, but it exists. Even in a secular way, you have the assertions of different kinds of political identity as more authentic to the exclusion of other kinds. What has that got to do with us? We are exposed to these things, and you can’t insulate yourself from these things. You can perhaps mitigate those things, but you can’t insulate yourself, because the cost of shutting yourself off is to try and become North Korea, and you know where that leads to.

Singapore is not just a small country, it is also unique in another way. Singapore is the only ethnic Chinese majority country outside greater China, by which I mean the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. That poses particular challenges, particularly with relations with China.

THREE TRACKS TO CHINA’S FOREIGN POLICY

President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan. Photo: APEC 2013 / Flickr

Chinese foreign policy is unique in one way; it does not conduct international relations on only one track. It conducts international relations on three tracks. Of course, all countries, including ourselves, have more than one track of foreign policy. But China does it more insistently, much more systematically, and with a greater institutional apparatus devoted to the different tracks than any other country I know. What are these three tracks? The first is, of course, the normal track of state-to-state relations. These sometimes fluctuate up and down, and that’s quite normal. There is no substantive relationship of any country anywhere that is a smooth trajectory. I mean we have a smooth relationship with at least one country I know of. Guess which country that is? It is Botswana. You know why? Because there’s no substantive relationship with Botswana. Once you have a substantive relationship with a country, it’s bound to fluctuate. In other words, smooth trajectory in a relationship means that the relationship is, by and large, irrelevant. The state-to-state relationship we have with China is, by and large, not bad. There are ups and downs of course, but it’s still not bad, even quite good.

But that’s not the only track. China is not just a state, it is also what I would call a Leninist state. I don’t use the term “Communist” because I don’t think there’s anybody in China that seriously believes in the Communist ideology anymore. You might find a few people in Brown University or Harvard who still believe in Communism as an ideology, but you won’t find anybody in China, and certainly not in the Chinese Communist Party. However, they do believe in the Leninist structure of the state, in which the party is dominant, and that prescribes certain tactics, methods of control, and foreign policy techniques. For want of a better word, I would call them “united front tactics”. That means the use of other than state-to-state channels, cultural associations, business associations, literary associations etc., to gain influence—all Leninist states do this. The former Soviet Union did it up to the 1930s, when it was relatively isolated. By the 1950s, they by and large abandoned this because it was no longer isolated.

Now, post-Maoist China is certainly not isolated. But it still has United Front Work Department, which is under direct control of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. And you have seen in recent times, for example in Australia, where they tried to subvert politicians and political parties. You saw it in New Zealand where—bless the souls of the Kiwis—a new citizen who became a member of parliament was found to have been an instructor in the PRC’s spy schools. I don’t know what their vetting process was like, but there’s possibly a reason why the Kiwis are an endangered species. And there are many other examples around the world. China is not just a normal state or a Leninist state. It also has a third identity of being a civilisational state—China is a civilisation, as well as a state, and that prescribes the third track. It’s a track that is of particular relevance for Singapore, and that is the overseas Chinese track. They also have a very elaborate institutional apparatus devoted to this track under party control.

The purpose of this track is best encapsulated by a speech President Xi Jinping made in 2014 to a conference of overseas Chinese business associations in Beijing. And the title of that speech was The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation is of Importance to all Chinese.  In other words, the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is of importance to all Chinese means that overseas Chinese are expected, on crucial issues, to define their interests in terms of China’s interest. That is something a multi-racial country like Singapore can never accept.  It is an existential issue. That’s why when a former senior civil servant says that a small country should behave like a small country— which is what the Chinese meant because you are a majority ethnic Chinese country—he has to be put down quite brutally, and not just by me, but by more important people than me.

SINGAPORE-CHINA RELATIONS: AN EXISTENTIAL ISSUE

Why is it an existential issue? It’s very simple because to align your interest with China’s interest means that you accept China, not merely as a geopolitical fact, but China’s superiority as a norm of international relations. Both concepts are very different. I mean everybody would accept China’s rise as a geopolitical fact. You have to be blind, deaf, dumb, and living on another planet not to do so. But that’s an entirely different matter from accepting China’s superiority as a norm of international relations. It is a very ancient norm of Chinese international relations, which is coming back, not exactly the same way as ancient times, but substantially the same. It manifests itself in big ways and small. Why can’t we accept that as a multi-racial country? China persistently refers to Singapore as a Chinese country. We persistently tell them we are not a Chinese country, but they persist. We cannot accept that. This is existential. That’s why the debate with the former civil servant is not just an academic or an intellectual debate. That’s why he has to be put down and brutally because it is a very small step from accepting China’s superiority as a geopolitical fact (“China” used as a proper noun. A big country, but still placed in a bounded territory) to accepting Chinese (“Chinese” as an adjective, which has no boundary) superiority as a norm.  And you know what the regional and domestic consequences are.

By the way, I don’t think China is out to destroy Singapore. In some ways, they do admire Singapore because several Chinese and some Singaporeans who are very familiar with China have told me that the Chinese admires Singapore because it shows what the Chinese people can do after 100 years. However, they fundamentally do not understand why we are successful. That’s why they have a lot of problems with the Uyghurs and other minorities. No matter how good our relationship is on the first track (state-to-state relations), from time to time, they will try the other tracks, and they have never stopped. Sometimes it’s high-key and public, while at other times, it’s low-key and private. We have to resist such attempts even if it means roughing relations on the first track. That’s what happened over the last year or so. Now, they are playing nice again for a variety of reasons.

I will make two more points. The first point is, I said these kinds of things have never stopped in the 30 odd years I have been in the foreign ministry. Sometimes they are public, sometimes they are private. The last time it was public was in 2004. Why was it public? When then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong went to Taiwan, all hell broke loose. Now, that’s not the first time a Singapore leader has gone to Taiwan. They’ve gone many times, and the Chinese know well that no matter what, we know how to handle the One China policy. They do trust us when it suits them because some years ago, they came and asked us to do a free trade agreement with Taiwan because they were trying to prop up Ma Ying-jeou at that time. We don’t want a free trade agreement with Taiwan because it’s of no economic use. They asked us because they are confident that we know how to handle it without compromising the One China principle.

So what was their fuss in 2004 all about? It’s because it was quite clear, by that time, that Mr Lee Hsien Loong would be the successor to Mr Goh Chok Tong. One of the lies that the Chinese like to propagate on track two (united front tactics) and track three (overseas Chinese being for China’s interests) is that relations were so much better under Lee Kuan Yew, and these new people don’t know how to handle China. Mr Lee Kuan Yew did have good relations with many Chinese leaders including Deng Xiaoping. But why did he have good relations? There’s another fact that track two and track three of Chinese diplomacy never emphasises. Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP is, as far as I can determine, and I have tried very hard to find an exception, the only non-Communist leader and party that went into a united front in the 1950s and 1960s with a Chinese Communist-supported party, the Barisan Socialis, and won. Every other non-Communist leader that went into the united front lost. And so, they had absolutely no doubt of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s resolve, and that however friendly he is, he will be for Singapore first.  But when there is a leadership transition, they wanted to see whether the son is made of the same mettle. They also tested Goh Chok Tong, by the way, in a less public way.

And this time, the last year and a half, there were many proximate causes for the tension. But it is also a time of succession because about a year ago, Mr Lee Hsein Loong announced that after the next election, he’ll step aside, and let the fourth generation of leaders choose who the next Prime Minister would be, and it is also meant to test them. They had no doubt about Mr Lee Kuan Yew. They put some pressure on Goh Chok Tong; didn’t work. They didn’t put much pressure because they probably thought he was the interim leader. They have a rather dynastic mindset which you can see, because there’s a category of Chinese leaders known as princelings. They tested Mr Lee Hsein Loong, it didn’t work. So now they are testing the fourth generation. The test isn’t over; they have paused for a variety of reasons and decided to play nice. Prime Minister had a very good visit to China, but that’s not the end of the story.

I told you state-to-state relations will always go up and down. There’s nothing to get too excited about. But it is conceivable, not very probable, that one day, as did the Soviet Union, China may give up the united front track. But China cannot give up the third track, the overseas Chinese track, without ceasing to be China, because it stems from the civilisational nature of the Chinese state. So we will have to learn to deal with this. How do we deal with this?

 

Bilahari Kausikan taking questions from the audience at Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue.

DEALING WITH CHINA

I think there are two fundamental things. One, is to have an educated public. It cannot be denied that a certain section of our compatriots who feel cultural affinity—nothing wrong with that—and therefore are either reluctant to acknowledge this track, or think there’s nothing wrong with it.  I told you it’s a very small step from acknowledging China’s status as a big power, “China” as a proper noun, to using “Chinese” superiority as an adjective. We are only 52 years old. Are you absolutely confident that the Singaporean Chinese identity is so deeply rooted that none of our compatriots would be tempted, whether consciously or not, to take that small step? I’m not. Maybe in another 50 years, we don’t have to worry about it. But the experience of the last year and a half, shows me there are some who are tempted to take that step. So you have to deal with it, and the first way of dealing with it is to have an educated public.

Here, I have to acknowledge that there is something of a quandary. I can educate you in this closed group, and because I am a pensioner after all, I can say anything I want. I have a title that is meaningless. Don’t ask me what Ambassador-at-Large means because I have no idea. In the colloquial sense of the term, “at large” means not-yet-called. But I am a pensioner, I have no authority, I have no official position. So I can say what I just said to you. It’s very hard for a government to say these things because you don’t want to go and roil the official track unnecessarily. If it is necessary, of course, we have to hold firm to this fundamental bedrock of what makes Singapore, even if it causes tensions in the first track, and that’s what we did over the last year-and-a-half and 2004. A few months ago, Mr Chan Chun Sing was asked a question about foreign influence in politics in parliament. He had to give a very circumspect answer. So circumspect that, unless you already knew, you won’t know what he was talking about. I can’t blame him, you know? But in small groups like this, I can try to educate you.

The second big factor is to have a very clinical view of what’s happening in the world. One of the other Chinese lines is that China is rising. Therefore, your best friend, America, is declining. So you are the wrong side of history, and you better jump on this bandwagon. Now, that can’t be denied. I told you that you must be blind, deaf, dumb, and living on another planet to deny that China is rising. But it is wrong to look at China’s rise in simplistic and binary terms. There will be a more symmetrical strategic equation between the US and China sooner or later, but that doesn’t mean that the US is going to disappear from the world. It doesn’t mean that the US is going to cease to be a substantive country. And not just the US, but Japan as well. It doesn’t make much substantive difference if you are the biggest, second biggest, or third biggest economy in the world. You are all still going to be important players, and you all are going to be strong military powers. You all are going, in that sense, to deter, check, and balance each other. That gives small countries like us manoeuvre room.

Whether or not you’re going to be agile and clever enough to take advantage of the manoeuvre room is, of course, another matter. Nobody says we got to be clever, we can be stupid too, but the possibility exists. In other words, you can be small, and not behave like a small country, and preserve your autonomy. It is up to us.


Bilahari Kausikan is an Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Prior to this, he served at the MFA as Permanent Secretary from 2010–2013.

Sharon Siddique: East-West and the Post-Colonial

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Dr Sharon Siddique speaking at the Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue on 15 Nov 2017

The following is an edited transcript of a talk by Dr Sharon Siddique, Adjunct Professorial Fellow at Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). It was delivered on 15 November 2017 at our monthly Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue. 

POST-COLONIAL

I want to take issue with the concept, “post-colonial”. The meaning and focus of post-colonial studies is vast and complicated.  One of the central narratives is subaltern studies.  Subaltern studies essentially focuses on misperceptions of the colonized self, based on the adoption of the world view of the colonizers.  The preoccupation of Subaltern studies is to uncover an alternative interpretation of colonial history.  The focus is on recovering the perspective of the oppressed over the oppressors. At its most general, it focuses on Orientalism—a reinterpretation of history.

Although the rewriting of the historical narrative is vital, my perspective on post-colonialism is present-oriented.  I am interested in the impact of post-colonialism and how it colours our view the present. Much of this, as we will see, is unconscious. I will focus on the implications of the term, “post”. The dangerous ideological assumption implicit in the term “post-colonial” is that we are “done” with colonialism and is therefore no longer relevant to how we perceive our present lived-in environment.   Post-colonialism only helps us re-evaluate our perception of the past.

We in the East are supposedly post-West. “Post” implies a break; a turning point; a new beginning. We assume that the post-colonial narrative began at the end of WWII culminating with the birth of many new nation states in the 1950s and 1960s.  We thought then that we were initiating a new era of independent nation-states in the newly fashioned Third World. We assumed that we were in a post-colonial moment between what was (the colonial empires), and what was being created—a succession of former colonies progressing from Third World, to Second, and eventually, if we are very optimistic, to First.  But it has not really turned out that way.  To put it bluntly, after seven decades, we are still stuck in the post-colonial.

What does this mean and why? We begin with the term “post-colonial”, and ask the question, have we truly left the ideological dominance of the West?  I think It is false to assume that we can stop the clock at post-colonial and reset it at independence.  It is becoming increasingly obvious that the process is not so simple.

 

MOVIE ANALOGY

Post-colonialism is like entering a movie screening mid-way.  We have missed most of the movie, the plot is difficult to follow, and the characters are confusing.

If we had arrived earlier, we would have caught the beginning of the movie.  The characters and their motivations are introduced.  The storyline unfolds.  If we enter the movie halfway, we are disoriented, and we sometimes lose the plot because we are ignorant of what has transpired. This is important because it makes it much more difficult to understand the nuances of plot and motivation.

Our movie—the one we will be screening tonight—is titled, Singapore and Its Neighbors.

We could choose many beginnings, but arguably, with reference to our postcolonial narrative, we will choose to begin in 1824—a natural beginning for our story.  The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 was designed to solve many of the issues that had arisen because of the British occupation of Dutch properties during the Napoleonic Wars, as well as issues regarding the rights to trade that had existed for hundreds of years in the Spice Islands. The treaty between the Dutch and the British addressed a wide array of issues surrounding the expansion by either side of the Malay world. The British establishment of Singapore on the Malay Peninsula in 1819 exacerbated the tension between the two empires, especially as the Dutch claimed that the treaty signed between Raffles and the Sultan of Johore was invalid, and that the Sultanate of Johore was under the Dutch sphere of influence. The questions surrounding the fate of Dutch trading rights in British India and former Dutch possessions in the area also became a point of contention between Calcutta and Batavia. In 1820, under pressures from British merchants with interests in the Far East, negotiations to clarify the situation in Southeast Asia began.

The Treaty settled several matters:

  • The Straits of Malacca (and the Malay World) was split into two. All territories to the north of the Straits of Malacca belonged to the British, and all to the south belonged to the Dutch.
  • The great swap: Bencoolen (located on the west coast of Sumatra) was given to the Dutch, while Malacca was given to the British. The issue of Singapore was settled; it remained British and its status was never questioned again.
  • Singapore remained part of the British sphere, and gradually lost its original connection to the Malay World.

So now we have the beginning of the plot. But before I continue with the movie, I would like to give you a pop quiz.  Six multiple-choice questions. If you fail, your punishment will be to listen carefully to the continuation of my movie script.

 

POP QUIZ

1) How many islands are there in Riau Island Province?

  • 3
  • 35
  • 350
  • 3,500

ANSWER: 3,500

2) What are the populations of the cities of Batam and Johor Baru?

  • Less than 500,000 each
  • More than 1 million each
  • Johor Baru’s population is bigger than Batam
  • Batam’s population is bigger than Johor Bahru

ANSWER: More than 1 million each.

3) Melaka was conquered by the Portuguese in which year?

  • 1641
  • 1598
  • 1704
  • 1511

ANSWER: 1511. It is worth noting that Melaka was conquered more than 300 years before Raffles founded Singapore.  What happened in the region in these three centuries?

4) Who was the Governor-General of Java from 1811 to 1815?

  • Herman Daendels
  • Albert Wiese
  • Stamford Raffles
  • William Farquhar

ANSWER: Stamford Raffles.

The interaction between Dutch East Indies (DEI) and the British empire was vast and interesting.  The dialogue partners were Calcutta and Batavia.  The DEI never attempted to recover the position of Malacca.  Their seat of governance was Batavia.

5) How far is Batam from Singapore at its closest point?

  • 50 km
  • 70 km
  • 15 km
  • 5 km

ANSWER: 5 km

You can see Batam from Singapore. From Nongsa Point, Singapore’s East Coast floats like a mirage shimmering on the water across the straits—so very close physically, but a vast distance mentally.

6) Where is the city of Tanjong Balai located?

  • Batam
  • Johor
  • Karimun
  • Melaka

ANSWER: Karimun

Karimun almost became Singapore.  Today, it is a sleepy Dutch-style Indonesian town across the Straits, with Bauxite mines, beaches, and ship repair facilities. Best ferry connections are from West coast of Johor.

So what we have determined in this pop quiz is that we know very little about our neighbors.  Post-colonial folds the colonial into our sense of history, but with a terrific British tinge.

I have selected three scenes from the movie, each illustrating an important dimension of Singapore and Its Neighbors.  The common narrative is that we, as captives of the post-colonial, are quite ignorant of the Dutch colonial worldview, which still partially dominates our frozen moment.  We are still more comfortable being British.

 

THE NEW CAPITAL OF INDONESIA

Jakarta │Photo: Kira Kariakin / Flickr

Post-colonial blinders lead to frozen moments.  Circumstances change, but we have difficulties imagining how things could change and why. This is illustrated by the phenomena of moving capital cities.  At the moment, in Jakarta, there is a quiet renewed debate about moving the capital of Indonesia from Jakarta to a new location.  The most often cited new location is Palangkaraya, currently the provincial capital of Central Kalimantan.  How seriously should we take this?

President Jokowi is a great supporter, and has recently directed BAPPENAS (the Indonesian Central Planning Authority; the Indonesian equivalent of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority with several other responsibilities) to complete a feasibility study by the end of 2017.

This is not the first time that Palangkaraya has been singled out.  When President Soekarno, built the city in 1957, he indicated his intention to eventually move the federal capital there which, of course, did not transpire.

The reasons for this are complex and layered, but to even get a grip on what is going on, we need to know more about Kalimantan.  So where is Kalimantan? On Borneo, which is the third largest island in the world (behind Greenland and New Guinea). Borneo is split amongst Indonesia (Kalimantan) Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) and Brunei. The entire island has a population of only 10 million, and Palangkaraya is located at the geographic centre of the Indonesian archipelago.  If we overlay a map of Indonesia over a map of the USA, it stretches from Alaska to Florida.

As we began our colonial narrative in 1819, we tend to forget how much longer the Dutch colonial narrative in the Dutch East Indies actually is.  Batavia was the capital of DEI for 330 years (1619-1949), and the capital of Indonesia for the past seven decades. Even contemplating a move is mind-boggling, yet we can’t simply dismiss it as impossible.

Moving capitals is a feature of Southeast Asia’s sense of place.  Capitals can move to newly created cities, such as from Rangoon to Naypyidaw. They can split in two, such as Kuala Lumpur being the business centre and Putrajaya as the administrative center of Malaysia.  This also happens at the provincial and state levels. In Johor, Kota Iskandar is the administrative capital, while Johor Baru is the commercial city.   Suffice to say, this typical feature of Southeast Asian moving cities can either prepare us for possible change, or leave us surprised and perplexed, because we didn’t see it coming and we don’t understand why it did.

 

THE DEFINITION OF MALAY

The second movie scene I would like to describe is the definition of what constitutes being a Malay.  Our recent presidential election, which was, for the first time, also a Reserved Presidential Election, provided an excellent example of the complexities of race dimensions, and how confused it can be if you enter the movie mid-way. Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia have quite different definitions of what is Malay.

Singapore is the most open and flexible.  Anyone who considers oneself a Malay, and is accepted by the community as such, is a Malay.   While it is seemingly simple, the extensive debate and discussion following the election indicates that it is anything but simple in our post-colonial frozen moment.

To understand the Singapore debate, it is necessary to examine what Malay means in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

To understand who is a Malay in Indonesia, one has to begin with the term, sukubangsa. It  roughly translates to an ethnic group, and it generally links an ethnic group to a specific locality.  Malays are natives of the Riau Islands, mainland provinces of Jambi, Riau, and South Sumatra. Other sukubangsa may live in the Riaus, such as Javanese, Minangkabau, Batak, etc., but they are not considered Malay.

The  “religion” element of “Malayness” is used differently in the four countries. Indonesia and   Singapore do not explicitly specify a religion for Malay, but it is assumed that Malays are Muslim. Here, the argument turns on whether or not you can practise Malay customs and culture without being a Muslim.

In Malaysia, to qualify as a Malay, one must practice Malay custom, speak the Malay language, and be a Muslim. In order to understand the status of Malays in Malaysia, one needs to understand the term, bumiputera, which literally means sons of the soil.  All Malays are bumiputeras, but not all bumiputra are Malays.  The term was used to include the other ethnic indigenous groups such as the indigenous ethnic groups of Sabah and Sarawak.

There is a further complication to the definition of Malay in Malaysia. In some states, Malays are under the protection of the Sultans, who, since British rule, are responsible for Malay and Islamic customs.  One must note that Arabs and some Indian Muslims are included as Malays in some states, but are not considered Malays in others.

So, in Singapore, an Arab can be a Malay if he chooses.  In Malaysia, whether or not an Arab can be a Malay or bumiputera depends on  the rules of the state in which he or she is domiciled.  In Indonesia, Arab is a separate sukubangsa.

Finally, Brunei defines itself as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB)—Malay-Muslim Monarchy.

 

SINGAPORE: THE PEARL OF SOUTHEAST ASIA

The final scene from the movie which I would like to describe is called “Singapore: The Pearl of Southeast Asia”.

Singapore is special in many ways.  In the context of our present movie, the important thing to note is that it is the only Chinese-majority city in Southeast Asia; a first for the Malay world.  I remember discussing this with an Indonesian friend who told me, “Yes, Singapore is a pearl.  It is costly and beautiful.  But we never forgot how the pearl was produced:  it began when a tiny grain of sand entered and irritated us.”  A variation on this is the “little red dot”, which was coined in the late 1990s by the then-President of Indonesia, B. J. Habibie. Since then, Singaporeans have claimed that pejorative phrase as a badge of honour.

Singapore is a colonial creation adjusting to its own post-colonial frozen moment. I will illustrate this by talking about Singapore and her nearest neighbors to the North and South. By freezing the frame on Singapore, we can see what we are missing. What we need is to fill in the gaps of what we have missed from the first half of the movie so that we can better understand the narrative on post-colonialism

First, we need to concentrate on rebalancing Singapore’s post-colonial frozen moment. We are strong on Malaysia, but weak on Indonesia.  We are knowledgeable about Johor, but quite clueless about Riau Island Province.

Why are these questions important to us? It helps us to see the impact of tri-lateral initiatives we have had various experiences since 1965, including Konfrontasi with Indonesia.  We have tried several versions of tripartite cooperation such as SIJORI or the Indonesia-Malaysia-Singapore Growth Triangle , which was not very successful.  At the moment, we have again swung to an emphasis on the comfort zone of bilateral relations with Malaysia, largely via developments in Johor, and this is growing.  More than half a million people cross the causeway everyday;  Johoreans cross to work in Singapore, and the competitive advantage is not only higher pay, but also a favorable exchange rate.

Second, Singapore is most comfortable as a global city.  In the region, it interacts as an independent nation-state and deals with the capital of the its neighbors.  It has more difficulty in carving out an appropriate identity for interacting directly with Johor and Riau directly, as neighboring state and province respectively. The result of this is that most Singaporeans are more familiar with London and New York than with Palembang and Pekanbaru.

In order to improve our success rate with our neighbors, we must not be drawn into dismissing the still present legacy of colonialism in our post-colonial frozen moment.  We cannot afford to remain ignorant of our surroundings in terms of pre-colonial boundaries which were so drastically altered by intervention of colonizers. In Singapore and in Southeast Asia we have been stuck in “postcolonial” for seven decades.  Our stalled position means that in our present, and future, we are missing vital analytical elements.

The third issue in assessing Singapore’s post-colonial frozen moment is that we need to be more aware of the rapid thaw in terms of the impact of forces external to the region.  There are three forces at play—the rise of China, the opening of India, and the diminishing role of the Western world in Asia.

There is a rupture between colonialism and post-colonialism.  This implies that we are, in some fashion, post-West.  In the immediate aftermath of colonialism, the rupture, and the creation of a new era, was nationalism and the nation-state.  However, rather than coalescing, nationalism appears to be losing its ideological grip, and the post-colonial nation-state does not appear to have ushered in a new era.   In Malaysia and Indonesia, there is currently a great deal of re-scripting of the fundamentals; things which we thought had been settled decades ago. There are many complex reasons for this, but I will only speculate on a few.

First, and this is a huge generalization, post-colonialism turned its sights inward, and became preoccupied with the introspective exercise of re-evaluating contexts of colonialism.

Second, it is worth noting in passing that this thawing process appears to be global.  Most countries in the Middle East, suffered from the fundamental problems over their national identities. More than a century after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, from which most of them emerged, these states have been unable to define, project, and maintain a national identity that is both inclusive and representative.  The question is where and how the thawing of our frozen moment will proceed.

We will bequeath the challenge of answering this question to your generation. Choose to open yourselves to the many fascinating venues in our neighborhood.  And I mean this personally.   As a start, I suggest you take a two-hour ferry ride to Tanjung Balai Karimun and imagine where Singapore might have been.  Or drive over to Forest City and see the Country Garden, a massive construction by a Shanghai-based construction company.

But if you really want an unforgettable metaphysical experience I suggest you take the 8 a.m. ferry from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to Nongsapura.  You board the ferry at 8 a.m., and the trip takes 40 minutes.  You will arrive at 7.40.  That is, you arrive in Batam 20 minutes before you have left Singapore.  Batam is on Waktu Indonesia Barat, which is one hour behind Singapore time.  You arrive before you leave.  This trip puts you in the mood to sit back and enjoy the Indonesian experience. As you tour Riau tune in to how Dutch it is.  We live in a fascinating neighborhood.  Don’t miss it.


Dr Sharon Siddique is an independent scholar, and a director of Singapore-based Sreekumar.Siddique & Co., a regional research-consulting firm established in 1993. Prior to this, she was a Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). She was also a founding member of the Malay Heritage Board, which was constituted to manage the Malay Heritage Centre.

At ISEAS she was in charge of coordinating regional research, and also chairman of the Institute’s Publications Unit Review Committee. At Sreekumar.Siddique & Co, she has provided customised research consulting services and private briefings for company boards, senior managers and public policy officials, with a focus on Southeast Asia (see website for more details (www.sreekumar-siddique.com).

Dr Siddique is a noted authority on Islam and socio-cultural change, and has written extensively on social restructuring and urban planning. She has degrees in development sociology, Malay Studies and linguistics from the Universities of Bielefeld (Germany), Singapore and Montana (USA).