Nation Building: The Experience of Southeast Asia
By Michael S. H. Heng

Nation Building: The Experience of Southeast Asia

May. 11, 2016  |     |  0 comments

Nation-building was high on the political agenda of European countries in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789, and again in the ex-colonies during the post-colonial period after World War II, but subsided subsequently. The recent few decades witness a renewed interest in the subject as a result of genocide in Rwanda, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the break-up of the Soviet Union, the civil war in Sri Lanka, and in inter-ethnic conflict in many parts of the world.

The dominant model used in nation-building is the model of nation-state. A good example is provided by the states which gained independence after years of colonialism. On attaining independence, top on the agenda of the leadership of these new states was to embark on the project of state-making and nation-building. Given that most of the leaders were schooled in educational institutions run by the colonial powers, it was natural for them to refer to the western experiences of nation building. They were impressed by countries like Britain, France, and the Netherlands, whose paths of becoming European powers were captured in the model of the nation-state.

The results of applying the model of the nation-state in Asia have not been encouraging. There are recurring problems of ethnic conflict, religious polarization, and separatism, which erupt now and then in violence. A recent study reports that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, Thailand, Afghanistan, and Iraq are all flashpoints for current ethnic conflicts that have the potential for serious local and regional escalation.1 It may be argued therefore that most Asian countries still have much to do in working on their historical project of nation-building. This suggests the need to re-examine the historical context which gave birth to powerful nation-states in Europe, and to look for alternative models and approaches.

State, Nation and Nation-State

A state refers to an organized political community living under a single system of government in a geographical territory. The state provides protection to the community against external aggression, checks anarchy and banditry, and guarantees some form of law and order. Such rationale for the state has been famously expounded by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan. In modern days, states are expected to carry out additional functions, which include providing basic services like healthcare and amenities like water supply. Generally, the government derives its revenue to pay the army, police and bureaucrats from taxation, natural resource exploitation, and investment. A state is strong if it can carry these time-honored duties well, and its judiciary, central bank, army and police operate without political interference from the government.

A state needs to possess a military force strong enough to protect itself against aggression, and going beyond that is highly undesirable. The military is unable to provide capable leadership for a dynamic economy, long-term political stability, and intellectual and cultural vitality. This point is borne out by contemporary history. A good example is Pakistan, where its military has stunted the country’s economic, political, social, and cultural development. At the same time, state strength is not the same as authoritarianism or autocracy, for the latter lacks legitimacy and uses state apparatus to suppress opposition. A coercive state is “strong” when it comes to persecuting its people. But such a state can collapse like a pack of cards; just think of the Ceauşescu regime of Romania in 1989. When the government fails in performing its duties and cannot exercise effective control over the territory, then we talk of a failed state, like in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

A significant episode in the system of states is the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) between the Protestant and Catholic states in the disintegrating Holy Roman Empire, and the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic. The Treaty established the modern state system, with the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference in each other's internal affairs. This system was first adopted by the Central European states, and through European dominance in world affairs in the next few centuries, it spread to become the international norm.

States as political entities have existed for a long time. For example, tribal states were known to emerge in China a few thousand years ago. Other forms of states are: territorial state, city state, princely state, kingdom, empire, theocratic state, confederation, multinational state, nation state, and the market state.

In contrast to states, nations first appeared on the stage of history much more recently. The ruling circles made the political move to turn the old ethnic community into a modern nation. In the early modern West, the monarch and aristocracy, and later the bourgeoisie, were the prime agents of the bureaucratic incorporation of the lower classes and outlying communities into the embryonic “national state” that they, along with the Church, helped to create. This was a long, slow and discontinuous process, which can be traced back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Kings and princes in early modern Europe used religion as the overarching ideology to instil loyalty among their subjects. Those not belonging to the faith of the king were either pressured to convert or, in some extreme cases, expelled. The ethnic cleansing that happened in ex-Yugoslavia about 25 ago was a replay of what happened in Europe several centuries ago. During that time, a common language was merely a secondary consideration — or else it was taken for granted. As rulers brought their subjects increasingly under their control, interest grew among the rulers in the sense of identity of their subjects. It was then that language was roped in to play this unifying and constitutive role.

States as political entities have existed for a long time. For example, tribal states were known to emerge in China a few thousand years ago.

In European history, the formation of the modern nation was an important milestone in political modernity and democracy when absolute monarchy gave way to constitutional monarchy, the divine right of the monarch to popular sovereignty, feudal privileges to civil equality in taxation and law, and hierarchy of birth to merit and talent.

An often cited case used to study the nation-state is the formation of the French nation-state in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789. The French nation was formed on the basis of an existing French state. “France is a state not because the French constitute a nation, but rather that the French state is the outcome of dynastic ambitions, of circumstances, of lucky wars, of administrative and diplomatic skills. It is these which maintained order, enforced laws, and carried out policies; these which made possible at last the cohesive existence of Frenchmen within the French state.”2 In the course of the French Revolution, the people liberated themselves from the control of the ancien regime. When the revolutionary democrats appealed to a sense of patriotism or national loyalty, it was state-based. Such an appeal related to the idea of a sovereign people; and it was in the name of the people that the state exercised power. France is an example of a nation-state formed on the basis of the state, i.e., state first then nation. In the case of Germany, the nation-state was formed on the basis of the nation, i.e., nation first then state.

In the following decades and centuries, the French state used its newfound power to promote national unity in economic, social, and cultural life. There were inventions of symbols and rituals, appeals to tradition, the sense of common ethnic origins, and shared history and traditions. It introduced universal education, and in the process promoted the use of the French language as the lingua franca. The French nation thus born was a rather homogenous nation in terms of race, language, common history and tradition, with the people living in the same territory. The concept of the modern nation refers to a new collective identity peculiar to the modern period and formed by instruments of modern modernization such as education, newspapers, and road and rail transport systems. However, the journey to a fully democratic nation-state was time consuming. It took another one-and-a-half centuries for France to become a full democracy with universal suffrage and gender equality.

United in terms of territory, administration, politics, culture and language, France became a powerful nation-state with a modernizing economy. The nation-state turned out to be the most formidable political state structure, and many other states and nations did their best to copy it. For most of the European continent, the phase of nation-building took its great leap forward with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic War did much to spread the appeal of the nation-state model. From Europe, the idea diffused to the rest of the world, with its immense constructive-cum-destructive potential for nation-building and state-splitting.

In the later nineteenth century Europe saw the birth of two powerful nation-states, Germany and Italy, and a few decades later the breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In addition, there were the Greeks, Serbians, Romanians, and Bulgarians under the Ottoman Empire who clamored to break free to form their own nation-states. Between them, the new configuration was to change the political landscape of the old continent.

There are two notions embodied in the concept of the nation which emerged in the French Revolution, namely the sovereignty of the people and the particularity of that people among other peoples. The two notions are mutually compatible and also self-supportive, and they link up both logically and in historical experience with the great principles of the French Revolution. Equality of rights in the common association went hand in hand with fraternity — brotherhood in the sense that all were equal parts of the same and distinctive human family. In either meaning, the root condition is community.

The concept of the nation also has two variants. Its earlier variant was democratic liberal, but it degenerated subsequently into its conservative and parochial variant. In the democratic liberal variant, the sovereignty of the nation resides in the people, and all citizens are equal, with the same rights and responsibilities. Their rights as French citizens were encoded in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens, and in the present day context, they are basic human rights. It is reasonable therefore to argue for a strong relationship between the nation-state and liberal democracy. A nation may be defined as “a named human population sharing an historical territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members”3. The nation as a concept in the democratic-revolutionary period considers ethnicity as secondary. For example, the Anglo-American Thomas Paine was elected to the National Convention of the French Republic. A common language was significant only on the pragmatic grounds of coordination and communication, and not as a key criterion of belonging to a nation.

The parochial variant of the nation focuses on its ethnic origin; the emphasis is on ethnicity, common language, religion, territory and shared historical memories. The national identity is constructed out of “elements” that sit very deep in the psychological make-up of human beings, “elements” such as language, race, religion, and culture. Nationalists of this type tend to be intolerant, paranoid and resentful. This form of nationalism has had disastrous consequences. In its worst form, it has served as the ideology fueling the Armenian genocide, the two World Wars in Europe, Fascism, Nazism, the holocaust, and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Problems of the Homogenous Nation State Model

The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. - Lord Action 4

In the few years leading to final independence, the colonized peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America yearned for the days when they could pull their forces together to build their beloved countries. The contradictions between the social classes and ethnic groups were momentarily transcended by such lofty goals. After attaining political independence, many underlying cleavages appeared, often joined by new ones. Struggles for power, fueled by ideological differences and political ambition, began to seek out avenues for support in the bid for the commanding heights of power. Those who managed to secure it, while exerting themselves in nation building, would go all out to get rid of their erstwhile comrades who held dissenting visions of state development and nation building. The later were then labeled as “antinational” before being systematically suppressed. In such exercises of persecuting dissidents, the new ruling circles literally took over the repressive regimes of the colonial masters, lock, stock and barrel. Some have even gone further than the colonialists by imposing military rule. Examples of such patterns are found in Southeast Asia and other former colonies.

In many post-independence states, such intolerance takes an additional form of discrimination against minorities. And to justify this departure from their earlier cosmopolitan posture, they drew ideological support from the homogeneous version of nation-state. Unfortunately for them, there has been no case of real success of nation building in the contemporary era based on the model of the homogenous nation-state. Such a model depends on state coercion, and in more extreme cases the use of forced religious conversion or even ethnic cleansing. Such methods are totally not acceptable in the contemporary world. Nations built through forced homogeneity in earlier periods have proven to be very fragile and are prone to disintegrate. To understand why, let us consider the case of language and religion.

Issue of Language

The idea of a common language among the people is certainly excellent, but it takes time to happen and bear fruit. With quality school education, tolerance, respect for minorities, and common economic activities and social life, the widespread use of a common language is a natural product. Social interaction will eventually lead to people using the language(s) most suited to their social life and work. Indeed, it is inevitable. And the process takes time. A good example is Indonesia with its very good historical background and political conditions for popularizing the Indonesian national language. It is instructive to look at the achievements by consulting the figures collected by the Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics. In 1980, more than 3 decades after independence (a full generation), 11.93 percent of the people use Bahasa Indonesia daily, 48.89 percent know the language but do not use the language daily, and 39.18 percent do not understand the language at all. In 1990, ten years down the road, with improved literacy rates and so on, the corresponding figures had improved to 15.19 percent, 67.65 percent and 17.16 percent.

The use of force or coercion can only slow down the process. Moreover, it is counter-productive by sowing the seeds of national disunity. Instead of pouring state resources into coercive measures, it would be more rewarding to use the resources to nurture talents to produce high quality cultural products using the national language. There is something to learn from how Korean movies have become powerful media to spread the Korean language among enthusiastic non-Korean viewers.

Instead of pouring state resources into coercive measures, it would be more rewarding to use the resources to nurture talents to produce high quality cultural products using the national language.

Apart from sowing national disunity, coercion results in cultural poverty. It is worth reading the following description of the rich linguistic cultures in Hungary before parochial nationalism put an end to it. “Hungarian families, nobles and burghers, habitually sent their children to German, Slovak or Serbian families, usually for a year, ‘to be exposed to German’ as they said in Hungary, in order to learn the respective language, German or Slovak, etc. They in turn received German or Slovak children into their homes to learn Hungarian. With the dominance of the Hungarian language, this kind of ‘peaceful coexistence’ began to disappear.”5

Elsewhere in the world, there are examples of regions of a country with the same lingua franca seeking independence (e.g. Scotland from Britain) as well as a country with a population using different languages at peace with itself (e.g. Switzerland). Such cases should prompt any sincere nation builder to reflect on the concept of the homogenous nation-state.

Issue of Religion

Religion, like language, is so close to individuals that the suppression or unfair treatment of one’s religion can easily lead to resentment, which is counter-productive to the nation-building enterprise. This is especially so in this age when human rights, tolerance, democracy, and social justice are widely accepted values and norms.

In the Middle East, having the same religion, Islam, does not banish the specter of conflict. Social, political, economic, and other forms of injustice are often the deep forces splitting a nation apart. The breaking away of Bangladesh from Pakistan is an example of how unfair treatment can lead to the disintegration of a nation-state with the same religion.

The brutal suppression of minorities based on the concept of “one nation one religion” or “one nation one language” has disastrous outcomes. Even if it does not lead to immediate war, it is a source of social tension and political instability. Such glaring facts of history have persuaded a number of countries to adopt multiculturalism.


In contrast to the assimilationist model is the model of multiculturalism based on the American experience. This is partly because the US is basically a country made up of immigrants, and partly, it is in keeping with the liberal democratic strain of the nation. Here the core idea is that of equality before the law for all citizens, with legal protection of their rights as citizens. In the US, there is only one requirement of sworn allegiance to the US Constitution. The American model is being followed by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore, and interestingly by Europe where the model of the homogenous nation-state originated. The attraction of multiculturalism to Australia is articulated succinctly through the idea that the nation’s essential trait, the real source of its originality, resides in its ethnic diversity. The country welcomes a large range of cultural imports and of facilitating their coexistence by perpetuating their particularities.

In his contribution to a discussion on nation-building in Southeast Asia, the eminent historian Wang Gungwu says, “There is an increasing view that in societies that are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural to begin with, any artificial efforts to bring about national unity through coercion and by discriminatory laws will be doomed to failure. If this view becomes accepted, it would be the most important single contribution that the Americans could make to the new generations of Southeast Asians.”6

Multiculturalism is an expression of tolerance and appreciation of “the others.” On this point, there is something to learn from India. As noted by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, “With a population of more than 80% Hindu, India in 2009 had a Sikh prime minister, a Christian heading the Indian Congress Party, and between 2004 and 2007, a Muslim president — and there was no dissatisfaction against someone from religious minority holding such high office.”7 Another very often cited example is Switzerland. Based on his study of European history, historian J. A. R. Marriott observes, “The community of race, of language, of territory, of creed, the possession of a share in a great historical tradition — all these are ordinary ingredients in the complex idea of nationality. But none of them is indispensable … On the other hand, take modern Switzerland. In few nations in Europe is the sense of nationality stronger than in the Swiss Confederation. Yet it has been evolved in defiance of geography, despite divisions of creed, of language, and of race. Nevertheless, Germans, Frenchmen, and Italians, Protestants and Catholics, have come together in the Switzerland of today to form a robust and intensely self-conscious nations.”8

Issue of Identity

It is normal for people to have multiple identities, as a child, as a parent, as a friend, as a member of an ethnic community, as citizen of a country, and perhaps in addition to these, as member of a professional body, of an international human rights NGO, and so on. The multiple identities may generate some difficult conflicts if they are viewed through the lens of narrow nationalism. But when viewed through the liberal-democratic notion of the nation, the conflicts are “so-called” and can be amicably resolved. One way to do so is based on the concept of two levels of cultural identities proposed by Habermas.9 In his formulation, there are two levels of cultural identity: one is the traditional culture of each ethnic group at the group level; the other is the national culture shared by all the ethnic groups at the nation-state level. At the ethnic group level, each group should have the rights to keep the group identity (e.g. way of life, language, and religion) while respecting, even appreciating, the cultures, etc. of the other groups. At the national level, citizens of all ethnic groups should respect the common norms and symbols, e.g. allegiance to the Constitution as in the case of the US. This is fundamentally different from the requirement of a homogenous national identity, the battle cry of parochial nationalism.

State-Building and Nation-Building

A strong state with a clean and efficient bureaucracy, with its police and military serving the state (rather than the ruling party), rule of law with independent judiciary, and a well-run economy provides good conditions for nation-building. With the state playing an impartial role, especially in safeguarding the rights of minorities, a sense of fairness prevails and this is conducive to the cultivation of a sense of collective identity. Success of state-building is a necessary though not sufficient condition for nation-building. This point is illustrated by the case of Singapore. With its clean and competent political leadership and bureaucracy, it has succeeded in state-building but has yet to do so in nation-building.


All over the world, there is a set of challenges down the road to nation-building, ranging from marginalization of minorities, corruption, weak state institutions, erosion of independence of state institutions, and authoritarian modes of government. These are problems that can no longer be attributed to colonialism or imperialism, at least not as before in the early years of political independence. Being self-inflicted flaws, these countries have to own up to them and face them squarely. The onus is especially heavy on the part of the political leaders. They have to account for their deviations from the lofty ideals which fired the people in the pre-independence days.

Before concluding the paper, the author would like to make three points. Point one: it has been correctly commented that in nearly all post-colonial societies, the political system, as well as the nation, were constructed using a top-down approach. Perhaps partly because of this, the bulk of the literature on nation-building studies what the ruling circles do. This results in inadequate attention paid to the big range of activities conducted by the people in a bottom-up fashion. The bottom up approach pays due attention to two categories of people’s activities that do contribute to the project of nation-building. The first category is more political in nature. They are the activities of trade unions, peasant associations, student unions, professional associations defending their rights and interests as workers, peasants, students, teachers, and so on. They are also the struggles to protect the environment, consumer rights, women rights, and the basic rights of other groups and communities. The second category has a less political character. They are economic activities, sports and cultural activities, and the voluntary work of charities. Participation in such activities offers vivid experiences shared in real life, and such shared experiences are a crucial ingredient in the constitution of collective identity.

Activities that require commitment and belief in certain lofty ideals for the collective good nurture an authentic sense of solidarity. It is more likely to produce an inclusive national identity that ignores the issues of race, language, class, and religion. Broad-based and inclusive civil societies are well suited to play such roles; they are social institutions and networks that cut across ethnic or religious divides, facilitating nation-wide socio-economic-political programs. The nation is a social construction rather than as representing some primordial actuality; it results from a protracted negotiation between its political leaders and its population.

Point two: the notion of nation contains two temporal orientations. If it is oriented towards the past, the emphasis is on primordial elements such as skin color, physical features, language, religion, and culture. Oriented towards the future, the emphasis is on equality, unity in diversity, sharing and contributing, and solidarity forged in the process of struggling for social justice. These two orientations happen to parallel the narrow nationalistic tendency and the liberal-democratic tendency discussed earlier. The approach adopted has profound political implications. In a multi-ethnic democratic society, the majority ethnic group plays the most decisive role in shaping the character and future of the nation. If it defines itself in terms of the past, in domination bordering on hegemony, in sectarianism, and intolerance, then the country is not going to forge a strong nation, and may even face a tough time ahead in the form of social-political instability and setbacks in global competition. However, if it defines itself in terms of the future, it will act with magnanimity, open-mindedness, and appreciation for others. Firm adherence to the idea of magnanimity is crucial on the part of the majority group, for it can abuse its majority power in democracy to implement majoritarian rule, depriving legally the fundamental rights of the minorities. Accepting the past while being future oriented, a multi-ethnic and democratic country has the potential to offer the world a shining model of unity in diversity, at peace with itself, exhibiting cultural creativity and social vibrancy.

Point three: nation building can and perhaps should be perceived as a moral-ethical project. The moral-ethical content is evident in the rich assisting the poor, the privileged assisting the disadvantaged, in the defence of the rights of the minorities, and in deep commitment to respecting the cultures of the others. This moral-ethical dimension is consistent with the views expressed in Point one. The famous French historian of religion, Ernest Renan, points out that misunderstandings about nation arise from attempts to subscribe to its racial, religious, linguistic, or physiographical attributes. Nations should be conceived a spiritual human community, endowed with a past.10

We see the spiritual aspect at an individual level in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr in his famous speech I Have a Dream: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It is rewarding to reflect on these words, for they reveal a cardinal idea of that great champion for racial equality. Surely he wants the minorities including his children to enjoy fair and equal treatment. But beyond all this, he sets great store by “the content of character”. A person cannot choose his biological parents and ancestors. What a person can achieve is often beyond his control. But what is in near-total control of a person is the content of his character. At the individual level, character building is the most achievable goal. At the same time, it will make an immense contribution to nation-building and to humanity.


1. Wolff, S. (2006). Ethnic Conflict — A Global Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2. Kedourie, E. (1966). Nationalism, 4th edition. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 72.

3. Smith, A. D. (1991). National Identity. Penguin, p. 14.

4. Dalberg, J. E. E., First Baron Action (1907). The History of Freedom and Other Essays. London: MacMillan, p. 25.

5. Niederhauser, E. (1993). The national question in Hungary. In Teich, M. and Porter, R. (eds.), The National Question in Europe in Historical Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 254.

6. Wang, G. (2005). Contemporary and national history: A double challenge. In Wang, G. (ed.), Nation-Building: Five Southeast Asian Histories. Singapore: ISEAS, p. 270.

7. Sen, A. (2009). The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 353.

8. Marriott, J. A. R. (1931). A History of Europe from 1815 to 1923. London: Methuen, p. 3.

9. Habermas, J. (2001). The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays. Boston: MIT Press.

10. Renan, E. (1882). Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (What is a nation), republished in 1994

by Leiden, The Netherlands: Academic Press.

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