Thursday, August 09, 2007

Post No. 116: Singapore – Nation or Not?

It is, I suppose, a common phenomenon around the world that as a country approaches its “birthday”, a mood of soul searching, reflection and contemplation will be triggered amongst the people of that country. Singapore is no exception to this phenomenon, considering how, especially when National Day is around the corner, Singaporeans start to think about what Singapore means to them, reflect upon its history and ponder about future challenges.

And, of course, one question which is a perennial favourite contemplated by Singaporeans when the mood of National Day possesses them would most likely be: “Is Singapore a nation?”, with answers being given in all sorts of permutations (these permutations include but are not limited to: “yes”, “no”, “maybe” and “not yet”).

However, in my opinion, people, in their eagerness to find an answer to the abovementioned question, may perhaps have overlooked 5 other questions which are no less important or any less fundamental and which we should look at before we are to consider the question of whether Singapore is a nation.

These 5 questions are:

i) What is a “nation”?

ii) What makes a “nation”?

iii) Who decides whether a country is a “nation” or not?

iv) Is a “nation” desirable? (and, if yes or no, why?)

v) Is the concept of a “nation” still relevant?

Thus, contrary to what the title of this post may suggest, I will not be attempting to provide an answer to the question of whether Singapore is a “nation”. Instead, I would be looking at the 5 other questions which I have mentioned above.

What is a “nation”?

The word “nation” is, in my opinion, a word that is often used by many people but which meaning is not clearly understood by people.

So what does “nation” mean?

Well, according to the dictionary (that is, the dictionary which I have in my possession), “nation” has a twofold meaning. One, it can refer to a country, especially when thought of as a large group of people living in one area with their own government, language, traditions, etc. And, two, “nation” can also refer to a large group of people of the same ethnicity who share the same language, traditions and history, but who might not all live in one area.

Thus, as can be seen, the word “nation” can refer to 2 distinct yet inter-related concepts; it can be a geopolitical concept and also a socio-cultural concept.

And, of course, besides the definition offered by the dictionary, various other different definitions of “nation” have also been provided by various eminent thinkers (interestingly, it seems that most of these other definitions also do not stray far from defining “nation” as geopolitical and/or socio-cultural concept).

The eminent thinkers would include (but not limited to) Karl Marx (who, if I am not wrong, saw the “nation” as bourgeois creation aimed at subverting the international proletarian brotherhood), Professor Benedict Anderson (who said that the “nation” is an “imagined political community”), Professor Hugh Seton-Watson and Professor Rupert Emerson (the thoughts about “nation” by these last 2 thinkers would be discussed further later on).

Now, after recognising that there exist a myriad of different definitions for the term “nation”, the question we need to ask is, when we ponder about whether Singapore is a “nation”, which definition are we exactly using? Are we referring to the “nation” as a geopolitical concept, a socio-cultural concept or both?

The question of what we mean by “nation” when we discuss about whether Singapore is a “nation” is, from my viewpoint, an important one, considering that what we get as an answer to “Is Singapore a ‘nation’?” is closely dependent on how we define the word “nation”.

What makes a “nation”?

Okay, now that we have examined the question of “what is a ‘nation’?”, let us move on to look at the question of what it is exactly that makes a country and its people a “nation”.

Well, with regards to this question, Professor Rupert Emerson wrote that the following qualities are necessary for a “nation” to be formed: “a single people, traditionally fixed on a well-defined territory, speaking the same language and preferably a language of its own, possessing a distinctive culture, and shaped to a common mould by many generations of shared historical experience”.

Hmm… I do not know about you all but it seems to me that although the above list of qualities appear to be a reasonable list, it is still an arbitrary list drawn up by Professor Emerson. I mean, just think about it, as eminent an academic he may be, who or what gives Professor Emerson the authority to assert that a country and its people need to have the abovementioned qualities before they qualify as a “nation”?

Also, considering the multi-ethnic nature of countries around the world, it evident that Professor Emerson’s definition of what makes a “nation” cannot, or at least it will be most difficult to do so, to be realised in its entirety.

Yet, that said, I must say that the definition offered by Professor Emerson is not entirely irrelevant. This is considering that his definition has perhaps highlighted a quality that may be essential to the making of a “nation”. And that is that those who make up the members of a “nation” should share something in common. I mean, it is quite impossible for people to claim that they are members of a “nation” if they have nothing whatsoever in common, isn’t it?

Of course, it is not necessary that what members of a “nation” share in common be their ethnicity, language and/or historical experience. It can be a common set of values, beliefs and/or aspirations that people share to form a “nation”.

Thus, in the end, I suppose that what makes a “nation” is the sharing of something in common by those who are members of it, whatever it is that they share.

Who decides?

Moving on, we need to also ask ourselves the question of “who decides?”, that is we need to ask who exactly will decide whether a country and its people qualify as a “nation”.

Should it be the government of the country which decides whether it is a “nation” that it is governing? Or should we allow the people of the country to decide? Or perhaps this matter should be left to foreign observers of the country? Or maybe we should allow future historians to decide?

And even if we do decide on who gets to decide whether a country and its people qualify as a “nation”, what are we to do if there is a disagreement amongst this group of “decision makers” over whether a country and its people qualify as a “nation”? How then are we to decide?

Well, I am afraid that I have no definite answers to the abovementioned questions (as I have stated countless times, I am better at asking questions than at answering them) but I think that this quote from Professor Hugh Seton-Watson is especially illuminating: “a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behaved as if they formed one”.

Is a “nation” desirable?

If I am not wrong, most people, when they talk about the concept of “nation”, seem to perceive it as an ideal which all countries and peoples should strive to achieve. This suggests to me that, in the minds of most people, “nation” is seen as something desirable. However, is a “nation” really desirable? And if it is indeed desirable, how is it desirable and to whom is it desirable?

Well, personally, I cannot fathom how and why a “nation” is something desirable, except perhaps it is desirable to those who are members of the “nation”. Just think about it, we may consider the formation of a Singaporean “nation” as something desirable but I doubt that non-Singaporeans would be remotely interested.

In fact, I suppose that if one asks a Marxist whether a “nation” is desirable, he/she would most likely answer in the negative, considering how, as I have mentioned above, Marxism perceives the “nation” as a bourgeois creation aimed at subverting the international proletarian brotherhood. And, if I am not wrong, the Marxists are not alone in perceiving the concept of a “nation” as an artificial geopolitical concept created to facilitate political governance, rather than as an organic socio-cultural concept.

Also, it may be observed that wars have been fought due to differences in “national” interests and problems remain unresolved because of people’s preference to safeguard their “national” interests.

In addition, though this may be an extreme example but it may be observed that overly-exclusive definitions of “nation” and “nationalistic” sentiments which have become too strong have resulted in unhealthy levels of xenophobia within a country and its people.

In the end, I suppose whether one recognise the concept of the “nation” as something desirable is dependent on how one define “nation”. What I mean is that if one define “nation” as a socio-cultural concept and not a geopolitical concept, it is more likely that one would find “nation” desirable.

Is “nation” still relevant?

Moving on, we need to think about whether the concept of “nation” still holds any relevance in the world of today.

Well, it would seems to me that in the current age of globalisation, in which geopolitical boundaries are slowly being diluted and people becoming not only citizens of their own countries but also citizens of the world, the “nation” may be slowly losing its relevance.

Also, observing how problems such as climate change and terrorism are global in scale, it is perhaps no longer sufficient for countries to tackle these problems on only a national level but also on a supranational and/or international level. This necessity to cooperate and maybe even integrate to resolve international problems could also contribute to the diminishing relevance of “nation” as a concept.

On the other hand, it may also be argued that although it may be true that there is a higher level of cooperation and/or integration between countries, the “nation” as a geopolitical concept, remains the fundamental actor in international relations and thus remain relevant on the international stage.

Also, it may be observed that as the world becomes globalised, several countries have initiated moves to preserve their distinctiveness as “nations” (as a socio-cultural concept). Hence, perhaps even as globalisation diminish the relevance of the “nation”, it also heightens it; paradoxical but true.

Thus, I would say that the concept of “nation” is perhaps still relevant now but whether it will continue to stay relevant in the future, that is a question which I do not have answer to.

In the end

In the end, what I have to say is that the question of “Is Singapore a nation?” is no simple and straightforward question, it is a question interlinked with other questions which need to be answered first before we can answer whether Singapore is a “nation”.

And, oh yeah, here’s wishing you all a Happy National Day!

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