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Formulating a Cultural Identity

by Dr. P. Ramasamy

Book review of "Southeast Asian Identities - Cultural and the Politics of Representation in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, edited by Joel S. Kahn, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

This volume 15 is a welcome addition to the social science literature on culture and politics in South East Asia. It contests the essentialist argument that culture is something derived from the past and is unchanging.

This study with contributions from a number of scholars is concerned with four important questions:

  1. whether it is possible to speak about identity politics as global in nature,
  2. why people now turn to culture and identity,
  3. are there differences between resurgence of cultural politics and those associated with popular sovereignty; and
  4. what can be said about claims made for cultural recognition.

The introduction and the first chapter; both written by the editor, Kahn, provide a useful summary of the chapters and outline the thematic concerns of the book.

Kahn argues that the book is significant:

  1. for integrating cultural politics within the realm of social science,
  2. in explicating the relationship between cultural politics and globalisation, and
  3. for highlighting the interventionist role of "post-colonial" intellectuals in the cultural debate.

The book is organised around three major themes. The first focuses on the nexus between domestic factors and the development of cultural particularisms (chapters by Chua Beng Huat, Nirmala Purushotam, and Ariel Heryanto).

The second discusses the impact of globalisation on local culture (Craig Reynolds, Rachel Bloul, and Wendy Mee) while the third shows that the construction of cultural identity is never a smooth process, and that challenges and contests seem to be the norm (Goh Beng Lan and Albert Schrauwers).

Chua examines the changing role of the Singapore state in the legitimation process. He argues that previous cultural discourse of capitalist production, development of work ethic, strong sense of competitiveness, ideology of meritocracy and others have proved to be inadequate for Singapore. The Singaporean state has sought to root its legitimation exercise in its official pronouncements on multi-culturalism contributing to the general disempowerment and depoliticisation of the various ethnic communities.

However, as the author notes, this "change" to multi-culturalism in the cultural realm has not served to contradict the logic of capitalist accumulation.

Chua's argument of disempowernent of the ethnic groups in Singapore is shared by Purushotam who argues that the construction of identity and the need to compartmentalise racial groups have their roots in colonial history.

It is her argument that the classification system that emerged from the colonial census reports was adopted by the Singaporean post-colonial government.

This classification system reduced ethnic diversity in Singapore to four principal ethnic groups - Chinese, Indians, Malays and others. For her, this classification system is one major factor that prevented the emergence of an overarching national identity.

The differentiation of Singaporeans along these ethnic particulars not only meant the conscious neglect of the development of loyalties and sentiments that are pan-Singaporean but also proved the genesis of a mechanism that served to disempower ethnic communities culturally and politically.

Heryanto provides an illuminating account of the contradictory (changing?) role of the regime towards the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.

By perpetuating the myth of Chinese peril, she opines, the Indonesian regime has served to legitimise itself as the "protector" of the pribumi. At the same time, having "removed" the Chinese threat, the regime has sought to co-operate with the Chinese principally in the economic front. For instance, the increasing openness towards the ethnic Chinese in recent years is an indication that the Chinese "threat" has been successfully contained.

Alternatively, as the author says, the new interest in Chinese-ness could be a result of the increasing consumerist culture among the middle class in urban areas.

However, the author is not sure whether such an openness towards the ethnic Chinese would continue unabated.

On the second theme - impact of globalisation three case studies represented, one on Thailand and two on Malaysia. Reynolds argues that the impact of globalisation on Thailand cannot be viewed in a simplistic fashion as was done earlier with imperialism.

For him, the Thais are not reacting to globalisation rather slavishly; rather they are trying to preserve both the old and new in their complex and imaginative ways. Thai intellectuals play a crucial role in mediating and reconstituting global cultures at the local level.

Bloul's case study of Islamic discourses at a recent women's conference in Penang reveals, among others, universal arguments emanating from national and cultural perspectives. For her, this universality is not a product of Westernization, but something that is deeply embedded in Islam.

However, the universality in the Islamic discourses have serious limitation. By being too dependent on male normative obligations, the inability to question some of the "truisms" and the difficulty to raise gender-related issues make universal Islamic discourses ineffective in addressing the progressive development of Muslim women.

For Mee, globalisation does not mean the end of the nation. By examining the impact of information technology and, in particular, increasing use of Internet in Malaysia, she believes that the concept of what constitutes a nation been radically altered or per-reconstituted in new terms.

In other words, the one-sided unde:rstanding of globalisation might be counter-productive as it not reveal how the understand of nation has been transformed through the strong global interconnections brought about by Internet homepages.

Finally, on the third theme of contradictions inherent in constructions of identity, Goh examines urban development in Penang, Malaysia, and Schrauwers the To Pamona of Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Goh shows that attempts to construct cultural identity face the prospect of challenge and contests. In Penang, despite the strong push for urbanisation and development, there are communities like the Eurosians who do not subscribe to the elites' construction of modernity.

Furthermore, in the case of the Eurosian community, its middle class might not be against development as such, but would certainly prefer development to take cognisance of cultural and religious identity.

In th case of To Panoma in Sulawesi, Indonesia, Schrauwers, highlights the enduring tensions that exist between the way the regime would like to characterise them and the Christian Church. For the To Pamona is simply seen as the many ethnic groups whose adat need to be preserved.

The Christian Church has directly contested this construction by emphasising the religious aspect of the group's identity. For the regime, this emphasis on religion represents a direct challenge to its conception authority and how to disempower the different ethnic groups within Indonesian political order.

By using the deconstructionist tool of post-modernism, this book has questioned the ideological and agendas behind attempts made by regimes to construct and perpetuate certain racial and cultural myth.

Chua, Purushotam and Heryanto provide excellent analyses of how Singapore and Indonesian regimes create and sustain certain forms of cultural identities. This is complemented by the impact of globalisation on local culture by Reynolds, Bloul and Mee and the local responses to identity creation by Goh and Schrauwers.

However, it does suffer some limitations, both conceptual and empirical. Purushotam, by putting too much weight to census reports, seems to project an argument that Singaporeans are caught in the ethnic straitjacket. Such an argument misses important details of how ordinary Singaporeans have resisted attempts at ethnic enclosures.

Heryanto's dismissal of the political economy approach for being silent on how the Indonesian regime reproduces legitimation in actual texts, images and practices is a moot point. It is not that one is superior to the other, the real question is what one's ideological disposition is. For some, the political economy approach could be used to further understand how the reproduction of hegemony takes place under different circumstances.

Reynolds' interesting piece on Thailand fails to define what realty constitutes globalisation. The concept of globalisation used as catch-all phrase raises more questions than it answers. Some concrete examples of the interventionist role of Thai intellectuals in mediating the globalisation process would have made the chapter more stimulating. Bloul's argument of how the Penang conference functioned within the parameters of Islamic universalistic discourses might have overlooked a very important point central to her implicit theoretical approach. That is, she unquestioningly adopts the universal discourses in Islam without attempting to deconstruct these.

Mee's discussion of the impact of Internet on users' conception of nation is problematic; nowhere is there empirical evidence to show how Malaysians through the use of Interact are conceptualising the nation.

Goh and Schrauwers describe the contests and challenges emanating to the official constructions of identities. These chapters should have provided more detailed analyses of these activities to illustrate a very important dimension that is often missing in the post-modernist analysis, resistance to domination.

The above shortcomings should not detract readers from the strengths of the book. Putting together a book of this nature is a commendable effort and the editor needs to be congratulated for this magnificent effort.

This is definitely major contribution to South-East Asian studies literature and essential reading for post-graduate students in the discipline of cultural politics.

The Star, July 19, 1998.