Being Singaporean and South-east Asian

It's time to reconnect with Singapore's complex, varied past. It was a polyglot port city with deep ties to the region, before the European colonial powers came.

Identity politics has assumed centre stage the world over, and it cannot be denied that much of what now passes as everyday political debate assumes the form of identity-based claims that can, at times, also be exclusive and totalising.

Living as we do in the post-industrial age that is soon to be swept aside by developments in artificial intelligence, information technology and the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, societies all over are grappling with changes that are unprecedented and unpredicted.

In some instances, the knee-jerk reaction to these changes has been a return to a politics of nostalgia and a yearning for a simpler, uncluttered past; and in other cases, the retreat from the future has manifested itself in forms of identity politics that are narrow and couched in terms of ethno-nationalism instead.

Identity politics differs from traditional politics. In the latter, people form alliances based on shared interest such as over housing, healthcare and education. In identity politics, people of a particular community, race, gender, religion or other social group form alliances and organise politically to defend their group's interests.

My own concern about these developments lies in the fact that while many of us are grappling with the question of identity - asking ourselves who we are and what our respective nations and/or societies constitute - much of this soul-searching has been predicated upon a vocabulary that we have inherited from the colonial era.

A case in point is how we deal with the issue of multiculturalism in our present-day context, and how our understanding of multiculturalism - sometimes simply articulated as dealing with diversity that is understood in terms of neat categories of difference - has been shaped by our earlier colonial experience.

Let us be candid here and admit to the fact that during the colonial era, colonial multiculturalism was never really about bringing communities together, but rather keeping them apart.


This was the logic of colonial rule the world over, and in most of the Western colonies in Asia and Africa the logic of divide and rule was at work from the beginning.

For colonialism to work, there had to be some means and some justification for the creation of divisive social hierarchies, and in many instances this came in the form of compartmentalising policies that divided complex Asian and African societies into neat blocs that were subsumed under the heading of "ethnic" or "racial" differences. The aim then was not to bring these communities together but rather to keep them apart, and the net result has been what scholar Basil Davidson (1992) has referred to as the "Black Man's burden" instead.

Visitors queueing up for the Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning Centre. Our debates about identity - be it personal or national - have to take place in a wider regional context where we need to reconnect with our region as a whole, says the writ
Visitors queueing up for the Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning Centre. Our debates about identity - be it personal or national - have to take place in a wider regional context where we need to reconnect with our region as a whole, says the writer. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Until today, we can see how this divisive form of politics has driven deep divides in many post-colonial societies, and the post-colonial world is still paying the human cost for a colonial project that began in the 18th century.


The ruptures that were brought about by the colonial encounter did not occur only within the societies that came under colonial rule, but also between communities that were torn apart as a result of the contestation between different competing colonial powers. In Asia, as in Africa, nations that were once complex, plural and inter-connected were torn apart from one another as huge swathes of the non-Western world came under the purview of different Western empires, each with its own sphere of influence and internal networks of communication.

Singapore, for instance, which was once part of the wider world of maritime South-east Asia, was torn away from that fluid continuum and brought within the ambit of a (British) colonial trading and communication system, and in the course of that rupture lost its long cultural, linguistic and economic links with the Malay archipelago as a whole.

Yet long before this colonial rupture happened, it has to be remembered that South-east Asians belonged to a more complex, dynamic and fluid world that was poly-nuclear, with many centres of trade, learning and political agency working in tandem with one another.

In K.N. Chaudhuri's work, Asia Before Europe (Cambridge, 1990), we get a glimpse of what this extraordinarily complex world of Asia might have looked like, where Asians from the entire Asian continent were constantly moving, trading and settling across a borderless world that was in so many ways more complex and diverse than we can imagine.

One can think of the Javanese port city of Banten, for instance. Home to merchant communities from China to the Arab lands, its complexity was captured in the writings of Theodorus de Bry (1601), which showed it to be far more plural and cosmopolitan than any other kingdom in Western Europe.


One can also look to Melaka, which was a truly global emporium and where at the height of its economic and political success could boast that more than 80 languages were spoken by the international community of merchants who resided there. All of this points to a South-east Asia that was already far more complex than we imagine today, and a South-east Asia where complexity and diversity were a part of life, understood and appreciated on our own terms.

Invariably, the "so what" question needs to be asked: So what if South-east Asians were once able to deal with diversity and complexity in the pre-colonial era, and how does this knowledge help us today?

Well, for starters, it could be pointed out that if things were once different in the past, then they can also be different in the (near) future.

The lessons of history are many, and what South-east Asia's history teaches us is that complexity and diversity need not be seen in problematic or exclusive terms. If pre-colonial South-east Asians could manage and balance having multiple identities at the same time, then surely we too can do the same today. After all, this applies to all of us in the most mundane of instances - I am simultaneously a son and a husband, and being one does not foreclose the other.

Furthermore, our past furnishes us with the vocabulary of difference and diversity that we need today, which does not necessarily commit us to the kind of narrow dialectical mode of thinking where one can be only A or B but not both at the same time.

The reality is that we are indeed complex and our identities are multiple and manifold - we are citizens of our respective countries but we also happen to be South-east Asians and members of the greater and bigger Asean family. Being aware of these overlapping identities does not impoverish us in any way but in fact enriches us further.

Second, awareness of our inter-connectedness and how we are part of a wider, more complex and diverse Asean region may well be the key to survivability in the near future where mobility - both occupational and geographical - will determine our success.

Our staid assumptions about what constitutes worldly success have changed, and we are about to live in a mobile and fluid world where work patterns, careers and vocations will be constantly evolving too. This in effect means the next generation of South-east Asians must prepare themselves for a world where career mobility and geographical mobility will be interlinked, and where stasis equals failure. For this to happen, our debates about identity - be it personal or national - have to take place in a wider regional context where we need to reconnect with our region as a whole.

In the course of doing so, we would be repairing that colonial rupture that I alluded to earlier, where our connections with our neighbours and our region were severed through political treaties signed by the colonial powers not in our part of the world but rather in the imperial capitals of London, Paris and The Hague.

An awareness of our past and the complexity of the lives of our ancestors may not be the perfect panacea for all the attendant ills of this post-modern age that we live in, but if it opens our minds to the possibility that we were once complex and we can also regain this comfort with complexity, then perhaps we will have a fighting chance of success in the complex future that lies ahead.

• Farish A. Noor is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the School of History, Nanyang Technological University.

• This article is adapted from a presentation at the Institute of Policy Studies' Singapore Bicentennial Conference held on Sept 30-Oct 1.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2019, with the headline 'Being S'porean and South-east Asian'. Subscribe