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Articles, Commentaries, History

How Will Nationalism Evolve?

Editorial, September 2011


THE BIGGEST trick that the nation-state concept has pulled on modern man is the proposal that there is an essential line between the external and the internal.

Sovereignty over precisely demarcated physical territory is the underlying notion. It is here the nation-state is most easily understood. And so, in all countries, the Home Ministry and the Foreign Ministry are powerful institutions, alongside the Defence Ministry. Here lies the hardware of the nation-state, where protocol and ceremony blend with threat of violence and incarceration to secure the state apparatus inwardly and outwardly.

Domestic peace and international security exist in apparent separation, making up what is commonly called politics. No line is deemed clearer politically than the one between citizen and non-citizen, except perhaps that between ethnic groups in the case of Malaysia.

However, what is external and what is internal become more difficult to distinguish once we move to the economy. No doubt, the management of the national currency and the balance of payments seem definable as internal matters. But once we move to economic growth and adaptability, and are aware of the mobility of capital and skilled and unskilled labour, the blurriness of the line becomes blinding.

Today, Gross National Product no longer reflects the health or wealth of the country’s economy as simply as it used to. This is because MNCs are now extremely mobile, and tend to enjoy tremendous tax exemptions wherever they go, and the labour employed and resources used by them can be largely imported. To a substantial extent, their long-term contribution to a country’s nation-building is no longer easy to ascertain.

This increasing mobility of capital and labour mounts a profound challenge to the nationalist mindset. For one thing, national policies have to compete through accommodation to global capital and mobile labour. Compromises are made between the basic state duty of benefiting citizens on the one hand and the need to attract globally capital and labour by lowering demands for contributions to long-term nation building on the other.

Secondly, governments are enticed to act as major capitalists on high-flying global markets. In the process, the logic of profit maximization in gigantic government-linked companies grows to distort the idea of citizen ownership of national wealth.

Thirdly (and this carries the widest ranging import), not only are the duties and rights attached to citizenship becoming fuzzy, the notion of ethnicity and nation (as in
nation-state) is losing relevance in the face of current dynamics of global production and consumption.

A country’s concerns were once about territorial safety, national sovereignty, ethnic reinforcement and economic independence. But with global economic competition now more or less liberated from ideological constraints, the nationalist need to distinguish the internal from the external, be these couched in economic, ethnic or territorial terms, limits the options available and the policies thinkable.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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