Patrick analyses discrepancies between the nation-states of Thailand and Singapore.
It is with the understanding of Chinese identity that we now introduce the concept of nation-state building in Singapore and Thailand. Owing to different historical processes involved in development of the two countries into nation-states, both have different policies and frameworks with regards to managing ethnicity within their borders.
Thailand is commonly known as the only state in Southeast Asia that has not been colonised. However, some scholars have argued that the imposition of centralised control by Siam towards her former vassal states mimicked western colonist expansion and resulted in the re-definition of state from traditional rule to one based on Western colonial lines. The dominant ethnic group, with its power based in the centre at the capital, Bangkok, are, of course, the Siamese. Siamese notions of ethnicity can be projected all the way into the distant past, from the 13th Century.
In contrast, Singapore was under British control from the early 19th century to 1959. The appeal of Singapore to ethnic Chinese immigrants was due to its privileged position as the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula, where it served as an important trading port for ships heading towards China. After independence, the decolonisation process necessitated the adoption and adaptation of existing state apparatus that had been used by the British. Although the indigenous community had been in Singapore before the ‘founding’ by the British, they are the minority compared to the immigrant Chinese who were bought in by the British for commercial reasons.
It is with the historical developments of the two countries in mind that the type of nation-state envisioned by the governments of Singapore and Thailand can be divided into the ‘immigration nation-state’ and the ‘indigenous nation-state’ respectively.
Indigenous Nation-State: Thailand
Immigration Nation-State: Singapore
The indigenous nation-state can be applied to most countries in Southeast Asia with the exception of Singapore, where the culture of the indigenous group dominates the political power at the capital and all aspects of governance such as the national language and national symbols. Suryadinata claims that there are two kinds of indigenous states — those that define ethnicity in cultural terms and those that define it in racial terms.
Thailand defines them in cultural terms: one is considered a Thai if they adopt the dominant culture and express their allegiance to the three traditional state symbols — Nation, Religion and the King. The ‘Thai culture thus becomes the national culture in which all ethnic groups are expected to assimilate. This is in contrast to other indigenous states that define ethnicity in racial terms, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, where other ethnic groups like the Chinese are not fully accepted as part of the nation as shown in policies favouring the local population (i.e. the Bhumiputra and New Economic Policies). One should keep in mind that Thai nation-state adopts an Assimilationist Model as other ethnic groups residing within the boundaries of Thailand, other than the Thais, are considered the minority
The model of governance for Singapore is based on the ‘immigration nation-state’, as the majority of the population comprises immigrants or their descendants. In this context, the indigenous ethnic group is the Malaysians; they are the minority with their majority being the Chinese. Although the Chinese dominate governance in the country, the policy used for the management of ethnicity is based on the Multiracial Model. In fact, government leaders under the People’s Action Party (PAP), the dominant political party in Singapore, viewed assimilatory policies and cultural homogeneity as unnecessary, and have claimed that such policies would threaten the stability of the country.
Although Suryadinata claims that this model encourages the maintenance of one’s cultural identity and applies that to Singapore’s, I feel this statement is a little far-fetched and a generalisation. Singapore manages ethnicity by categorising ethnic diversity into manageable racial categories, which it deems necessary for political governance and for the perpetuation of one of its founding myths.
This view is supported by sociologist Chua Beng Huat, who claims that multiculturalism as government policy requires official racial categories. Chua Beng Huat also argues that unlike western countries, such as the US, Canada and Australia, where official multiculturalism involves supporting cultural activities undertaken by the ethnic groups themselves and policing discrimination against the various ethnic groups, in Singapore, the multiracial ideology, written into the constitution, has served as a means of social control and as a core rational for many public policies.
Under the multiracial model, the country adopted a racial classification system from the British. The population was divided into Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others. Under the British, these racial categories were aimed at a divide and rule strategy where the races, determined by the British, were segregated into occupational and residential areas with little common space for interactions. This owed to fear that a realisation of cultural differences via interaction would result in instability.
Singapore adapted this classification system for its multiracial ideology, which is based on the need to ensure equality among the races. As such, official languages, which are interpreted to correspond to one’s race, are given equal status in the constitution. These languages include: English (due to its status as a neutral language), Malay, Tamil and Chinese. The need to create inter-racial understanding and harmony is also paramount under the government’s objectives. As such, mutual spaces were created to promote this as seen in public housing and schools, which operated on racial quotas and distribution to ensure inter-racial interaction. Management of races can be seen explicitly in the extent that all Singaporeans are required to have their racial category stated in their identification cards. It is also noted how one defines oneself if one’s race is determined by the Singapore government and is based on paternal lineage.
It should also be noted that some of the state symbols (i.e. national anthem and national language) are in Malay and reflect the dominance of the Malay culture. This is considered superficial. Malays have certain benefits given their status as indigenous people and perceptions that they were lagging behind the other races economically. However, unlike Malaysia’s New Economic Policy (NEP), there are no quotas for them in the field of employment or institutions of higher learning.
05/03/2012 - 11:06