Imperial Alchemy Understanding Nationalism in Southeast Asia

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008, 00:00 WIB

The new literature on nationalism (Anderson, Gellner, Giddens) has been popular in Asia , yet it is strangely unhelpful in explaining Asian phenomena. Each major Asian state somehow looks like an anomaly, failing to undergo the kind of culturally homogeneous national assertiveness that broke up empires in Europe and the Americas under the new pressures of industrialisation and print capitalism. Imperial borders have been sanctified as non-negotiable by China, India, Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines, though each has experienced modernity under radically different conditions.

India and the Philippines democratised without fragmenting into ethnically based states; China and Burma stalled on democratization partly out of fear of fragmentation; Indonesia in 1998 recommenced its experiment with democracy with only a modest challenge of ethnic nationalism around the edges.

The mid-twentieth Century marked one of the greatest watersheds of Asian history. The relatively brief Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia and much of China , and its sudden ending with the atomic bombs of August 1945, telescoped what might have been a long-term transition into a dramatic and violent revolution. In essence, imperial constructs were declared to be nation-states, the sole legitimate model of twentieth century politics, sanctioned in the 'sovereign equality' principle of the United Nations charter (1945).

The world-system of competitive, theoretically equal sovereign states, inadequately labelled the 'Westphalia system', had been carried into Asia over several centuries under an imperial system which held that only 'civilised states' could be full members of the sovereign equality club. After 1945 that exclusivist hypocrisy was replaced by a more optimistic one, which held that every corner of the planet should be divided into theoretically equal sovereign states.

Some imperial constructs decolonised and democratised in a series of federal compromises which left the outer shell of empire still able to act in the world as a nation state with the same borders as the old. India is the classic case, but in Southeast Asia the example was followed more cautiously in Malaysia . Others reacted against their humiliating pasts through the path of revolution, which asserted that the ideal model of the modern nation state should be implemented within the imperial borders without delay. Indonesia is my primary case, but the shadow of China looms always in the background.

It was the task of nationalism to perform the alchemy of our title. The base metal of empire had to be transmuted into the gold of nationhood. The revolutionary alchemist was the most d ari ng. His gold comprised the sovereignty of the people, the equality of all citizens under a unified and centralised state, and a complete break with past loyalties. To achieve such a transmutation from the immense v ari ety and antiquity of political and civilizations forms in Asia would require alchemy more powerful than any that Europeans had needed in their own transitions from empires to nations. To achieve it without fragmenting the leviathans of imperial construction would require a true magic. Could we imagine nationalism in Europe within borders created by the Hapsburgs, Romanovs and Ottomans, as we do in Asia for the empires of British, Dutch, Spanish, French and Manchus? Seeking to understand that mysterious alchemy is the purpose of this talk, with Indonesia and Malaysia as my particular test cases.

About the speaker:
Anthony Reid is a historian of Southeast Asia, who has at different times worked on political, economic, social and intellectual history, both on a Southeast Asian canvas and in particular studies of Aceh, South Sulawesi, Sabah, and twentieth century Indonesia . Born and bred in New Zealand , he held positions at the University of Malaya (1965-70), and the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies of the Australian National University (1970-99), where he ended as Professor of Southeast Asian History, and coordinator of projects on the Economic History of Southeast Asia, and the Chinese Southern Diaspora.

In 1999 he went to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as Professor of History and founding Director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies. In 2002 he became founding Director of the Asia Research Institute at NUS, Singapore. His wife, Dr Helen Reid, is with him in Singapore, and two children in the UK and USA . From 2002-07 he was founding Director of the Asia Research Institute at NUS, where he continues to work.

Some of his selected publications include: The contest for North Sumatra: Atjeh, the Netherlands and Britain , 1858-1898. Kuala Lumpur, OUP/UMP, 1969. 333 pp. Indonesian translation 2004. The Indonesian National Revolution, 1945-1950. Hawthorn, Vic. Longmans Australia, 1974. 193 pp. Indonesian translation 1996. The Blood of the People: Revolution and the End of Traditional Rule in Northern Sumatra . Kuala Lumpur , OUP, 1979. 288 pp. Indonesian translation 1986. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680. Vol.I: The Lands below the Winds. 1988. 275 pp.; Vol.II: Expansion and Crisis, 1993, 390 pp. New Haven, Yale University Press. Indonesian and Japanese and translations; Thailand edition (Silkworm) Charting the Shape of Early Modern Southeast Asia. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1999, 298pp. An Indonesian Frontier: Acehnese and other Histories of Sumatra. Singapore : Singapore University Press, 2005, 439pp.

Date : Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Time : 12.30 pm -2.30 pm (free lunch)
Venue : Room 306, UGM Graduate School Jln. Teknika Utara Pogung YKT
Speaker : Prof. Anthony Reid

The forum is free of charge and on a first-come-first basis.

Contact person:
Maufur ipung (ICRS): maufur_nd@yahoo. com
Mustaghfiroh Rahayu (CRCS): mth.rahayu@gmail. com