Governance of a City-State
12th IPS-Nathan Lecture Series: Lecture IV “Living Civilisations and National Cultures” by Professor Wang Gungwu

In the final lecture of his series on cultures and civilisations in Southeast Asia, Prof Wang Gungwu focused on the emergence of modern nation-states after the Second World War as decolonisation swept across nations while new global superpowers transformed empires. Southeast Asia was itself constructed as a strategic move by the colonial nations to maintain their imperial interests as much as possible after the World Wars. Still, in the decades to come, its constituent nation-states found common interests and developed forms of mutual collaboration.  

Impact of the Second World War in Southeast Asia

Prof Wang began by explaining how developments in international affairs affected the Southeast Asian people after the Second World War. The Japanese incursion into Southeast Asia during the Second World War served as a major catalyst for change in the region. As an Asian empire, the Japanese claimed to be helping to liberate other Asian societies from Western imperialism, while also demonstrating how their selective adoption of Enlightenment modernity had allowed them to become a dominant geopolitical power. In the process, Southeast Asians were driven to resist the return of the Western colonisers whose weaknesses had been laid bare. 

As nations in the region achieved sovereignty, national borders were re-drawn, which were also used by British strategists to distinguish Southeast Asia as a political theatre separate from China and India. Meanwhile, the Allied victors of the Second World War were drawing up a new consensus of international diplomacy to prevent such destructive conflict from recurring. No longer able to directly govern their colonies, the British and French created a commonwealth of nations from their former colonies, providing resources to postcolonial states that allowed them to continue exerting influence across the world. 

During this immediate post-war period, the formation of the United Nations (UN) marked the shift from geopolitics dominated by colonial empires to a diplomatic field in which each nation state could ideally claim equal status. Along with the new international organisation came a set of principles to form the basis of a peaceful world order. 

“With feelings of admiration and hope, I recall the debates about what kind of Malaya our future nation would be like. My generation saw the UN as the guarantor of national sovereignty, an institution that would enable the world to avoid future wars,” Prof Wang recounted.

“It was proof that the Enlightenment Modern could be rescued and redefined so that all civilisations would seek progress together.”

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union (USSR) and United States (US) were emerging as new superpowers on the global stage. Although they were both products of Christian European civilisation and the Enlightenment, their contradictory systems of capitalism and communism coloured the conflict between them that also divided the rest of the world, especially newly-formed nations. In Asia, the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China demonstrated a flaw in the US-dominated United Nations. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the CCP was denied membership in the UN as a representative of China for over 20 years, and the UN lost some legitimacy as an instrument for a global civilisation because it continued to be dominated by the national interests of superpowers. 

During the Cold War, it seemed that empires had in fact taken on a new form even as colonial empires were collapsing — the US and USSR had tremendous influence over their allies, who were often also proxies to the conflict. Newly independent states in Southeast Asia were courted by both superpowers, and the conflict even resulted in the devastating Vietnam War as the US attempted to suppress the establishment of a communist government in Vietnam. Eventually, the US proved to have a stronger economy supported by its global maritime power, while the largely continental Soviet economy faltered and the Soviet Union collapsed. This left the US as the sole global superpower, entrenching its role as a universal model of values and a guardian of global civilisation. 

Modern Southeast Asia

In the next part of the lecture, Prof Wang explored two major developments that influenced how Southeast Asian states developed their national cultures. The first was the Bandung Conference of 1955, that brought together 29 leaders of non-aligned Asian and African countries who saw that the UN was largely divided between the opposing blocs of the Cold War. They sought self-determination in an alternative path from the superpowers. Eight Southeast Asian nations attended the conference, and many of the states represented at the conference were strongly influenced by ancient Indic, Sinic and Islamic civilisation, while also being governed by leaders who were drawn to Enlightenment Modernity. Ultimately, the nations in attendance aspired to modernity themselves, and it was one of the first attempts of Southeast Asian nation-states to actively participate in global affairs.

The second major event was the formation of ASEAN. US-aligned ASEAN leaders felt the need for an alliance that would prevent the spread of communism in the region. However, the first attempt at such an organisation — the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) — was an effort led by NATO states of the Western bloc, and joined by only the Philippines and Thailand. This showed the reluctance of Southeast Asian leaders, particularly Sukarno’s Indonesia, to be led by colonial powers. The formation of ASEAN came after British withdrawal from the Malayan region, which alluded to the pressing need for stronger regional alliances. ASEAN thus represented a shared effort to protect collective interests in the region, marking a turning point in regional self-awareness. 

Still, the five founding members who were largely aligned with the US had limited power in the face of the US’ impending loss in the Vietnam War. In all member states, nation-building was a project of becoming modern while remaining sensitive to the various local cultures that existed within the countries. In later years, the Sino-Soviet split helped prevent Vietnamese communist power from taking over Cambodia and Laos. Still, the role of ASEAN in helping Cambodia preserve its sovereignty in the face of Vietnamese invasion was a key turning point that allowed the young nations to exercise agency in their own region, demonstrating their diplomatic prowess and common interests.

The Threat of National Cultures

ASEAN had grown to represent the whole region by 1999 as ten states of Southeast Asia gained membership. With the US as the prevailing superpower state, its swift invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks took the world by surprise, and demonstrated that the US was willing to use its unmatched military power to maintain its dominance. Among non-allied states, its actions were seen as reminiscent of the old empires enacting self-interested violence in the name of civilisation. Although there were groups of jihadists willing to sacrifice themselves in the fight against the modernity represented by the US, Islamic civilisation did not pose a real threat to the superpower given the divisions within the Islamic world. Indic civilisation also posed little threat to the US, as the Indian subcontinent was largely focused on internal conflict originating from separation, as well as their own economic development. However, the PRC, homeland of Sinic civilisation, came to become the largest challenger to US power. 

During the Cold War, the alienation of Maoist China from the USSR exposed the civilisational differences that China had with both the NATO bloc and the Soviets. Under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, the country opened up to free market capitalism. The US hoped that the liberalised economy would form a middle class and, in turn, liberalise China’s political system. However, China wanted to demonstrate that it was successful because of its ancient roots, not in spite of them; a strong centralised state successfully incorporating select aspects of Enlightenment Modernity into its political system. 

After some failures in the Middle East, the US began to realise vulnerabilities in its universal civilisational values, and recognised China as a threat to its hegemony. Today, there is still a portrayal of China as akin to the evil Russian enemy of the Cold War, and both states are once again gathering allies and developing their military capabilities in defence of their national interests. Thus, for the superpowers of today, the focus is no longer on proliferation of borderless civilisational ideals but defence of nationalist cultures that could have untold impacts on world peace. 

Living with Civilisations

The lecture concluded with an overview of how contemporary Southeast Asian states live with civilisations ancient and modern. Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei developed stronger links with the Islamic Ummah, the Philippines retained their strong connections to co-religionist nations across the Pacific, and the largely Buddhist countries of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia likewise retained links with other majority-Buddhist countries. Vietnam and Singapore have retained a strong heritage of Sinic culture.

For Singapore in particular, early leaders embraced the modern administrative and legal systems inherited from the colonial period while building the nation around a plural society influenced by other civilisations. As the only country with a majority-Chinese population in the region, this has always been a source of unease. In recent decades, the PRC’s state-centred capitalism has led to unforeseen political and economic strength, and is ideologically rooted in a modernised form of ancient Sinic civilisation. Among China’s people, this has resulted in a revival of nationalism.  Prof Wang asserted that this may be concerning for Singapore as China appeals to the Chinese diaspora to support its national and civilisational ambitions. 

“(Singapore) is committed to the idea that its citizens of whatever origin should respond only to borderless civilisational appeals and not to nationalist ones. At its simplest where the PRC is concerned, it could distinguish between the current national culture and timeless Sinic civilisation,” he said. 

Prof Wang also suggested that it is in Singapore’s best interests to support common aspirations of the Southeast Asian region, and all member states would do well to continue learning from qualities of civilisations that were borderless rather than serving nationalist ends. This is what the people of Southeast Asia have been doing for centuries, leading to their agility to deal with unpredictable conditions and strengthen local cultures while lending mutual support on matters of shared interest.

Question-and-Answer Session 

The Question-and-Answer session was moderated by Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Chairman of the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. 

The first question asked about weaknesses that ASEAN may have in the modern era of nation-states, citing the conflicts in Myanmar and the South China Sea as examples. Prof Wang noted that both these conflicts come from inherited borders. Myanmar, as with all other Southeast Asian states, is a country defined by borders drawn by its colonisers, and within its borders lie many large ethnic groups with disparate cultures and traditions. At the time of its independence, it was not in the nature of the Burmese military culture to compromise and find a solution. Prof Wang thus opined that the Myanmar conflict is ASEAN’s greatest challenge so far.

“I think we are now facing the real test, the biggest test of our region. How can we survive this? I am by no means optimistic about the answer. We will find a compromise somehow, but it will not be one that will make anybody happy,” Prof Wang concluded 

He then moved on to discuss China’s claim on the South China Sea, explaining that it came from maritime borders drawn by the Republic of China (ROC). China has only been vulnerable from the sea in the past 150 years, which is why it became so territorial over the South China Sea. As such, this is a key aspect of the PRC’s sovereignty and legitimacy over the ROC that they are prepared to go to war over.

Addressing perspectives on decolonial theory and the possibility of civilisational ideas coming from indigenous cultures of the Americas and Africa which did not start off as urban or literate, Prof Wang expressed that by his definition, civilisations are distinct from cultures because civilisations are borderless while cultures are not. The five living civilisations of today — Enlightenment Modern, Indic, Sinic, Islamic and Christian European — endure because they offer attractive traits that cultures around the world draw from to enrich themselves. However, coercive attempts to assert superiority and define the borders of a civilisation are no longer civilisational acts, but belong to a dominant hegemonic culture. Thus, only entities with a borderless reach and appeal can be considered civilisations.

Finally, an audience member commented that the US is largely a maritime superpower while China remains largely continental, and wondered whether this could lead to a division between maritime and continental Southeast Asia. Prof Wang commented that this is unlikely as the ASEAN states had overcome this division in the 1990s. In the last decades, the member states of ASEAN have learned that it is in their common interest to stay together rather than become the client states of superpowers, and ASEAN has successfully created a regional identity even though Southeast Asia did not have a coherent self-consciousness before 1945. 


Click here to watch the video of lecture IV.

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