Governance of a City-State
13th IPS-Nathan Lecture Series: Lecture III “Mind the Gap: Identity Politics and Geopolitics in Maritime Southeast Asia” by Professor Joseph Liow

After examining the US-China rivalry and geopolitical developments in ASEAN, S R Nathan Fellow Professor Joseph Liow turned his attention closer to Singapore’s two closest neighbours.

In his third and final lecture, Prof Liow discussed how domestic contexts and socio-political conditions in Malaysia and Indonesia have shaped the two countries’ responses to two major geopolitical developments: the conflict in Palestine and China’s rise.

“Chief among these contexts and conditions, I would argue, is the nature of identity politics in these two countries, how they have unfolded over time,” said Prof Liow, who is Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University.

His lecture on November 27 was the final instalment of the Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) 13th IPS-Nathan Lecture Series entitled “Navigating Uncertainty: Our Region in an Age of Flux”.

Identity Politics and Geopolitics 

In maritime Southeast Asia, ethnicity and religion have been core themes in the process of state formation, not to mention the political contestation along the way, Prof Liow said. This subregion of Southeast Asia has loosely been referred to as the Malay-Javanese Archipelago.

While the diversity of ethnicity, culture, religion and language in maritime Southeast Asia has been its source of pride, they also present a weakness in the form of identity politics that can undermine cohesion within societies, he added.

Identity politics also shape geopolitics. It happens when governments prioritise the interests of a particular identity group in crafting their foreign policy. Inter-state organisations are formed when countries coalesce around issues of identity to advance shared interests, such as the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation and the Nordic Council.

Identity politics can also trigger cross-border tension and even conflict, Prof Liow said. They can occur when rival identity groups are spread across borders, when an identity group dispersed over several countries is mistreated because of its identity, and when followers of the same religion are divided between theocratic and secularist political tendencies.

Israel-Hamas War

Among ASEAN member states, Indonesia and Malaysia have by far been the most vocal about the Israel-Hamas war, Prof Liow said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has not only supported Hamas, but has been very open about the Malaysian government’s recognition of Hamas even though many countries around the world have designated it as a terrorist organisation, he said.

And while Indonesian political leaders have been somewhat muted about Hamas, a large number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been quite open about their support, Prof Liow added. This has come about after the collapse of former Indonesian President Suharto’s New Order led to a resurgence of Islamic civil society activism.

“Many in these two countries who sympathise with and support the Palestinian cause, do so through the lens of anti-colonialism and the rights of self-determination,” he said. “We should not underestimate how deep this runs in their psyche, regardless of religious affiliation.”

Having said that, Prof Liow noted that among Muslims in maritime Southeast Asia, there has been a stronger sense of religious consciousness and identity. This is expressed through various performative aspects of their faith from how they dress and speak to, increasingly, how they vote.

“What was once marginal political ideology — i.e. the notion that society should primarily be governed in accordance with Islamic principles — has now virtually become a central feature of mainstream politics in Malaysia, and to a lesser extent, in Indonesia.”

The greater awareness of Islamic identity has meant that Muslims in maritime Southeast Asia more readily identify with and agitate for the cause of the Ummah, the universal brotherhood of believers, Prof Liow said.

“It is in this regard that the metaphor of ‘defending the faith’, which appears frequently both explicitly and implicitly in narratives surrounding Muslim political activism in Indonesia and Malaysia, takes on substantive meaning and practical urgency,” he said.

To Prof Liow, the idea of “defending the faith” means three things.

“First, it casts protests as an expression of religiosity, piety, and importantly, affinity with co-religionists…

“It is, second, about political activism directed at perceived historical and present injustices, drawing on a long history that has seen religious nationalism, in this case, Islamic nationalism, serve as a cause around which sentiments are rallied…

“And third, it is about politics, or more specifically, a means through which the legitimacy of political leaders can be bolstered with the expression of religious credentials.”

Whether in Indonesia or Malaysia, those seeking political power find themselves having to appeal to growing religiosity, Prof Liow said.

For those who believe that the Islamic faith is in urgent need of defending, standing up for the Palestinian cause does not require a “giant cognitive leap”, he added.

“Nor, for that matter, does casting a suspicious eye on non-Muslim minorities in their own domestic arena.”

China and the ethnic Chinese

Unlike other Southeast Asian countries where local cultures have been receptive to the sizeable ethnic Chinese population, the same cannot be said of Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia, Prof Liow said.

“Needless to say, this has given rise to identity politics that not only continues to prevail in these societies but have been further complicated by the rise of China in recent decades,” he said.

After Chinese communities migrated to Southeast Asia, they gradually grew to command a disproportionate amount of economic power and continued to be regarded with suspicion by local communities.

This is particularly acute in Indonesia and Malaysia, which at its worst has given rise to a politics of scapegoating. The Chinese were blamed for economic troubles in Indonesia during the Asian Financial Crisis and accused of plotting to introduce a “Christian state” in Malaysia, Prof Liow noted.

“Against this backdrop of strained inter-ethnic relations, there has been something of a ‘re-Sinicisation’ taking place among Southeast Asian ethnic Chinese communities, characterised by an awakening of their ‘Chinese-ness’ via efforts to revive and reaffirm their cultural heritage.”

In Indonesia, this has been enabled by a weakening institutional suppression of Chinese cultural identity after the collapse of Suharto’s New Order.

Amid China’s rise, China under President Xi Jinping has been pushing for deeper cooperation with Chinese citizens abroad to fufil the Chinese Dream. This has played out through calls to young Indonesian Chinese to learn Mandarin and reminders from China’s senior officials to Malaysian ethnic Chinese that China is their “maternal home”.

But China’s soft power diplomatic outreach has raised tensions in Indonesia and Malaysia, where indigenous identities are emphasised in politics and some ethnic Chinese are stereotyped and discriminated against, Prof Liow said.

The situation in Palestine and the rise of China present, arguably, the most pressing geopolitical challenges for maritime Southeast Asia today, Prof Liow said.

“There are no clear ways through which they can be resolved, and that is assuming there is desire to resolve them,” he said. “But it is precisely for these reasons that they need to be better understood in all their complex nuances, not just as an academic exercise, but also in terms of how they shape public sentiments and policy discussions.”

Question and Answer

During the question-and-answer segment, Prof Liow was asked how he thinks Singapore should deal with its neighbours given how Indonesia and Malaysia identify themselves along ethnic and religious lines while Singapore does not.

In response, Prof Liow said that Singapore needs to develop a good grasp of domestic developments within the two countries and demonstrate that Singapore is making an effort to understand, without casting judgement.

He also believes there needs to be a concerted effort to sustain opportunities for students to be exposed to the region. From his experience at a university, students often want to travel to Europe to study but no one wants exposure to Southeast Asia. “I think that’s a problem,” he said.

Several audience members watching the lecture online posed questions to Prof Liow about Singapore’s response to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Moderator Ms Lee Sue-Ann, senior fellow and programme coordinator at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, also noted that powerful ethnic and religious narratives surrounding the war are vying for people’s sense of identity and loyalty, including Muslims in Singapore.

Singapore had strongly condemned Hamas’ Oct 7 attack against Israeli citizens. At the same time, Prof Liow noted Singapore has made it clear that the indiscriminate nature of the Israeli response is not acceptable.

With circumstances being so emotive, it is incumbent on Singapore’s leaders to communicate its foreign policy decisions to the Singapore public clearly and relate them to the country’s interests.

“We saw this with China when there were problems, we saw this with Russia and Ukraine, and we see this now with Palestine,” he said. “But that’s the nature of society today.”


Click here to watch the video of lecture III.

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