Towards a more equal world

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 13 Jun 2004


Nation states act to preserve and advance their own perceived interests. In a world where unequal power among nations is clearer than ever, the international community of nation states is regrouping for the greater good of its greater number. 

THE more a society’s identity is questioned, the more the speculation on its demise – and the more it reasserts itself. Group identity derives from various origins, parameters and interests: occupation, clan, race, language, religion, ideology and, most of all, nationality. 

Above all else, nationality is defined by citizenship, passports, loyalty oaths, political leadership, military forces and the nation state. Despite its universality and omnipresence, today’s nation state began less than 400 years ago with the Treaty of Westphalia that underlined national sovereignty and spurned foreign interference. 

Notwithstanding assertive competing identities and rebellious sub-national movements, nationalism and the nation state remain robust. Their resilience and durability are played through a variety of political systems and governing styles. 

Theories abound about how the nation state might be supplanted by the corporation, or how national identity might be ruptured by supranational or secessionist groups. But these tend to be elitist, academic or surreal views alien to much of humanity still governed by states that have learned to accommodate and co-opt these contrary forces. 

Supranational entities like Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum), the OAS (Organisation of American States), Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and Nafta (North American Free Trade Agreement) are traditionally similar to others like the UN Security Council, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund for one reason – unaccountable US dominance. 

Other supranational bodies like the European Union, today’s Non-Aligned Movement and Asean Plus 3 help to address this post-Cold War disequilibrium by promoting greater multilateralism. By limiting superpower unilateralism, they help advance global democracy and myriad national interests. 

Today’s headlines are replete with events that show the assertion of various national sovereignties. Globalisation might have accentuated rather than eclipsed nationalism. 

On Thursday, a news report from Strasbourg told of how the new enlarged European Parliament now requires written and spoken versions of its proceedings in all 20 national languages of its members, requiring at least 1,000 translators. The cost is an annual 900 million euros, while still excluding the non-official languages. 

Politically, national sentiments also matter: Germany, France and Spain have seen how their largely anti-war peoples have pressed their point home. In elections for the European Parliament between Thursday and today, Britain and the Netherlands also saw anti-war candidates trouncing their rivals tied to US foreign policy. 

At the same time, certain quarters within Europe remain wary of a proposed EU Constitution that might compromise their respective national sovereignties. Even as the EU grows to promote global multilateralism, some of its components worry about shedding their national identity. 

On the same day, the US conceded defeat in seeking to have Nato play a more overt military role in Iraq. That desire could not work with much of the rest of the world, including the West, which is working to safeguard both global concerns and a variety of national interests. 

Washington’s urge to meddle abroad triggered a warning from Russia that such actions must not interfere in the internal affairs of other states. The principle of respecting the national sovereignty of others is observed by all except rogue states and superpowers, and since the US became the sole superpower, it has slid further into the notion of “pre-emptive war”. 

National sovereignty is a right that precludes any presumption of foreign interference, a principle enshrined since the Treaty of Westphalia through virtually all multilateral doctrines, including the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement and Asean. Yet critics of Asean typically pick on this principle to underscore its weakness, conveniently ignoring its universality in other contexts. 

Asean is essentially a grouping of regional states to ensure mutual civility and security, despite (or because of) various bilateral suspicions, rivalries and other disjunctures. It has done this so well as to see peace, stability and some of the highest growth rates in the world without infringing on the national sovereignty of its members. 

Today, Asean’s success has grown beyond itself. Besides achieving the full membership of all 10 South-East Asian nations, it created the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), Asean Plus 3 and (through the latter) the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem). 

The consensually defined ARF would not have been possible without the inspiration and centrality of Asean itself, even if consensus is sometimes seen to work slowly.  

North-east Asia (China, Japan and South Korea) still harbours some intra-regional disquiet, but its leaders have been heartened by Asean – both among themselves in a proposed grouping and with Asean in an East Asian identity (Asean Plus 3). 

In 1990 Malaysia proposed an East Asian Economic Grouping (EAEG), which was not enthusiastically endorsed by some at the time. In seeking to unify East Asia as the third leg of the world economy (besides North America and Europe), it seemed an idea ahead of its time. 

By 1993, Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew was telling audiences in Japan that the world would be more stable on two legs rather than three. The logic would not appeal to any carpenter or strategist, unless the regional furniture compromised national and regional sovereignty through subservience to a larger global fitting. 

But by the late 1990s after the regional financial crisis struck, Lee turned right around and endorsed the Malaysian position. He complained in a regional news magazine that South-East Asia was not sufficiently anchored to the more stable north-east Asian economies. 

Singapore’s strategic perceptions have long differed from those of most other countries, although largely conforming with its limited city state parameters.  

Stylised and circumscribed, it lacks natural resources, a hinterland and the considerations that come with these standard features of a normal country, revealing its origins as an entrepot port in securing a share of whatever everyone else was buying and selling across borders. 

So it took a regional financial crisis to enlighten Singapore’s policymakers about the need for a more integrated East Asia. But as Singapore strives to be more of a “normal country”, such as a regional hub for biotechnology, its strategic dispositions will have to evolve accordingly. 

This has begun with Singapore’s proposal for Asia-EU summits in 1994, which effectively cemented the EAEG (Asean Plus 3) countries with Europe. Since then, the Asem series has taken off with a life and purpose of its own, developing into more regular meetings and exchanges, an Asia-Europe Foundation in Singapore and an Asia-Europe Institute in Malaysia. 

This October, Vietnam plays host to the fifth Asem summit, which will see an unprecedented 36 heads of state or delegation assembling in Hanoi. It is an event that Vietnam is keenly gearing itself for, having already learnt much through the Asean experience. 

The importance of Asem is self-evident, with member nations accounting for 41% of world population and 51% of world GDP. Officials in Hanoi promise a full complement of activities based on Asem’s three pillars – political, economic and cultural – and may be savvy enough to unveil something new and significant by October. 

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