Thursday, March 1, 2012

Asian nation states: The necessity of introspection

Phar Kim Beng
Special to The Nation February 25, 2012 1:00 am

For several decades already, Western scholars and academics have been discussing the origins of nation states.

Just how did they come about? The question is valid. First of all, unlike other polities, nation states make a full claim on the use of violence. Secondly, nation states insist on collecting taxes even when the service rendered is poor. Thirdly, nation states, to this day, cannot overcome their avaricious appetite for land, markets, profit and power.
The late Mancur Olson, an economist who made his name at the University of Maryland, had a very interesting theory to account for all of these questions. According to Olson, human societies began as roving units. Some went on to becoming sedentary entities. This was achieved as they began tilling fields and rearing sustainable livestock.
However, while animal husbandry and agriculture formed the backbone of the basic economy, security was not assured. In fact, it was under the perennial threat of external attacks; especially by marauding hunter-gatherers and natural predators. The former would pillage and plunder at the expense of others.
Nevertheles, it would eventually dawn on the attackers that the more such acts of extraction occured, the more they would lose as communities began to better defend themselves. Thus, the robber barons would progressively find themselves having less to reap; especially if the frequency of their attacks increased. Olson believes that nation states began at this point.
Instead of stealing and robbing indefinitely, the perpetrators decided to offer security and protection in exchange. Invariably, this was paid as a fixed amount of tax in the form of food stocks, agricultural produce or livestock; eventually metal trinkets and money appeared. Olson refers to these extractive individuals as "stationary bandits". They formed the origins of the ledership of nation state.
In Asia, the lessons offered by Olson are of course lost in the midst of ethno-nationalism, de-colonisation, and finally, rapid attempts to modernise. Asian history, grafted onto each of these endeavours, has sought to highlight the decency, virtues and rectitude of forefathers, especially in growing and modernising countries. Hence, any mention of banditry - even when done in the name of building the state - is avoided.
Sadly, there are two distinct disadvantages to ignoring the past, no matter how unsavoury. First, when one's historical consciousness is tweaked, there is almost zero appreciation of the importance of accountability. As such, egregious transgressions are likely to happen again, albeit in other forms. And, they do. Corruption, constitutional oversight and over-confidence are frequent phenomena in the region.
China, for example, straddles four time zones, to the nine of Russia. Both are continental behemoths in their own right. Each has a long history of absorbing other lesser groups through the conquests made by different dynasties in the past.
Yet, the academic theories that prevail in China and Russia today continue to aver that neither has attacked others intentionally. In the case of China, the Great Wall is used as the perfect exhibit for this theory of self defence. The barbarians, in other words, are at fault.
Secondly, when history is subverted, it is sublimated too. It makes the people less conscious - if at all - of their national warts. Invariably, they become more self righteous and assertive in pressing their claims, without realising that others are threatened by these one-dimensional pursuits.
The history of how the nation state emerged is critical. Without at least a semblance of theoretical account, nation states quickly suffer from selective amnesia. They inflate their claims to make them appear stronger and better; as is the case in the conflict over the Preah Vihear temple complex between Thailand and Cambodia.
Come what may, there is a need for Asian governments and scholars to revisit their past; no matter how painful and insidious. Only when they realise their previous trangressions - with the attendant effort to build a better future - will nation states be gradually purged of their original sins. Barring this contrite act, a nation state will remain arrogant, especially if it is anchored in an ethno-nationalist ideology. And, as their power grows, their arrogance can make them blind to their own flaws.
Phar Kim Beng is director of the Trans-Asia Centre at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, Kuala Lumpur.

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