Nationalism in Asia: A History Since 1945

By Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
Twitter: @indo_pan

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Asia is old, but “nationalism” is new. Such a phrase might sound like Donald Trump’s inaugural press conference: “The leaks are real, but the news are fake.” But the moniker of “Asia” is indeed old, going back by at least to 2500 years according to the Oxford Dictionary of Political Science.

In an entry by Dr. Cemil Aydin, an expert on Global History, “Asia,” was a phrase originally coined by the Greeks to refer to Asia Minor, or, present-day Turkey, extending beyond, Persia, into current-day India and beyond.

And, if one were to go any further east of India, there was a time when the European imperialists, military staffs and missionaries, regaled in calling it the “Far East”; a phrase still favored by the Turks, however.

Nationalism in Asia is new, precisely because it was invented from a pastiche of ideologies. In Thailand, nationalism was combined with the reverential worship of the monarchy. In Burma, nationalism often intersected with its own form of Buddhism. While elsewhere in Malaysia, it would be more appropriate to speak of “ethnonationalism” since ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indian, still do not intersect freely, or, equally.

In Singapore, nationalism only makes sense if you don’t subject it to severe scrutiny. To the degree you did, charges of sedition and libel lie in wake, especially if you cross not one, but many thin red lines, set by the PAP government. Nationalism, in other words, is what the elites and patriarchy demand, to which the laity must obey.

Despite the complexity of the subject, this book stands out in terms of its pith, clarity and poise. Despite taking on some of the most difficult topics in the historical ledger, such as the fate of comfort women in Korea; the Nanjing massacre by Japanese imperialist forces, coupled with the mass genocide of the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam and Indonesia, this book, which was written for university students and global citizens in mind, did an outstanding job of organizing the materials in a clean and orderly manner.

There were sections on the invention of the nation; just as there was a reference to the “enforced amnesia” that countries normally undergo.

The distribution of the materials was also very even-handed and fair, as Jeff Kingston, a director of Asian studies at Templeton University in Tokyo, left no stones unturned. For example, there were sections on China, India, Japan, Korea and countries in Southeast Asia too; though one can’t seem to find any coverage on Timor Leste, which is on the verge of becoming a member of ASEAN.

Indeed, the last section of the book organized the reading materials and future references neatly and schematically, with helpful hints on which were the best books to take the readers further.

Some of the books could well be controversial, such as the one by Herbert Blix on the role of the Japanese emperor Hirohito, and the extent of his involvement in the Pacific War, but most other books were exceptional recommendations.

Even the works of Timo Kivimaki, a top Finnish scholar at the University of Bath, were included in the reading list to alert the readers to the concept of East Asian peace.

Prior to Jeff Kingston’s books, students of history and international relations had had to refer to the works of Nicholas Tarling, DGE Hall and Akire Iriye to understand the landscape of nationalism, imperialism and cultural internationalism in Asia. But this compendium squared the proverbial peg by explaining everything in a thoughtful, non-abrasive and non-polemical manner. The section on “invention of nations,” was of course a must-read, as was the section on willful “forgetting.”

The book, in different parts, also warned students from being too proud and overly indulgent with nationalism. The opening quote by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans was apt, as he is one of the few to warn of a plausible East Asian war involving China, Japan and the US, all in a heady mix of nationalism.

Indeed, nationalism was described by Haruki Murakami as a “cheap alcohol” that can endanger the lives of many, invariably, by giving one a “bad hangover the next day.”

Judging by these phrases and quotes, one can only gather that Jeff Kingston had himself seen the worst of nationalism in some form. He is sobered by the fact that knowledge and critical thinking can make the necessary breakthrough in the fetish of nationalism.



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