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Building Cohesive Societies: Southeast Asian States Take On Gargantuan Challenge – Analysis

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Several Southeast Asian governments and social movements are seeking to counter mounting polarization and inter-communal strife across the globe fuelled by the rise of civilizationalist leaders who think in exclusionary rather than inclusionary terms.

In the most high-brow of various initiatives, King Abdullah of Jordan is scheduled to deliver a keynote address at the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies organized by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) with support from the Singapore government.

Singapore president Halimah bint Yacob has mooted the conference as a high-level forum involving religious leaders akin to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue that for the past 17 years brings together annually senior Asian, European and US government officials in what is Asia’s foremost security forum.

In what amounts to a timely strategic effort to tackle what may be one of the most fundamental threats to peace and security, the conference reflects a growing concern that global polarization and civilisationalism could fuel inter-communal tensions and militancy in Southeast Asian societies.

It crowns a separate Indonesian initiative that targets religious reform and Malaysian willingness to speak out on controversial or sensitive issues.

Southeast Asian concerns include fear that Rohingya lingering in refugee camps in Bangladesh with no prospects could radicalize, the possibility of extremists capitalizing on the fact that reconstruction of the devastated southern Philippine city of Marawi has stalled two years after it was overrun by jihadists, and the danger that suspected sleeper cells of groups like the Islamic State will seek to disrupt the region’s social fabric.

“The social fabric of many communities is stressed by extremism, exclusivism and polarisation. It is important for us to grow trust across communities. This will always be a work in progress, so it is an effort we must constantly invest in,” Ms. Yacob said on the eve of the Singapore conference.

King Abdullah, in a separate statement, warned that “attacking and excluding others, insulting other peoples and their faiths and convictions – this is no way forward. The future lies in unity and respect, not division and stereotypes.”

Ms. Yacob and King Abdullah’s warnings were designed to be an anti-dote to rising prejudice and racism fuelled by the rise of supremacism of various stripes and Islamophobia as well as increased anti-Semitism that often is encouraged by world leaders for ideological or opportunistic reasons.

For Ms. Yacob and King Abdullah, the concern is not a far-from-my-bed show.

Human rights activists were taken aback when Myanmar leader, Nobel peace prize winner and one time human rights advocate Aung San Suu Kyi agreed earlier this month during a visit to Hungary with far-right, staunchly anti-immigrant prime minister Viktor Orban that both Southeast Asia and Europe were struggling with the “emergence of the issue of coexistence with continuously growing Muslim populations.”

Southeast Asia and its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are home to the world’s most populous and foremost Muslim democracy, Indonesia, as well as Malaysia that has been among the most outspoken in criticizing Myanmar’s repression of the Rohingya and one of the few Islamic countries to speak out about China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

To King Abdullah, Ms. Yacob’s backyard must look like something approaching paradise. Conflict characterizes all of his kingdom’s borders.

Moreover, the Middle East, beyond Jordan’s immediate borders, is wracked by civil wars, national conflicts and regional rivalries that all involve aspects of prejudice, right-wing nationalism, militancy and sectarianism.

Add to that, the world is holding its breath as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran square off in the Gulf in a dangerous dance that threatens to spiral out of control.

Less highbrow but no less ambitious, Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Sunni Muslim movement, has launched a campaign with Indonesian government backing to “reinterpret and recontextualize” Islam.

The campaign amounts to more than simply confronting ultra-conservatism and militancy. It is a pushback against the notion that secularism and pluralism are expressions of a Western conspiracy to undermine Islam.

If successful, Nahdlatul Ulama’s strategy could have far-reaching consequences. For many Middle Eastern autocrats, adopting a more tolerant, pluralistic interpretation of Islam would mean allowing far greater social and political freedoms and embracing concepts of pluralism. That would likely lead to a weakening of autocrats’ grip on power.

Similarly, political scientist and Islam scholar Ahmet T. Kuru throws down a gauntlet in a forthcoming book by arguing that the notion of Islam rejecting a separation of religion and state is based on “a fabricated hadith” or saying of the Prophet Mohammed that has since been perpetuated.

Singapore’s conference like Nahdlatul Ulama’s initiative constitute accepting a gargantuan but critical challenge posed by civilizationalist leaders who reflect deeply rooted currents in societies irrespective of their political systems and/or notions and myths that have been nurtured over centuries.

Inclusiveness is the magic wand touted by all seeking to halt a slide toward societies characterized by fragmentation, political polarization and inter-communal discord. Yet, the enormity of the challenge lies in addressing deep-seated grievances and challenging taboos.

Discussing the rise of populism in the West, politics scholar Matthew Goodwin identifies what he terms the four Ds that drive democracy’s turmoil: distrust of political institutions that have become less representative; the destructive impact of fear of loss of national identity, culture and way of life; ethno-national deprivation fuelled by liberal elites’ focus on migrant and minority rights; and the dealignment of significant segments of the electorate with the traditional parties they long supported.

Mr. Goodwin’s four Ds are likely to challenge cohesiveness even if, as Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper notes, their foremost political beneficiaries are being sucked into the swamp they vowed to drain.

US president Donald J. Trump, Brexit party leader Nigel Farage, Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, former Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, and billionaire Czech prime minister Andrej Babis are all fighting off allegations of wrongdoing.

The allegations and their legal entanglements mean that they risk losing the high ground on issues of corruption, alongside immigration and security, a key pillar of their recent success.

Putting forward an optimistic argument, Mr. Kuper notes that concerns about migration and security no longer top Europeans’ agenda with younger voters mobilising around climate change.

Polls, however, suggest that the popularity of leaders accused of illegitimately benefitting from wrongdoing or questionable practices and their political parties have lost little of their allure despite climate change increasingly becoming a major concern.

Populists’ current Teflon effect means that building cohesive societies will have to involve finding a middle ground between majoritarian concerns and concepts of diversity, multiculturalism and minority rights.

It amounts to manoeuvring minefields and treading on uncharted territory irrespective of culture and political system.

In the absence of the perfect blueprint, countries like Singapore, New Zealand and Norway have in their own ways taken a lead in attempting to make inclusion a pillar of policy.

While inter-communal harmony has long been a driver of Singapore’s social and economic policies, New Zealand and Norway responded to traumatic acts of political violence by bucking the trend towards polarization, profiling and concepts of us and them by saying not me instead of me too.

The proof is in the pudding.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who became an icon of compassion and inclusivity with her response to the killing of 50 people in March in two Christchurch mosques, recalled a Muslim woman reacting to the government’s response by telling her that, despite having been a target, she had “never felt more at home (in New Zealand) than she had in the last 10 days” since the attacks.

Singapore’s creation of a global forum in which opposing views and grievances are aired constitutes a vital contribution towards creating the environment for the building of more cohesive societies. It is a vital cog in a mesh of attempts to achieve legal reform and call out abuse and violations of human rights.

Taken together, they hold out the promise of a concerted effort to counter debilitating prejudice and bias even if a truly cohesive, harmonious society may prove to be a utopia.

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James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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