AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 589

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Session 589: Nationalism & Identity I

The debate on national learning and the formation of Vietnamese national identity in the 1930s
Yufen Chang, National University of Singapore, Singapore

In the 1930s, Vietnamese intellectuals under the French colonial regime were enthusiastically debating the question of quoc hoc (national learning). At first glance it seemed anything but uncommon in East Asia, as intellectuals in China, Japan, and Korea also had been debating the issue of national learning since the mid 19th century, the transition time when the traditional Sinocentric East Asia began to be shattered by the Western imperialist power. Two things about Vietnam stand out. Firstly, while intellectuals in China, Japan, and Korea were trying to transform their legacy and cultural accomplishments into a modern school of national learning that could characterize their nations, Vietnamese intellectuals were faced a peculiar question as to whether Vietnam had ever produced something called “national learning.” Secondly, as Vietnamese intellectuals strove to accumulate as many cultural resources as they could obtain from their Sinic past for the making of national learning, some tried to expand the scope of national learning to include Vietnam’s cultural borrowings and translation from China. This expansion inevitably led to the debate on the vital questions as to what national learning meant and what constituted national learning. By analyzing the intellectual debate on quoc hoc in the 1930s, I will explore, firstly, the making of Vietnamese national identity in relationship to China, and secondly, the candidates of national learning recommended by Vietnamese intellectuals. I will also investigate the differences between the debate on national learning in Vietnam and those took place in China, Japan, and Korea between late 19th and early 20th century.

From Imperial Citizenship to Colonial Nationalism and Back: education and making of the Malayan nation in late colonial Singapore
Siew-Min Sai, National University of Singapore, Singapore

This article attempts to rethink national formation in Singapore by reexamining the role of the British and the contents of the social imaginary underpinning a late colonial attempt at nation-building in post-World War Two Singapore. Mainstream scholarship on national formation in Singapore and Malaysia during the post World War Two period highlights the high politics and behind-the-scenes negotiations amongst elite politicians, groups and political parties with vested interests in the nation-building process. Seen from such a perspective, British involvement in post-war politics in the region is the result of careful policy-making, shrewd calculation, and pragmatic execution of its strategic, military and political interests. Using debates over educational policies as a focal point, the article traces British imagination of a national community in postwar Singapore to expressions of citizenship articulated by the domiciled Anglophone Asian community from the 1920s onwards and which peaked in the 1930s. Analyzing these expressions of citizenship using the concept of “imperial citizenship”, I suggest that the social imaginary embedded in post-war British colonial nationalism simultaneously adopted and negated the imperial citizenship model put forward by Anglophone Asian individuals in Singapore before the war. It became an article of faith, not fact, to the British that feelings of community of the kind constitutive of nationalistic bonds were not present in Singapore and Malaya before the war. Donning nationalist guise, the British were able to imagine that the slate had been wiped clean or simply did not exist. This article demonstrates that assertions for greater autonomy, citizenship and accompanying rights were strong but had been dismissed by the British during the prewar period.

Multiculturalism or Westernism?: Transforming Social Space in Contemporary India
Irfan A. Omar, Marquette University, USA

This paper seeks to contest the claims that Indian social space has become more tolerant in promoting a diversity of cultures that have been part of India for several centuries. In response to recent studies on multiculturalism (Guttman 2007; Bhattacharya 2001), this paper argues that while the Indian constitution and the secular discourse may be seen as sources for inspiring multiculturalism, in recent years the latter has often served as a convenient cover for appropriating “Westernism” or “Americanism.” True multiculturalism where local cultures and traditions are given adequate and equitable space and an empowering role in national public space is non-existent in India. In social discourse all ethnic and cultural forms are claimed to have been given equal access, yet in reality there is a great disparity in certain cultural forms such as Westernism - a crass imitation of European and American values - being presented as superior to indigenous values and practices. In effect such pseudo “multiculturalism” works to erase differences, especially in patterns of communication, dress, eating habits, and social etiquette and sets up new public standards of morality and interrelations. Under the spell of Westernism/Americanism, public social space is being transformed, causing many Indians to feel “culturally displaced” within their own milieu. Increasingly, the westernized elite are setting the norms while the practice of local cultural traditions is regarded as backwardly. This paper will examine the discourse and practices that are in part responsible for the ongoing transformation of public space and social consciousness.

Imagining Malaysian Nation in a Postcolonial Language: English and the Nostalgia for Global Citizenship
Seoyeon Choi, University of Pennsylvania, USA

My paper investigates how English, allegedly a “global language,” mediates ethnic and class divisions in Malaysia. The national promotion of English after the 1990s seems to signal the end of the period when nation-building depended on the national language and the beginning of the time when the survival of a nation in the world economy becomes dependent on English. Contradicting the definition of the “global” and the “national” as antithetical forces, my discussion highlights how the locally produced ideologies of globalization and global language legitimize the elite imagination of nation while suppressing other versions of imaginations among the masses. The ideologies reflect the English-educated elite’s nostalgia for the colonial past and their sense of intellectual, cultural and social superiority to the masses. Drawing on my participant research from 2004 to 2005 in an inner-city school and a former English-medium elite school in Kuala Lumpur, I discuss the controversy over the reintroduction of English as a language of instruction and the political burden that the language conversion imposed on the government. While the students of the inner-city school experience English as the language of their social and cultural “others,” the members of the elite school believe that they exclusively own the language, thus possess the qualification for the leadership as globally competitive model citizens. In conclusion, I suggest that, despite the implications of inclusiveness, the visions of political unity and economic development in the globlist imagination of nation may not be shared by its people with different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

Nation's Two Bodies: Un/making National Brand Identity in Neoliberal India
Ravinder Kaur, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

This paper explores the processes of nation branding – the transformation of the nation form into commodity form – that has become emblematic of neoliberal states seeking to turn the nation into a competitive, profitable and expendable commodity. Since the mid 2000s, the Indian state – now often termed India Inc. – has launched concerted campaigns to create a unique corporate brand identity that can perform ‘national difference’ on a global stage even as it struggles to contain differences within. Through an exploration of various brand making campaigns in India, the paper shows how the very efforts to create a common national identity for outside consumption has, in fact, revealed a deep split – the ‘global’ and the ‘vernacular’ nations that are entangled in both intimate and antagonistic forms. The paper analyses the two imaginary bodies of the nation and the ways in which they contest, supplement and transform the global Indian identity from within and outside.