User Menu

South East Asia not ready for EU-style convergence

World View: Colonial experiences have put premium on sovereign autonomy

Malaysia’s landmark Petronas Twin towers: the country’s estimated 20 million Malays, seven million Chinese, two million Indians and other communities are represented in competing political coalitions organised mainly on communal lines, Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

“Our aircraft today has staff from 16 countries speaking 11 languages.” This announcement on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai echoed the pluralism I encountered giving lectures to a postgraduate workshop in the University of Malaya on how Europe has developed as a region compared to Asia. 

Malaysians have general elections soon in which their Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous peoples vote to elect a government. The Chinese and Indian communities were built up from the 1870s by large-scale immigration to service the tin mines and later rubber plantations controlled by British colonial companies for world markets. That continued after independence in the 1950s, preserving foreign domination of these exports to fund Britain’s huge trade deficit after the second World War.

Diversification of production and investment towards manufacturing and services in following decades under successive governments has now given Malaysia a far more developed economy and society. It is a hub for regional capital flows, especially from China. Kuala Lumper’s seven million population, astonishingly exuberant architecture and urbanism eloquently tell that story.

Multilingualism goes hand in hand with a multiculturalism institutionalised in the country’s politics and federal governance. The country’s estimated 20 million Malays, seven million Chinese, two million Indians and other communities are represented in competing political coalitions organised mainly on communal lines. 

Corporate elite

Critics say this structure is dominated by a convergent corporate elite who share power despite the communalism orchestrated by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. Its founder and major representative with 22 years as prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, defected to the opposition three years ago and now improbably heads the opposition competing for office, in a protest against corruption around the outgoing prime minister Najib Razak. A growing authoritarian populism using executive powers of detention and media controls to stifle dissent reminds these critics of similar tendencies in Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also orchestrates a state-endorsed Islam to his own advantage.

Malaysian multilingualism shares the majority Malay tongue with English, often spoken on the streets as a creolised Manglish. The Chinese use Mandarin and regional dialects as well as English and the Indians have a similar range.

At the workshop, there was some discussion of language and regional identity in ASEAN, the Association of South East Nations. The tendency of English to emerge between its 10 members is similar to the trend in the EU. Throughout the region and in East Asia, ferocious competition for university places reinforces this language shift. It has seen most South Korean youth becoming proficient in English over the last 15 years.

Throughout the world, the shift gives a temporary boost to Ireland and other countries whose stubborn monolingualism is bolstered by the advantage of speaking a global language. In the longer term they will lose it, however, since those with multilingual skills will become more competitive and able to encounter a multicultural world.

Cultural relations

The lessons for Ireland in a post-Brexit EU are belatedly being recognised by policymakers, as seen in this week’s welcome initiative to boost Ireland’s cultural relations with Germany, including by increasing German language-learning here. To be effective, learning foreign languages needs to be brought far more into primary schools, where Ireland lags hugely behind other European countries – and behind Malaysia.

Comparing world regions brings out the similarities and differences that make up their history and political culture. We used a text by the Indian scholar Amitav Acharya on Regionalism beyond EU-centrism to underline how distinct are ASEAN’s values and objectives. The end goal of the post-colonial world was not supranational integration but preserving their sovereign autonomy to develop their societies, states and nations after independence from European and Japanese imperial rule.

Functionalist spillover from low to high politics, as practised in the EU’s conflict prevention and trade liberalisation agenda after two ruinous world wars, do not suit Asian or African regional organisations dealing with internal conflicts, environmental degradation, migration, human rights or counter-terrorism. Decolonisation and nationalism are key scope conditions for them, accompanied in ASEAN by its values of consensus, non-interference and non-binding outcomes. Students from the region were interested in how Ireland’s post-colonial and anti-imperial nationalism compares to their own.

Increasingly, the EU’s mix of pooling sovereignty and delegating authority to supranational bureaucracy is becoming more relevant as the issues they all face become more complex and interdependent. But on Acharya’s reading, the EU approach is adapted to different conditions in other regions rather than adopted wholesale.