In the second half of the 20th century, newly independent Southeast Asian states faced many challenges that saw different approaches adopted, with varying degrees of success in the various countries. Economic and political challenges were often the most crucial to the survival to these nascent nations, yet an equally important challenge was that of creating a harmonious society. In light of the diversity of cultures within each of these nations, government efforts to create harmony were often plagued with many problems, so I do agree to some extent that these efforts ultimately proved futile.

However, there has been some success, especially in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. To a large extent, the various policies implemented to try to achieve harmonious multicultural societies failed miserably in countries such as Myanmar, but were more successful in countries such as Singapore. The policies can come under two main theme, “unity in diversity” and “cultural nationalism”. “Unity in diversity” basically espouses the idea that the state should try to accommodate the needs of the ethnic minorities, so as to make them feel included into the society.

Policies under this theme included the adoption of national ideologies aimed at making the citizens have a common identity and the inclusion of articles in the various constitutions that made provisions for guaranteeing the rights of the minorities “Cultural nationalism”, on the other hand, seeks to assert the dominant culture onto the minorities, and expect them to assimilate into society. One could say that these policies failed largely because of the many separatist movements and divides across societies in the various Southeast Asian nations.

In Myanmar, initially known as Burma, the government tried to achieve harmonious relations through various means, most of which failed. Initially, under Aung San and U Nu, policies implanted reflected the idea of “Unity in Diversity”. Some signs of this include the use of the local vernacular to educate the young in rural areas, the celebration of state holidays according to local customs, and the rotation of the Office of President among minority representative.

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However, these policies were insignificant when compare to the opposing trend towards Burmanisation, in which there was blatant cultural nationalism asserting Burman culture at the expense of minority cultures. A key example of this would be the issue of Buddhism. 87% of the Burmese population were Buddhists, while the rest were made up of Christians, Muslims and animists. Prior to 1961, U Nu had passed the Buddha Sasana Act to give state support for the promotion of Buddhism, and also allowed for Buddhist instruction in state schools.

In 1961, in a bid to gain the support of the Buddhist majority, U Nu amended the constitution to declare Buddhism as the state religion. He realised that this was politically divisive and added another amendment to guarantee non-Buddhists freedom to worship and spread religion. This infuriated the Buddhist clergy, and led to Buddhist-Muslim clashes. This is one of the many example of how the government’s policies that were aimed at establishing harmonious societies had unintended ramifications, and were ultimately futile, since it led to the alienation of the ethnic minorities.

Another case of a failed attempt at creating a harmonious society was U Nu’s plan to turn Burma into a pyidawtha, or “land of happiness”, through economic reform, and the subsequent “Burmese Way to Socialism” under Ne Win. U Nu’s plans, which included development projects, failed miserably, while Ne Win nationalised all economic activity, and cut off Burma from the rest of the world. Both leaders also tried to unite the population against the Indians and Chinese, who were seen as enemies of the state because of their economic dominance.

Their expulsion, however, had disastrous effects as economic and technical expertise was lost, and this contributed to the failure of the Burmese economy. As a result, the goal of creating a “land of happiness” was never achieved, and the Burmese people continued to live in poverty, thereby causing more discontentment with the government, and diminishing the prospects of a harmonious society. This can be seen in the four major and 11 minor opposition groups faced by the government up to 1981.

In Indonesia, a system of accommodation was implemented in dealing with the indigenous minorities, was assimilation was carried out with respect to the Chinese minority. Examples of assimilation of the Chinese population include the closure of Chinese schools, quotas for state universities and banning of non-state Chinese newspapers. Despite these efforts by the government to appease the majority that was resentful of the Chinese, the social fabric of the nation was damaged in 1998 when economic failure led to anti-Chinese riots, causing Chinese-owned stores to be attacked and 1000 to be killed.

This reveals the fault lines of ethnic and class differences, showing that government policies had failed to genuinely create harmonious relations between the various groups of Indonesians, and that government efforts were ultimately futile. The policies of accommodation towards indigenous minorities also failed because they were unable to assuage the fears of the ethnic minorities. This was largely due to the long standing division in Indonesian society between the strict Muslims who agitated for a greater role for Islam in the country and those who wanted a secular state.

In Aceh, the Indonesian government’s response to the separatist movement was coercion, and the granting of greater autonomy later, but these moves still have not ended the many years of separatism in these various regions. In Malaysia, it is largely true that a harmonious society has been created successfully, but there have been some limitations to the extent of cohesiveness in the country. One might even assert that the country is still rather heavily segregated, and that there is little understanding and interaction between the different races.

This can be seen in the failure to achieve the ideal of “Bangsa Malaysia”, or “Malaysian nation”. This was an ideal envisaged by Prime Minister Mahathir in 1991, in which the Chinese and Indians would be co-partners with the Malays in a modern, developed and egalitarian Malaysia. Yet, bumiputra rights, which favour the Malays in the economic and social arena, are still a controversial issue that are resented by some segments of the population.

The segmentation of the Malaysian society is also seen in the education system, where the government’s attempts encourage parents to send their children to national schools, Islamic schools and Independent Chinese schools are still more popular, thereby depriving young Malaysians of the chance to interact with their peers of other races. Even in Singapore, where the government has successfully created a harmonious society, there have been some minor sources of tension.

For example, the launch of the “Speak Mandarin Campaign” and Special Assistance Programme schools were aimed at making Chinese Singaporeans more rooted to their culture, but this aroused fears of Chinese chauvinism. Another example would be the disadvantage that many ethnic minorities face in seeking employments because of the many employers that require employees to speak Mandarin. The tension generated by these issues can be said to affect the harmony of Singapore’s society, albeit to a very small extent.

Despite the many failures, however, to say that the governments’ efforts to create harmonious societies have failed would be grossly misrepresenting the results of government efforts. After all, the territorial integrity of the various Southeast Asian states have been maintained, apart from the independence of Timor Leste from Indonesia. In countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, a significant level of harmony has been achieved over the years, even if this harmony is only on the surface, as in the case of Indonesia, between the Javanese Malays and the Chinese.

Even in Myanmar, some degree of stability has been achieved because of the ceasefires signed between the military government and the ethnic minorities. In present-day Myanmar, there is little harmony to speak about between the military government, which is largely influenced by the Burman majority, and the ethnic minorities. However, since the military junta (SLORC) seized power in 1988, it has signed peace treaties with the various ethnic groups, giving them more autonomy to run their territories in exchange for the cessation of violence.

While conflict still continues in the areas near the Thai borders, there has been a marked increase in the level of stability in the country. In Indonesia, the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, and culture continue to be social glue that help to maintain a semblance of harmony within the Indonesian society. For example, a 1995 survey revealed that 68% of Indonesians understood Bahasa Indonesia, and this meant that it could be used as a language of communication between the various ethnic groups, thereby forging better understanding.

Compulsory history lessons in schools also inculcated a common understanding of Indonesian culture in the young, thereby giving them a sense of belonging to the Indonesian nation, regardless of race or religion. Pancasila, the five-point ideology, was made deliberately vague in order to accommodate the interests of the ethnic minorities as well as the Javanese majority. For example, the point on “belief in God” did not specifically mention any religion, and implied that Indonesians had the freedom of religion.

It assured the ethnic minorities that there would be a place for them and their religion, and helped to ease their fears and insecurities of being marginalised and subjected to Javanese domination. The success of this can also be supported by the observation of President Abdurrahman Wahid, where many Christians and Muslims have allowed each other to use their parking space on their respective days of worship.

Hence, this shows that there is some harmony between Indonesians of diverse cultures and religion, and that the government’s efforts of integrating the Indonesian society through a common language and education has been successful to some extent. As for Malaysia, a Malaysian identity has been created over the years, and there is a sense of loyalty to the country by both Malays and non-Malays, according to the various surveys carried out.

While Malay privileges are enshrined in the Constitution, the legitimate interests of non-Malays are also recognised. The acknowledgement of the basic rights of the non-Malays can be seen in the national ideology, Rukunegara, where Malaysia’s secularism is asserted, while the principle of “Good Social Behaviour” also states specifically that no citizen should question the loyalty of a fellow citizen on the grounds that he belongs to another ethnic community.

These principles are seen as the government’s attempts to strike a balance between ensuring that Malays are given help to enhance their socio-economic position and protecting the rights of the ethnic minorities. This has been largely successful, considering that there has been no major racial riot since 1969 In Singapore, harmonious relations between the various racial and religious groups have been maintained successfully.

In some sense, the government’s efforts at integrating the entire society has resulted in the creation of a population that often places its national identity above its racial or religious identity. The government’s efforts at assuaging the fears of Chinese domination can be seen through the creation of the President’s Council for Minority Rights, which studies bills to ensure that they do not discriminate against any racial group, and the establishment of the Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), which ensure that a minimum number of ethnic minorities are elected to the Parliament.

The establishment of a national school system where students of from all races are educated, and the racial quotas in public housing estates have also resulted in much interaction between the various races, thereby strengthening Singapore’s social fabric successfully. Upon deeper analysis, however, it is not difficult to see that the premise that governments actively implemented policies to achieve national unity is untenable. While this is very true of countries like Singapore, the same can’t be said about the rest of the countries.

In countries such as Indonesia and Myanmar, governments imposed discriminatory policies of various degrees on ethnic minorities, yet they still expected them to respond positively to these policies which were ostensibly aimed at achieving national unity. Of course, one can see that lack of national unity in Southeast Asian states was not due to the lack of efficacy of government efforts, but the lack of sincere attempts by the government to integrate the minorities into the nation.

In Myanmar, then known as Burma, the Panglong Agreement signed under Aung San in 1947 gave rise to a loose federal union that would grant a high level of autonomy to ethnic minorities in the country. If the Agreement had been upheld by the subsequent governments, the country might have become very stable, and possibly rise to become one of Southeast Asia’s richest nations. However, the governments under U Nu and the subsequent military leaders implemented policies that gave rise to Burmanisation, and this would naturally arouse fears of Burman domination amongst the ethnic minorities, thereby leading to rebellions.

This was not helped by the move to centralise governance in the Burman-populated territories, as ethnic minorities feared that they would lose their autonomy. Hence, it can be said that the military governments failed to make concerted efforts to achieve harmony in the Burmese society, and so it was not that policies implemented failed, but that policies implemented failed to consider the interests of the ethnic minorities in the first place.

A similar situation can be seen in Indonesia, although to a smaller extent. The discriminatory policies by the government against the Chinese minority perpetuated the resentment of the Javanese majority against the economic domination by the Chinese, and this inevitably led to the anti-Chinese riots in 1998. This shows that the lack of genuine harmony between the various racial groups could be attributed to some degree to the policies of the government.

In conclusion, it can be said that the efforts by Southeast Asian governments to create harmonious societies were largely successful, especially in countries like Singapore and Malaysia where no major racial riots have broken out over the past few decades. Even in Indonesia and Myanmar, there is some degree of stability, though much of the problem lies in the lack of sincerity by the government’s part in implementing policies.


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