Principles of Democracy: Self-determination and Consent of the Governed

A common false dichotomy argues that there is a trade-off between self-determination for individuals and self-determination for the country as a whole. But these are not mutually exclusive—on the contrary, they are one and the same: Self-determination for the collective is achieved through seeking self-determination for each and every individual within the collective.

This article is part of our Principles of Democracy series. Read our introduction article to find out, “What is Southeast Asian Democracy?”

“Freedom and peace are interdependent. The right of self-determination must be enjoyed by all peoples, and freedom and independence must be granted, with the least possible delay, to those who are still dependent peoples.

“Indeed, all nations should have the right freely to choose their own political and economic systems and their own way of life, in conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Final Communiqué of the Asian-African Conference of Bandung (24 April 1955)

How do governments justify holding power? For most of human history, the person or group who was strongest or could command the most followers held power, e.g. the Roman Empire. In more recent human history, leaders introduced a divine right to rule, e.g., the Chinese Empire or the Holy Roman Empire. But the American and French revolutions introduced a new idea: that we the people should govern ourselves, by electing governments and delegating power to them to govern on our behalf.

This is the beginning of the modern idea of self-determination. In the 20th century, it was rapidly embraced by many colonies struggling to be free. Today, every Southeast Asian country asserts the right to self-determination, and every one of its governments—even the monarchies—claims to govern on behalf of the people.

Self-determination is thus at the heart of democracy: the right of each and every individual to govern themselves and to have the freedom to determine their own future, without external compulsion. In theory, it is straightforward: all of us have the right to live our own lives as we wish, as long as we don’t hurt anyone else. But it is that final clause—“without external compulsion”—that makes this perhaps the most difficult of all the principles of democracy to achieve. Almost no individual lives alone. We are all part of families, communities, and societies. Consequently, every action that we take to pursue our self-determination may potentially impinge on another person’s freedom to pursue their self-determination.

At the same time, for governments to be able to govern, each person necessarily has to freely consent to give up some of their self-determination in exchange for the collective good. But this pooling of sovereignty has often been abused by authoritarian Southeast Asian governments who assert that self-determination for the country or of a “nation” as a whole as being more important than self-determination for individuals. This false dichotomy argues that there is a trade-off between self-determination for individuals and self-determination for the country as a whole, and is often used to justify impinging on the right of individual self-determination.

This article, however, argues that these are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are one and the same. Self-determination for the collective is achieved through seeking self-determination for each and every individual within the collective. More pertinent questions include: How much self-determination should individuals give up to the government? Where do we draw the line to prevent governments from abusing their power over people? What happens when governments abuse that power and try to justify it on the basis of individual sacrifice for the collective good? How do citizens then withdraw their consent from that government? Indeed, given the prevalence of the use of the “nation/society” vs “individual” dichotomy to justify oppression, one may reasonably take a step further and ask: is the nation-state paradigm compatible with democracy? 

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

On that note, New Naratif is excited to be hosting a series of events revolving around the Principles of Democracy Series, starting with Self-determination and Consent of the Governed! We’ll have Wildan Sena Utama as our expert for the event and a fun simulation activity for you to really sink your teeth into what the Principles of Democracy are really about! To get your tickets, check out our event page here!

Self-Determination

From the beginning, Southeast Asian anti-colonial movements sought to define themselves as a nation distinct from European colonisers as a way to assert self-determination. José Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere (1887), for example, painted a grim picture of the religious, social, political, and racial struggles faced by the Filipino people and exposed the abuses of the Spanish friars and the government. Through this, it contributed to the conceptualising of a Filipino national consciousness, by helping to articulate a Filipino identity that was independent of the Spanish. In the Dutch East Indies, Oemar Said Tjokroaminoto played a pivotal role in the development of Indonesian nationalism through his teachings and political activism. Tjokroaminoto emphasised the need for national unity among the diverse ethnic and religious groups in the archipelago, which significantly contributed to the rise of nationalism in Indonesia, and he articulated a vision of an independent Indonesia based on democratic principles and social justice, which would respect and uphold Islamic values. In these cases, and many others, what was emphasised was a distinct identity for the indigenous people of the colony against European colonisers. 

The waves of nationalism and self-determination that swept the world after the First World War would catalyse these ideas and have a large and lasting impact on Southeast Asian identity and politics. Woodrow Wilson’s wartime rhetoric introduced the principles of self-determination and equality into nationalist discourses around the world. The subsequent betrayal of these principles in the 1919 Paris Peace Agreement sparked widespread anger, leading to the May 4th Movement in China, which inspired similar anti-colonial protests in Southeast Asian cities. Likewise, news of revolutions in Turkey, Ireland, Mexico, and Russia, among others, spread quickly around the world and inspired people in Southeast Asia to imagine themselves as a free people. 

This idea of self-determination expanded on these early nationalist ideas by providing an ideological framework for anti-colonial activists across the colonised world to express their aspirations. Colonialism was not merely a lack of political independence. Activists were able to talk about colonialism, discrimination, and oppression in a more systematic way, understanding that it also referred to a lack of ability to determine their economic and sociocultural lives. This then enabled the connection of a wide range of grievances to the fundamental inequities of the colonial system.

Many argued that achieving nationalist aspirations required the rewriting of artificial colonial boundaries to better reflect national identities. Around the world, pan-African, pan-Arab, and pan-Asian ideas and organisations also gained strength in the interwar years. From the 1930s, various voices proposed a union of Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines (referred to as “Malaya Irredenta” and later “Maphilindo”) as a way of reuniting the “Malay race” which had been divided into multiple colonial territories. In the Philippines, this was presented as the logical conclusion of achieving Rizal’s vision of freedom and reunification for all of the Malay peoples. Likewise, the idea of a unification of French Indochina was debated. The Vietnamese Communist Party changed its name to the Indochinese Community Party in 1930 as a reflection of the historical relationship between Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and the need for a union of three countries to overthrow the French colonial regime in Indochina. Later, Thailand’s government under Pridi Banomyong (the founder of the Free Thai anti-Japanese resistance movement) invoked the principle of national self-determination to demand independence for the Indochina colonies. Aside from assisting in neighbouring countries’ anti-colonialism efforts such as the Vietminh, Lao Issara, and Khmer Issara liberation movements, in 1947, Pridi proposed the idea of concocting a new post-colonial Indochinese regional order, underpinned by the idea of a common Indochinese nation.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

This concept of self-determination was also co-opted by new imperialists: when Japan invaded Southeast Asia, it presented itself as a fellow Asian country liberating Southeast Asia from European empires, thus asserting both pan-Asian nationalism as well as self-determination for the people of Southeast Asia. In many Southeast Asian territories, enthusiasm for Japanese liberation rapidly cooled when the Japanese also behaved like imperialist oppressors. 

Overall, during the colonial era and the Second World War, articulating and fighting for self-determination was relatively straightforward as there was a clear distinction between foreign colonialism and local Southeast Asian aspirations. The oppressor could be easily and clearly defined, and in the face of colonial violence, it was easy to forge a consensus to oppose it. Likewise, the ultimate goal of self-determination was easily defined: political independence for Southeast Asian territories.

However, what can also be discerned is disagreement about what comes after: What would independent nations look like? What borders would they have? Who comprises the nation? These disagreements would quickly resurface once political independence became inevitable. 

The Challenge of Self-Determination

In Southeast Asia, the term “self-determination” exploded into widespread use due to the Asian-African Conference, held in Bandung in April 1955. It stated that ​“the right of self-determination must be enjoyed by all peoples” and asserted the right of nations to “freely choose their own political and economic systems and their own way of life”. Where the language had previously been dominated by intellectuals and activists, it became common currency for the people of Southeast Asia in this period.

As Southeast Asian colonies approached independence, the problem of how exactly to achieve self-determination quickly arose. Everyone agreed the first step was ending colonialism. But what would replace it? Everyone agreed that the people of a country should determine their own identity and future—but who are “the people”, who decides, how do they decide, and what should that identity and future be?

What self-determination meant, and what it entailed, was complicated and highly contested. Did self-determination merely mean political independence, or did it also mean an end to colonialism and the achievement of sovereignty in all aspects, including socioeconomic and cultural independence? Did self-determination mean for the country as a whole, or did it mean for every group and/or individual within the country? Self-determination could only be achieved via a democratically elected and representative government—but how to achieve this, on what timeline, and what the constitutional structures remained unresolved questions.

Answering them demonstrates both the centrality and complexity of self-determination in the debates around democracy. 

If self-determination is meant for the country as a whole, this could justify a locally-elected government imposing its vision of society upon the people in the country in order to bridge the divides within society. But it could also mean condemning minorities within the country to the tyranny of the majority—i.e., colonialism in a new guise. 

On the other hand, if self-determination is not achieved unless every person and group within the country has their rights protected, then what happens when self-determination for one group potentially clashes with self-determination for another? 

Collective Self-Determination: The Problem of the “Nation” and the “State”

Complicating this notion is the idea of the nation-state. Dividing the world into “people like us” and “people not like us” is part of the human condition, and from this arises the idea of the nation (at its most basic, a group that we belong to). The concept of the nation and nationalism is complex, ever-evolving, and dates back to the beginnings of humanity. But the popular concept of the nation-state is far more recent. It arose out of the wreckage of the First World War as the great European land empires—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman—were torn apart. This idea was powerfully liberating: that each “nation” should govern itself by having its own state was seductive and subversive, and presumed to be, by default, more democratic. It took a powerful hold on the political imaginations of peoples around the world, and today it is the default mode of organising our world and asserting self-determination. “Nation” and “state” (or “country”) have become synonymous even though they are very different things. Today, when a group of people wish to split off into a separate political unit for self-determination, they always assert that they are a different nation from the current group: the Timorese are not Indonesian; the Eritreans are not Ethiopian; the Catalans are not Spanish; the Patani are not Thai; the Bangsamoro are not Filipino. This belief in the nation has driven the great waves of 20th-century decolonisation. The assertion that we are a nation, and therefore deserve our own state, has taken the United Nations from 51 member states at its founding to 193 today. It has literally reshaped the entire geopolitical order, and today, it is hard to imagine the world being organised in any other way. 

When it comes to self-determination and democracy, however, this concept complicates issues. The fundamental problem is that nations are imagined. A nation does not exist in and of itself. It is an imagined community created from the belief that its members are part of that community. There is no quantifiable basis for a nation, and it often arises purely from historical coincidence. For the most part, most members of a nation remain strangers to each other and will likely never meet. There is no objective way to prove that you are part or not part of a nation. Different members of a nation can have different definitions of the nation; people can be included or excluded in a nation against their will; nations can arise, have a massive impact on history, and then disappear into irrelevance (e.g. the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons) or be revived after a long period of irrelevance (e.g. the Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks). Nations may appear mutually exclusive until one realises that there are many people who claim membership in both (e.g. Chinese or Indian Jews). Ultimately, nations exist only because people believe that they exist.

It is thus impossible for every “nation” to neatly map onto every “state” and vice versa. Every state in the world, no matter how big or small, has people who do not believe that they belong to the “nation” that that state purports to represent. Conversely, many states that arose out of decolonisation suddenly found that they had to invent new “nations” to justify their existence. This was particularly acute in Southeast Asia as the borders of Southeast Asian states were negotiated and constructed by European colonial powers with little respect for local communities. Southeast Asian governments rushed to build “nations” to match their established boundaries, and to this day zealously protect and police these boundaries, both individually and collectively via ASEAN, for fear of undermining the basis for their own rule over territory.

This has led to very jarring changes in direction. Singapore, for example, spent years campaigning for decolonisation via reunification with the rest of Malaya on the basis that Singapore was part of the Malayan nation. After Singapore became independent from the British Empire via reunification with not just Malaya, but also the hitherto separate states of Sarawak and North Borneo (to form the new country of Malaysia), Singapore’s government vociferously disagreed with the government in Kuala Lumpur as to the meaning and content of “Malay(si)an” identity, and it subsequently left Malaysia. Following this, it had to construct and assert an identity distinct from the Malay(si)an identity. 

Over time, autocrats quickly realised that, if national identities are constructed, then monopolising control of the definition of the nation allowed them to attack their enemies (or create new convenient enemies) by defining their enemies as not being part of the nation. This was then a short step to declaring their enemies as being against the nation, and from there another short step to saying that they are a threat to the nation-state, which in turn justified acting with extreme prejudice against all enemies, real or perceived.

Thus, the nation-state ideal both powered the breakup of empires and the liberation of colonies which formed new states throughout the 20th century, and produced the mass exclusion of those who did not fit the definition of the nation, leading to genocide and refugees. Examples today include the Rohingya, Uighurs, Tibetans, Papuans, Patani Malays, and many others. What nation do they belong to? What state do they belong to? What happens if their self-definition of their own identity is different from the state government’s definition? What happens if your definition of your own identity is different from the government’s? Around Southeast Asia, we often see people who disagree with the government being tarred as anti-national and as traitors on the most spurious grounds, and people who do not fit with the government’s definition of identity as being discriminated against, excluded, or even subject to genocide.

This is the Janus-faced nature of the nation-state paradigm. It is simultaneously powerfully liberating and formidably oppressing. It defines our world today.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Consent of the Governed

A fundamental part of self-determination is that a government exists to secure the rights of the people and must be based on the consent of the governed. A government functions only because people chose voluntarily to give up some self-determination to enable the government to govern. In Southeast Asia, governments generally accept that their legitimacy stems from consent granted by the people, and is usually given in the form of an electoral mandate. However, elections in Southeast Asia are often unfree and unfair as a way of manufacturing consent without actually being given one.

Before the Consent of the Governed

For most of recorded history, people lived under different types of dictatorships, usually a form of autocracy—the rule of a single leader exercising unlimited power. Sometimes, the ruler was the best warrior, able to seize power over a group or nation (such as Genghis Khan in 13th-century Asia). Such leaders often founded hereditary monarchies, the most common form of autocracy. In most cases, the monarch was all-powerful, claiming their position by “divine right” (as in Europe) or by “the mandate of heaven” (as in China) or simply by being the strongest person with the most followers and hence able to impose their will upon others (as often with the indigenous rulers of Southeast Asia). The ruler was sovereign and the supreme authority. The people were not citizens but subjects. They never consented to be governed, yet owed their total obedience and loyalty to the ruler. Disobedience was punished, often by pain or death. In some countries, kings or emperors agreed to limit their powers in response to the demands of landowners and noblemen who had gained substantial wealth, establishing a system of consent by the aristocracy. England’s Magna Carta (Great Charter) of 1215 is among the most famous agreements limiting the powers of a king. It guaranteed that the king and his successors would not violate the acknowledged rights and privileges of the aristocracy, clergy, and landed gentry.

But even when its powers were limited, monarchy meant arbitrary and unrepresentative rule for most subjects, locking them into a life of servitude. The idea that the people were themselves sovereign was—and in many places remains—revolutionary.

Why Consent is Needed

In Southeast Asia, most governments accept to a greater or lesser degree that they govern on behalf of the people. This was one of the key central tenets of independence movements: they did not consent to being governed by colonial governments, and thus the colonial governments were illegitimate. In many colonies, it was a moral duty to resist, fight to overthrow, and even take up arms against the illegitimate colonial government.

In the Philippines, for instance, the Sakdal Movement emerged in 1930 to demand full independence from the United States—which had cemented its rule through Manuel L. Quezon’s regime—as the people had not consented to “see[ing] our so-called leaders growing fat and rich on money massed from taxing the poor”. In the 1940s, Laos and Vietnam respectively saw the mobilisation of their people through the Lao Issara and Việt Minh movements to fight against occupying Japanese forces and France’s unanimous decision to sustain the two territories’ status as its colonies in French Indochina, which the people had not consented to. In Malaya in the 1950s, resistance to the involvement of Malaya in Cold War conflicts and compulsory military service centred on the lack of consent in these decisions: ‘Our young men are being conscripted; our land is being turned into a military base. Our country is to fight in wars over whose making it will not have any say. …How does it become ‘National Service’ for a colonial people to be trained to fight wars in the making of which they have no part—no choice of their foes or allies… Though we are not fit to rule ourselves, we are not unfit to die for other people’s interests.’

Without such consent, it was argued, colonial governments had no right to govern, least of all the right to use violence against the people, to detain and lock up dissidents, or to speak on behalf of the colonised.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

How Consent is Achieved

Consent—for example, in the form of the adoption of a new constitution or the formation of a new state—is usually achieved through direct democracy such as a referendum or plebiscite. Examples include Timor-Leste’s referendum for independence in 1999, or Singapore’s referendum to join Malaysia in 1962 (although the latter was highly controversial, as it only contained three ways to vote “yes” and no way to vote “no”). In this regard, one important effect of the Bandung Conference was not so much the text of the Final Communiqué, but the democratic process by which representatives of the newly emerging African and Asian countries present in Indonesia in 1955 came to a consensus on norms and ideals.

Consent may also be achieved through elected representative institutions, such as an existing legislature or a special constitutional assembly. In some cases, the establishment of a new governmental system requires a “supermajority,” from three-fifths to three-quarters, to convey overwhelming popular assent, but often a simple majority suffices. Many countries have used simple popular majorities in national referenda to establish both national and supranational structures. 

Whether these mechanisms are sufficient to establish consent can be debated, but what remains fixed is the principle that the people are sovereign, must provide their fundamental consent to be governed, and may withdraw their consent. Again and again, successful politicians declare that their election victory means a mandate from the people to govern on their behalf. “Mandat rakyat jauh di atas mandat parpol,” declared former Indonesian President BJ Habibie (“The mandate of the people is far above the mandate of political parties”). 

This principle is observed even in the breach. In Thailand, there have been at least 12 military coups since 1932, all ostensibly on behalf of the people of Thailand. At the same time, pro-military right-wing parties have never managed to win an election outright. Consequently, there have been over 20 different constitutions, partly to try and solve the problem of a lack of consent for military (or military-influenced) government by manufacturing a set of rules that allow the government to claim that they have the consent and mandate from the people. It would, obviously, be easier to dispense with this pretence and govern directly, but so deeply is this principle of consent of the governed entrenched that repeated military leaders have kept up this pretence. In 2023, voters overwhelmingly rejected military rule, electing reformist anti-military parties. However, the current constitution entrenches military influence over politics and it remains uncertain as to whether the reformist parties will be permitted to form the government.

When Consent is Seized

At the same time, people do not like losing power. Even in the most advanced democracies, governments sometimes seek to avoid losing their right to govern. Towards the other end of the spectrum, authoritarian regimes routinely deny freedom to the majority of people, exercise power arbitrarily, and act ruthlessly to keep themselves in power.

These regimes take various forms, including single-party rule (Vietnam, People’s Republic of China), monarchy (Brunei, Morocco, Saudi Arabia), autocracy (Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan), theocracy (such as the Islamic Republic of Iran), and military rule (Myanmar, Nicaragua, and Guatemala). 

In Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is one of the world’s last absolute monarchs and has overseen systemic discrimination against LGBTQ+ people (including making gay sex punishable by death), women, and religious minorities; severe restrictions on basic freedoms and human rights; the abuse of migrant workers; and deep-seated corruption in his government, including the lavish and excessive lifestyles, misuse of state resources, and other forms of corruption and extravagance from members of the royal family. The Legislative Council, the national legislature of Brunei, is supposed to be partly elected, but after a left-wing anti-monarchy party won all 10 of the council’s elected seats in 1962, the results were invalidated and no new election has been held since. It is worth noting, however, that on paper, the Council still is supposed to have 15 elected seats. Even in the absolute monarchy of Brunei, the right of the people to consent remains entrenched in the constitution.

Other authoritarian governments have seized power by citing the need to safeguard the integrity of the state against supposed external threats or to maintain political stability against unruly elements in society. This includes the New Order government of Suharto, which seized power in 1965 with a massacre of between 500,000 to one million Indonesians and the overthrow of the previous government, or Marcos’s declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines in 1972 in response to supposed “communist” and “sectarian” threats. Often they justify their authoritarianism as being necessary to protect the economic and social rights of the population or portray themselves as the genuine representatives of “the people” or “nation”. Such is the case in Laos, where article 3 of the constitution states, “The rights of the multi-ethnic people to be masters of the country are exercised and ensured through the functioning of the political system with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party as its leading nucleus,” but does not actually let the people consent to this arrangement. What both types of regimes generally achieve is oppression and poverty, whether Marcos’ bankrupting and plunder of the Philippines until his overthrow in 1986, the Suharto government collapsing after the Asian financial crisis of 1998, or the general poverty and impoverishment of the Lao people. Often such arbitrary rule has led to famine, war, and even genocide, such as under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975-79.

Finally, consent can be seized through manipulation of the mechanisms through which consent is given, alongside other tactics that incentivise voting for the authoritarian party or punish voting against it. In Singapore and Cambodia, constitutions are written to favour authoritarian governments and elections are neither free nor fair. Other countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, have freer and fairer electoral systems but perpetuate deep structural flaws, such as socialist or workers’ parties being systemically disadvantaged. Also, just as the European empires were democratic at home and oppressive abroad, so too many modern countries have democratic features but rule over oppressive colonies (e.g. Indonesia and West Papua, or Thailand and Patani Darussalam).

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

The Right to Rebellion

Implied in the principle of consent of the governed is the right to withdraw that consent. Naturally, the right of people to withdraw consent from a government must be balanced against withdrawing consent on a whim. Just as consent should only be given through a deliberative and consultative process, consent should also only be withdrawn through consultation and deliberation. For most democracies, as it is accepted in most Southeast Asian countries, a vote is the main vehicle for renewing or withdrawing the consent of the governed. This can be an election, a referendum, or some other plebiscite. Each vote is an opportunity for the people to change their leaders and the policies of the state. When a particular government loses the people’s confidence, they have the right to replace it. The legislature may pass laws to reform the system within the bounds of the constitution; if laws are insufficient, the people and their representatives can choose to modify or replace the constitution itself.

If people are unable to do so peacefully, then they may overthrow a tyrannical, arbitrary, incompetent, abusive, or unrepresentative regime. This is the right that colonial territories have asserted over the centuries against colonial rule, from the thirteen American states invoked against King George III in 1776 to Latin American states throughout the 19th century to European states after the First World War to the great wave of African and Asian decolonisation after the Second World War, including the Filipinos against the Spanish, the Vietnamese against the French, the Malayan National Liberation Army against the British, and the Indonesians against the Dutch.

But this principle is not a general right of rebellion or revolution. The cause of rebellion—or the withdrawal of consent—must rest on the violation of the natural rights of citizens, i.e. on the establishment of tyranny. During the colonial period, as noted above, where the use of violence against the colonised population was routine, a violent response was easier to provoke. Today, violent rebellion has come to be seen as a last resort, even in the face of human rights abuses from governments. In most modern cases of the overthrow of a dictatorship, peaceful protest and civil resistance have been a more successful form of rebellion than violence, especially for the purpose of establishing a democracy based on the consent of the governed. In Indonesia, for example, the downfall of Suharto’s dictatorship in 1998 was notably underpinned by a series of nonviolent protests and occupations that were initiated by students across the nation, which later garnered the support of various segments of society such as workers, housewives, non-governmental organisations, religious leaders, retired generals, and prominent political leaders. Similarly, in the Philippines, thousands were able to topple President Ferdinand Marcos’ regime in 1986 through large-scale peaceful demonstrations, general strikes, and the boycott of pro-Marcos businesses, establishments, and media. In both cases, the authoritarian governments used violence, including extrajudicial killings, torture, kidnapping and disappearing, and incarceration of opponents and activists, but their opponents were far more restrained.

Due to its nonviolent nature, civil resistance often embodies the appeal needed to get as many constituents as possible to join the cause—as well as to effectively fraternise with opposition forces without further escalating the conflict—which is critical in disintegrating the various pillars of support needed to maintain the incumbent regime’s position of power. Authoritarian leaders still rule with the help of skills and services provided by the people through different organisations and institutions, among them being civil servants, the police, labour groups, business groups, and so forth. Other than that, the ofttimes decentralised structure and inclusive makeup of civil resistance are capable of functioning as a sound foundation for the country’s reconfiguration of power and politics in its democratic transition and consolidation period. 

Minorities Withdrawing Consent

There is an issue particularly crucial to Southeast Asia: What happens when a subsection of the people—e.g. a subjugated minority—asserts the right to withdraw its consent to be governed by the will of the majority? This has occurred in a number of places where ethnic or religious minorities desire independence from dominant and usually oppressive ethnic or religious majorities. In general, the world has recognised the right of self-determination for oppressed peoples to form their own self-governing regions or independent states, as was the case in Timor-Leste. In Aceh, Bangsamoro, and the minority areas of Myanmar, minorities have agreed to increased autonomy without full independence. But for some minorities seeking independence or autonomy, the world has been less supportive of the assertion of the right of self-determination and has failed to prevent the suppression of rebellions, even when the government has resorted to mass killings or genocide. This has been the case in Papua, which (not coincidentally) contains some of the largest copper, gold, and silver deposits in the world.

For democracy to exist, the desires of minorities for equal and fair treatment have to be accommodated and taken seriously. The challenges faced by minorities will be dealt with in-depth in our upcoming explainer on Majority Rule, Minority Rights. However, what is important to the discussion on self-determination is that the appeals by minorities for equal and fair treatment are often instead framed in the flawed nation-state paradigm, where they are portrayed as being anti-national or traitors, thus justifying further or increased discrimination against them. What is (often deliberately) overlooked is that these minorities ask to leave because they feel their rights are not respected within the borders of the current state. These demands to leave are usually symptomatic of a lack of democracy. The act of leaving is severely disruptive to all parties, and is often the last resort. However, instead of addressing the lack of rights for the minorities, they are treated as anti-nationalist traitors. But the inevitable and logical conclusion of framing conflicts using a nation-state framework is that minorities who are treated badly by the state will then be compelled to argue for a separate state to accommodate their own self-determination, rather than seek to be accommodated within the current country.

This usually does not end well. The recent history of Asia, where colonies were partitioned into new countries to accommodate the aspirations of a religious or ethnic minority, shows that partition invariably creates new oppression within the newly created states, as those states will have their own minorities who now become oppressed within the new ethnic- or religious-nationalist states. Such was the case in Israel/Palestine, India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, or Malaya/Singapore. In Timor-Leste, a genuine vote for independence was met with violence from pro-Indonesian militia groups. 

The demands of minorities for equal and fair treatment should thus be taken on their own terms, focusing on self-determination and rights, rather than framed within the paradigm of the nation-state. We return to the question asked above in the introduction: is the nation-state paradigm compatible with democracy? The logical consequence of the nation-state paradigm is a race to the bottom. If every act of decolonisation creates new independence, we are all just going to keep demanding smaller and smaller nation-states till we are isolated and divided in mutual antipathy. Democracy for the nation should be achieved by seeking self-determination for each member, not the other way around.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Case Study: Singapore before and during Malaysia, 1955-65

In Singapore, the Chinese-speaking demographic experienced extensive language and racial discrimination under the colonial government. Their struggle for self-determination naturally extended to official equality for their language and culture. However, for other linguistic communities such as the Malays and Indians, the numerical and economic strength of the Chinese community led to fears that giving Chinese languages equality would lead automatically to dominance, and therefore self-determination for these other linguistic groups meant that their languages and cultures had to be given an advantage in order to achieve an equal footing (a concept later known as “affirmative action”). Yet, as Malaysia has subsequently shown, while short-term affirmative actions would salve immediate pain, they would also emphasise differences, introduce new grievances, and entrench racial division. Malaysia’s consociational system has not just entrenched racial divides but created new elites who are heavily invested in the system, making bridging the deep divides far more difficult.

This central conundrum also applied to Singapore’s relationship with, and place in, Malaya as a whole, and consequently, its Malayan identity. Singapore had been partitioned from the rest of Malaya in 1946 by the British. As part of their independence, Singaporeans sought reunification with the rest of Malaya. In such a scenario, Singapore would be a significant minority within Malaya, but at the same time, by far the wealthiest and most populous state. Would Malayan self-determination mean equality for Singapore with all the other states, or disadvantage for Singapore to prevent its dominance over the other states? Conversely, Singapore’s demography was significantly different from the former Federated and Unfederated states of Malaya. It had more Chinese, more Chinese-speaking, and more urban working poor. Would giving Singapore’s people self-determination within Malaya mean protecting their rights on the basis of equality, giving them an advantage based upon the sociocultural and economic oppression they experienced under colonialism, or suppressing their rights vis-à-vis other numerically and/or economically inferior groups for the sake of Malayan unity?

In Singapore, opposition leader Lim Chin Siong referenced the Bandung communique in his inaugural speech in the Legislative Assembly on 27 April 1955—just three days after the communique was issued. The youngest Assemblyman ever elected, he was just 22 years old, but he drew upon the Bandung communique to powerfully articulate the fundamental challenge facing Singapore: “the right of every community to develop its own language and culture must be respected,” and reminded the Assembly that “the real rulers are not present in this Assembly. They are thousands of miles away in the Colonial Office in London.” Democratic policy, he emphasised, was policy formulated by a government responsible to, and representative of, its people.

Lim Chin Siong’s solution to bridging these differences was dialogue and discussion. In the Legislative Assembly, he focused on fighting for the right of individuals for self-determination. But the bulk of his work was as an organiser. He focused on organising people into associations, where people of common interests could meet to resolve their issues. These associations were created by open community meetings of interested parties, had popularly elected leadership, and sought to reach decisions through debate and consensus. They would then seek to have their views represented in the Legislative Assembly and policymaking. The associations would also group into solidarity networks for collective support and action. Through this, Lim aimed to foster a process of open debate and discussion over all the major issues that could potentially fracture Singapore society, thereby enabling people to negotiate their own self-determination directly.

He was opposed by leaders of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP). The PAP, led by Lee Kuan Yew, instead sought to impose a specific view of the nation on people. They believed in this for a variety of reasons, including impatience with a slow process of reconciliation, a lack of faith that dialogue could succeed, fear that such a process would still lead to tyranny by the Chinese-speaking majority, and personal ambition. Lim was arrested in 1963, detained without trial, and tortured, his political career over. In pursuit of social stability, the PAP created hard boundaries around racial categories (“Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other”), suppressed alternative views, and sought stability via stasis, i.e. by not allowing society to evolve.

Ironically, Singapore’s People’s Action Party then sought to have it both ways, by fighting for the imposition of its own vision of identity upon the country as a whole in Singapore while simultaneously fighting for the rights of minority communities to be treated equally in Malaysia. By 1965, as he manoeuvred for the PAP to become part of the governing coalition in Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew argued for a “Malaysian Malaysia”, “a Malaysia in which all Malaysians regardless of race, language, religion, share equally in the opportunities of life.”

This deep contradiction was impossible to resolve and became a major contributing factor to the PAP leadership’s eventual decision to secretly separate from Malaysia in 1965. Arguing that it was a party representing a minority, the PAP leaders invoked Singapore’s right to withdraw consent from the Kuala Lumpur government and form a separate state. Following separation, it then had to justify its new status by manufacturing a nation to go along with the new state. 

The PAP today continues to define self-determination as primarily one of the nation above the individual, but this has consequently justified the continued discrimination against minorities who are forced to conform to a very strict definition of national identity. Self-determination continues to elude the minorities of Singapore today. The PAP’s decision to suppress differences has only led to these differences being reinforced, with long-standing grievances around minority discrimination remaining unresolved.

Conclusion

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Self-Determination, the Nation-State, and Democracy

Self-determination is the least controversial of the principles of democracy, in that every Southeast Asian government emphasises self-determination as a fundamental justification for its rule. But how we define self-determination may well be the most controversial of the principles of democracy.

No sooner did Southeast Asian countries become independent than did the new leaders seek to impose their definition of the “nation” on all the people in the country. This simultaneously included many who did not see themselves as part of this new identity and excluded others who believed they belonged. Leaders did this by arguing for self-determination for the collective nation-state rather than for individual people. The post-war history of Southeast Asia, and indeed of the broader world since the beginning of the 20th century, shows that the idea of collective national self-determination has often been abused, resulting in the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire (1915), the genocide of Jews in Europe by the Nazis (1939-45), the deaths and displacement of millions in the Indian Partition (1947), and, closer to home, genocides in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge (1975-79), the genocide of Timorese by the Indonesian New Order government (1974-99), and the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya by the Myanmar military junta; as well as the consequent creation of massive waves of refugees and displaced populations.

Any attempt to include or exclude people against their will into or from a nation is an act of violence against their individual right to self-determination. The artificiality of state borders, the impossibility of a nation-state to contain only people who unanimously identify as a specific nation, the imagined construction of identities, and the evolution of people’s identities over time means that self-determination on a national level inevitably leads to the violation of self-determination on an individual level. 

The only possible way forward, therefore, is to approach self-determination on an individual level.  To protect individuals, people must be able to freely opt into (and likewise out of) collective self-determination. In other words, individual self-determination is not a subset of collective self-determination but must be achieved as a necessary condition before collective self-determination. The aspiration for a country-level or  national self-determination cannot exist without the equally important aspiration for every single individual within that country or nation to have individual self-determination. 

To achieve this requires, at minimum, the ability of every person to speak for themselves and to be heard. It goes hand in hand with the protection of minorities, the protection of human rights, and the fundamental freedoms outlined elsewhere in these principles. It requires us to push back against narrow exclusionary views of the nation and to incorporate ideals of fairness and justice and respect for the individual into the conception of the nation. It requires citizens to have the right to withdraw their consent from governments which employ toxic nation-state nationalism in pursuit of their goals. 

One possibility is the re-imagination of the nation as an inclusive, opt-in, civic identity based on human rights rather than a shared religious or ethnic identity. But it is also fair to ask if we can ever truly escape attempts to manipulate nationalism as long as we continue organising ourselves as nation-states. Thus, self-determination and democracy require us to reconsider the concept of the nation-state itself and imagine better ways of organising ourselves politically into units that protect all individuals within it and treat all individuals with dignity and respect.

Perhaps a better alternative to achieve self-determination may be to decouple the nation from the state and accept that the nation-state has had its moment in history. But for a state to be democratic, it needs to give self-determination to every individual within it regardless of nationality.

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