Monday, April 13, 2009

Nationalism, Protectionism

On my recent trip home to Singapore, I got into a discussion about "buying local". Protectionism always raises its head in tough economic times; it is natural for people to want to protect their jobs and their families. Today's New York Times had a good article Tech Recruiting Clashes With Immigration Rules on the very topic.

Anyway, this was the email I received from a fellow Singaporean:

"Should we buy local, as much as we can? It seems like the ethical thing to do. Governments are certainly constrained by free trade agreements and whatnot, but certainly the effect that Obama has created by putting it out there in the first place has made it more of a possibility for the average citizen to pursue, even if his administration naturally is unable to. So: should we buy local? Would like to hear your thoughts on this."

I found this question relevant to one I get asked all the time, especially by the Singapore media: why do I help Khmers and not Singaporeans? Here for example is the question from the reporter (I suspect at the behest of her editor) who did the story on Bloom for the national daily, The Straits Times:

"And also was one of the reasons you decided to be based overseas was because you felt Cambodians need more help? There are Singaporean women here who are also single mothers and have no work. Did you feel that Singaporeans don't need help or didn't need as much as Cambodians do?"

Here is my response:

"Let's put it this way: the children of single mothers in Singapore are not likely to be sold as domestic or sex slaves.

But more importantly, I disagree with nationalism if it is divisive. I much prefer to think of people, of whatever nationality, as human beings. You have to understand that national boundaries are accidents of history, arbitrary--witness India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, which were divided by the British. It is not like national boundaries come drawn into the earth."

I find the question strange, and I have only ever been asked this by Singaporeans. I wonder if this is because other nationalities are more used to their citizens contributing overseas. [Not true: An aussie friend tells me she gets the same question by fellow Aussies--nationalistic people are everywhere!] Or is it because only Singaporeans feel they have a right to ask me this? I have to say this: although I was born in Singapore, I don't feel strongly "rah-rah Singapore". And I don't feel "rah-rah the Chinese" just because I was born ethnic Chinese either.

I don't know if it is just my generation (educated in Western thinking, exposed to Sesami Street as a kid, the Cosby Show, 'Allo, Allo etc etc) or the way I developed as a person (I am sometimes called a "banana", i.e., yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I was told by some white South Africans that Africans like me are called coconuts: brown on the outside, white inside). I find it hard to understand people who say we have to do this and that just so we will preserve our heritage and culture. I mean seriously, why would you want to preserve a culture just because you were born into it?

What if your culture is rubbish? Like the practice of burning widows on her dead husband's pyre, a custom so abhorrent, Chhun Hy, one of our Cambodian workers, won't even believe it. Or praying to numerous altars and gods in order to get rich? It is more rational to pick and choose things that make sense to you. So for me, I reject Chinese religion, but I find it hard to disassociate myself from thoughts of filial piety because they makes sense to me.

I'm now thinking of the mainland Chinese tourists I meet. What puzzles me is how patriotic and nationalistic the Chinese are. How proud they are to be Chinese, how proud they are of China. The younger Chinese have a confidence I recognise in young Americans when I was backpacking in Europe over a decade ago. That confidence comes from being told "You come from the greatest country in the world."

More on nationalism, from wikipedia, if you are interested:
Nationalism refers to an ideology, a sentiment, a form of culture, or a social movement that focuses on the nation. While there is significant debate over the historical origins of nations, nearly all specialists accept that nationalism, at least as an ideology and social movement, is a modern phenomenon originating in Europe. Precisely where and when it emerged is difficult to determine, but its development is closely related to that of the modern state and the push for popular sovereignty that came to a head with the French Revolution in the late 18th century. Since that time, nationalism has become one of the most significant political and social forces in history, perhaps most notably as a major influence or cause of World War I and especially World War II due to the rise of fascism, a radical and authoritarian nationalist ideology.

As an ideology, nationalism holds that 'the people' in the doctrine of popular sovereignty is the nation, and that as a result only nation-states founded on the principle of national self-determination are legitimate. Since most states are multinational, or at least home to more than one group claiming national status. In many cases nationalist pursuit of self-determination has caused conflict between people and states including war (both external and domestic), secession; and in extreme cases, genocide.

The last sentence should strike home in Cambodia. Nationalism was behind the Khmer Rouge's plan to turn the country into a self-sufficient economy and behind its mistrust of foreigners and even of Cambodians themselves, those "New People" (i.e., those from urban areas). One of the Khmer Rouge mottoes, in reference to the New People, was: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."

Nationalism is not going to go away, simply because it is necessary in governing a people in the modern state. Nationalistic feelings engender a feeling of togetherness, of community, which makes government easier (I am reminded of Seneca's comment on religion: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful"). Problems arise with nationalism (as with religion) when one people think they are better than another.

As for protectionism, if all the countries in the world were really to become protectionist, only a few countries would survive: the US, and possibly France. These are countries that are self-sufficient. Singapore would be among the first to fall, since we are a nation that survives on trade, having nothing of our own.

I do, however, like to patronise mom-and-pop shops over large chain stores because I want to support independence which ultimately benefits consumers. And also because there's probably less carbon footprint involved. In Singapore, beef, broccoli, cherries, strawberries are all airflown. Much better to buy locally grown products.

No comments:


Blog Widget by LinkWithin