Graduated Sovereignty in Southeast Asia

By Aihwa Ong

Summarized by Tun


Globalization is becoming inevitable for all the nations of 21st century and it makes various changes in the politics, economics, culture etc in the world. All the countries have to deal with global market in this global era. Global market has already been developed and it contributes to both strengthening and weakening of different activities of the states in dealing with global regulatory entities. So, it needs to understand how states manage transnational networks that variously integrate them into the global market and political community.


There happen fundamental changes in the states when stimulated by economic globalization. The author, who is a professor of anthropology , demonstrates how so-called Asian tiger countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, which develop a system of graduated sovereignty, created new economic possibilities, social spaces and political constellations, which in turn condition their further actions in the course of interactions with global markets and regulatory agencies such as the UN. The shifting relations between market, state, and society have resulted in the state’s flexible experimentations with sovereignty. She says she explores these fundamental changes using what she mentions ‘the model of graduated sovereignty’.


What is Graduated Sovereignty?

In this post-modern period, to get sovereignty requires not only military apparatus but also an understanding of different mechanisms of governance, no longer simply a ‘supreme power’ over the population (Focualt, 1991). State management of the population requires different modalities of government, based on mechanisms of calculation, surveillance, control and regulation that set the terms and are constitutive of a domain of social existence.


My understanding on graduated sovereignty is the state’s advanced or qualified sovereignty. According to author, graduated sovereignty refers to a) the different modes of governing segments of the population who relate or do not relate to global markets; and b) the different mixes of legal compromises and controls tailored to the requirements of special production zones.


Different Treatment of the population

The author sees the rationalities of government in the forms of citizenship and producing the condition of sovereignty (order and stability) in a polity. According to what Foucault (1979) terms ‘biopower’ _ central concern of the modern liberal state in fostering of life, growth and care of the population. She observes how the states’ differential treatments of populations to maximize the returns on doing what is profitable and to marginalize the unprofitable.


Combining authoritarian and economic liberal features, Asian tiger states, here, she means Indonesia and Malaysia, are not pure neo-liberal states but their insertion into the global economy has required some adoption of neo-liberal norms for managing populations in relation to corporate requirements. To remain globally competitive, these tiger states make different kinds of biopolitical investments in different subject populations such as privileging one ethnicity over another and the professional over the manual worker and different sectors of the population are subjected to different technologies of regulation and nurturance, and in the process assigned different social fates.


Biopolitics of Postdevelopmentalism in Malaysia and Archipelagic Polity in Indonesia

Malyasia has favoured the political rights of Malays on grounds of their status as an indigenous majority population and their general economic backwardness when compared with the ethnic Chinese and Indians who are descended from immigrant populations. The system of graduated sovereignty has become effective by putting more investment in the biopolitical improvement of the Malays, awarding them rights and benefits. So, its ethnic-based governmentality has come to racialize class formation and naturalize racial differences. Malaysian state gained control of Islamic law as an instrument of and rationale for national growth that weds a religious re-flowering to an unswerving allegiance to the state. (strengthening the state by meshing smoothly with global capitalism.)


State favouritism towards middle-class and elite Malays seeks to make them competitive and enlightened Muslim professionals to play the game of global capitalism. And on the other hand in Malaysia, where one-third of the country’s 8 million workers are immigrant workers, there are actual practices that regulate the sectors of the population of the cheap labor workers such as factory workers and migrant workers are subjected to legal and social discipline and to Foucauldian forms of surveillance and induced self-control. During the economic crisis, deporting these illegal migrants was considered as a patriotic duty.


The author points out another modality of governance which is a mix of civilizing and disqualifying policies towards populations of uncompetitive and who resist state efforts to make them more productive. For example, treatments on aboriginal peoples who are also potential source for making the Malay race large and for attracting foreign currency from tourists. But they enjoy special affirmative-action rights, only if they abandon their aboriginal way of life and become absorbed into the large Malay population by becoming agricultural producers. And the states evict rebel populations and turn their resource-rich areas to commercial use. The author calls it Southeast Asia’s internal colonialism.


In the case of Indonesia, in which military has been used against its own people under Suharto’s New Order regime, military coercion is part of large segments of working population and marginalized. There is no official policy of affirmative action. The industrial workers rarely protected by labor rights and frequently harassed by the military. The state also practices poor treatment and control over them, but favors Javanese people over the more than 30 major ethnic groups. The spread of Javanese from their overpopulated island is a means for displacing pockets of local population and consolidating the country.

And state corporatism favors a tiny elite that controls corporations to monopolize the food and fuel distribution and protect agricultural products from foreign interests, and it helps to contain the centripetal forces _ class, religion, ethnicity, island_ that threaten to disintegrate state and society. Indonesia’s military dominance also intensifies the fact Southeast Asia riddled by ‘internal colonies’ such as in the case of East Timorese and Acehnese.


The other dimension of graduated sovereignty is the rise of production and technological zones which required certain legal compromises in national sovereignty. The governments become flexible in their management of sovereignty trying to contact with corporations that have regionalized production networks and attracting international technologies, expertise and investments.


So, seeing the sovereignty management of middle-range and industrializing states, graduated sovereignty refers to the differential treatment of populations that differently insert them into the global capitalism processes, by using biopolitical disciplining and pastoral care,  and according to ethno-racial differences and dictates of development programs. Segments of the population are differently disciplined and given differential privileges and protections, in relation to their varying participation in global market activities.


The author remarks that these gradations of governing _ disciplinary, pastoral, military occupation, de facto autonomous domains may be in a continuum and to fragment citizenship of the same country. Graduated sovereignty is not a question of market versus the state, but it refers to ‘market society’ meaning that there are certain areas of strong states and its protection and also nearly-absent-state-areas because of needing to be flexible in relation to markets. In graduated sovereignty, the elite with economic, social and political benefit while others left abandoned. Such variegated citizenship is greatly reinforced when the state reorganizes national space into new economic zones that promote international trade and investments.


What I understand from that paper is that the Southeast Asia countries, like Malaysia and Indonesia, management of sovereignty become flexible when stimulated by economic globalization. GS is result of flexible set of state strategies that are not national space. It is the working of global markets.


Reviewed by Tun

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Filed under Politics, Southeast Asia

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