Creation of a State Sponsored National Identity: Indonesia and Singapore


Ortmann, Stephen (2009). Singapore: The Politics of Inventing National Identity. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 28, 4: 23-48.

Morfit, Michael (1981). Pancasila: The Indonesian State Ideology According to the New Order Government. Asian Survey 4, 8, 838-851. 


In the process of creating a national identity, how much of it are attributable to the state and what part belonged to the people? Is it possible to construct a national civic identity under an undemocratic setting? Without the participation of the people themselves, the success of a new political ideology or the creation of a national identity will not be achieved. The top-down approach using state apparatuses such as the educational system, the press and the bureaucracy is bound to fail unless people are part of the creative/idea-tion process. Under an illiberal environment, people will always resist perceived impositions of the ruling elites upon them. 

Can a state dictate what kind of national identity citizens would assume as their own? Is it possible for a national identity to spring forth from an undemocratic society? This paper takes a look at the experiences of Singapore and Indonesia thru the lens of two Western scholars, Stephan Ortmann and Michael Morfit. A recognized expert in Southeast Asian affairs, Ortmann (2009: 42) wrote a time when Singapore’s ruling elites were trying to create an authoritarian civic national identity that supports the political regime without significantly liberalising the political system. Morfit (1981:838) meanwhile discussed attempts made by Indonesia’s New Order Government to introduce a new political ideology meant to consolidate public support, contain rival political ideologies (Morfit, 1981, 843), prevent ethnic tensions and unify the nation without transforming into an Islamic state. 

These two Southeast Asian countries are interesting subjects of inquiry because at some historical juncture, powerful political parties exercised autonomous yet autocratic control of the levers of their governments in exchange for the limited exercise of their peoples of their social and political rights.  In Singapore, the People’s Action Party (PAP) continues to dominate the political life of the city-state while Indonesia underwent 32 years of authoritarian rule under the New Order Government. Though Singapore and Indonesia adopted electoral democracy, political elites remain in power thru effective control of state apparatuses which they use in propagating and imposing their own values upon the people. The PAP justifies its policy actions in the name of security and unity of the state, while Indonesia’s elites invoke political stability, economic justice, social and cultural harmony as reasons for political dominance (Morfit, 1981, 846). 

From 1965 to 1980, the political elites of Singapore promoted pragmatic values like modernity, development and economic success as the cornerstones of national unity. The government promoted what Ortmann called an “ideology of survivalism” based on a perceived social psychosis on the relative “small-ness” of the city state, scarcity of resources and insecurity brought by its location.[1] Public perception therefore focused on values such as meritocracy and multinationalism as the founding myths of the Singaporean state (Ortmann, 2009, 30). These concepts particularly meritocracy, hindered the blossoming of a civic nationally shared identity. [2]

Unlike in Indonesia where 85% of the population profess to be “Muslim Indonesians”, no common national identity sprang from the multi-ethnic Singaporean society. There is no shared history or common ethnic heritage. Hence, ethnicity does not define the Singapore nation (Ortmann, 2009: 25), in contrast with Indonesia which has an ethnic majority that distinguishes themselves with others. When economic progress came and a consumerist culture emerged, individualism pervaded which the political elite interpreted as a serious threat to the existence of Singapore. Ortmann (2009, 31) observed that  the more Singapore prospered, the more Singaporeans wanted to have more than just economic growth. The absence of a national identity meant an absence of collective feeling of “ownership” or “affinity” with the city-state. This explains why huge numbers of Singaporeans migrate to other countries, which, the ruling party interpreted as the people’s non-acceptance of the brand of nationalism being promoted by government. 

The People’s Action Party (PAP) used symbols, events, Internet platforms and introduced a set of “invented traditions,”[3]to negotiate and construct a national identity for its citizens (Ortmann, 2009: 39). Ortmann says that when this issue came into prominence in the late eighties, the ruling elite decided to do it as a government project. There was an assumption that nationalism is always “ the result of elite promotion of nationalist tenets.”[4] The political elites of this small city-state believe that they, and not the rest of the people, articulates most effectively, the will of the collective nation (Ortmann, 2009, 26). The elites also felt that they monopolize expertise and therefore, a top-down approach in inculcating “shared values” became the fundamental strategy in the social construction of national identity.

Indonesia’s political elites, like those of Singapore, tried to introduce Pancasila as an enduring program, meant to monopolize social construction of the country’s past, present and future. Instead of allowing this ideology to develop naturally from public discourse, Indonesian elites imposed their own concepts and  tried to validate them thru the bureacracy. In so doing, the government managed to impose a set of expected behaviors which is inclusionary based on elite standards. 


Recent studies show that national identities are fundamentally influenced by two factors: national consciousness and national pride.[5] These two interacts forming a socially constructed image of distinctiveness called national identity. Ortmann and Morfit believed that both Singapore and Indonesia failed in their respective government’s efforts at introducing a national identity because of the absence of citizen participation at the onset. There is a generally accepted notion that national identity cannot emerge from a social laboratory and propagated for eventual acceptance of a vapid audience.

Singapore’s case is not a failure, but rather, a work in progress. Recent studies show that modernization may actually give rise to a national identity as national pride closely associates itself with the perception that such prosperity was a result of collectivity.[6] National identity comes as a direct result of transactions between the elite and the people.[7] As the ruling Party achieve autocratic stability thru a process of reciprocal reinforcement, the elites’ relationships and interests synthesize or merge with the greater majority giving way to autonomous legitimation. The continued engagement of the elites in nation-building will eventually be interpreted by the majority as contributory factor towards perpetuation of economic prosperity leading to a construction of national pride. This sense of community belonging will, thru an historical process of social construction[8] result to a distinctive national identity.

The same is being observed in Indonesia today. Even after the shift of the state from autocracy to electoral democracy, the institutionalization of Pancasila has eventually become the standard of behavior in the Indonesian bureaucracy. As Indonesians behave according to a base standard or set of values, these acts become distinctive marks of comparison with other nationalities. The relative comparison becomes a source of national pride and synchronizes with national consciousness, results to a socially constructed national identity. 

[1] Singapore is a Chinese city, flanked by Malay states  see Ortmann, 2009, 29-30.

[2] Ortmann, 2009, 30. 

[3] Ortmann quoted Hobsbawm in defining invented tradition as “a set of practices normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature which seeks to inculcate certain values or norms of behavior by repetition which automatically implies continuity with the past” see also Ortmann, 2009, 25-27.

[4] Ortmann, 2009, 26.

[5] Dimitrova-Grajzl, Valentina, Eastwood, Jonathan and Grajzl, Peter (2016). The longevity of national identity and national pride: Evidence from wider Europe. Research and Politics 1-9: 1.

[6] Triandafyllidou, Anna (1998). National Identity and the `other’. Ethnic and Racial Studies 21 (4): 593.

[7] Frank Louis Rusciano (2003). The Construction of National Identity—A 23-Nation Study. Political Research Quarterly. 56, 3, 1.

[8] Ting, Helen (2008). Social Construction of Nation—a Theoretical Exploration. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 14 (3): 453-482. 

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