Who Are You?: The Issue of Representation of Contemporary Nation-States

Graphic Design: Krizia Angelina

One of the most enduring questions for international relations student is regarding the relevancy of a nation-state in this era of globalization. Many argues that this is due to multinational company economic rule over a nation-state especially in developing countries, while others argue that international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund rule over a nation-state by its power to impose rules and sanctions. While this is an endless debate, with every side having their own argument, there is one aspect that is not really talked about: the issue of representation. In other words; is the government of a nation-state truly a representation of its people? The critics of representation began immediately with the age of globalization, especially economic and political globalization. The issue of economic interdependence causes several nation-states to enter disadvantageous economic agreements with other countries in the name of free trade. Politically, many nation-states plea to international institutions for support, which is seen as submitting to power other than nation-states, especially by anti-globalist. The combination of these two factors makes citizens of a nation-state question their government; are they really representing the nation-state and its people or not, furthering people to say that they themselves are the ones legitimately representing the nation-state. That is the purpose of this article; to show the different contentions regarding who has the capacity, capability, and legitimacy to claim that they are the ones who truly represent the state.

The issue of representation, however, is nothing new. When mainland China was overrun by Communism in 1949, the losing side escaped to an island named Formosa, known today as Taiwan. Until today, the government of both countries, whether the Communist mainland or the government in Taiwan, claims themselves as the sole government of “China”, which includes the mainland area and the island of Taiwan. Another issue of representation arose in Mexico in the 1990s. After signing the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Area) pact, many citizens were not satisfied because it hurt the country’s economy, especially the rural peasantry. The dissatisfied then join a group called Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, otherwise known as Zapatista. They felt that they were the ones who truly represented the state, not the “treacherous” government who signed the NAFTA pact, resulting in negative effects to the Mexican people, especially the indigenous community. Until now, this group still opposes the Mexican government and continues to claim that they are the sole representatives of Mexico.

The issue of representation could also happen without violence. One just needs to see a political discourse of any nation-state to see that politicians are fighting to be the “right” representatives of a nation-state.  Donald Trump, for example, says that he represents the working class of U.S., albeit this claim being debated. For Trump, working class in U.S. is the representation of The United States of America; not big business, not Hillary Clinton. This type of discourse makes politicians easily accused of “not representing” his or her nation-state. Trump has not stopped criticizing many politicians as “un-American”, not only to disregard them, but also to increase his own legitimacy to claim sole representation of the United States of America.

In addition to political discourse, the issue of representation could also arise in a multicultural country such as Indonesia. Since Indonesia is home to diverse cultures, religions, and ethnic groups, one of the hardest questions faced by contemporary Indonesians is “what does it mean to be Indonesian?”. In the era of New Order, this question is easily answered since the New Order era strictly imposed the Pancasila as ideology, that is, to be Indonesian is to have the Pancasila as the sole ideology, making it the national identity of Indonesia. This imposition is also possible because any contending identity was strictly monitored. After the fall of the New Order, another previously monitored ideology became free and influenceD the population. Now Indonesian citizens have different ideas on what it means to be Indonesian and what kind of identity is needed to be prioritized as Indonesian. The recent surge of identity politics shows this trend. The Jakarta Gubernatorial Election of 2017 showed this trend when one of the candidates, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama otherwise known as Ahok, was accused, tried, and jailed for BlasphemyIn this period, people were divided on what it means to be Indonesian. Some support the Chinese-Christian candidate for secular reasons such as "cleaning" the government, and others opposed it with religious reason saying that non-Muslims should not be leaders. In short, there were two kind of representation; the secular and the religious, both saying that they truly represent Indonesia. This led to very toxic political discussions in real life and especially on social media. Instead of healthy political discussions, what happened was people started to accuse each other for not being “Indonesian”. The secular accused the religious of not being Indonesian, while the religious try to impose their values in daily life such as preaching to not choose non-Muslim as leaders. The religious also accuse the secular of not being Indonesian by saying that Indonesia’s culture is different from Western countries'. Either way, this would be an endless debate and whoever is in power would always be accused for not being Indonesian enough, depending on their economic, social, and identity policies.

So then is there a possible way to solve the issue of representation? Of course, building a national identity is necessary; the U.S. is a country that has been very successful on doing this. Regardless of race, political or religious beliefs, everyone would still claim that they are American at first, followed then by another identity marker. This is achieved by years after years of social engineering throughout popular media, from television and even classrooms, to social media. Sports is also a good way to create national identity, with its power to unite citizens of a nation regardless of what they believe in. In short, the issue of representation is a challenge to any nation-state in the age of the free flow of identity.