What makes or breaks a nation?

October 20, 2022 09:31
Photo: Reuters

The answer seems obvious. After all, it has everything to do with the economic strength and political endurance of the state, surely. The more resilient the economy, the more capable it is at delivering goods to its citizens, and thus the more performance-legitimate the country will be. On the other hand, the more enduring the state apparatus is, the likelier it is that it can serve the role of effectively maintaining the institutions, norms, and (rule of) laws that undergird the day-to-day functionings of ordinary citizens. In short, the nation thrives when the economy and institutions thrive.

Yet such a view is unduly deterministic and structuralist. It assumes that the right structures – persisting and long-standing in their tenability and lifespans – shall come to yield the right outcomes; that the ideal government is one that can get the numbers and basic structure right. In so doing, however, this view thereby discards the fundamental importance of a key element – the people.

We care for the people of a nation, not only because they are vital to the survival and success of the state, but also because they are the very bulwark of what makes the state great. Whether the people are well-fed, affluent, or materially comfortable is but a part of the equation – the second, and arguably more important part of the matter, is whether these individuals feel a genuine, unfettered, non-coercively induced sense of pride, belonging, and connection with one another. The nation is enabled – and enhanced – by its people identifying with it. The nation is thus broken, when the tacit social compact defining the relations between the ideal government and ideal people is broken, undermined by those who see the people as little more than tools and subjects of exploitation.

I want to hone in on one further dimension – what makes a nation great, in my view, is the ability on its people’s part to disagree, to air their grievances, to bicker and argue and debate over contentious issues without fear of prospective repercussions or censorship. It is the capacity on the part of those who can and dare to think freely, to challenge the status quo – not through revolutionary overthrow or violent means that would only engender upheaval and disruptions, but through wise and caveated reformism, a doctrine that comprises pragmatism and idealism in equal parts.

In practice, this means eschewing undue hubris and nationalism. This means debates that are free – and freed, hopefully – of sycophants lambasting truth-tellers and pouring over fabricated lies and numbers, only to service their shoe-shining mission. This means calling a spade a spade and identifying problems where there are persisting issues that must be resolved. I cannot imagine what a society filled to the brim with yes-men look like. Some say, the hardest entity to imagine is in fact reality – for it is so absurd, so inchoate, so unintelligible. Reality beggars belief. Belief beggars sympathy. And sympathy beggars escapism.

A truly great nation needs no explanation or tooting of its own horn. It can attract folks to join – even those with diametrically and clearly divergent values. And why is that? That is because, whilst good nations are focused and purpose-driven, truly great nations are pluralist, diverse, and accommodative of all differences, including those that may offend the sensibilities of the sensitive folks in the society.

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Assistant Professor, HKU