Attitudes to national identity among tertiary students in Melanesia and Timor Leste: a comparative analysis

Type Working Paper - State, Society & Governance in Melanesia
Title Attitudes to national identity among tertiary students in Melanesia and Timor Leste: a comparative analysis
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2012
The challenges of nation-building in Melanesia
and Timor-Leste have often been neglected in
the focus on state-building agendas. High levels
of ethno-linguistic diversity, combined with an
array of regional, historical and cultural divisions,
continue to present obstacles to the creation of a
cohesive sense of national political community.
One of the most profound obstacles, most agree,
is the disjuncture between Westminster (or other
European-derived) government systems and
traditional collective societies, in which localised
obligations to extended family and traditional
authority frequently supersede allegiances to
the nation-state. Perceptions of poor or even
declining state effectiveness in this region have
been reinforced by political crises and civil conflicts
in Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste, prompting
discussion of ‘fragile states’ by formal agencies of
regional powers such as Australia (e.g. AusAID
2006). But while there is a wealth of literature on
the sources of state failure, comparatively little
is written on the views of this region’s citizens
themselves: how they view the state, the nation and
their own place within these entities.
This paper presents the findings of an
18-month research project on the attitudes of
tertiary students in Melanesia and Timor-Leste to
national identity and key issues of nation-building.1
The research was conducted at tertiary campuses
across four sites: Dili, Port Vila, Honiara and Port
Moresby. The study examined the attitudes of the
young educated elite likely to dominate the next
generation of leaders and decision makers. Their
views are pivotal to understanding the challenges to
building a more cohesive sense of national identity
and political community in Melanesia and TimorLeste.
Findings highlight the ongoing importance of
family, religion and maintaining traditional customs
in student conceptions of political community.
Depending on the case study, they also illustrate
the importance of geographical region of origin,
language orientation, and gender in explaining
differences in key attitudes towards national
identity. This article presents a comparative analysis
of those findings across the four target sites.
In general, it is argued that the Melanesian
countries show a relatively high degree of similarity
in responses, with key differences attributable to
particular historical, regional or linguistic legacies
of colonial rule. A strong pan-Melanesian pattern
of group identification was identified, common
to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and
Vanuatu. The ongoing importance of traditional
authority and custom in conceptions of political
community and identity was evident in all four
case study sites, but was in each case matched by
indicators of respect for modern state authority.
Most importantly, this study reveals high degrees of
national pride, and faith in democratic principles
and citizenship; conversely, however, it reveals
low levels of pride in contemporary democratic
performance and inter-group tolerance. While
tertiary students demonstrate relatively strong
attachments to the nation, and in-principle civic
nationalist commitments to the state (including
citizenship and respect for law and political
institutions), concerns over the capacity of
centralised authority to provide basic services
appear to undermine positive perceptions of the
state in practice. Counter-intuitively, pride in
democracy and inter-group tolerance was higher in
post-conflict societies (Solomon Islands and TimorLeste)
than in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.

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