Colonialism’s long shadow over Southeast Asia today
September 5, 2016 1:08 AM   Subscribe

How did Southeast Asian identities originate? The legacy of the 19th century continues to shape us more than we think 'We also wanted to show how many of the things that we may accept and take as ‘normal’ and ever-present in our part of the world were, in fact, fairly recent innovations introduced to Southeast Asia during the colonial era'. Political scientist and historian Dr Farish Noor hosts a three-part series examining the legacy Western colonialism has left upon a region now known as Southeast Asia. The first episode, 'Conquerors & Merchants', is now available for viewing online.

His previous Southeast Asia programmes with Channelnews Asia:
My Southeast Asia
Ep 1: Borders & Beyond
Ep 2: Batik
Ep 3: Culture Shared & Threatened
Ep 4: ASEAN and Our Future

Across Borders
Ep 1: Cambodia - Thailand
Ep 2: China - Laos
Ep 3: Malaysia - The Philippines (warning for violence)
Ep 4: North Korea - China
Ep 5: Myanmar - Bangladesh (warning for violence & hate speech)

Related: Syed Hussein Alatas's seminal work on 'The Myth of the Lazy Native' (Reviewed by fellow Mefite, bingregory, here), which itself was also a response to a book written by the fourth Malaysian Prime Minister, The Malay Dilemma, which reproduced many of the colonial representation of the ethnic communities in Malaysia.
posted by cendawanita (20 comments total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
Is 'Southeast Asia' just a term invented to group a disparate range of peoples for expedience that is without any local meaning, like 'The Middle East'?
posted by asok at 4:53 AM on September 5, 2016

'The Middle East' has plenty of local meaning, there's even a huge daily newspaper with the title.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:39 AM on September 5, 2016

That is surely a post colonial thing there though too. "Middle east" is a statement about relative distance from somewhere else, to somewhere else, and neither of those places are in the middle east.
posted by vbfg at 5:42 AM on September 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

The colonial era term was "East Indies" which is also a term defining the area in relation to another, similar to the Middle East.
posted by Lame_username at 5:50 AM on September 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

i don't know just how much of 'Southeast Asia' was a natively sustained concept, but i will note that there had been a fairly obvious separation between the still-Hindu regions, the Buddhist kingdoms up north (later called Indochina by the French) and the Malay/Muslim Archipelago (known locally as the Nusantara). And as was explained (a little) in that first episode of My Southeast Asia as well as this current series, much like the Middle East, a lot of the modern nationstate borders was more for the convenience of the Western colonisers than it was towards respecting existing sovereign territories. Hence the Muslim kingdom of Pattani being swallowed by modern Thailand and the kingdom of Sulu being taken up by the Philippines and Malaysia, for example.
posted by cendawanita at 6:11 AM on September 5, 2016 [8 favorites]

Thanks for posting this cendawantia! I grew up in South East Asia and regret that I didn't get a chance to take my high school's South East Asian history class before coming "home" (though we can talk about what that means at another time). I've always loved Singapore's Asian civilisation museum, and the South East Asian section within.

It strikes me that the perception of South East Asianness, the related recency bias and grounding in history varies hugely depending on where you are in the region, and does seem heavily tied to colonialism.

Thailand (where I spent 5 years) felt very different to Malaysia (where I spent another 5 years) in that respect; the Thais are strongly aware of their long running feuds with Burmese speaking people, the millenium old disputes with the Khmers and the historical kingdoms of Lanna, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Laotian/Isaan rule from Luang Prabang. In Peninsular Malaysia, the beautiful mix of Bumis, Tamils, Hokkien, Teochew and how that came to be is all tied up with Western European colonialism. That doesn't consider the Orang Asli, nor talk about the complexities of Borneo.

There's also the idea of both the Philippines and Indonesia: the various old nations of both (but especially of Indonesia) got caught up in the struggle to define us (non-Europeans) and them (Europeans). The ongoing disagreement in Papua shows that most strongly.

I'm looking forward to watching these and learning more about some of my homes.
posted by sarcas at 6:48 AM on September 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

Woo, sharing a post with Farish Noor. Thanks, cendawanita!
posted by BinGregory at 7:58 AM on September 5, 2016

BinGregory: yours was a good post, why not! :)

sarcas: that's very true. trying to build on this supposed southeast asian identity is soooooooooooort of working with ASEAN, and Japan for example is very keen to associate itself with the region as a bloc, culturally (through JICA or even random talent shows ie Asia Bagus, if you remember that??), but the way the various regions view this history and shared history is very much not unified because of that aspect of different colonising experiences (which imbued different stereotypes on the same ethnic groups even) plus the genuine different sociocultural and religious contexts as well, imo. And like Thailand, which didn't technically get colonised, a lot of the old groupings still survive in some form to the present day too, like you observed, and I speculate might have contribute to the ongoing sense of alienation being felt by the Muslim South. And on the other hand, the British experience in Malaysia and Singapore, led to a hardening of some ethnic boundaries even as others get erased -- it used to be very strong tribalism amongst the non-indigenous/Orang Asli natives, but they're all subsumed now under this idea of Malay unity that gains a lot of value as an identity that is a bulwark against the 'immigrants'.
posted by cendawanita at 8:15 AM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anyway I can't wait for the episode with the pirates, in recognition of part of my heritage being Bugis, whose supposed ferocity led to the word 'boogeyman'.
posted by cendawanita at 8:18 AM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, for the China-diaspora, Nanyang as in the South-East Asia region has long been a very specific region, and Nanyang diaspora Chinese and Straits-Chinese and other local groups (Eurasians vs Peranakans vs Thai-Chinese for example) have specific China-linked but South-East Asian based identities.

The whole region has been major trades route pre-dating European exploration and the European powers were intent on erasing evidence. Those trade routes mean the borders have been shifting back and forth for a long time so the maps redraw drastically over centuries as various local and regional powers expanded. The Cambodia-Vietnamese-Thai-Laos-Malaysia tensions go back to Angkor Wat era times with good reason.

The influence of Islam and is linked to trading routes, but so is Buddhism and Hinduism - those faiths came through trade routes early on pre-Western colonialism and were sometimes tied to conquering empires like the Cham.

South East Asia is a distinct cultural region bound up by trade and exchange of culture for thousands of years, truly.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:18 AM on September 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thank you for an excellent post, cendawanita! That first episode left me wanting much more.

I spent a year in Bandung and am now based in Hong Kong. I'm lucky enough to have a lot of time to travel around Asia and I always visit local history museums and take walking tours if I can because like many Americans, I never had the chance to study the region in detail through my formal education in school.

From Yangon to Melaka to Taichung, I've noticed that "heritage" around post-colonial Asia often means "what the British/Dutch/French/Japanese left behind", sometimes repurposed buildings like PMQ in Hong Kong and sometimes whole districts like the old French administrative centre of Hanoi.

Even a single building tells a story. It has been a humbling experience to go from ogling with admiration the Savoy in Bandung when I first lived there, to thinking more deeply about what it means that the hotel is there in the first place: the Preanger/Parahyangan region of which Bandung would become the main centre was the heart of the Dutch cash-crop economy and at a high-enough elevation to grow tea and coffee, plantation crops that enriched local Dutch landowners: the same people who wanted a place to relax and entertain guests who had come up to escape the heat of Jakarta/Batavia and spend their money on the weekends while, presumably, local people continued to toil under brutal conditions. The building served as Japanese barracks during the war, and even held an important conference of post-colonial powers in 1955. When I lived there, Bandung people seemed quite proud of the fact that their architecture and city plan, designed for Dutch colonialists, sets their leafier districts apart from other Indonesian cities; they had taken on the buildings as their own.

I'll definitely return to watch the other episodes!
posted by mdonley at 9:28 AM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is 'Southeast Asia' just a term invented to group a disparate range of peoples for expedience that is without any local meaning, like 'The Middle East'?

You mean West Asia?
posted by splitpeasoup at 9:37 AM on September 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

'The Middle East' has plenty of local meaning, there's even a huge daily newspaper with the title.

In 1902, Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote, "The Middle East, if I may adopt a term which I have not seen, will some day have its Malta, as well as its Gibraltar." If the term has any "local meaning" it postdates Mahan's coinage.
posted by blucevalo at 11:03 AM on September 5, 2016

The Diary of Henri Mouhot is a good source on 19th century exploration of S.E. Asia from the French perspective. In the introduction by Pym, he relates the King of Cambodia loved british goods, esp. Beer. He also had a coining machine made in Birmingham.
posted by clavdivs at 3:40 PM on September 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you so much for this, cendawanita. I just saw an ad for it last night as I dozed off in my hotel in Surabaya. And thought. Hmm... Looks interesting, but cable news? Good to know it is worth checking out.

Spent an hour in the domestic terminal at Jakarta yesterday chatting with a school principal from rural central Sulawesi and just observing all of the people flying to so many different areas of Indonesia and listening to stories of his life barely scratched the surface of how diverse a place this is.
posted by Gotanda at 6:32 PM on September 5, 2016

And on the subject of colonial views of Southeast Asia: ASEAN summit may bow to China views on South China Sea -'Southeast Asian leaders are likely to avoid any official mention at a summit this week of an arbitration ruling that shot down China's expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, according to a draft of their final declaration, in a victory for Beijing's diplomatic clout.'
posted by cendawanita at 3:01 AM on September 6, 2016

Coinciding with the second episode on pirates, that went into the story of Sarawak, Borneo and James Brooke: Hollywood set to make feature film on life of Sir James Brooke -
The inking of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the project between the production team and Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture is scheduled to be held at The Riverside Majestic Hotel here today.

Some of the scenes of the movie will be shot in Sarawak to boost the state’s tourism and filming industry.

“The project will be launched with Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg. The state government is fully behind this project, we have producers from the United States and United Kingdom involved in the project as well,” Brooke Heritage Trust chairman Jason Desmond Anthony Brooke told The Borneo Post when met at a courtesy call on Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem at his office in Wisma Bapa Malaysia here yesterday.

posted by cendawanita at 9:53 PM on September 8, 2016

Link to second episode.

Thank you so much for posting cendawanita, it's utterly fascinating!
posted by XMLicious at 8:42 AM on September 9, 2016

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