ASEAN After 50: Studying the Lands Below the Winds

Dendy Raditya A.

On August 8th this year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will celebrate its 50th anniversary. This is the right time to reflecting on what had been done from 1967 until now and what need to do in the future, not only by ASEAN as an organization but also by the whole elements within ASEAN.

What could be reflected from the 50 years of ASEAN and the studies associated with this organization? Historically, the embryo of studies about this region –which historian Anthony Reid called as ‘the lands below the winds’ could be traced back to the colonial era. The study of Southeast Asia originally developed at the Ecole des Langues Orientales Vivantes founded in Paris around 1795, followed by the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (Royal Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies at Leiden University, Netherlands at 1864, and finally the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1917.

After the end of the colonialism, Modern Southeast Asian Studies, likes the study of other regions, was born from the interests of Western countries (especially the United States) post-World War II to understand the social, cultural, political and economic aspects of countries in Southeast Asia in a postcolonial context.

It is important to first, understand the difference between the ASEAN and Southeast Asian Studies. The most visible difference is the scope of studies: ASEAN Studies focus more on ASEAN as an institution and tends to be more policy-oriented, while Southeast Asian Studies focus more on social, cultural, economic and, to some extent, political aspects of society in the region.  

Likewise, the Southeast Asia Studies faces challenges in its development. There are three interesting issues faced by Southeast Asian Studies (and also ASEAN Studies): The problem of inequality between Western countries and ASEAN countries in the terms of knowledge production; the problems of studying Southeast Asia from within; and the position of contemporary Southeast Asian Studies between state’s and market’s interests.

The disproportion between the Western countries and Southeast Asian countries (as a locus of Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies) is evident in the production of political-economy knowledge of this studies. Achmad Firas and Iqra Anugrah argues that this problem exists since the early days of the formulation of both Southeast Asian studies and ASEAN Studies. Instead by their own people, the knowledge of Southeast Asia was generated by social institutions and scientists from Western countries.

Syed Farid Alatas once wrote that the inequality of knowledge production has resulted in a growing dependence of the scientist and social science institution in Southeast Asia on the Western world. These dependencies include the idea dependence, media dependency to disseminate ideas, the dependence of educational technology, dependence on research and education funding, and dependence of Third World social scientists (including Southeast Asia) on employment in the scientific field of the Western countries.

The other problem is in regard to the possibility of Southeast Asian to study about the Southeast Asia and ASEAN of their own. According to Ariel Heryanto, there at least four issues faced by Southeast Asian researchers who came from this region itself.

First, the status of researchers as an “insider” of the  Southeast Asian societies, creates a dilemma: sometimes they are too qualified in language, living experience and knowledge of their own communities, but less qualified in analytical thinking and academic theorization.

Second, the dominance of English as the language of instruction in the Southeast Asian studies, with the lack of use of the regional languages itself. One fact behind this condition is that the main consumers of the ASEAN and Southeast Asia studies are those who come from the Western countries, not from Southeast Asia itself.

Third, there is a discrepancy between the institution’s objectives, the Southeast Asia Studies Center, on what to look for and the method to use with the social reality in Southeast Asia. It leads to the fourth issue, namely the patronistic relationship in research. Ariel Heryanto illustrates it in a condition when a senior researcher “forced” his junior to quote his work.

There is also the issue of a pitfall among the interests of states and the market. The social disciplines of Southeast Asia post-independence era became a tool of the state to legitimize the policies adopted by rulers. In Indonesia for example, the use of social science for the sake of power was evident in the era known as the “New Order”, when many public intellectuals served as bureaucrats within the regime. The New Order era also put forward the idea of developmentalism and modernization, which in turn eliminating critical paradigms such as class-based analysis and critical theory.

The collapse of many authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia does not necessarily make the study of Southeast Asia more developed. This happens because nowadays, the interests of the market along with the ideology of neoliberalism has penetrated into the realm of scholars around the world. It causes marginalization and limited access to research funding, especially those from scholarships that are deemed to have no “impacts”.

Although the problems faced by the Southeast Asian Studies had made it difficult for them to academically develop in a post-authoritarian scene, there are efforts to bridging the difficulties by various Southeast Asian Studies and Review institutions. The establishment of numbers of institution in Singapore for example, such as the ISEAS (Institute for Southeast Asian Studies), ARI (Asia Research Institute) at NUS (National University of Singapore) and RSIS (Rajaratnam School of International Studies) at the NTU (Nanyang Technological University); Thailand with the ASEAN Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University; and Indonesia with the Center for Southeast Asian Social Studies  and the ASEAN Studies Center at Universitas Gadjah Mada can be considered as part of these efforts.

Coinciding with the ASEAN golden anniversary, I suggest that we should rethink about the future of ASEAN Studies besides, of course, Southeast Asian Studies. ASEAN now faces many challenges such as the emergence of many new issues: the digital society, demands for inclusive and sustainable development inside ASEAN Community, global terrorism, identity conflicts, migrant and human trafficking issues, maritime governance, and more. It is necessary to further investigate these issues rather share ASEAN’s relevance in world politics.

Thus, it is important for researchers from the ASEAN and Southeast Asian studies to undertake a critical and theoretical research—and not only the policy-oriented one. It is also important to dismantle the ‘established’ concept and policy reference narrative in the existing studies. ASEAN Studies needs an emancipatory as well as practical dimension.

At the end of the day, the shout goes to all Southeast Asian researchers, especially throughout Indonesia. Call for them to keep on reading, writing and researching to celebrate the 50th anniversary of ASEAN!


*) Dendy Raditya Atmosuwito is an Undergraduate Student at the Department of Public Policy and Management, Fisipol, Universitas Gadjah Mada