Public Lecture – Inventing Southeast Asia: The Idea of Southeast Asia in 19th Century Colonial-Capitalist Discourse

Feature - Remarks Farish

On 21 September 2016, Assoc. Prof. Farish A. Noor, a historian and political scientist from Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, delivered his idea on Southeast Asia in front of many students at Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. Three terms to be underlined are about construction, dialectics, and the politics of identity. Along with the historical process and dynamic in the region, he looks up the importance of Southeast Asia as a constructive concept which highly associated with the legacy of colonialism. It remains necessary to critically foresee the idea of Southeast Asia amidst the wave of modernity in the region.

There was never a notion of Southeast Asia itself. The culture, daily practice, fashion, way of thinking, and many others ontological parts which attached to society is merely a set of the colonialism legacy. Despite the World War II has served as a more advanced background of Southeast Asia, the adoption of Southeast Asia as a term can be traced back long ago when the wave of colonization arrived in Southeast Asia, which term is always being referred to Europe. The word of Southeast Asia was invented in 19th century, brought by the characteristics of colonial country. It is being brought by the British and Dutch scholars, implying that Southeast Asia is merely a product of European’s colonization legacy at the first place. Consequently, Southeast Asia was never seen as ‘Southeast Asia’.

The discourse over Southeast Asia evolves through the strong relationship of idea and knowledge. Ideas become powerful and hegemonic because it is being structured by the structure. When British took over Java Island from 1811 to 1816, the idea of Java and Javaneseness was constructively generated by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. In his two-volume book, he underlined two prominent events: those are the history of East Indian Company and its successes, and at the time when East Indian Company engaged in war. Raffles was constantly attacking his competitors. Therefore, the book purposed to propagandize Dutch Companies at that time.

Moreover, given the opportunity to capture the landscape of Java, Raffles illustrated that All Javanese are the same: (1) there is no distinction between Central Javanese, East Javanese, and Sundanese; (2) all of the Javanese profess Hinduism; and (3) the Javanese were the greatest ‘once’. In this case, Raffles was in attempt to bring the Javanese notion into the Museum through colonialism. However, this situation should be considered as double-edged knife, where the consequences of making Java into a single exotic term will provide valuable notion, at the same time being excluded as outsider from British perception.

On the other hand, Britain did not know what to do with Sumatra. According to the 19th century perspective, Sumatra is the land of cannibals, head-hunters, and pirates. The land was regarded being surrounded by evil and vice. This remains a mystery up until John Anderson, a company-man who was the only author during the colonial period explaining Sumatra, as well as humanizing Asian. He discovered that the piracy and cannibalism is not widespread.

Nevertheless, Anderson has typologized that Sumatra is the place where the economic structure has been developed despite its fragmented local occurrence. He took the lens of economics and markets that if these people are being paid, they can turn to be a tool to gain commodities. This is also worked mainly for sea-pirates. In this case, Anderson presents Sumatra as a market that can be brought to the context of global economy. To date, his empirical foundation towards the landscape of Sumatra became the main gate for capital penetration.

Hence, what is the impending challenge for Southeast Asia? The only thing is on how we name things. The process of naming Southeast Asia is staggeringly problematic, because it falls under the dichotomy of construction and idea. It is necessary to understand things through critical manner, particularly in the case of Southeast Asia. The gap between the understanding of past and what we have today will lead to the irrelevance of the actual understanding of our region.

Editor: Dedi Dinarto (researcher at ASEAN Studies Center, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada)