The Southeast Asian Identity – A Modern Construct?

By Truston Yu (Picture: ASEAN Twitter)

Today, one could easily come up with the universally accepted definition of Southeast Asia – the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members plus Timor-Leste. However, it could be said that the notion of Southeast Asia is an imaginary which has taken its form only in the previous decades. On the occasion of ASEAN Day in the Year of ASEAN Identity, this article looks into the evolution of the concept of “Southeast Asia” as well as a regional identity.

In his book The Spectre of Comparisons, Benedict Anderson stated that “Southeast Asia” as a politically significant term only came about in 1943 with the Louise Mountbatten Southeast Asia Command. An interesting feature is that the notion of “Southeast Asia” at that time included Ceylon and the Northeastern part of India, but not present-day Indonesia or the Philippines. This was a response to the fact that all of present-day Southeast Asia, from Burma to New Guinea, were brought under the same flag of Imperial Japan.

Though none survived in the end, various regional organizations have consolidated the concept of this Southeast Asian subcontinent: the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), and Maphilindo. The ASEAN, by rejecting Sri Lanka’s membership application, further consolidated today’s conception of Southeast Asia that this article began with.

Southeast Asia has been a victim of the Cold War. The annexation of Timor-Leste, Singapore’s Operation Coldstore, and other significant incidents in Southeast Asia’s recent history have all taken place against the backdrop of the struggle for hegemony between the Soviet and the Western blocs. The study of this region became a point of interest as the Americans sought to exert their influence here. Southeast Asian Studies, as an institutionalized field, emerged in 1947 with Yale University’s pioneering academic program. Very soon, Cornell and other institutions followed, and this Studies became a burgeoning subject which would consolidate the picture of a “Southeast Asia”.

The above historical incidents show that the current notion of “Southeast Asia” is a recent construct, under much influence from powers outside of this region. These have led to skepticism within and beyond Southeast Asia. Why view a constructed identity with such great importance?

Southeast Asia is by far the most diverse region the world has seen, most significantly in the aspects of politics, language, and religion. Southeast Asia has seen military governments, dictatorships, monarchies, democracies, sultanates, and systems in between. Singapore’s parliamentary system is based on Westminster, though they have devised and introduced unique elements into the polity; the Philippines has adopted an American system, with a House of Representative and Senate making up the Congress.

In a small region like ours, it may be unexpected that we have an abundance of languages drastically different and mutually intelligible: Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer, and the varieties of Bahasa. Under the colonial influence, English and Portuguese are official languages used in Singapore and Timor-Leste, respectively. There are also various indigenous languages and dialects scattered across the subcontinent, as well as languages used by immigrant communities.

Both Thailand and Myanmar have a Buddhist majority; Timor-Leste and the Philippines are predominantly Catholic; Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia are largely Islamic, and there are folk religions in Vietnam and Laos. In between all these, there are still minorities who practice Hinduism, Protestantism, and other faiths.

Instead of becoming a line that divides us, our diversity is a treasure that we cherish; Despite the many differences, there are still many common denominators across all of Southeast Asia. The cuisine is one of such examples – we all have a taste for rice, spices, and perhaps sweets as well.

Historically, we might not be that different either. The boundaries of Southeast Asia were somewhat ambiguous and dynamic until the European colonizers imposed on us their form of sovereignty, carving out borders in which the modern Southeast Asian states have emerged from. However, territories hoisting different national flags today might have been under the same banner of Srivijaya, Majapahit, and other ancient kingdoms. Boundaries have never stopped the interaction of peoples across them.

It is undeniable that the ASEAN’s establishment has had much to do with anti-communism rhetoric in the era of the Cold War, as a joint project by its founding fathers Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. However, it has grown into a vibrant community encompassing the political, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of this subcontinent.

If one is to challenge the Southeast Asian identity based on the grounds that it is imagined and constructed recently, the same can be applied to the states in Southeast Asia too. The Philippines was not one monolithic nation prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, which grouped them into the Spanish East Indies. Some Indonesian nationalists like to invoke the story of Majapahit to prove that we were once the state encompassing all of Nusantara before. Yet, on the other hand, we did not actually have a uniting native language before the founding of our state – Malay was more of a lingua franca for the purposes of trade and commerce, up until a variant of it was declared the national language known as Bahasa Indonesia. In this sense, like the Philippines, the Indonesian identity as we know it today is also largely a modern construct. This does not mean we should not celebrate, and certainly has not stopped us from celebrating our own national identity.

Like many of its modern nations, the idea of a Southeast Asian identity is an imagined community and a recent construct. And as we strive to preserve our own identities and appreciate each other’s heritage, let us also come together to celebrate the Southeast Asian region, culture, and community.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. His primary research interest is Southeast Asian Studies, including the concept of regional identity. He could be reached at their e-mail:

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