Refugees and Asylum Seekers in ASEAN: Suggested Remedies

By Yulida Nuraini Santoso and Gading Gumilang Putra

Human rights groups worldwide are startled by the regression of support towards refugees and asylum seekers. Malaysia had recently deported over 1000 migrants to Myanmar, notwithstanding Kuala Lumpur High Court orders to stop repatriation in fear of further persecution upon arrival temporarily. This number includes a number of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified persons of concern (POC) belonging to five ethnic minorities facing persecution in Myanmar. Despite claims that the deportees excluded refugees and asylum seekers and that all had agreed to return voluntarily, the truth remains that Malaysia has hindered international human rights organizations from accessing its immigration detention centers since August 2019. There is no clarity regarding the status of the deportees and the motive behind such a decision.

Malaysia has yet to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention. It does not recognize asylum seekers nor refugees but has allowed a large population to stay on humanitarian grounds. It hosts at least 175,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom come from Myanmar but have not been granted any legal status and remain unable to work or enroll in government schools. Due to this, refugees and asylum seekers who have been granted entrance have been detained as “illegal migrants” and face the risk of being deported despite being registered by the UNHCR as Persons of Concern (POC). In the past, Malaysia has also been known to refusing the arrival of boats carrying desperate Rohingya refugees when its neighboring recipient country, Indonesia, decided to welcome them in Aceh. Malaysia claims this was necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

Myanmar recently peaked in headlines due to the coup d’état. In early February, the military seized control after the general election won Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party. This caused the military-backed opposition to claim that the results were frauds. With the military now in power and the recent deportation setting a precedent, we question why ASEAN has continuously failed to address this recurring problem? Despite Suu Kyi’s popularity, the civilian government has repeatedly refused to cooperate meaningfully with UN rights investigators’ pursuit of accountability for violations, including the persecution of refugees and asylum seekers causing them to flee. To this end, what workable actions can international communities take part in to move the issue of refugees and asylum seekers higher on the agenda of ASEAN policymakers?

The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) is the only body to respond to the growing issue of refugees. The body was officially inaugurated in October 2009 with the initial focus on human rights promotion, but not the investigation of complaints of human rights violations. Being the first and a milestone for ASEAN at the time, it was deemed “the most prominent regional cooperation group in [South] East Asia”[1]. However, little has been done to develop a coordinated, comprehensive, and actionable plan that addresses both the proximate problems, such as the ongoing boat crisis and root problems concerning the Rohingya, to this day. Many argue that the root cause for the lack of response is influenced by the ASEAN Way.[2] Others blame AICHR’s Terms of Reference (TOR),[3] where a formal mandate to sanction human rights abusers is missing. Instead, it plays the role of mediator with civil society organizations (CSOs), formulates strategies to promote confirmation of international legal instruments, build capacities of member states, offer consultative services, and participate in conferences, discussions, and consultations.

Most of AICHR’s activities are held by organizations, forums, or networks that have helped them remain relevant, horizontally. However, these engagements are not as in-depth as most would prefer, as AICHR is restricted in the engagements they may conduct. To help, the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre), the nearest ASEAN entity to resemble a working leg of ASEAN’s humanitarian approach, distributes relief or conducts need assessments where needed. Like AICHR, their mandate pivots on the consensus of all member states. Therefore, it is not a surprise that AICHR will continue to be questioned in the future if its TOR is not reviewed to include meaningful and workable clauses. The process of mainstreaming human rights in ASEAN is crucial as it depends on this. In the long run, it must establish itself as the most authoritative organ for human rights protection in the region if it wishes to remain relevant.

Nonetheless, there are several available opportunities to help remedy this situation. Firstly, to appropriately address the statelessness of Rohingya through ASEAN mechanisms, particularly the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) from an international humanitarian point of view. The topic has been avoided mainly due to sensitivity. However, without appropriately responding to the core of the issue, namely persecution, refugees and asylum seekers will continue to live in limbo. In 2019, two high-level visits to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, were conducted to conduct a Preliminary Needs Assessment (PNA). However, these visits were government-facilitated, focused on the repatriation without addressing the potential harm of further persecution, and had not consulted international humanitarian agencies working directly with refugees and asylum seekers themselves. As a result, the assessments have been heavily criticized by global humanitarian communities as being “misleading.”

Secondly, a regional instrument or body is to be established to provide protection specifically to refugees if any meaningful change is to occur. This body shall consult with experts, relevant agencies, CSOs, academics, and especially the refugee community to achieve solutions targeted at emergency responses, access to healthcare, livelihood initiatives, alternative pathways of migration, dignified repatriation, etc.

Thirdly, to call on states who have yet to grant access to international agencies, government social agencies, and NGOs for refugees/asylum seekers who are denied entry to the territory, the necessary legal representations. This should also include monitoring mechanisms for detainees.

Fourthly, to continue to work with governments through capacity-building programs on access to remedies and asylum. This can be aimed at judicial bodies, refugees, paralegals, and community interpreters.

Fifthly, to advocate for governments to consider providing civil documentation, such as birth certificates, and, further, to recognize the refugee status documented by the UNHCR. It is worth noting that the provision of birth certificates for refugees born in receiving countries is not necessarily a citizenship grant. It simply allows for protection and serves as a formal recognition of one’s refugee status.

Lastly, ASEAN must heighten its engagement with the public to address issues of refugees and asylum seekers. This includes partnerships with universities to create awareness and take part in protection measures and initiate solutions such as Model ASEAN meetings (MAM) initiated by the ASEAN Foundation. Governments can also consider issuing policies based on policy briefs, joint statements, Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), and consultations.



[1]     Gamez, Kimberly Ramos. 2017. “Examining the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR): The Case Study of the Rohingya Crisis”. Tilburg University, Netherlands. Pg. 40 citation no. 157.

[2]    Op.Cit. Pg. 7 citation no. 5.

[3]    Up.Cit. Pg. 8 citation no. 13.


About writers:

  • Yulida Nuraini Santoso is the Managing Director of the ASEAN Studies Center at Universitas Gadjah Mada, with researches and areas of interest surrounding the ASEAN Political-Security Community and transnationalism. The researcher can be reached through
  • Gading Gumilang Putra is the National Information and Advocacy Officer for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Indonesia. His work includes advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers and can be contacted at


Norms Competing, East or West in ASEAN

By Seon Young Yang

Political pundits, scholars, and diplomats have been inculcated with steadfast notions, i.e., norms and rules-based manners. Led by the school of liberalism, the values of multilateralism and international cooperation have been kept for decades as the ground rules to deter unnecessary bloodshed. Multilateralism, arguably spearheaded by the West, has been the unwavering doctrine in which the international and regional organizations, including the UN, EU, and ASEAN, have followed suit.

The invincible truth is that nothing lasts forever. Norms and rules-based frameworks are no exception. The United States, for example, the champion of these notions, cannot avoid reprimand as the Trump administration has caused upheavals in the multilateral trading system and in the international pledges to protect the green planet. Another champion, the United Kingdom, decided to leave the EU and went through a years-long divorce process.

While the West has been busy in their backyards, China has been quietly but substantially growing its power aspiring to become one of the superpowers, nudging the United States. Emerging hegemonies have cast a shadow looming in the region and elsewhere. Globalization and multilateralism have been recently challenged, and Asian countries, including ASEAN, have been almost pushed near the edge to choose the US or China. Nosy parkers even posit that ASEAN is stuck in the strategic proxy war between the US and China. Is this true? Recently, Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong expressed his modest but well-thought answers on this matter with BBC Interview.

The prime minister does not “hope the time would come” to choose either one or the other as the defining influence in the region. Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, have extensively interconnected with the two superpowers. While ASEAN has been cautious as per usual, the US and their allies, mostly in western Europe and Japan, have leaned towards the US to counterbalance China’s rise under the fashionable term, the Indo-Pacific. In order to gain legitimacy to empower the Indo-Pacific logic, not only the US but also the UK, Germany, and France have become proactive to promote the ideas and advance their diplomatic strategies, heralding the “free and open” concept, deep-rooted norms in the liberalism. As reflected in the article published in Foreign Affairs (Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, January 2021) early this year, the Biden’s administration is expected to focus on regaining the US’s image in multilateral orders. The two largest member states of the EU, Germany and France, have also reiterated to enhance partnership with the Indo-Pacific countries. This month, the UK government has finally issued the Global Britain in a competitive age (March 2021), the strategy heavily focused on again, Indo-Pacific. The vivid commonality of all these Indo-Pacific strategies by the West caters down to respect and uphold norms and the rules-based orders in free and open manners.

Unlike the EU, ASEAN has actively engaged external parties in the so-called ASEAN-led mechanism, such as APT, EAS, ARF, and ADMM-Plus. ASEAN Centrality often leads to a chain of criticism of being vague and inefficient. Consensus and unanimity are the core of the ASEAN Centrality. In the second layer, ASEAN’s common position and stance have supported such a decision-making process. ASEAN often refers to itself as a family of 10 members, and they finalize their common position before vis-à-vis many in the regional meetings where the US and China also engage. Those who prefer straightforwardness can barely stand on the ASEAN Centrality, but so far, ASEAN has demonstrated a diplomatic adroitness to make everyone seemingly happy.

ASEAN has encouraged external parties, including its nearest neighbors, China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, to engage in the regional matters. Naysayers can argue that ASEAN is incapable of moving their regional integration forward, which is why external engagement matters much. Nevertheless, ASEAN has amplified the sphere of a new age of diplomacy where different parties across the region can meet at least once a year to exchange views and explore ways forward. ‘Manners maketh men’ suits the ASEAN way. ASEAN will never degrade any country or make it lose face. China has advanced its influence in the region for the last few years, and the BRI initiative has consolidated its economic muscle even more, particularly in ASEAN. Japan, for example, has always been respected by ASEAN, as reflected in the 2021 ISEAS Survey. Japan is even considered one of the most preferred nations to counterbalance US-China rivalry in the region and the EU. Heralded by its enamoring K-Wave, Korea has gained popularity in the region, especially among younger generations.

Looking at the figures, ASEAN Plus Three reached USD 869.1 billion, equivalent to 31% of ASEAN’s total merchandise trade volume as of 2018 (ASEAN Secretariat, April 2020). ASEAN is economically intertwined with their neighbors in East Asia noticeably. However, ASEAN does not block the gate for other guests who wish to sign formal relationships. Despite the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN welcomed France and Italy as Development Partners along with Germany and Chile last year. Cuba and Columbia signed the Treaty of Amity. There are more stakeholders than ever in the region. According to the 2021 ISEAS Survey, ASEAN prefers the US and other western countries, noticeably the EU. Economically, China is de facto the most influential power, but politically, the U.S. and the western influences still matter significantly. Thus, ASEAN has hedged between the norms and approaches from the East and the West. ASEAN will probably not whither its neutral position, at least in the foreseeable future. It is premature to tell which one is better, but ASEAN will again develop an inclusive concept to make every party satisfactory, as witnessed in ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN has paved its way to survive and develop regional integration for more than five decades. Some political pundits still pompously neglect ASEAN as the talk shop of insignificant emerging nations in the southern hemisphere. Despite all odds, ASEAN has achieved external parties’ engagement and has made ASEAN relevant to various stakeholders. ASEAN has embraced every guest who wishes to tie a knot, and it will continue its practice. Those guest countries have expressed and unveiled new norms to attract ASEAN’s attention. What can be reassured is that there will be competing norms with ASEAN’s subtle permission, but ASEAN reigns in the throne to cherry-pick the best options available no matter how hard external parties accentuate their norms.


Seon Young Yang (Ms)

Seon Young Yang is a Senior Research Officer in the Mission of the Republic of Korea to ASEAN in Jakarta (2013-Present). Her academic qualifications are BA in Linguistics (University of East Anglia, the UK, 2006-9), MSc in European Studies and Communication Science (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, 2011-12), and Graduate Diplomat in International Relations (London School of Economics, the UK, 2016).

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The Unnerving Act East Policy and the Uninterested ASEAN

By Habibah Hasnah Hermanadi, M.A (Photo:

India has been “acting east” for quite a while now but how does the East respond? Well, if the East in this context can be represented by Southeast Asia then not much. The annual State of Southeast Asia 2021 report that was recently published by the ASEAN Study Centre captured the degree of distrust ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries have toward India. Where we can see how India stood up among other influential foreign powerhouses. Southeast Asia warmed up to Japan and European Union. In the past, the countries distanced itself from the United States under President Donald Trump, but that view is currently changing presumably affected by the newly inaugurated President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris marking new beginnings and democratic hope. However, India’s persistence in making a more significant presence had been viewed more cautiously with 50.8% proclaiming of no confidence and less than 19% of confidence. It had slightly decreased from 53.5% in 2020. However, the number had increased quite drastically in the last couple of years considering it used to be around 45.6% in 2019.

Whither India in Southeast Asia? 

The report highlighted there was greater distrust Southeast Asian countries have for China. Nonetheless, there was not much momentum gained by India in the face of such change. Prior to this, India claimed to be willing and able to take this leadership role when it comes to ASEAN, but as it was reflected in the status quo it does not seem to go to that direction. With that being said, India is still an outsider. State-wise in the context of foreign policies this is rather expected. Factually, the relation is considerably at its fetal state if it is compared to Japan’s affluence in the Southeast region.

Why the distrust? While the survey emphasized the question of whether India will do “the right thing” this does not reflect well on ASEAN. India should evaluate their strategy, perhaps this idea of rekindling kinship and including India in the Southeast Asian affairs are not going as they intended to be. With a lack of foreign policy maneuvers that are catered to the socioeconomic-cultural and values that are centering Southeast Asia. New Delhi’s pragmatism might not work for this case. The distance remained, India should not be using the same strategy as they do in South Asia as it is in Southeast Asia.

Time for New Delhi’s Softer’ Side

For so long, New Delhi does not shy away from various military and security-related agreements in Southeast Asia. In Myanmar this commitment is visible, India agreed to supply arms and equipment needs for joint border patrol in addition to Indian warships that make regular calls at Myanmar’s ports. Recently at the India-Vietnam Summit, the two signed seven agreements in areas as diverse as defense, petrochemicals, renewable and nuclear energy furthering their agreement for cooperation between their defense industries in a total of 600 million USD. In another case, the Philippines expressed their deepening interest in attaining the first India-Russia Cruise missile or BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, the purchase is deeply motivated by their concern of China active movement in the South China Sea. In Indonesia, the continuation of India-Indonesia Coordinated Patrol (IND-INDO CORPAT) remains vital to India’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) vision that heavily maritime reliant.

Comparing India’s determination within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad, a forum that is manifested out of security purposes, is not alike with engaging with ASEAN or Southeast Asia. All Quad members willingly bridge their interest through a common security objective that is to balance the ever-growing presence of China. India cannot enter ASEAN through the same means. If Indo-Pacific is still relevant until today, then diversify the strategy in approaching each member state and speak the language of its community. For all they know the majority of ASEAN countries declared the concept of Indo-Pacific to be unclear and still need further elaboration. The distance pertained due to the inability to translate the ASEAN way that is heavy on values and political characteristics. This went beyond mere speaking the political language among the states but also comprehend the socio-cultural response ASEAN member countries have in viewing external actors. Not until India had successfully submerged into one of its inner-circle in Southeast Asia that sense of foreignness will remain.

However, it does not mean New Delhi has not tried to use its soft power capacity in exercising its foreign policy. It was only 2018 when Narendra Modi established the ASEAN-India Research Training Fellowship that is intended to reach out to Southeast Asia through research and development in technology and science in India’s top technological Institutions. Perception management is pertinent in this matter to diminish the distance and gradually gaining a more meritorious spot in the heart of the ASEAN countries.

In this Economy?

The report also covered how China remained a strong economic influence in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, Beijing continuously disregards New Delhi’s attempts of closing in the region. Firstly through dismissing Indo-Pacific completely in various forums and secondly by proclaiming this diplomatic reach as a futile effort. The effort might not be futile as it was framed by China, but at the same time not as fruitful. When India’s foreign policy paradigm shifted from looking to acting, this also implied a degree of engagement, something that is translated rather too simplistic by New Delhi. New Delhi branded itself as a benign and responsible rising power in comparison to the expansive and revisionist Beijing, but these claims did not affect China’s economy and present among ASEAN countries.

Interestingly, just last year India withdrew itself from Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on its brink of agreement. Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs pointed out how India’s needs were not addressed thus questioning the intention to take part in the agreement. The need to deepen economic engagement is blocked by India’s defensive, protectionist approach to international trade. Moreover, in the case of working with ASEAN, this became apparent at the last ASEAN-India Economic ministers meeting in August 2020. Both parties failed to issue a joint media statement. To trace the root of failure, the parties are in disagreements over the scope of the scheduled ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) review. On one side, India initiated the importance of the review to focus on AITIGA implementation and most importantly to address its trade deficit with ASEAN. However, ASEAN wanted the review to extend trade liberalization and facilitation.


So far, the Act East policy in Southeast Asia has been hot and cold. This implied lack of commitment to push further or even to achieve the so-called engagement. India claimed growing strategic partnership through more military-related agreements such as in Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are progressing enough. It might progress but not to the imagined significance New Delhi portrayed itself to be. For these agreements are happening away from the community, it became another decent deal signed merely in the transactional framework away from engagement. In addition to that backing off from RCEP is quite the relationship stain just as much as the inability to find common grounds on free trade and trade facilitation with ASEAN. In this case, domestic affairs are not to blame, in fact, a chance to seize the momentum and commit with the action plan as foreign and domestic supposed to work altogether.


Habibah Hasnah Hermanadi, MA.

Habibah is a political researcher with a master’s degree from the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi. Feel free to access her research and publications here.

How Does RED II Discriminate Indonesian and Malaysian Palm Oil Industry?

By Intan Tawaddada Ilaiha (Photo: World Resource Institute Indonesia)

The banning of Palm oil usage in the European Union ruins the economy of smallholder farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia. It remains the issue of poverty for developing countries to suffer.

In December 2018, the European Union revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED) called RED II, which bans the use of palm oil (WTO, 2018) and closes the opportunity for Indonesia and Malaysia to export their palm oil production. They maintain to use another biofuel such as sunflower oil that they start to produce themselves. The reason to ban the use of palm oil is that the European Union claims that the production of palm oil causes a lot of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. Leaving the palm oil market in Indonesia and Malaysia makes the smallholder farmers suffer from being collapsed as Indonesia and Malaysia are the biggest exporters for European Countries. Almost 85 percent of palm oil in European Countries is from Indonesia and Malaysia. Moreover, palm oil is versatile if we compare it to other oil for cosmetics, pharmaceutical, food, fuel, etc.

The main reason to ban is because of bad practices of palm oil plantation. The fact is that palm oil-producing countries have done so much to solve this issue such as the commitment of reforestation, conservation, research, and also the stricter certification for sustainable palm oil industry such as ISPO (Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil) Certification, MSPO (Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil) Certification, and RSPO (Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil). It is called discrimination because in RED II they do not give a clear explanation about how a sustainable plantation should be. There is no such amount of how large the plantation is. So, no matter how hard Indonesia and Malaysia have tried to prove that they have improved their palm oil production sustainability, it will be no use since the European Union will claim the whole production of palm oil as a non-sustainable production that will damage our environment.

The problems remain with the ban and the significant difference of palm oil tariffs in Europe. The Netherlands maintains its partnership with Indonesia and Malaysia to buy palm oil. The Netherlands is one of the countries in the European Union territory that does not want to bind its regulation with the RED II result. The Netherlands itself is also a producing country of palm oil, but they can sell their palm oil at way higher prices in the European Union Countries. The difference is around USD 150 per-metric ton (CPOPC, 2020), it remains unfair since we can say that the Netherlands palm oil is mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia. The tariffs sanctions exist because the European Union claims Indonesia and Malaysia have bad practices of palm oil plantation. Under the same logic, it means the Netherlands also distributes the palm oil that has the chain of bad practices palm oil plantation, but why does the Netherlands not have the same tariffs sanctions? So, the European Union proclaimed aim to stop the deforestation of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests by giving them tariffs sanctions is questionable.

From 9 December 2019 to 2 November 2020, Indonesia has requested consultation in WTO to talk about the palm oil dispute (WTO, 2020). Other countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Norway, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States reserved their third-party rights in that consultation (ibid). Nevertheless, the palm oil settlement dispute remains unclear for Indonesia, Malaysia, and the European Union. This means that the future of smallholder farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia remains unclear as well.

This whole regulation from the European Union will give no benefit at all to Indonesia and Malaysia. Nevertheless, I can assure you that banning palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia will give no benefit the decreasing global warming and climate change. The whole world will rely on Indonesia and Malaysia for its reforestation to the lungs of the world. At the same time, they also give no benefit at all to Indonesia and Malaysia with a ban from the European Union. How can the world expect Indonesia and Malaysia somehow to change its palm oil plantation into a complete forest by giving them sanctions? The people in Indonesia and Malaysia especially smallholder farmers of palm oil are suffering from this regulation while the world forces them to change their lifestyle and jobs drastically. Furthermore, there is no such guarantee if the European Union leaves the Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil market and they will change its plantation into the forest due to the economy of hundreds of smallholder farmers. The worst case scenario will find another market apart from the European Union Countries market to survive and we cannot guarantee this new market will demand sustainability. We are sure if Indonesia and Malaysia still try their best for a sustainable palm oil industry even though the new market will not demand sustainability. But it is really unfair because Indonesia and Malaysia do not get the reward they deserve for trying their best to sustain the sustainable palm oil industry amid economic setback due to the coronavirus outbreak.

At the end of the day, saving the environment has to be everyone’s commitment on this whole planet due to our existence, and we all take advantage of it. It is a selfish act to leave this issue to Indonesia and Malaysia just because the forests are located there while we all take advantage of it no matter what country we live. Then, we close our eyes when their smallholder farmers are suffering from the impact of discrimination regulation. We cannot leave the palm oil market, but we can demand to reform the palm oil market to be a better one.

Intan Tawaddada Ilaiha is a Final Year Student of Communication Science from the Social and Political Faculty in Universitas Sebelas Maret. She concerns about low politics, international relations, and humanitarian issues.

Theorizing a College of Southeast Asia

By Truston Yu (Photo: Vindur, Polish Wikipedia)

For seven decades, the College of Europe has produced distinguished alumni members who had gone on to take up important posts in the European Union (EU) and its member states. With an increasing demand for ASEAN young talents well-versed in the region, could there be a “College of Southeast Asia” in the future? With Europe as an example, this article theorizes the creation of a postgraduate institution of similar nature in the Southeast Asian context.

The College of Europe was established in 1949 as one of the results of the 1948 Congress of Europe in The Hague. It was supported by significant figures from postwar Europe, such as Spanish diplomat Salvador de Madariaga and British prime minister Winston Churchill. The first campus is in Bruges, Belgium, where students study law, politics, or economics in an EU context. A second campus was established in Natolin (Warsaw) after the fall of the Berlin Wall, offering interdisciplinary programs. Both campuses offer year-long master degrees.

Under what is called the “College Formula”, students spend ten months living and studying together in an intensive yet nurturing environment. There are around 340 students in Bruges and 130 in Natolin, making for a tight-knit community. Despite the short duration of the program, there is a solid alumni network across cohorts and countries. For non-European audiences, one of the most well-known alumnus would be Former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

As of today, the College’s existence may seem perfectly logical and reasonable; yet it is worth noting that at the time of its inception, conflict was still perceived to be the norm in the European continent. Memories of a war-torn Europe were still very fresh, and the creation of such a College was at the time a radical initiative. It has been several decades since the last time a war was fought between countries in Southeast Asia, the execution of such a project would be far less controversial here. In fact, the creation of this College would go in line with ongoing efforts of the ASEAN Community and the Narrative of ASEAN Identity.

In some sense, the College of Europe could be seen as an academy for civil servants serving in the European domain. Henri Brugmans, a former Rector of the College of Europe in Bruges, believed that one of the purposes of their purposes was to “train an elite of young executives for Europe”. Indeed, many graduates have gone on to take up executive roles in organs under the EU framework, or enter the foreign service of their home countries with a focus on EU affairs. However, this is not absolute, and there are still others who chose different paths, such as think tanks and consultancies.

With ASEAN integration taking place at an exponential rate, there would certainly be greater demand for staff members in ASEAN affairs: whether it is in the ASEAN Secretariat and associated entities, the respective directorates under the foreign ministries of ASEAN member states, or even non-governmental organizations and private corporations.

Southeast Asia is, without doubt, the most diverse region on earth in many ways: countries differ in language, religion, political systems, and many other categories. Such diversity requires a nuanced understanding of the region, especially for those whose work is related to specific countries or the ASEAN as a whole. When external parties like Korea and Taiwan have been stepping up their engagement and research on Southeast Asia, this region also needs to train more local professionals with regional expertise – it could only make sense that Southeast Asians ourselves must get to know our own region better than foreign observers. Southeast Asian governments, particularly, could benefit from equipping their brightest young professionals with a regional vision.

Due to both internal and external factors, there is a clear urgency for such a College. This College would also equip classes of regional-minded students with the expertise and connections to take over the reins of an increasingly interconnected ASEAN; Naturally, graduates of the College would act as de facto regional ambassadors to spread the word of Southeast Asia to the domestic populace as well as foreign audiences. For non-Southeast Asian students, the College is an entry-point for them to get to know this region from within.

During Singapore’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2018, the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore began an initiative known as the ASEAN Law Academy. The Academy is a “cross-disciplinary master’s level intensive course aimed at those working in the fields of politics and governance, economics and law.” It appears to be the closest resemblance to something like a College of Europe, but at a shorter and smaller scale geared towards established professionals.

A College of Southeast Asia could be set up from scratch or based on existing institutions. The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), for example, has long been seen as an institution for aspiring diplomats and strategists of the region. The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, also based in Singapore, is renowned as the world’s leading institution for Southeast Asian Studies. At any rate, the expertise is already well-established, there needs to be an institution with institutionalized degree programs utilizing the existing resources.

Perhaps most importantly, what would a College of Southeast Asia experience look like for its students? I had the honor of interviewing Emma Vermunicht, recent alumna, and former Student President of the Natolin campus. In Emma’s opinion, the best part of the College of Europe lies not in the coursework per se but the whole community in general. “For the academics, I could have gone to any other institution,” It was the community-building experience that is irreplaceable: “We had just 138 students in our cohort, coming from all different countries.” In many ways, this community reflects what real life is like in the EU.”

A College of Southeast Asia must be able to offer its students something beyond academic skills and knowledge. After all, there are already prominent institutions on Southeast Asian Studies such as Kyoto University and the University of Sydney, and their longstanding tradition in the field would attract students with academic interest. Like the College of Europe, the Southeast Asian counterpart must endeavor to create a conducive community on campus for students, which extends into an alumni network as they graduate. It could also serve as a feeder for internships and officer positions in organs such as the ASEAN Secretariat, the ASEAN Foundation, and other affiliated entities such as the Master of Arts in Transatlantic Affairs (MATA) between the College of Europe and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the United States, the College of Southeast Asia may feature partnerships that allow for comparative studies.

With imaginations based on the College of Europe, this article has painted a picture of a hypothetical College of Southeast Asia. Irrespective of the precise form this may take place, the creation of a postgraduate institution on Southeast Asian affairs would be tremendously helpful towards nurturing a new class of young professionals to lead the region.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and the teaching of this discipline. They could be reached at their e-mail:

A Switzerland Model for Timor-Leste? Prospects of Differentiated Integration in ASEAN

By Truston Yu (Photo: VOA)

Nearly two decades have passed since Timor-Leste became Southeast Asia’s youngest country, their quest for membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remains in limbo. Could a model like Switzerland in the European Union (EU) be a feasible solution for Timor-Leste’s relationship with the ASEAN? This article examines the idea first proposed by veteran diplomat Barry Desker, looking into case examples in Europe and prospecting its application in Southeast Asia. The concept of “differentiated integration”, in particular, is of interest within this discussion.

It has been over four decades since Timor-Leste first expressed its intent in joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Much has happened in the years between: East Timor was annexed by Indonesia until it regained its independence 27 years later following a period of transitional UN administration; ASEAN membership doubled; the ASEAN Charter was drafted in 2007, and the ASEAN Community was launched in 2015. However, little progress has been made regarding Dili’s accession to the Southeast Asian bloc.

The ASEAN Charter’s Article 6 Admission of New Members outlines the criteria for an aspiring country to be admitted into the ASEAN. It is non-debatable that Timor-Leste has already fulfilled the first three; the final one that remains is criterion (d) Ability and willingness to carry out obligations of Membership.

Timor-Leste is Southeast Asia’s smallest economy, with a GDP of only one-tenth of Cambodia, the smallest economy in ASEAN. However, all members must contribute an equal amount to the ASEAN budget, and this would certainly be a bigger burden to this young country than it is to other neighbors in Southeast Asia. As former ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong stated, ASEAN member states attend over a thousand meetings of various nature each year. Attendance itself is already a rather demanding task, not to mention that member states must share the workload of hosting ASEAN Summits and other events.

Ambassador Barry Desker, senior Singaporean diplomat and the Founding Dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), proposed the idea of a “Switzerland model” for Timor-Leste in ASEAN. I had the opportunity of speaking with him personally at an academic conference in Singapore, July 2019. Desker envisioned a solution in which Timor-Leste could participate in ASEAN frameworks without having to comply with the rather high expectations membership entails.

Differentiated integration describes the phenomenon in which member states have varying levels of commitment and participation in different aspects of the organization. The official definition set out in the European Commission’s GLOSSARY: The reform of the European Union in 150 definitions is as follows:

Differentiated integration means a process of integration in which the Member States opt to move forward at different speeds and/or towards different objectives, in contrast to the notion of a monolithic bloc of States pursuing identical objectives at a single speed.

This definition of differentiated integration, however, does not include non-member states. They are addressed in Article 8 of the Treaty of the European Union:

The Union shall develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation.

There are differential treatments and expectations on member states and other countries with close relations. It is the state of “not completely within, not completely without” which Desker envisions would be the way forward for Timor-Leste’s inclusion into ASEAN.

There are variations of this pertaining to the European Union: The most well-known cases would be members of the European Free Trade Association like Switzerland and Norway; there are also microstates like Andorra and Monaco; finally, we have Central European Free Trade Agreement member states such as Romania which eventually left CEFTA and joined the EU, as well Serbia which is considered to be first in line as the next member to join EU.

ASEAN differs from the EU in the sense that it emphasizes the equality between member states. Unanimity is central to the ASEAN Way – everyone is equal in voting (and vetoing) rights. While the EU is accustomed to “tailor-made plans” designed to meet the needs and capacities of different countries, this would be a major hurdle for ASEAN.

Though Desker coined the idea of a “Switzerland model” as it is the most well-known example of a non-member state being highly integrated into the EU, Dili’s circumstances are more homologous to the CEFTA members. As the Balkan countries, Timor-Leste is the one lagging behind the regional average, and preparatory efforts for accession have focused on capacity building. Thus, the Timor-Leste model would actually be closer to a “Serbia model”.

In fact, elements of differentiated integration could already be seen in Southeast Asia, with Timor-Leste’s inclusion in the ASEAN Annual Meeting of Foreign Ministers (AMM) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). ASEAN may further include Timor-Leste in more multilateral meetings regarding various aspects of cooperation.

In the face of Timor-Leste’s long quest for ASEAN membership, there are three courses of action: immediate membership, indefinite rejection, and differentiated integration. Not only is a differentiated integration model ideal for Timor-Leste’s gradual inclusion into ASEAN, but the current mode of Timor-Leste’s involvement with the regional bloc is also already demonstrating elements of differentiated integration. Admittedly, the length of this article does not allow for a deeper examination of the ASEAN and EU’s complexity. There remain many more technicalities to be discussed under this topic, such as whether the model would be an intermediary or permanent, or which of the three ASEAN Community pillars Dili will be given access to first. Nevertheless, differentiated integration, in a broad sense, presents a new framework for understanding the possibilities for Timor-Leste in ASEAN, breaking the binary and the deadlock in the status quo.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and Timor-Leste’s accession to ASEAN.

They could be reached at their e-mail:

5 Months Left for Southeast Asia to Build the Case in UNSC

By Truston Yu (Photo: White House, Pete Souza)

On 17 June, the United Nations General Assembly elected the new class of non-permanent members to the United Nations Security Council. India was among four countries to be elected, signaling the end to a period with two Southeast Asian countries holding UNSC membership at the same time. With an ASEAN Day looming this month, this article advocates for the greater involvement of Southeast Asia in international security. The “7+7+7” proposal by Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani, in particular, will be explored in this article.

It certainly is intriguing that India’s election came at a time of heightened tensions with China, with the battles between the Himalaya borders. This election was also a reminder that Indonesia’s tenure is coming to an end – India is Indonesia’s successor and will be taking over the seat on New Year’s day in 2021.

The UNSC is arguably the most powerful international organ in the world. There are five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The P5 are joined with ten non-permanent members, elected in batches of five every two years. There are two seats for the Asian constituencies, with one up for election every year.

Two years ago, in June 2018, Indonesia was elected to the UNSC for the fourth time with the support of 144 out of 193 UN member states. As the only G20 member coming from Southeast Asia, Indonesia is commonly seen as a leading power of the region; They are a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, having housed the Secretariat before it had its own building.

A year after Indonesia, Vietnam was elected to the UNSC with a near-unanimous 192 votes out of 193 in 2019. Vietnam was admitted to the ASEAN in 1995 and has been rapidly climbing up the ladder of economic development since then. They have been described as the biggest winner of the US-China trade war over the last few years, and in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Vietnam was one of the best-performing countries in Asia.

UNSC membership coincided with the year of ASEAN chairmanship – it was Vietnam’s turn after Thailand in the rotational system. The pairing of Indonesia and Vietnam, a founding member of the ASEAN and an impressive rising regional power, is an ideal one.

Spanning from Afghanistan to Samoa, Japan to Timor-Leste, the Asia constituency is a huge one. It is rare to have a Southeast Asian country on the Council at any given time, not to mention having two of them at the same time. Interestingly, the last time this happened was with the same pair of countries: Indonesia served between 2007-2008 and Vietnam, 2008-2009. At that time, ASEAN was celebrating its fortieth anniversary with the new ASEAN Charter. With the ASEAN Community in place now, Southeast Asia is and should be much more committed in the international arena.

Recently, there has been a push to call the non-permanent member states the “E10”, recognizing the mandate they were given. Indeed, people have challenged the P5’s legitimacy, claiming the fact that they won World War II does not mean that they could hold onto the permanent seats indefinitely. There have been significant changes in the world as well as the countries in question: the original seats were in fact, held by the Republic of China and the USSR, which were replaced by the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation respectively.

Amb. Kishore Mahbubani, prominent Singaporean diplomat and former UNSC president, famously proposed the 7+7+7 model, which is outlined in his book The Great Convergence. This is by far the most significant UNSC reform proposal coming from a Southeast Asian scholar. The first “7” are permanent members, including Brazil, India, Nigeria, and a single European Union seat.

For every Brazil, there is Argentina, which is antagonistic to its quest for permanent membership: Japan has South Korea, India has Pakistan, and Germany has its European neighbors. The way to circumvent this would be to give them a slice of it such that these countries, too, could benefit from the reforms. Thus, the second “7” comes from a pool of semi-permanent members that would rotate. Mahbubani named 28 countries on the basis of “share of global population and share of global power”, including 3 Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The final “7” are for elections among the rest of the world. While the number of elected seats shrunk from 10 to 7, Mahbubani claims that this new arrangement helps small states like Singapore, as they no longer need to compete for seats with the middle powers.

It is worth noting. However, that much has changed since Mahbubani’s book was published in 2013. Brexit showed that the European Union is not as homogeneous as perceived back then. The ASEAN Community took off in 2015, creating a more united region which has a stronger voice in the international community. Mahbubani himself acknowledged the ASEAN as a “Catalyst for Peace” in his 2017 co-authored book The ASEAN Miracle.

It is apparent now that Southeast Asia in the future. ASEAN should have a permanent seat, either represented by the Secretariat or a member state. There is no evidence that a UNSC reform will take place anytime soon, but it is not too early for Southeast Asia to build a track record and entrench itself in the highest level of international security discourse.

The world is an increasingly polarized and volatile place; there are 5 months left for the Indonesia-Vietnam duo to make a case for Southeast Asia. Even then, Southeast Asia’s quest for greater involvement in international security affairs would not end here. We must continue to prove our worth as a Catalyst for Peace in the years and even decades to come.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. His research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and the external relations of Southeast Asia.

He could be reached at his e-mail:

ASEAN Cultural Exchange in the Era of Interconnectedness – Examining the 3 Campus Model

By Truston Yu (Photo: Culture 360 Asia-Europe Foundation)

In my very first lecture on Southeast Asian politics, I learned about the creation of an institutionalized Southeast Asian Studies discipline in the United States. It nurtured a new generation of Southeast Asians who saw themselves not only in national terms but also as a member of the greater Southeast Asian region. It is this class of intellectuals whom, upon returning to their countries of origin after the 1950s, created a personal network that lasted decades. Could the youth today emulate the early classes of Southeast Asianists? In this article I recount my personal experiences with 3 Campus East Asia Programme, examining the prospects of emulating such a model in a Southeast Asian setting.

Socio-cultural integration is one of the ASEAN Community’s three pillars. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is that many Southeast Asians would know more about faraway countries like the United States or Japan more than their closest neighbors within the region. 2020 is the Year of the ASEAN Identity and if this is the goal, it is imperative that we instill greater regional awareness among the students today. While being a global citizen could do no harm, we must also recognize ourselves as regional citizens.

In my junior year, I had the honor of representing my home university in the 3 Campus East Asia Programme. Over the course of a year, students spend a fall semester in Tokyo, spring semester in Korea, and a summer semester in Hong Kong. The final section of the program includes a 2-week course and culminates in a social innovation internship. My primary motivation was that Japan and Korea are important players in the Southeast Asian region, and I did utilize the opportunity to speak with local scholars specializing in Southeast Asia. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience, but I wished that there was a Southeast Asian equivalent of such a program.

There are two unique features to 3 Campus: it is cohort-based and multi-destination. Unlike typical exchange programs where one would travel to their host institution alone, the diverse 3 Campus cohort is a group of ready-made friends. There are numerous dual or double degree programs around the world, but 3 Campus is unique in the sense that the cohort does not start with a blank page – they bring with them diverse perspectives from their home institutions.

The multi-destination nature of 3 Campus magnifies the benefits of the cohort-based program. Members of the consortium mirror each other in many ways: they are the oldest modern higher education institutions of their countries, enjoying great prestige and playing similar roles in their societies. Exploring the parallels and differences between destinations is part of the learning experience. Switching between three environments in one year is no easy feat, but having friends by one’s side surely helps. The shared experiences going through these challenges made the cohort bonding even tighter. Being in three destinations within the span of a year, students could triangulate and develop intercultural sensitivity, which allows them to understand and adapt to new cultures easily.

In terms of curriculum, 3 Campus incorporates a series of courses designed to provide students with deeper insights of the region beyond everyday life; The internship is a precious opportunity to experience work in an East Asian setting, setting students up for an international career. There is a profound social impact out of this program: Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans students are put together in one classroom to discuss each other’s culture and history, sometimes involving topics difficult and even painful. This paves the way towards mutual understanding and may nurture the next generation of leaders that are able to bring the region together. From Sabah to Preah Vihear, Konfrontasi to the Khmer Rouge, Southeast Asian neighbors have also been marred by historical rivalry and conflicts. a similar model in Southeast Asia could serve a greater purpose of reconciliation between rival nations.

If there is enough will from the various institutions in the region, the 3 Campus model could easily be replicated in Southeast Asia. A Bahasa-themed program could be created between Universitas Indonesia, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, and Universiti Malaya – they are the oldest universities of the Bahasa-speaking world, based in the respective capital cities: Greater Jakarta, Bandar Seri Begawan, and Kuala Lumpur. The quarrels for cultural relics like batik and rendang proves just how these neighboring countries (and Singapore) share much more than we would like to admit. Having lived in Java, Borneo, and Malaya, students would have a more nuanced understanding of the common regional heritage that connects the modern countries. A similar triangle could be drawn along the Mekong between Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which make up the former French Indochina.

For an ASEAN studies perspective, we could form another trio between the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, the ASEAN Studies Centers at Universitas Gadjah Mada, and Chulalongkorn University. Students would get a glimpse of all three ASEAN founding members, which are very different from one another: A highly modernized city-state with a president; a diverse republic boasting hundreds of ethnic groups and a sultanate; and a kingdom where the monarch still plays a highly influential role.

These are, of course, just a few examples, so to speak. With ten ASEAN member states and Timor-Leste in waiting, there are many more potential combinations. The incorporation of students from outside the region may also be a good opportunity to showcase Southeast Asia’s diversity. At any rate, these graduates would become a new class of Southeast Asianists that would contribute towards an interconnected region.

We are now in the age of experiential learning and greater interconnection between countries. The 3 Campus model has been extraordinarily successful in an East Asian context; As we strive to advance the narrative of an ASEAN identity, educational initiatives like the 3 Campus model would be a worthwhile investment to consider.


Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. They were nominated to participate in the highly selective 3 Campus East Asia Programme, spending half a year in Japan, and Korea respectively. They could be reached at their e-mail:

What Southeast Asian Studies Could Learn from Japan

By Truston Yu (Picture: CSEAS Kyoto University)

The Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at Kyoto University could be seen as the pinnacle of Southeast Asian Studies in Japanese scholarship. During my exchange semester in Japan, I had the opportunity of visiting the Center on three different occasions, speaking to the Director, and attending an academic conference. From multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary and now transdisciplinary, the CSEAS ethos completely transformed my understanding of the discipline. This article looks into the work of one of the most renowned institutions in this field, drawing lessons from Japanese academia for Southeast Asian Studies.

The Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) has its origins in a 1950s seminar series on research in Southeast Asia and was officially established in 1963. CSEAS prides itself on three principles: emphasis on long-term fieldwork conducted in local languages, interdisciplinarity, and “research agendas defined by local contemporary issues.”

Academia in Japan as a whole has been renowned for its excellence in Area Studies. Western institutions, such as Berkeley, required students of Chinese studies to learn the Japanese language in order to tap into the rich literature in this field. In the Western tradition, area studies tend to focus on the political and economic side of the region. CSEAS has a much more holistic perspective, which includes natural science and even medical science.

In a working paper published by CSEAS titled Bridging the Disciplinary Divide: 50 years of Research at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, it is said that Japan’s study of Southeast Asia is not free from a Japanese “ancestral sin” known as the Southern Expansion Doctrine (Nanshin-ron) in the early years following the Meiji restoration. In this sense, Japanese scholarship could be seen as being motivated by Japan’s expansionist ambitions at that time. Agricultural research projects were conducted in newly acquired territories for the purposes of higher yields with cash crops. It is this experience that shaped Japanese area studies to be more diverse than its Western counterparts. Since the 1960s in the early years of CSEAS, they have already featured a host of diverse disciplines broadly grouped under humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Despite the connection with imperialism in its early origins, Japanese literature on Southeast Asia has been and continues to be a great contributor towards our understanding of this region in different dimensions. Interdisciplinarity is an increasingly popular paradigm for understanding the world, and this is reflected in the way research is conducted at Kyoto University. Students would have at least two supervisors whose expertise is in different disciplines, and such an arrangement would allow for more nuances in research outputs.

In 2017, CSEAS launched a new initiative called the Japan-ASEAN Platform for Transdisciplinary Studies. Transdisciplinarity, as explained by CSEAS, is the idea of breaking the barriers separating academic and non-academic stakeholders. Compared to more theoretical disciplines, area studies have a more practical application as its fundamental purpose is to inform people about a particular region such that they could devise better policies. This is especially true for the various studies on Southeast Asia conducted by external parties, such as Europe in the colonial period, the United States during the Cold War, and now many more institutions around the world, given the rise of ASEAN. Much of their research output was intended to enable policymakers to engage Southeast Asia more effectively. In addition to involving the governmental, private, and civil sectors, CSEAS also works closely with local Southeast Asian researchers. In a way, CSEAS is playing a role in the notion of “bringing Southeast Asian Studies back to Southeast Asia”.

CSEAS Kyoto has become a household name for those with decent exposure to Southeast Asian Studies. In this case, why is Japanese scholarship in this region often overshadowed by its Western counterparts? The working paper suggested that it is not for lack of writings published in English, but rather “a persistent hierarchy in knowledge production that privileges both writing and publication in an Anglo-American continuum”.

To create synergy for the Asian perspective in Southeast Asian Studies, CSEAS led the establishment of the Consortium for Southeast Asian Studies in Asia (SEASIA) in 2013. The charter was signed by various regional universities, including the National University of Singapore, University of the Philippines, and Universiti Brunei Darussalam. The Consortium seeks to connect scholars and stakeholders from the region, fostering exchanges on a wide variety of topics. In some sense, this is an antidote to criticisms of Southeast Asian Studies as being affected by Orientalist perspectives.

Southeast Asian Studies in Southeast Asia is much closer to the ground, and local scholars research institutions are thus even more well-placed than those based in Japan and the West. While external parties like China or the United States only require research insights insofar as they are relevant to specific engagements such as trade or security, Southeast Asia needs to have a comprehensive understanding of itself in relation to the goals of greater regional integration. Area studies must transcend the boundaries of social sciences or humanities; Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity should be the aspiration for researchers of Southeast Asian Studies in the region.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and its manifestations. They could be reached at their e-mail:

Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies: What’s the Difference?

By Truston Yu (Picture: Businesswest)

Ever since I began my research on Southeast Asia, there has been a lingering question that intrigued me: what is the difference between Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies? Having worked with various institutions on numerous projects relating to the Southeast Asian region, I believe I now have a more well-informed answer to this question. Though, in practice, there are large overlaps between them, the two have slightly different focuses, which will be examined in this article.

Southeast Asian Studies has a longer history than ASEAN Studies. Research on Southeast Asia, such as ethnographies and ecological surveys, can at least be dated back to the colonial period. Russel Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago is one of the most famous pieces of literature of this nature; It chronicles a British naturalist’s scientific exploration over the other side of the Earth. The first institutionalized academic program, as Benedict Anderson recalls in his book The Spectre of Comparisons, would later be offered at Yale University in 1947. It was also around that time that the world established the current conception of what “Southeast Asia” consisted of. Before there could be an ASEAN Studies, however, there must have been an “ASEAN” to begin with. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations only came into existence following the Bangkok Declaration of 1967. Hence any notion of ASEAN Studies would only come into existence afterwards. Naturally, ASEAN Studies also looks at more contemporary topics rather than historical ones.

ASEAN Studies often carry official prerogatives. ASC UGM, for example, was established by the Directorate General of ASEAN Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, in collaboration with the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences of Universitas Gadjah Mada. With a mission of “Bringing ASEAN Closer to you”, the Center organizes a wide array of events seeking to inform the wider public of regional issues. At any rate, the notion that ASEAN’s existence is desirable is taken as a given.

Most institutions that bear the name “ASEAN Studies” are found within the ASEAN region, such as the ASEAN Studies Centers at Chulalongkorn University and at Prince of Songkla University. Apart from that, institutions that carry the name “ASEAN” remain to be a minority compared to those of “Southeast Asia”.

The term “ASEAN Studies” itself implies a focus on this regional organization. ASEAN is composed of its member states, which also hints that this discipline would have a state-centric approach more or less. In certain aspects, the ASEAN Studies discipline can be described as rather rigid and narrow. Timor-Leste, for example, is a Southeast Asian country without ASEAN membership, and would often be left out of ASEAN Studies. On the contrary, Southeast Asia, has a wider and more fluid interpretation: it may include the study of religion, society, and even ecology.

In practice, however, there would be much overlap between the two fields. It ultimately depends on the institution in question. If their work covers Southeast Asian Studies in the context of contemporary politics and economy, it is more likely to overlap with ASEAN Studies. The Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) Kyoto University, on the other hand, is renowned for its interdisciplinary study of the region, which features scientific and even medical research.

In some cases, ASEAN Studies may be seen as a branch of Southeast Asian Studies. At the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (originally named the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies), for example, there is an ASEAN Studies Center, which is a unit set up alongside country studies programs such as Myanmar Studies and Indonesia Studies. Comparing it with other disciplines, a similar parallel would be the subtle distinction between European Studies and EU Studies; Perhaps we could even consider the two fields of Sinology and China Studies as a homologous pair.

Perhaps a criticism of Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies is that both fields may have a tendency of delving too much into the country-by-country distinction. Southeast Asia was divided into these boxes following the demarcation of colonial boundaries, which still restricts our thinking today. With an awareness of this potential problem, we may think out of the box to see the threads that transcend national borders.

Admittedly, the above characterizations are from a personal perspective, and the interpretation of what discipline entails is ultimately up to those who do research in it. It is up to each of us to decide what Southeast Asian Studies or ASEAN Studies mean, and what good scholarship in either field entails. That being said, hopefully, the above frameworks could serve as a paradigm for students of Southeast Asia to think about their academic goals.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies. They could be reached at their e-mail: