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‘Southeast Asia’ as a Form of Knowledge:
Locating Ethnicity in Southeast Asian Studies*
by Shamsul A.B., Institut Alam dan Tamadun Melayu, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
*A keynote paper for the “Workshop on Ethnic Minorities in Southeast Asia” jointly organized by the Institute of the Malay World & Civilization (ATMA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and the Toyota Foundation, Japan, 29-30 March 2003
In my encounter with Southeast Asian studies in the last 25 years I have always been fascinated, sometimes perplexed, by its overwhelming ‘fuzziness.’ Perhaps I’m the unlucky one. Most of my colleagues seemed to be quite clear in what they were doing and where they were going, and I wasn’t. My predicament could have been the result of and compounded by the nature of the intellectual route that I have taken, one that continues to oscillate between certainties and uncertainties, between the macro and the micro, structure and agency, emic and etic and so on.
I partly blame history for what I have suffered from and anthropology for making it worse. Why history and anthropology? The history that I learned, on the one hand, seems to provide certainties and structuredness, and anthropology that I embraced, on the other, continues to highlight uncertainties and doubts. This has been especially true in my effort to understand the plethora of explanations and discourses regarding ethnicity in the context of Southeast Asian studies: history provides me clear ethnic categories and classifications but anthropology often offers just the opposite through its continuous interrogation of the categories and classification by posing questions such as “who is a Malay?” or “who is the Lue?”, “who is the majority?” and “who is the minority?”
While it is too easy to put the blame on anthropology and history for my confusion, or being dizzy and fuzzy ontologically, I thought it would be more fruitful to examine this confusion from a different angle in search for a more satisfactory reflection. I therefore have decided to return to epistemology to heal my ontological blues. I would like to do it in the following manner.
I shall begin with an examination of ‘Southeast Asia’ as a form of knowledge followed by an exploration regarding the ‘knowledge baseline’ that informs the construction of the said knowledge. After that it is useful to have a look at the process of constituting and reproducing the knowledge that would guide my subsequent discussion on the consumption of the knowledge. Finally, I shall try to locate our knowledge on ethnicity within this broader analytic-conceptual discussion on ‘Southeast Asia as a form of knowledge’.
Society is both real and imagined. It is real through face-to-face contact and imagined when the idea of its existence is mediated through mediums such as printed materials and electronic images. So, the term society refers simultaneously to a micro unit that we could observe and to a macro one that we could only be partially engaged with. We therefore have observable ‘societies’ within a macro imagined ‘society,’ so to speak. Southeast Asia, like other regions in the world, has both. But it is the way that both of these components have been weaved into an enduring complex whole, which seemed to have made Southeast Asia and Southeast Asians thrive and survive even under adverse conditions, such as the recent financial-economic crisis, that has become the source of endless intellectual attraction and academic inquiry to both scholars and others, hence the birth, growth and flourishing of Southeast Asian studies.
Thus Southeast Asian studies, dominated by humanities and the social sciences, have been about the study of the ‘society’ and ‘societies’ in the region, in their various dimensions, in the past and at present. The complex plurality of these ‘society’ and ‘societies’, or societal forms, that do indeed co-exist, endure and enjoy some functional stability, have made it imperative for researchers to apply an equally diverse set of approaches, some discipline-based (anthropology, sociology, geography, history, political science, etc.) and others thematically-oriented (development studies, gender studies, cultural studies, etc.) in studying Southeast Asian society. In some cases, it even involved disciplines from the natural as well as applied sciences. Through such processes ‘Southeast Asia as a form of knowledge’ came into being.
The greatest challenge in grasping the content and dynamics of ‘Southeast Asia as a form of knowledge’ that constitutes what is known as Southeast Asian studies, and to its experts, has been to keep pace with the major changes that have affected the ‘society’ and/or ‘societies’ and then narrate, explain and analyze these changes and present the analysis in a way that is accessible to everyone within and outside the region. Therefore, framing the analysis is critical in understanding as to how Southeast Asian studies constitute and reproduce itself through the study of ‘society’ and ‘societies’ within Southeast Asia. The ‘knowledge baseline’ approach is useful in making sense of the said framing process.
A Question of ‘Knowledge Baseline’
Social scientific knowledge (humanities included) on Southeast Asia has a clear ‘knowledge baseline’ meaning a continuous and inter-related intellectual-cum-conceptual basis, which emerged from its own history and has, in turn, inspired the construction, organization and consumption process of this knowledge. The two popular concepts that have been used frequently to characterize Southeast Asia are ‘plurality’ and ‘plural society’, both of which are social scientific constructs that emerged from empirical studies conducted within Southeast Asia by scholars from outside the region.
In historical terms, ‘plurality’ characterized Southeast Asia before the Europeans came and subsequently, divided the region into a community of ‘plural societies’. Plurality here signifies a free-flowing, natural process not only articulated through the process of migration but also through cultural borrowings and adaptations. Politically speaking, polity was the society’s political order of the day, a flexible non-bureaucratic style of management focusing on management and ceremony by a demonstrative ruler. States, governments and nation-states, which constitute an elaborate system of bureaucratic institutions, did not really exist until Europeans came and dismantled the traditional polities of Southeast Asia and subsequently installed their systems of governance, using ‘colonial knowledge’, which gave rise to the plural society complex.
Historically, therefore, plural society signifies both ‘coercion’ and difference’. It also signifies the introduction of knowledge, social constructs, vocabulary, idioms and institutions hitherto unknown to the indigenous population (such as maps, census, museums and ethnic categories), the introduction of market-oriented economy and systematized hegemonic politics. Modern nation-states or state-nations in Southeast Asia have emerged from this plural society context.
It is not difficult to show that the production of social scientific knowledge on Southeast Asia has moved along this plurality-plural society continuum. When scholars conduct research and write on pre-European Southeast Asia they are compelled to respond to the reality of Southeast Asian plurality during that period; a period which saw the region as the meeting place of world civilizations and cultures, where different winds and currents converged bringing together people from all over the world who were interested in ‘God, gold and glory’, and where groups of indigenes moved in various circuits within the region to seek their fortunes. As a result, we have had, in Java, a Hindu king with an Arabic name entertaining European traders. In Champa, we had a Malay raja ruling a predominantly Buddhist populace trading with India, China and the Malay archipelago. Whether we employ the orientalist approach or not, we cannot avoid writing about that period within a plurality framework, thus emphasizing the region’s rich diversity and colorful traditions. In other words, the social reality of the region to a large extent dictates our analytical framework.
However, once colonial rule was established and the plural society was installed in the region, followed later by the formation of nation-states, the analytical frame, too, changed. Not only did analysts have to address the reality of the plural society but also the subsequent developments generated by the existence of a community of plural societies in the region. We began to narrow our analytical frame to nation-state, ethnic group, inter-nation-state relations, intra-nation-state problems, nationalism and so on. This gave rise to what could be called ‘methodological nationalism’, a way of constructing and using knowledge based mainly on the ‘territoriality’ of the nation-state and not on the notion that social life is a universal and borderless phenomenon, hence the creation of ‘Indonesian studies’, ‘Malaysian Studies’, ‘Thai Studies’ and so on.
With the advent of the Cold War and the modernization effort analysts became further narrowed in their frame of reference. They began to talk of poverty and basic needs in the rural areas of a particular nation, also focusing on resistance and warfare, slums in urban areas, and economic growth of smallholder farms. The interest of particular disciplines, such as anthropology, became narrower still when it only focuses on particular communities in remote areas, a particular battle in a mountain area, a failed irrigation project in a delta, or gender identity of an ethnic minority in a market town.
In fact, in numerical terms, the number of studies produced on Southeast Asia in the plural society context supersedes many times those produced on Southeast Asia in the plurality context. Admittedly, social scientific studies about Southeast Asia developed much more rapidly after the Second World War. However, the focus became increasingly narrow and compartmentalized not only by academic disciplines but also in accordance to the boundaries of modern postcolonial nations. Hence, social scientific knowledge on Southeast Asia became, to borrow a Javanese term, kratonized, or compartmentalized.
It is inevitable that a substantial amount of social scientific knowledge about Southeast Asia itself, paradigmatically, has been generated, produced and contextualized within the plural society framework, because ‘nation-state’ as an analytical category matters more than, say, the plurality perception of the Penans of Central Borneo, who, like their ancestors centuries ago, move freely between Indonesia and Malaysia to eke out a living along with other tribal groups and outside traders, ignoring the existence of the political boundaries. In fact, anthropologists seem to have found it convenient, for analytical, scientific and academic expedience, to separate the Indonesian Penans from those of Malaysia when, in reality, they are one and the same people.
Therefore, the plurality-plural society continuum is not only a ‘knowledge baseline’ but also a real-life social construct that was endowed with a set of ideas and vocabulary, within which people exist day-to-day in Southeast Asia.
Constituting and Reproducing the Knowledge
There are at least four major axes along which the construction, organization and reproduction of social scientific knowledge about Southeast Asia and its societies have taken place.
The first axis is that of discipline/area studies. There is an ongoing debate between those who prefer to approach the study of Southeast Asia from a disciplinary perspective, on the one hand, and those who believe that it should be approached from an area studies dimension, employing an inter-disciplinary approach, on the other.
The former prefer to start clearly on a disciplinary footing and treat Southeast Asia as a case study or the site for the application of particular set of theories that could also be applied elsewhere globally. The aim of such an approach is to understand social phenomena found in Southeast Asia and to make comparisons with similar phenomena elsewhere. Those preferring the latter approach see Southeast Asia as possessing particular characteristics and internal dynamics that have to be examined in detail using all available disciplinary approaches with the intention of unraveling and recognizing the indigenous knowledge without necessarily making any comparison with other regions of the world.
The bureaucratic implications of these two approaches can perhaps be clearly discerned in the way social scientific knowledge about Southeast Asia is reproduced through research and teaching. This brings us to the second axis, namely, the undergraduate/graduate studies axis.
Those who favor area studies often believe that Southeast Asian studies can be taught at the undergraduate level hence the establishment of Southeast Asian studies departments or programs, in a number of universities in Southeast Asia, combining basic skills of various disciplines to examine the internal dynamics of societies within the region. Acquiring proficiency in one or two languages from the region is a must in this case. The problem with this bureaucratic strategy is that these departments have to be located in a particular faculty, say, in the arts, humanities or social science faculty. This denies, for instance, those with a background in the natural sciences the opportunity to study in-depth about Southeast Asia.
Therefore, those discipline-inclined observers would argue that Southeast Asian studies should be taught at the graduate level to allow those grounded in the various disciplines, whether in the social or natural sciences or in other fields of study, to have an opportunity to specialize in Southeast Asian studies. Therefore, a geologist or an engineer who, for instance, in interested in the soil and irrigation systems of Southeast Asia could examine not only the physical make-up of Southeast Asia but also the human-environment relationship. This is particularly relevant at the present time since environmental and ecological issues have become global concerns.
This has made many individuals, institutions and governments to think carefully how they should invest their precious time and money when they are requested to support the setting up of say, a program, center or institute of Southeast Asian studies. They often ask whether universities should continue to have the prerogative on the teaching, research and dissemination of knowledge about anything connected with Southeast Asia and its societies. Why not in non-university institutions?
This takes us to the third axis, namely, the University/non-university one. For many years, we imagined that only at the university could we acquire and reproduce knowledge about Southeast Asia, whether approached from the disciplinary or area studies perspective. However, many governments and international funding bodies felt that to obtain knowledge about Southeast Asia one need not go to the university, but could acquire it through non-academic but research-oriented institutions established outside the university structure to serve particular purposes. National research bodies such as LIPI (Indonesian Institute of Sciences) in Jakarta and ISEAS (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies) in Singapore have been playing that role. ‘Think-tanks’, such as the Center for Strategic Studies (CSIS), Jakarta, or the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia, have also played the role of the producer and reproducer of knowledge on societies in Southeast Asia outside the university framework. However, there seems to be a division of labor, based on differences in research orientation, in the task of producing and reproducing knowledge between the academic and non-academic institutions.
This final axis is academic/policy-oriented research axis.
While academic endeavors pursued within the context of Southeast Asian studies in the universities are motivated by interest in basic research, which is by definition scholarly, those pursued outside the universities are often perceived as not being scholarly enough because they are essentially applied or policy-oriented in nature and serving rather narrow, often political, interests of the powers that be in Southeast Asia.
It is argued that the critical difference between these two approaches is that the academic one is always open to stringent peer-group evaluation as a form of quality control, but that the applied one is not always assessed academically. In fact, the latter is often highly confidential and political in nature, thus denying it to be vetted by the peer-group, hence its perceived inferior scholarly quality. The basic research-based academic endeavors are therefore seen as highly scholarly, whereas the non-academic ones are perceived as highly suspect as scholarly works and not considered to contribute to the accumulation of knowledge on Southeast Asian societies.
However, research institutes like ISEAS in Singapore would argue that, even though it is essentially a policy-oriented research institute mainly serving the interests of the Singaporean government, it still produces scholarly work of high quality and encourages basic research to be conducted by its research fellows either on an individual or a group basis. In other words, a non-university research institute in Southeast Asian studies, such as ISEAS, could simultaneously conduct applied and basic research without sacrificing the academic and scholarly qualities of its final product. Put in another way, it is ‘policy-oriented yet scholarly’.
The moot question is who are really the consumers of knowledge on Southeast Asian societies, hence Southeast Asian studies; the Southeast Asians or outsiders?
Consuming the Knowledge
It could be argued that social scientific knowledge about Southeast Asia and its societies is a commodity with a market value. Often the ‘market rationale’, and not the ‘intellectual rationale,’ prevails in matters such as the setting-up of a Southeast Asian studies program, center or institute, even in the government-funded academic institutions. However, the funding of research on Southeast Asian studies has often been dictated not by idealistic, philanthropic motives but by quite crass utilitarian desires, mainly political or economic ones. There are at least three important ‘sectors’ within which knowledge on Southeast Asia societies has been consumed: the public, the private and intellectual sectors.
Since the governments in Southeast Asia have been the biggest public sector investors in education, through public-funded educational institutions, they have been the largest employment provider. They have set their own preferences and priorities, in accordance to their general framework of manpower planning, in deciding what type of graduates and in which fields of specialization they want to employ them. The pattern in Southeast Asian countries has been well-established, that is, there is a higher demand for science graduates than the social sciences and the humanities. But amongst the latter there is no clear, expressed demand for Southeast Asian graduates. However, there seems to be a significant demand for the inclusion of the Southeast Asian studies content in all the non-natural science courses at the undergraduate level in most of the government-funded academic institutions in Southeast Asia. This is not related to the fact that the awareness about ASEAN as a community has now become more generalized amongst the public; hence, the need for a more informed description on the different countries and societies within ASEAN (read Southeast Asia).
Outside Southeast Asia, such as in Japan and the United States of America, very rarely, specialization in Southeast Asian studies, or components of, has been considered highly desired in the job market of the public sector. Perhaps having a graduate-level qualification in Southeast Asian studies is more marketable in the public sector especially in government or semi-government bodies that deals with diplomatic relations or intelligence.
In the private sector, the demand for Southeast Asian studies as a form of knowledge and the demand for a potential employer who possesses that knowledge are both limited and rather specific. However, the number could increase depending on how large is the investment and production outfit a particular company has in Southeast Asia. Since some of the demand for the knowledge is rather short-term, often specific but detailed, therefore it has to be customized to the needs of a company, ‘think-tanks’ or ‘consultant companies’ which have often become the main supplier of such tailored knowledge. Many of these organizations are actually dependent on ‘freelance’ Southeast Asianists or academics who do such jobs on a part-time, unofficial basis.
It has been observed that the Japanese seems to be a regular consumer of knowledge on Southeast Asia. This is hardly surprising because they have massive investments in Southeast Asia. There is therefore a constant need to know what is happening in the region. Research foundations from Japan, such as the Japan Foundation, Nippon Foundation and the Toyota Foundation, have been very active, in the last decade, in promoting Southeast Asian studies, academic and non-academic, and in supporting research and exchange programs. Taiwan and Korea are the two other Asian countries having their own Southeast Asian studies research centers, besides in the United States, United Kingdom, France and The Netherlands, former colonial powers in Southeast Asia.
A more generalized demand for knowledge on Southeast Asian societies relates to marketing and this trend must not be underrated with the recent expansion of the middle class in the region. As the market and clients in Southeast Asia become more sophisticated, the need for in-depth knowledge on sectors of the Southeast Asia societies has increased. This in turn has increased the demand for graduates who have followed courses related to Southeast Asian studies.
In the intellectual sector, knowledge on Southeast Asia has been consumed generally by the NGOs, namely, those that are national-based ones as well as those that have regional networks. Because most of the NGOs are issue-specific interest groups, such as environmental protection, abused housewives, social justice and the like, and often seeking funds for their activities from the governments and NGOs in developed countries, they find it more advantageous to operate on a regional basis because they get more attention and funding from the said source. The strength and success of their operation is very much dependent on the amount of knowledge they have about Southeast Asian societies in general as well as the specific issue that they are focusing on as a cause in their struggle.
With the popularity of the Internet and its increased usage around the world and within Southeast Asia, it has now become an important medium through which academic and popular knowledge on Southeast Asian societies have become available. The sources of the knowledge could be located outside or within the region but are now much more accessible for commercial and non-commercial purposes.
It could be said that Southeast Asian studies and what it constitutes is, first and foremost, a knowledge construct that represents only part of the region’s social reality. In spite of this, it is the most important element, amongst the many, that gives Southeast Asia, the geo-physical region as well as its people and environment, its history, territory and society. Because of the co-existence of different societal forms in the region, be it categorized as ‘majority’ or ‘minority’, hence the unevenness of the tempo of social life in the region, indeed the speed of social change thus also differs from one community to the other, from one area within the region to another. Only a multidisciplinary approach could capture these complexities embedded in the societies of Southeast Asia.
As the importance of the region increases in the globalizing world, both generalist and specialist knowledge about Southeast Asia become critical to the world and the region itself. In that sense, Southeast Asian studies as a knowledge construct transforms itself into a lived reality, especially for the Southeast Asians themselves. This knowledge therefore becomes indispensable both to those who study Southeast Asia and its society as well as to the Southeast Asian themselves
One of the salient areas or themes within Southeast Asia as a form of knowledge is the corpus of knowledge on ‘ethnicity.’
Locating Ethnicity within the Knowledge
There are two main areas I would like to focus on and offer a brief schematic comment within which ethnicity has become an important and, indeed, a central theme not only in our understanding of Southeast Asia as a region and cluster of societies but also as to how we imagine, organize and pursue our lives in the ‘authority-defined’ context as well as in the ‘everyday-defined’ manner.
First, it is in the area of ‘academic analyses’ which covers mainly our knowledge on ethnicity based on a conscious and declared academic pursuit, that, in turn, begets monographs, books, articles, working papers, either paper-based or now in digital forms. Each of these academic products presents analysis of macro and micro in nature informed by different theoretical approaches, the data of which have been gathered utilizing different methods of enquiry as well as technique of data collection. Without these materials the all-important literature review prior to a construction of a research proposal, either for a degree or a general academic research, is almost impossible.
Second, ‘ethnicity’ is important in the area of ‘public advocacy’ which involves mostly action-oriented activities, such as policy-making, legal undertaking, and interest groups advocacy conducted by both the State and NGOs, or by think-tanks and political parties, within and outside the Southeast Asian region. Undoubtedly, most of the public advocacy activities, including research, have to depend, in some measure, on academic analyses as a source of organizing, shaping and conducting their activities for particular pre-determined purpose or purposes. However, in general, public advocacy activities are defined as non-academic. In fact, it is these activities that have directly impacted the social life of millions of Southeast Asians. Rarely, if any, those produced as academic analyses have had such an impact. Let us now turn to some concrete examples from the region to elucidate the empirical position of ethnicity in the Southeast Asian societal and historical context.
To assist us to understand the location and importance of ethnicity in the realm of academic analyses, it is useful to employ the ‘knowledge baseline’ elaborated above. I shall also draw some examples to illustrate my point from my own research on ‘identity formation in Malaysia’.
Since the term ‘ethnicity’ has been introduced and became popular only in the late 1950s, in the pre-colonial ‘plurality context’ words such as ‘race’, ‘tribes’, ‘peoples’ were used instead of ‘ethnic’ or ‘ethnicity’. This is evident if we were to look through Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary compiled by Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell, published in 1886. The ethnic group now known as ‘Malays’, for instance, was labeled by various European authors, sailors, travelers and proselytizers, quoted in Hobson-Jobson, as a ‘race’, ‘tribe’, ‘people’, ‘community’ or ‘barbarism’. Such labels were based on a number of factors, such as geographical, biological, linguistics and selected cultural attributes.
However, in the ‘plural society’ context, both during the colonial and post-colonial period, the emphasis was clearly more on the word or term or concept ‘race’ with heavy biological and linguistic attributes being emphasized. Such emphasis was made in the construction ‘colonial knowledge’ in which terms such as ‘Malay’ became critical in the technology of colonial rule, mainly for ‘official procedure’. Indeed, the practice of census-taking played an influential role in the creation of ethnic categories such as Malays. It is therefore not surprising, when a famous colonial scholar R.O. Windstedt in the dictionary he compiled in 1957, called An Unabridged Malay-English Dictionary, defined Melayu “a race name” (p 213). Implementation of laws such as the Malay Reservation Enactment of 1913 further enhanced the utility and currency of the use of the term ‘Malay race’.
I am quite certain the examples I have drawn from the Malaysian context is not dissimilar to the experience of other ex-colonies in Southeast Asia, such as those drawn up by the Dutch in Indonesia, the French in Indo-China and the Americans in the Philippines. Majority and minority communities and ethnic groups were constructed throughout the colonial period for official reasons. These colonial knowledge based categories became naturalized and accepted in everyday life of the inhabitants in Southeast Asia as the European rules and laws were. Often local inhabitants modified them for their own purposes.
The rise of ethnic-based nationalist movements during the colonial period, as a form of public advocacy-oriented organizations, has been the product of the said colonial knowledge. As Anderson has argued, partly, these categories became the basis of ‘imagined communities’, or, in my opinion, as the basis of the creation of ‘nation-of-intents’ in the various Southeast Asian societies, which, in turn, was mobilized and became the underpinning political motivation for the independence movements throughout the region.
The creation and use of the term bumiputera (lit. son of the soil) or pribumi (the native son), indeed an inclusive term, in both colonial and post-colonial Malaysia and Indonesia is also an interesting example. It was used to separate the “indigenous” from the “migrant” populations, some for policy purposes and in other context for the purpose of popular labeling in the local press, for instance. The term simultaneously homogenizes or polarizes the otherwise heterogenous society in two opposing “they” and “us” positions.
Anthropological studies conducted in Southeast Asia often point out to us the fluidity of such categories. For example, the term bumiputera in Malaysia includes the Malays who are constitutionally Muslims, and the Orang Asli, the Kadazan and the Ibans who are mostly non-Muslims. But the Malays themselves are known to have many sub-groups, some of whom are Muslim Orang Asli. At the personal level, some Indian Muslims who practiced Malay socio-cultural life would like to claim to belong to the Malays. Such situational claims have made ethnicity studies in Southeast Asian an interesting one.
At the conceptual level, there seems to be a continuous negotiations going on in both the official and personal contexts as to who belongs to which ethnic category and for what purposes. This in turn has led to what could be called as majority-minority discourses in the realm of the construction and practice of ethnic identification.
The present workshop, from one viewpoint, is a presentation of research findings on majority-minority discourse, official and personal, at the level of structure and agency, macro and micro. It is also about ethnic representations in its various forms and guises.
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