Look deep into the collective history that binds S-E Asians

If history teaches us anything about our ancestors in this region, it is that they lived in a fluid world where identities were negotiated and multiple all the time. What is needed now is a renewed sense of regional belonging.
If history teaches us anything about our ancestors in this region, it is that they lived in a fluid world where identities were negotiated and multiple all the time. What is needed now is a renewed sense of regional belonging. ST PHOTO FILE

IN 1601, Theodorus de Bry published, in Frankfurt, one of the first accounts of life in the commercial port city of Banten in West Java.

At the time, there were few accounts of life in South-east Asia available in the Western world. De Bry's account was accompanied by more than 30 engravings of Banten that depicted what ordinary life was like in that independent South-east Asian kingdom then.

His images show an impressive array of local merchant vessels that were found in the port of Banten, as well as ships that had come all the way from India and China. They depicted the various communities then found working, trading and living in that West Javanese kingdom, which included - apart from the Bantenese themselves - other Javanese, Madurese, Sumatrans, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Persians, Burmans and others.

The images convey to us something of the scale of intra-Asian trade, movement and settlement then; and remind us of how cosmopolitan and interconnected the region was, before the advent of divisive colonialism and creation of fixed political frontiers.

Today, we in the Asean region are busy with the task of preparing the ground for the coming of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which is due in a year's time. Many events have been lined up by the respective states of the region and civil society organisations, from conferences to seminars to public awareness campaigns. Too often, however, there is the tendency for us to speak of an Asean "coming together" and the need for us to "build bridges" that would connect our societies and economies closer.

Yet scholars and event organisers might take a cue from the work of historian K.N. Chaudhuri, who has written about Asia before the age of European expansionism, pointing out just how deep and extensive were the intra- Asian bonds that brought the whole of Asia together into a mutually supportive and interdependent network of commercial and cultural relations, long before the term "globalisation" was even coined. What is needed more than ever is a conscious effort - on the parts of both states and societies - to reconnect with that past, a past characterised less by solid borders and distinct state identities, and more by porous frontiers and a notion of identity that was often multiple and overlapping.

The work of people like de Bry remind us of a different South- east Asia - centuries before the formation of Asean - where a sense of common regional belonging was fostered on a more mundane, popular and non-institutional level. Then we realise that Asean integration today is not as novel as we might think, and that long before the age of cheap airline travel, South-east Asians in the past were probably far more mobile than we moderns are today.

If we accept the idea that South-east Asia was once a region where overlapping borders and complex, multiple identities were the norm once, what can and should be done today to reconnect with that era, to prepare us for the global future to come?

Well, for starters we could begin by investigating the very same political vocabulary that we use when talking about Asean, and how we describe ourselves in relation to it. Asean is, after all, an abstract composite entity cobbled together through conscious human agency and political will. And because Asean was the outcome of human agency and choice, we can also choose to update it, expand it, upgrade it and innovate it as we go along; and the creation of the Asean Economic Community is one such example of how such composite entities tend to evolve over time.

Another thing that ought to evolve by now is the language that we use within Asean, and how we relate to it on the individual and collective level.

If history teaches us anything about our ancestors in this region, it is that they lived in a fluid world where identities were negotiated and multiple all the time.

To create an Asean Economic Community that would be meaningful to 600 million Asean citizens would require precisely such a vocabulary, which would allow individuals to attach themselves to something that was hitherto abstract and distant.

For starters, we can begin by promoting the idea that we belong to this region, and that the region - South-east Asia - should be regarded as the common home of all South-east Asian citizens.

Reminiscent of the pre-modern past when South-east Asians moved, worked and settled at different localities across the archipelago, what is needed now is a renewed sense of regional belonging and homeliness, which we somehow lost in the era of the post-colonial nation-state.

Another change that can take place on the register of our common vocabulary would be to reject a logic of identity that is exclusive and specific, and which narrows our sense of belonging to simply one place or one state. Asean was put together in the spirit of partnership, as an association of nation-states. That Asean was a "partnership" and an "association" is not an accident of language, for the vocabulary used was far from arbitrary.

Asean was not an alliance, for that would imply the presence of an external adversary or threat to the association. It spoke of partnership because its members wished to avoid the confrontational dialectics of inter-state rivalry and conflict.

These choices were in keeping with the historical trajectory of the region itself, and ought to inform us today as we seek to deepen the meaning of Asean for the peoples of the region.

It is for these reasons that we need to occasionally remind ourselves of the history of our region, which predate the coming of Asean by centuries.

Preparing for the coming of the AEC is not a herculean effort; nor is it a case of reinventing the wheel. If we are conscious of the common historical context from which we and the region have emerged, then building a more integrated Asean would seem more like the next logical step in the history of the region as a whole.


The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs