Navigating Southeast Asia

Text by Dr Lim Lai Cheng
Photo by Martin Tan

Thomas Suarez in his book, Early Mapping of Southeast AsiaThe Epic Story of Seafarers, Adventurers, and Cartographers Who First Mapped the Regions Between China and India recounted how Southeast Asia was, quite literally, put on the map, both in cartographic terms and as a literary and imaginative concept.

Suarez reminded us that Southeast Asia was already a thriving region during the period when Marco Polo skirted the region on his way to Europe from China in 1295. Unknown to the Europeans, a civilisation had already been flourishing in Cambodia based around Angkor, extending through much of what is now Thailand from the 9th to 15th centuries. This ancient civilisation was able to construct an irrigation system so sophisticated that they could ensure three rice harvests a year to feed more than one million people. During the 9th to 13th centuries too, a splendid metropolis had already sprung up in Bagan or what is now Myanmar, and the temple mountain of Bayon was said to rival the magnificence of Angkor when it was first built. In the North of Thailand, the Thai people too, had established Chiang Mai, the principal city state of the Kingdom of Lan Na which lasted from the 13th to 18th centuries. The great maritime trading empire of Srivijaya also wielded unprecedented influence between the 7th and 13th centuries, largely in what is now Indonesia. The kingdom originated in Palembang on the island of Sumatra and soon controlled the Straits of Malacca. The empire had trade relations not only with the states in the Malay Archipelago but also with China and India.

The Europeans’ lack of interest in Southeast Asia was not for long. The lure of trade brought them to the region in the 16th century. The Portuguese were the first to tap the lucrative maritime Southeast Asian trade route, with their conquest of the Sultanate of Malacca in 1511. The Spaniards followed with the colonisation of the Philippines while the Dutch, through the Dutch East India Company established themselves in Batavia (now Jakarta) and used it as a base for trading and expansion into other parts of Java and the Malay Archipelago. As profits from trade diverted to Europe, the empires and kingdoms began to wane. All of Southeast Asia ended up being colonised by the large European powers except for the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand).

Three Anglo-Burmese Wars were fought between 1824 and 1886 before Burma succumbed and became a province of British India. The British acquired Penang in 1786, Singapore in 1819 and Malacca in 1824. The three territories, known as the Straits Settlements served as a base for British expansion into the Malay Peninsula up until the 1914.The French too, managed to capture Saigon in 1859. Using South Vietnam as a base, they moved north and completed the conquest of Indochina (now Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos) by 1907. Even the Americans had a share in Southeast Asia when they moved into the Philippines as a result of the peace settlement with Spain in 1898.

World War II had a significant impact on the colonised countries of Southeast Asia. Because the Japanese seized much of Southeast Asia from the European nations that had controlled the region for many years, they helped the people of Southeast Asia see that the Europeans were far from invincible. Hence when the war ended and the Japanese had been forced out, many Southeast Asians refused to live again under European rule. Vietnam was the first to gain independence from colonial domination in 1945. The Philippines followed in 1946, Burma in 1948, Indonesia in 1949, Cambodia in 1953, Laos in 1954 and Malaysia in 1957. Singapore attained self-government in 1959 and independence in 1965.

As they stand today, the eleven Southeast Asian countries have little in common with each other. There is little by way of unifying themes that make Southeast Asia a “region”. Pre-colonisation times, the boundaries of Southeast Asia were not at all defined. “The local peoples”, to quote Wang Gungwu, a Singaporean scholar and Chairman of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, had “little consciousness of strong cultural commonalities”. Geographically, there is little that the region had in common. We see a division between mainland and maritime or archipelago segments, mountain chains as well as depressions such as the Mekong Valley. We have differences in major religions practised in each country such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Confucianism. There are clearly ethno-linguistic, socio-cultural differences as well as fundamentally conflicting political systems adopted by each of the countries in the region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an entity formed in 1967 to promote political and economic cooperation, and regional stability at the height of the Cold War, comprises constitutional monarchies, democratic republics and socialist states. The economic status of each of the countries remains vastly different.

Paradoxically, it is the diversity of the region that contributes to its unity. The success of ASEAN has largely been attributed to the non-intervention and non-confrontational stance that it has adopted from the beginning – a stance that has been hailed as the ASEAN way. Characterised as a discrete, pragmatic, consensus-building and non-confrontational style, the quiet diplomacy adopted by ASEAN is in sharp contrast to the “adversarial posturing and legalistic decision-making procedures in Western multilateral negotiations” (Acharya, 2012)[1].

The member countries of ASEAN have pledged to work towards an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. This is aspirational and a good start. Southeast Asia has been touted as a region on the rise due to its significant economic growth over the past ten years. A 2011 Accenture report “Southeast Asia: A Joint Pathway to Future Growth?” points to indicators of stable real GDP growth, substantial (and growing) consumer markets, strong labor forces, and steady economic and market transitions across its economies.”

Rising competition in East Asia, especially between the world’s greatest power, the United States, and the world’s biggest emerging power, China, poses a new threat to stability throughout Asia. ASEAN unity and regional stability are also affected by the maritime disputes that a few member states have with China. Despite this, ASEAN is taking many good steps toward deeper regional integration and a higher level of cooperation commensurate with the growing complexity of its challenges.

Doing it the ASEAN way means that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will not be like the European Union (EU). The progress will also be slow but hopefully steady. The goal of ASEAN economic integration is to become a single production base where goods can be manufactured anywhere and distributed efficiently to anywhere within the region. It has been reported that ASEAN has progressed to a level of 80% in terms of eliminating tariffs on goods traded within the region. The ASEAN Free-Trade Area is essentially in place except for some lingering tariffs in some of the transitional economies like Myanmar. A lot more needs to be done to harness the benefits of an integrated financial system and capital market. This requires significant changes in legislation in some countries. However, if each country continues to work on the goals of the AEC, the region can, as the Accenture report optimistically puts it, be “well on its way to becoming a formidable economic powerhouse by 2020”.

[1] Amitav Acharya, The Makings of Southeast Asia, Cornell University Press, 2012

About the author

Dr Lim Lai Cheng is Academic Director of the Institute for Societal Leadership and a Fellow of the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University. She was an educator with the Ministry of Education from 1995 to 2013.

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