What I am going to say here is more impressionistic than “scientific.” So if anyone has opinions about this matter, please feel free to express them.

About a year ago I met a really bright young scholar from the Philippines who told me about a new collection of essays called Decentring & Diversifying Southeast Asian Studies: Perspectives from the Region, edited by Goh Beng-Lan from NUS. This young Filipino referred to this book as a “coming of age” work for young Southeast Asian scholars, a work that announced the emergence of a new generation of scholars from the region.

Decentring

I finally picked up a copy of the book last summer on a trip to Singapore, and was excited to read it, but I ended up feeling quite underwhelmed when I actually did so.

For decades in the US the question of whether scholars from the Southeast Asian region should be the ones who write the history of the region (or are better at writing the history of the region) has been discussed. To date, no one has made a convincing argument that there is “indigenous knowledge” that makes the work of Southeast Asian scholars superior to that of outsiders.

To the contrary, the limitations of such factors as political restrictions and uncritical (nationalistic) perspectives has repeatedly compromised scholarship from the region. This does not mean that people from the region are not intelligent and competent. It is just that many have only developed their capabilities while pursing PhDs in foreign countries, and as such, have had to partake in “non-indigenous” knowledge.

Adrian Vickers, a professor at the University of Sydney, has a quote on the back of Decentring & Diversifying Southeast Asian Studies where he says that “This book marks the shift of the centre of Southeast Asian Studies from the West to Southeast Asia.” In reading the book, I don’t see this.

Of the several essays in this work, I like the one by Goh Beng-Lan the most. However, rather than demonstrating that Southeast Asian Studies has been “decentered” or “diversified,” I find that she indicates more a sense of frustration and confusion.

What is she frustrated and confused about? First, that the entire concept of area studies has come to be challenged in the West right when people from Southeast Asia have “discovered” it. And second, that the critical perspectives that she obtained in the West are not welcomed or understood by people (particularly those in power) in the region.

So what is a young Southeast Asian scholar then supposed to do?

I don’t think Goh Beng-Lan provides an answer, and as a result, I can’t see any evidence that Southeast Asian Studies are being diversified or decentered. Instead, my impression is the opposite. What I sense (and I get this sense more from my interactions with young scholars from the region rather from this book) is that the ideas about Southeast Asia that existed before area studies came to be questioned in the West are now being embraced to some extent by young scholars in Southeast Asia.

As such, rather than “decentering” and “diversifying” Southeast Asian Studies, scholars in Southeast Asia are “retro-izing” (following outdated fashions) Southeast Asian Studies by “discovering” concepts such as “mandalas” and “men of prowess” that were promoted by scholars at places like Cornell in the 1960s and 1970s, and trying to identify what is unique and authentic about Southeast Asia, an enterprise that has also been extensively criticized and deconstructed in the West.

As has been well documented, the idea of “Southeast Asia” as a region emerged rather arbitrarily in World War II, and in the first few decades after that war there were scholars working in area studies programs in the US (and other countries in the West) who sought to “prove” its existence. By the late twentieth century, that effort came to be seriously questioned.

Now in the twenty first century, educational institutions in Asia are receiving an infusion of investment and interest that is in some ways comparable to what some US universities experienced after WW II.

What is more, there is a strategic interest in this, just as there was in the US in the past. While the post-war development of area studies in the US was part of an effort to understand the world and contain the spread of Communism, the current emphasis on Southeast Asian Studies in “Southeast Asia” is related to the effort to strengthen ASEAN in an attempt to resist China’s economic and political influence.

What all of this means is that “academic knowledge” can easily be compromised in such an environment. The easiest thing to do for people in Southeast Asia at the moment is just to repeat what Westerners said in the 1970s and 1980s when they tried to “prove” that Southeast Asia exists. But in doing so, scholars in Southeast Asia will move scholarship backwards instead of forwards.

I was just looking at a recent issue of the journal Modern Asian Studies. There was a special issue edited by David Arnold and Erich DeWald on “Everyday Technology in South and Southeast Asia.”

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Why look at South and Southeast Asia together? The authors don’t make an argument for that. They do so simply because comparative scholarship is interesting and illuminating. David Arnold has also done comparative work between South Asia and China out of the same belief in the importance of comparative scholarship.

What these essays are about then are the interaction between “global” phenomena (technology) and “local” (not “Southeast Asian”) societies.

So Western scholars are abandoning “Southeast Asia” and are just looking at “global” and “local” phenomena.

If Southeast Asian scholars have “come of age” and are truly “decentering” and “diversifying” Southeast Asian studies, then how are they doing this? This is still not clear to me.