Someone asked me today to suggest some books about the general history of Southeast Asia, and this reminded me of a larger “problem” that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, namely, the question of “what is Southeast Asia”?

It’s well known that the effort to study Southeast Asia “as a region” only really began after World War II, and that it was to a large extent in the English-speaking world that this took place.

Works like O. W. Wolters’ History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives and Anthony Reid’s 2-volume Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce were major contributions to this effort to define Southeast Asia as a region, and although people challenge individual ideas within these works, they nonetheless continue to serve as “starting points” for many people to understand Southeast Asia.

That is something that bothers me, and let me give an example of why that is the case.


In 1993, O. W. Wolters, who was at that point a major figure in the field of Southeast Asian studies in the US, and who taught at an elite American university (Cornell), gave a talk at a conference of Southeast Asian historians in Jakarta that was later published in the journal Indonesia as “Southeast Asia as a Southeast Asian Field of Study” (the article can be downloaded for free here).

In his speech, Wolters talked about eight “prominent cultural features or patterns associated with the [Southeast Asian] region’s past.” This is what he said:

1) The first feature is that the only time that mattered was “now”. . .

2) Because “now” was the time that mattered, importance was attached to being up-to-date or “contemporary”

3) The possibility of being “up-to-date” was often linked to and sustained by the sense of being an integral part of the whole of the known “world” rather than merely belonging to one’s own patch of territory.

4) What gave distinctive shape to public life within Southeast Asia itself was a cultural emphasis on “person” and “achievement” rather than on “group” and “hereditary” status.

5) In this achievement-oriented culture, manpower was a leader’s chief economic re- source and was especially necessary for providing a surplus agricultural product to support the Court, public works, military adventures, and overseas trade.

6) Not surprising in this cultural context, leaders were idealized and even venerated as teachers of good behavior, usually conceptualized as good religious behavior.

7) But in spite of the high expectations of kingship, there were no prolonged or, probably, any periods of strong “centralized” government.

8) Because of relaxed governmental institutions, ethnic identities on the edges of the major polities were left undisturbed and often represented by contiguous ecological layers on the physical map. There were no “borders” in the modern sense but only porous peripheries.


The first thing that should be obvious about these eight points is that they are all positive. Whenever academics talk about “their” area of study/research in such a positive light, that is always an immediate sign to me that this academic has left the scholarly world and has entered into another realm, be it that of propagandist, academic prostitute, narcissist, etc. because there is no region of the world where everything is good.

The second thing that should be obvious is that these points are not specific to Southeast Asia. If they are, then where is the place in the world where people do not value being up-to-date?? I think that is a common human trait. It is not specific to any region of the world. So why say that it is?

I think that there are various reasons why someone like O. W. Wolters developed such a positive view of Southeast Asia. However, those reasons had little to do with Southeast Asia itself, and more to do with the politics of the day, whether those were the politics of decolonization in the region or the politics of creating a space for Southeast Asian studies in American universities.


Today Southeast Asia is changing rapidly and there is a growing interest in the region, in part because of ASEAN initiatives, to learn and teach about Southeast Asia. In the process, there are people who are turning to what they assume are authoritative sources (“Western scholarship”), and are reading the works of people like O. W. Wolters. . .

The “problem” is that some of the things that Wolters said were not authoritative. Statements like the ones above were biased, and un-scholarly.

When I teach about Southeast Asia, I do not use any of the concepts that Wolters talked about here or elsewhere. Instead, I’ve come up with my own ideas about what cultural factors tie the region together, and foremost among them are flying heads and third gender spirit mediums.

Throughout much of the area that we currently define as Southeast Asian can be found a unique kind of ghost. Known as the krasue in Thai, the aap in Khmer, the penanggalan in Malay and the manananggal in Tagalog, this is a woman who’s head can detach from her body, and then fly through the air with her internal organs hanging from her detached head.


She does this at night, and looks for women giving birth, as she loves to consume blood, unborn babies, placenta, etc.

The Vietnamese do not have this belief, and that is important, because Vietnam in many ways does not “belong” in Southeast Asia, although historically the Vietnamese were aware of such ghosts because of their contact with their more Southeast Asian neighbors.

Then there are all of the spirit mediums who are of a third gender. From the mediums of the Mother Goddess religion in Vietnam, to the nat kadaw in Burma, to the bisu in Sulawesi, there is a commonality throughout the region in that one can find spirit mediums who are of a third gender.

Such mediums are not always the only people who become mediums, but they are often viewed as the most powerful.

To me these are all characteristics of Southeast Asia.


Now that there is a growing movement in Southeast Asia to understand the region, where will people look to build their knowledge about the region? Will they just come up with their own ideas? Or will they turn to “authoritative” sources of knowledge, like those that come from elite Western universities?

If they look to what people at elite Western universities have produced, then they will feel very good, because O. W. Wolters declared that people in Southeast Asia have always been “up-to-date.” But is that really something distinct about Southeast Asia?

Near the end of his talk, Wolters stated that, “I must now remind you that I have proposed these cultural features with the hope that they may stimulate self-awareness among a Southeast Asian audience. It is not my purpose to impose my views on you.”


??? It wasn’t Wolters purpose to impose his ideas on people in Southeast Asia, but be felt that he could “stimulate self-awareness”???

I think the way to “stimulate self-awareness” is to encourage people to not pay any attention to the politicized rubbish that academics in America sometimes produce, and to encourage people to just think critically about the world they live in.

However, I would be willing to guess that as more countries in Southeast Asia teach about the region in an effort to promote ASEAN integration, they will teach about the “unique” Southeast Asian attribute of wanting to be “up-to-date” and that they will cite the “authoritative knowledge” of “the West” in doing so.