A few days ago I had the pleasure of attending two panels on “Emerging and Continuing Trends in Southeast Asian Studies” at The 10th International Convention of Asian Scholars that was held in Chiang Mai. Those panels made me think a lot about Southeast Asian Studies in Southeast Asia.

Then this morning I was reminded of those two panels when I came across a paper (in Vietnamese) that had just been uploaded to the Internet called “Vietnam at the Crossroad of Area and Global Studies: Vietnamese Knowledge on Southeast Asia and New Approaches.”

Liem paper

Many fields of Area Studies, such as Southeast Asian Studies, are not as popular in North America today as they were say 20 years ago. The number of students in Area Studies fields is declining and many Area Studies centers are not as active as they used to be. There is thus clearly evidence of the institutional “decline” of Area Studies.

There are many reasons for this, and I’ve already written about some of them here (such as the impact that globalization and the Internet have had).

At the same time, many scholars who focus on Southeast Asia have continued to emerge since the 1990s. I would argue, however, that for intellectual reasons these scholars are not as visible as “Area Studies specialists” as their predecessors were, even though they are themselves trained as Area Studies specialists. This perhaps also contributes to the sense that Area Studies are “in decline” in North America.

In fact, however, I would argue that Area Studies in North America are simultaneously experiencing institutional decline and intellectual growth. This fact has important ramifications for Southeast Asian Studies in Southeast Asia.

Let me explain what I mean.

as global

In the 1990s, many scholars (in many fields) started to realize that when scholars who focus on a certain region only communicate with people who focus on the same region, they can end up producing scholarship that is not as insightful as it could be because they in restricting their knowledge to one region, they limit their knowledge.

If, on the other hand, scholars who focus on a certain topic in a certain region communicate with people who work on the same topic in other parts of the world, they can then benefit from the insights that those other scholars have produced.

This is an intellectual reason why a field like Southeast Asian Studies is not the same in North America today as it was in the past. Many scholars today produce scholarship for “everyone in the world who is interested in a certain topic” (the problems of urban growth, gender in medieval poetry, etc.) rather than people who are only interested in Southeast Asia.

In other words, since the 1990s, scholars have been encouraged to become more aware of scholarship on the same topic for other regions of the world and to write for “a large audience,” “educated readers,” “people who focus on the same topic in other regions of the world,” etc.


This is a very different scholarly environment from the one in which the field of Southeast Asian Studies developed in North America in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, people who worked on one place in Southeast Asia were encouraged to communicate with people who worked on other parts of Southeast Asia, as these scholars were working together to try to demonstrate that the various parts of this region are closely related.

More specifically, scholars at that time tried to demonstrate a unity to Southeast Asia by highlighting certain positive traits, such as a supposed higher status for women, and by defining certain features that were supposed to be unique to Southeast Asia: mandala polities, the man of prowess, localization, etc.

These concepts are came under critique when scholars started to look beyond Southeast Asia, as they realized that these supposed unique and positive traits were not actually unique and not as positive as some scholars claimed.

Meanwhile, during this same period scholars in Southeast Asian countries were hard at work producing nationalist histories for their individual countries that made no effort to claim some kind of shared experience with neighboring countries.


This then brings us to the present. Globalization has brought pressures and forces to the Asian region that make some people think that it is worthwhile to try to develop a shared sense of history among the nations of ASEAN so that they can unite together and better protect themselves (this is a topic that came up at the conference I recently attended).

This is an intellectual project. It requires getting people to think in new ways.

Others, meanwhile, see the institutional “decline” in Area Studies in the West as a sign that Western ideas and Western theory are bankrupt, and that now the center of scholarship is moving to Southeast Asia, where indeed, universities are investing money in this field by setting up centers for the study of Southeast Asia, etc., and where now Southeast Asians will be able to produce knowledge about Southeast Asia on their own terms (this is another topic that came up at the conference).


So how does this intellectual project of wanting to create a sense of unity among the peoples of ASEAN nations relate to the institutional expansion of Southeast Asian Studies in Southeast Asia?

This is where things get complex.

The desire to create a sense of unity among a diverse group of peoples is admirable, and is definitely worth pursuing.

The difficulty is in determining what exactly it is that people share. The scholars in North America in the 1960s and 1970s who tried to define what makes Southeast Asia tried to do precisely what some people in the region now wish to do.

I would argue, however, that they did not succeed, because once one looks beyond the region (as some scholars in North America and other places began to do starting in the 1990s) one quickly finds that the concepts that were promoted by the field of Southeast Asian Studies in North America in the 1960s and 1970s lose their significance.

What is a “man of prowess”? It is someone with “charisma,” and charismatic people have been important for societies around the world. There is nothing “Southeast Asian” about that.

How is “localization” a defining feature of Southeast Asia? Localization happens everywhere, etc.


So the first generation of Southeast Asian scholars in North America did not find (on an intellectual level) what it is that unites Southeast Asia. This is a fact that scholars who have emerged in North America since the 1990s largely recognize.

Meanwhile, there are some people in Southeast Asia who declare that Southeast Asian Studies in the West is in decline and will be replaced by Southeast Asian Studies produced in Southeast Asia.

If that is the case, then on an intellectual level, what is being replaced? Is it the ideas of the 1960s and 1970s? If so, then that is not an achievement, as it is already well-known that those ideas are problematic.

Is it the ideas of scholars who have emerged since the 1990s? If so, what exactly are their ideas and what is wrong with them? Unlike their predecessors, that generation of scholars has not tried to define Southeast Asia or to create concepts that are meant to apply to the entire region.

Instead, they have focused on deconstructing and re-conceiving the views of earlier scholars.

And this, I would argue, is precisely what is needed in order to carry out the intellectual project of creating a sense of unity among the peoples of ASEAN nations.

King of fruits

What I have concluded is that, like people in other parts of the world, people in Southeast Asia simply don’t like each other. Sure a Thai and an Indonesian and a Vietnamese can all eat durian together in Kuala Lumpur and talk about how similar they are, but beyond that superficial level they do not see similarities.

And the reason why they cannot see similarities is because the national histories that they have created make each people feel like they are better than others.

The reality, however, is that there ARE many similarities. However, they are not the similarities that Southeast Asian Studies scholars sought to create in North America in the 1960s and 1970s, and they are much deeper than a shared love of durian.

The way to find those similarities is by following the kind of scholarship that has emerged in North America (and the UK and many other places!!) that looks at societies from a comparative perspective and which applies the same critical knowledge about human societies and their developments to all societies.


Let me give an example. A couple of years ago I was reading a book by Farish A. Noor in which he wrote about the emergence of the first Malay polities on the Malay Peninsula. Noor is familiar with all of the theories about nationalism and how nations are created (or imagined), and he used those perspectives to talk about the emergence of these polities.

What struck me was that the first polities on the Malay Peninsula emerged around the same time that the first (post-Chinese-control) kingdoms emerged in Vietnam, and that the first kingdoms emerged in the Thai world (Chiang Rai, Haripunjaya, etc.).

What is more, the rulers of all of these kingdoms used “foreign” religions (Islam, Buddhism, Buddhism/Confucianism) to legitimize their rule.

That is definitely a commonality, however at the present it would be impossible to get some people to recognize that commonality.

In the case of Vietnamese scholars, for instance, I suspect that very few even know about the history of Malay kingdoms or of Haripunjaya. Even if they did, however, the Vietnamese nationalist interpretation of the past (that it has been “affirmed” [khẳng định] that there was a “Vietnamese” kingdom in antiquity and the Vietnamese culture and language endured through 1,000 years of Chinese rule. . .) would not allow them to accept that the political history of Vietnam is somehow comparable to other places in Southeast Asia.

ICAS 10 flyer

In other words, there are commonalities that one could use to support the intellectual project of wanting to create a sense of unity among the peoples of ASEAN.

To get to those commonalities, however, would require that one follow the intellectual path that scholars in North America (and other parts of the world) have been travelling since the 1990s.

However, the desire to make Southeast Asia the institutional center of Southeast Asian Studies is based, at least in the ideas of some, on a rejection of the intellectual validity of Western scholarship. . .

Building centers of Southeast Asian Studies is easy. Building communities based on shared knowledge and understanding is more difficult.

I’m not sure what direction the development of Southeast Asian Studies in Southeast Asia will take, but I sympathize with those who wish to create a sense of community, as I truly believe that one can see elements of a shared historical experience in the region.

That experience, however, is different from the one that was proposed by scholars in North America in the 1960s and 1970s. And if scholars in Southeast Asia ignore the developments in scholarship in the West since the 1990s, then I have my doubts that they will succeed in identifying the common experiences that tie the region together either.