I am an historian by training working on Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam, and later on Cambodia. In this latter country I was involved in developing a capacity building institution, the Center for Khmer Studies, both an international and a Cambodian organization. Today, I am working as director of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), an institute with a global reach but rooted in the Dutch/European academic context. In addition, I retained a position as a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore. There are therefore many dimensions and angles through which I should discuss the issue of Southeast Asian studies.
Philippe Peycam, Director of IIAS
Concerning the challenges and opportunities for Southeast Asian Studies (SEAS), I feel that we are currently at a major crossroads with major transformations taking place in the knowledge production process, both in terms of what we mean by Southeast Asian studies, and how we actually do it institutionally. These changes are affecting the way SEAS has been previously conceived. I see these changes both in terms of a process of decentering and re-centering of the field which becomes more “global,” with a multiplicity of actors both within and outside Southeast Asia, and simultaneously, the possibility of opening new intellectual and methodological boundaries beyond the traditional “area studies” model with its old reference to nation-states as we have been used to. As we know, the field has been dominated by a Western academic model through Cold War “area studies,” and before it, the colonial “orientalist” tradition. The institutional model of production and transmission of knowledge has also been characterized by the dominance of the West. If we take in the bigger picture today, we see that we are living in a time where there are new spaces and flows to approach human reality, that of the societies which constitute “Southeast Asia.”
Of course, we could discuss the validity of “Southeast Asia” as a term and concept, as it is still very problematic. As I work at IIAS, when I attempt to look at the region in the larger, global / “Asian” – perspective, I see that a great deal of attention in the West is oriented primarily towards China and India. When people often think about Asian studies, they mean China and Chinese studies. That trend in itself reveals a current Western agenda and anxiety with regard to the rise of China. This has led to an increased marginalization of Southeast Asia as a subject of study and a source of meaning. As Mario Lopez and Shimizu Hiromu have pointed out, as managers of academic institutions, we see SEAS in Western and Japanese institutions suffering because of funding cuts and a depletion of language training resources. This process is only partially compensated by the development of SEAS Centers in newly “rich” North-East Asian countries like China and Korea, and in the “rich countries” of Southeast Asia such as Singapore, which are building their own capacities, usually following the same institutional “Western” model.
The fact that Southeast Asia, as a field of study, has been fragmented in national and linguistic subtopics, at university and national levels, has led to more financial cuts. In the neo-liberal age of commercialization of higher education, cuts are bound to occur with small subjects because they are unlikely to attract a large demand from students. Of course, SEA languages such as Khmer or Burmese are exposed to these influences. In overall terms, this trend may not be deemed to be too serious at an institutional level, yet it contributes to killing the diversity of knowledge production of a large and diverse area such as Asia (another complex notion in itself). These are sometimes huge cuts, as the one experienced recently in the US with the depletion of Title six funding. These are very sad situations in the sense that they not only kill communities of students and teachers, but they impoverish the overall knowledge foundation of any given institution.
Yet, these trends may be mitigated by increased inter-institutional collaboration, the definition of new thematic research and teaching subjects, and an increased connectivity with other centers of knowledge: beyond the West and Japan, outside and within Southeast Asia. This new situation may help us to not only decenter, but actually re-center the process of knowledge production of Southeast Asia. Such trends, I believe are not bad for students and new scholars on the region. I see an opportunity to frame new topics of study that can better interlace local and global experiences while offering scholars and students a chance to go beyond their traditional “national” academic system/approach, encouraging them to travel and work in Southeast Asia with people of the region, as well as elsewhere in the world – not necessarily in Western institutions.
For one thing, I believe that we – Western and Japanese institutions – need to learn to work more in partnership with Southeast Asian and Asian institutions. To me, the epitome of traditional areas studies is the fact that, not only an American or European, but also an Indonesian or a Korean would need, if they want to learn about Indonesia, to travel to Cornell University –and it is not my intention to offend anyone when I make these comments — in the middle of a mountainous region of the New York State, where, until now you had one the best center of Southeast Asian studies. This is likewise with Burmese studies at Northern Illinois University, the School of African and Asian Studies (SOAS) in London, or for Cambodian studies, in Paris. We have to ask ourselves why don’t we have centers closer to Indonesia, Burma or Cambodia with more interactions with local individuals and institutions, or else, why these centers of excellence are always in the West but not in Africa, Latin America, China or even Korea. This situation is of course a result of history, but it must change.
I therefore see a chance for the field to grow, though a process of knowledge production reclaimed by the people and institutions in the region – especially if they succeed in moving beyond narrow national foci. This knowledge of Southeast Asia can also be developed in other parts of Asia, and well beyond, in an increasing multipolar world. Present at this panel is Professor Webby Kalikiti, Secretary of the African Association for Asian Studies (A-ASIA) and himself a “Southeast asianist.” Southeast Asia is no longer just the domain of Western and Japanese scholars or even that of rich North-East Asian countries. It can now become the focus of academic enquiry from scholars and students from hitherto unconnected regions of the world like Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and so forth. This new range of international academic “actors” has not been traditionally involved in the intellectual dialogues that pertain to the region. The same can be said about the multitude of new Southeast Asian institutes, local institutions, and younger scholars, often from unprivileged countries in the region, or countries where the higher education system is weak, who, thanks to the new fluidity of education and scholarship ongoing within the region, are now more likely to participate in the knowledge production process.
Drawing from my own experiences in Cambodia where I was involved in the training and promotion of young local scholars following the tragic recent history there, I saw many of these individuals who, despite the bad shape of the Cambodian university system, managed to find their way, in the country and abroad, and acquire a very high level of competency and a capacity to reach high levels of international scholarship. Their numbers are fast increasing. This same process is true for Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and so forth.