Can there be southeast Asians in southeast Asian studies?

Ariel Heryanto

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Much has been written in English on the Western origins of Southeast Asian studies and the constructedness of the object of this field of study. The 1984 essay by the American political scientist Donald Emmerson is one of the earliest and best deconstructive accounts on this history.1 A decade later, Australianbased American historian Craig Reynolds informed us that the attempt by various Western scholars to "authenticate Southeast Asia as a region and a field of very much a Western, postcolonial project." Reynolds added that the implications of Emmerson's essay about Southeast Asia as "a contrived identity, reified by scholars, publishers, and educational institutions in the West, have never been pursued."2 Unintentionally, two fine essays, by American anthropologist John Bowen and his European counterpart Victor King, further reaffirm the exogenous character of Southeast Asian studies.3 Despite the disagreements in their views, their views reflect-as the authors reflect on-the history, character, and achievements of this domain of area studies as it unfolded largely in their respective continents of residence. 4 Consequently, only a few names of Southeast Asians appear in their discussions. Among this tiny minority, none is mentioned in either essay for any contribution of major significance to academic inquiry. Rather than resulting from Bowen's or King's oversight or deliberate disregard of Southeast Asian scholarship on the region, this represents the standard practice and reflects a reality that they set out to analyze.5Few exceptions to this practice exist, and some new changes are occurring. As hinted at by many-including those cited above-but never adequately explored, Southeast Asians are not simply fictional figures authored by outsiders or submissive puppets in the masterful hands of Western puppeteers. Emmerson already pondered whether, as "an externally defined region," Southeast Asia could in the future "become meaningful to its inhabitants."6 Citing Smail and van Leur, Reynolds suggests that Southeast Asians would "'write back' against the constructions of colonial historiography."7 But have they? Should they? Where, in what ways, and how far have they done so? The last decade or so has actually witnessed a slow but progressive growth of interest and activity in locally based Southeast Asian studies. Nonetheless, it remains true to say that, with the exception of Singapore, Southeast Asian studies is of little interest to Southeast Asians. For the last three decades, Singapore has remained the region's only major center of teaching and research in Southeast Asian studies. Not only has its famous Institute of Southeast Asian Studies continued to thrive while many teaching programs in American, European, and Australian universities have undergone a crisis, but the National University of Singapore's Southeast Asian Studies Programme has also grown along with the university's several other Asia-related departments and activities. Something similar can be seen at the Department of South East Asian Studies, the University of Malaya. Select Books in Singapore is perhaps the world's only bookshop devoted to Southeast Asian studies. Thailand has made encouraging progress with the launching of new institutional commitments to degree programs in Southeast Asian studies.8 On a smaller scale, similar developments are taking place in several institutions in the Philippines, Viet Nam, and Indonesia. Notwithstanding these developments, the main centers of gravity of Southeast Asian studies are still located in North America, Australia, and Europe.9 The institutional crisis that has prevailed in these three regions has not been a major cause for concern to most Southeast Asians, nor has it undermined the intellectual dominance of Western, and particularly North American, area studies in Southeast Asia. What does this particular historical conjuncture, as crudely sketched out above, mean for the prospects for home-grown Southeast Asian studies in Southeast Asia? The present essay seeks to answer this question by focusing on three thematic issues. First, some sort of area studies can be predicted to grow in scale and importance in most parts of Southeast Asia, although the name and boundaries of this area of analysis may be different from that of the American-led Southeast Asian studies of the Cold War period. However, such growth will take place gradually. Second, despite such possible development, the old Southeast Asian studies as it has matured on the other side of the globe will continue to have an influence upon locally produced knowledge of the region. In profound ways, it will become an intellectual legacy, historical baggage, source of inspiration, source of institutional assistance, and partner to the more locally based institutionalized area studies. Third, the issue of past and present unequal relationships in the production and consumption of knowledge of this region will be debated more seriously than before, prompting discussions of related issues such as agency, positions of difference, and representation. One can hope that this tension will have results that are more constructive and innovative than earlier debates on the indigenization of the social sciences (before the 1970s) or on "Asian values" (in the 1990s) have produced.10 Emphasizing the activities and agency of the existing few Southeast Asian scholars and public intellectuals in Southeast Asia in building local Southeast Asian studies, this essay will make no attempt to survey (like the writings cited above did) important works by Southeast Asianists from other continents. Because no Southeast Asian studies has developed institutionally in Southeast Asia on a scale comparable to that in North America, Europe, or Australia, many of the insights presented below have been informed by various unpublished sources and personal experience.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationKnowing Southeast Asian Subjects
PublisherUniversity of Washington Press
Number of pages34
ISBN (Electronic)9780295804255
ISBN (Print)0295986832, 9780295986838
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2007
Externally publishedYes

Cite this

Heryanto, A. (2007). Can there be southeast Asians in southeast Asian studies? In Knowing Southeast Asian Subjects (Vol. 9780295804255, pp. 75-108). University of Washington Press.