SOME THOUGHTS ON THE STATE OF SOUTH EAST ASIAN STUDIES

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David Martin Jones

Abstract

As the articles published in this 12th edition of JATI demonstrate South East Asian
Studies and the disciplinary mix that inform it stand at something of a crossroads.
On one side of the road are the more traditional, detailed ethnographic studies of
distinctive local practices based on extensive fieldwork. On the other, there is the
constant concern to link the understanding of the region to broader disciplinary
concerns in the social and historical sciences. Sometimes the two sides of the road
can usefully converge to produce a new insight into a traditional practice. At other
times a new methodology generated in a very different academic environment and
applied uncritically to a South East Asian context can obscure and even contribute
to a collective misreading of distinctive social and political practices. This is most
evidently the case when powerful methodological frameworks of a European, North
American or generically western provenance are superimposed upon
understandings and practices that have emerged under very different contingent
historical circumstances.
Indeed, as the social sciences developed methodological frameworks of
universal application that were linked to the project of modernity, they inexorably
facilitated a process that dissected traditional practice in order both to understand
it but also to reform it or render it malleable to the requirements of progress. In its
South East Asian context, the social sciences necessarily sought to understand the
region through a reductionist lens that ultimately ranked it according to purportedly
universal economic, legal and political standards. Consequently, at various times
in the evolution of the study of the region Southeast Asia’s apparent failure to
modernize or develop reflected traditional practices, what the second editor of The
Economist termed in the 1860s the ‘cake of custom’. Subsequently, the classic works
in social science whether from a Weberian, liberal, Marxist or neo Marxist
perspective attributed Southeast Asia’s historic political weakness either to cultural
factors that failed to generate a modernizing ethic, or as a function of institutional
calcification the inability of potentially rich despotisms to generate the flexibility
and dynamism of market capitalism.
This approach and the implicit cultural bias it assumed still continues to
inform studies of the region. However, with the end of the Cold War and apparent
end of ideology, the new critical, deconstructive and constructivist methodologies
introduced into regional studies significantly challenged the rational and
progressive assumptions informing the social sciences. Yet arguably, this putatively
post modern approach with its renewed emphasis on culture, identity, and identity
politics whilst constituting an important corrective to the secular universalism of
the social sciences, has also obscured the manner in which traditional practices are
interestingly adapted to the political and social requirements of developing social
and political arrangements in the region.
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE STATE OF
SOUTH EAST ASIAN STUDIES
David Martin Jones
Guest Editor
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Jati, Vol. 12, December 2007
Thus, not only do our sometimes problematic methodological assumptions
affect how we approach issues of culture, history, sociology and politics in the
region, the region itself has never been a static geopolitical or historical entity.
Historically fragmented first by the era of European colonialism and subsequently
its divisive Cold War aftermath, it has only relatively recently been possible to speak
of anything like a cohesive South East Asian region. Even here, moreover, the impact
of globalization, both in terms of the impact of the West and the rise of the new
Asian giants of China and India is profoundly affecting the character of the region
and local, state and regional modes of self understanding.
The papers in this current volume, therefore, reflect and engage with these
philosophical, political and cultural concerns. Thematically, the range of papers
presented here consider: issues either of inter state or regional politics; politics and
political movements at the state level and developments at the substate level in
culture and economics. We begin, therefore, with the problem of understanding
in the social sciences. Ederson Tapia’s paper draws our attention to the changing
patterns of global interaction that forms both the methodological background and
preoccupies the social constructivist approach to international and regional politics.
Tapia’s work rightly draws attention to the achievements and limitations of this
approach. In a similar critical vein but dealing more directly with the political issues
raised by globalization and its uncertainties, Kim Hyung Jung explores The ASEAN
Way and its implications for greater regional integration. Kim draws attention to
the difficulty the consensus based approach to decision making encounters in the
context of enhancing regional cooperation. In terms of the challenges presented to
regional integration at the state level, papers by Asmady Idris draws attention to
the growing extra regional links between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, whilst
Ruhana Padzil explores the continuing and sometimes fractious debate over
Singapore’s access to water from neighbouring Johor. In a similar comparative vein,
Hasmah Zanuddin considers the relationship between government and the media
in Thailand and Malaysia, whilst in a different regional context Ramli Dollah and
Ahmad Mosfi Mohamad examine the implications of the barter trade on relations
between Tawau Sabah and Indonesia. Somewhat differently, but still concerned with
the problem of inter-regional relations, Azrul Nor Fadzilah and Hanizah Idris
consider the changing character of Malaysia’s maritime security in an era of
transnational crime.
Whilst the difficulty of marrying regionalism to national resilience has been
a consistent problem in South East Asia’s inter state relations, papers by Ku Hasnita
and Lili Yulyadi examine instead the equally vexed problem of identity at the state
level, considering the role of patriotism in the political socialization process and
the implications of Islamic awakening in Indonesia for the process of
democratization. Similarly concerned with the distinctive regional understanding
of democracy Zaini Othman, Mohammad Mahadee Haji Ismail and Zaid Ahmad
examine electoral politics and the evolution of political hegemony within a state
by elucidating the Malaysian model.
Moving from the state level to that of the locality, Abdullah Rahman Roslan
considers the socio economic impact of the growth of hypermarkets in a micro
political study of the Klang Valley, whilst Hanafi Hussin explores the role of ritual
in the formation of Kadazan identity in Sabah and with Wiwiek Anastasia explores
the role of dance in the Riau between 1913-63. Somewhat differently Ismail Ali &
Mohammad Raduan examine the marine eco system and its impact on the
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David Martin Jones - Some Thoughts On The State of South East Asian Studies
distinctive socio-economic practice of fishing community in Sabah and also
discussion on the problem facing by tradisional fishermen in Malaysia Peninsula
by Mohammad Raduan, Mohammad Sharir and Zarina Aziz.
In our concern to engage with micro and macro level studies of the issues of
interaction, development and identity formation this edition of JATI therefore
illustrates the various challenges that currently confront both South East Asia and
how we as students seek to understand and contextualize them. Whilst offering
no solution to these issues their problematization in a distinctively Southeast Asian
context enables us to move from the particular to the often universal concerns about
state, region culture and identity formation in a globalized world that is
interconnected but by no means integrated.

Article Details

How to Cite
JONES, David Martin. SOME THOUGHTS ON THE STATE OF SOUTH EAST ASIAN STUDIES. JATI - JOURNAL OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN STUDIES, [S.l.], v. 12, p. 1-3, dec. 2007. ISSN 2600-8653. Available at: <http://jati.um.edu.my/index.php/jati/article/view/5782>. Date accessed: 22 oct. 2018.
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Book Review