SEASIA 2015: Conference Report

The SEASIA 2015 Conference: A Watershed in Southeast Asian Studies

by Janus Isaac V. Nolasco

 

The Southeast Asian Studies in Asia Conference 2015 (SEASIA 2015 Conference), which was held on 12 and 13 December 2015 in Kyoto, Japan, represents a watershed in the history of Southeast Asian Studies. There have always been conferences on and in the region, but SEASIA 2015 is arguably the largest region-based academic conference focusing on Southeast Asia.

 

The SEASIA 2015 Conference embodies the pioneering and collaborative efforts of the Consortium for Southeast Asian Studies in Asia, whose membership includes ten of the leading area-studies institutions in Northeast and Southeast Asia: the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies (Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences), Academia Sinica; the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University; the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI); the Korean Association of Southeast Asian Studies; the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Kyoto University; School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University; Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore; Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam; Asian Center, University of the Philippines Diliman; and the Taiwan Association of Southeast Asian Studies. Together, they are “building on the imperative to promote region-based Southeast Asian Studies” and aim to facilitate “research collaboration and networking” as well as the sharing of vital information. The Kyoto conference is the first of the biennial SEASIA conferences that will be regularly held in the coming years.

 

True to the objectives of the Consortium, the SEASIA 2015 Conference drew an impressively large number of participants. The conference’s Call for Proposals attracted some 813 proposals from 268 institutions in 28 countries. The conference itself was attended by 530 participants from all ten of the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with Timor Leste and 15 other countries in Northeast Asia, the United States of America, and Europe.

 

Scholars from Southeast Asia formed the majority of paper presenters (40%), followed by Northeast Asia (37%), North America (10%), Europe (9%) and Australia and New Zealand (4%). The conference covered a staggering range of topics discussed in 79 panels and over 250 papers, showcasing the synergistic, inter-and multidisciplinary and comparative approaches in the study of Southeast Asia. Young and senior, leading as well as up-and-coming, scholars gathered together to explore and debate a wide array of topics ranging from the reconceptualization of Southeast Asian studies in Asia to new approaches to history and culture, from issues of mobility, development, and the environment to law and politics, economy, and the evolving regional order.

 

The conference also hosted exhibits of the publications of partners and members of the Consortium. On sale and display were books and/or journals by the International Institute for Asian Studies (in partnership with Amsterdam University Press); the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University; the Asian Center, University of the Philippines at Diliman; and the National University of Singapore, among others. Fifteen video documentaries were also shown during the two-day conference to poignantly illustrate and personalize the issues that Southeast Asian peoples face: labor, environmental and social degradation, land grabbing, gender, the sex industry, among others.

 

The breadth of this scholarship and participation testifies to the vibrancy of Southeast Asian Studies within the region, and affirms just how far the field has come since its origins during and as part of Cold War geopolitics; the conference provides a snapshot, albeit panoramic, of the present state of the field, fitting enough for a conference held at the Kyoto International Conference Center, which offers a stunning view of mountains north of and around Japan’s ancient capital.

 

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Photo of one of the panels in SEASIA 2015

 

At the same time, SEASIA 2015 Conference provided an opportunity to look back into the past and cast a forward glance into the future. In his speech, Guest of Honor Mr. Fukuda Yasuo, former Prime Minister of Japan, identified the challenges posed by the history question, by environmental degradation, and by ageing societies to ASEAN and the region more generally, and stressed the need for Southeast Asianists to study the issues carefully and help come up with solutions to prepare the individual countries and the region for the future.

 

In his keynote speech, “Toward a Region of New Nations,” Dr. Wang Gungwu, University Professor of the National University of Singapore, reflected on the origins, significance, and future of Southeast Asia as a region; he traced its development in the aftermath of World War II, to the emergence of ASEAN in 1967, and the future of Southeast Asia in the so-called Asian Century. Stressing that “it is important not to forget” the history of the region, he outlined the geopolitical context and importance of Southeast Asia during the Cold War and the “ideological battle between Communism and Capitalism” and pointed out the endurance of ASEAN as a 48-year-old regional organization. Professor Wang also described the contemporary significance of Southeast Asia as a maritime territory in what he labeled “the New World Order,” one that is characterized by globalization, and the rise of China and India. Alongside these reflections on the region were insights into divergent experiences of nation-building of various Southeast Asian states, and the reiteration of the productive tension arising from the fact that the concept of “region” was brought in from outside Southeast Asia.   Professor Wang affirmed the potential of Southeast Asian studies to promote dialogues across civilizations and countries through in-depth analysis and comparisons, and through appreciation of the region’s complex, hybrid histories and dynamics.

 

In the second keynote address, Dr. Pasuk Phongpaichit, Emeritus Professor of Chulalongkorn University, offered a personal reflection on the history of Southeast Asian Studies. She talked about her development as a scholar from the 1950s to the 1970s, a period that saw her move from a small village in Thailand, to the capital, Bangkok, and into Australia and the United Kingdom for graduate studies in political economy. She then recounted the various social, philosophical, and political trends that affected her and others’ intellectual development: the rise of development economics, the emergence of the social sciences as tool thereof, and the wave of democratic popular movements, and the damaging impact of postmodern philosophy on scholarly work. Ajarn Pasuk also painted a portrait of contemporary changes altering the trajectory of and posing a challenge to scholarship: the end of the Cold War, the eventual dominance of global business and finance, the checkered career of democracy, the growth of inequality, the eruption of violence, and climate change. Faced with these obstacles and “the increasing complexity of our globalized world,” scholars, she exhorted, should do “interdisciplinary work,” think big, and “be engaged, be sensitive to the time and place, [and] be prepared to explore new avenues.” Reminding scholars that knowledge matters and the need to debate should be protected, she urged them to “maintain the optimism that change for the better is possible” and to remember that “your innovative ideas, writing and agitation—as well as your courage—have never been so much in demand as they are right now.”

 

In bringing together various Southeast Asian scholars, policymakers, and activists across and beyond the region, the SEASIA 2015 Conference featured a festive buffet dinner on Saturday that also saw taiko performances (Japanese drums) and presentations by maiko (apprentice geiko), who went around the dining hall to mingle with the conference participants. The next SEASIA Conference has been slated for 2017, and will be hosted in Bangkok by Chulalongkorn University. Building on the historic success of the inaugural conference, the Consortium hopes to expand and deepen the study of Southeast Asia in Asia.

 

About the author:

Janus Isaac V. Nolasco is Managing Editor of Asian Studies: Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia (www.asj.upd.edu.ph). He is based at the Asian Center, University of the Philippines Diliman.