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Sea Is a Region Without an Identity

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Southeast Asia (SEA) is a region whose countries include and are classified into 2 different regions namely the mainland, consisting of Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Peninsula Malaysia, and the insular regions, consisting of East Malaysia, East Timor, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and The Philippines. This distinction however, is not only geographical but also one of cultural and religious differences. The literal meaning of the term SEA comes from a historical classification of the region by Westerners as being in Asia but south of China and east of India. (Bloodsworth, 1970) The two asian countries mentioned were more prominent to the European countries due to their relations in commerce. Hence, the rest of the regions within Asia were residually referred to as SEA. (Emmerson, 1984) What then, can be defined as identity within a region or even a country?

State identity requires commonalities, ranging from cultural to historical to economical to other beliefs etc, amongst the various levels of people from individuals, groups and all citizens of the state. These are essential if we consider nation building as the creation of a cohesive political community, which is characterized by an abiding sense of identity and common consciousness. (Leifer, 1972) For the purposes of this essay, this definition will then be extrapolated to include regional identity as a common sense of identity amongst regional member countries as defined by the factors above. To suggest that SEA is a region without an identity would lead one to perceive Southeast Asia as more of a geographical expression, rather than a region that embodies unique traditions and cultures that defines the people of this region as being Southeast Asians. In my opinion however, I assert that SEA is not just a residual collection of all these countries unaccounted for but rather, a region with its own blend of culture, self-perception, politics and most importantly, identity that has been built over time.

The presence of underlying culture of self and social-perception within a region of immense cultural diversity It is often disputed if SEA is considered a region with identity due to its huge cultural and religious diversity. Even the premise of whether the individual countries have a national identity has often been questioned. There are overlapping boundaries where cultural, knowledge and economic exchanges have taken place for centuries, which also bears cross border influences. Upon deeper analysis, there even exist intra-country cultural dissimilarities. (Winzeler, 2011) An example of this could be seen within Thailand, where there are subsets of peoples known as Central Thai, Thai-Lao, Northern and Southern Thai. Further breakdown of Thailand’s demographics reveals smaller ethnic groups of Lao, Khmer, Malays, etc. (Business Source Premier, 2012) Ethnic diversity and spread is especially prevalent within the mainland SEA where mobility across state boundaries is higher. There are people belonging to the same language family with similar (if not the same) cultures that inhabit cross-border areas within different countries. (Winzeler, 2011)

When we consider the above-defined identity, peripherally, there are seemingly no commonalities to unify the regional members. However, if we strip away all of the ethnic and superficial differences, such underlying similarities do emerge. Across SEA, people often switch social identities by switching languages or declaration of identity for a host of reasons. The reasons for such shifts range from political to economic to trade to social. (Moerman 1965 from Gillogly and Adams 2011)

I surmise that this multiplicity and switching of identities has psychological basis and benefits in that they might buffer individuals from unfavourable outcomes such as discrimination arising from identification with a group and thus allows the switching of identity from one that is not valued to one that is valued. (Crisp, 2010) This can be so pronounced that it is apparent even at a personal level. An example would be the Penang Malays with mixed descent. When needing to discipline a lazy Malay servant, a person may say, “We Arabs are not lazy like the Malays.” However, this same person, in another social context, may comment on the cleanliness of the house maid by saying, “She’s a Kling(Indian Muslim). Her sense of cleanliness differs from that of us Malays.” (Gillogly and Adams, 2011) Though, to an outside observer, this may seem contradictory. But the switching of identity depending on the contextual usage actually allows individual to effectively negotiate his social position.

To further demonstrate the far reaching pervasive nature of such a phenomenon, we shall now look at the Filipino Chinese known as Tsinoys. What is characteristic of the Tsinoys is their ability to speak multiple languages ranging from Tagalog, English, and Mandarin to the dialect of Hokkien. While it is common for most Filipinos to switch between Tagalog and English, though not free from such behaviour, the younger ethnic group of Tsinoys incorporate phrases from Hokkien or Mandarin only when conversing with fellow co-ethnics. (Zulueta, Year Unknown) There is then again, the notion of the switching of social identities. The reasons for such a phenomenon are that it allows the Tsinoys to access the social and cultural capital available to only the Chinese, maintaining their ethnic identity whilst not closing themselves off from the larger Filipino community. (Ibid)

Hence it is evident that there is a pervasive underlying phenomenon and culture of high amounts of social fluidity where a person can have more than one social identity, which is not bound to race and ethnicity. This is in very stark contrast to other regions in the world whereby members of a dominant group value their own ethnic and cultural identity to the point that they will not deviate from their ethnicity and consequently behave exclusively by exaggerating the persistence of cultural elements and differences in groups they view as outside of themselves. (Yinger, 1985) To the SEA person, such behaviour is not contradictory and this is very much a defining characteristic of the people of SEA, which thus serves to refute the notion of SEA lacking a common identity.

No uniqueness of origin: Susceptibility and influence from other nations
There is also concern that SEA, being very much susceptible to the influences of more powerful countries due to its openness to immigration and trade, does not have its own identity but is a “sponge region” of foreign identities and influences. This argument can be said to be fairly convincing when we examine highly influential states such as China or India having cultural influences (such as Vietnam’s societal systems resembling that of China) on SEA which date as far back as the early centuries AD (Reynolds, 1995). However, instead of looking at SEA as a sponge region, I prefer to look at SEA as a cultural Chimera where the external influences are assimilated and localized into pre-existing frameworks, which today, matured and serves to identify SEA.

For example, we can look at Malay language and culture. The definition of a Malay in Malaysia is someone who can speak the language and is Muslim. (Gillogly and Adams, 2011) Both of these characteristics can arguably be seen as imports. The Malay language borrowed heavily from Indian languages, while Islam was introduced into the region by Arabic traders who came to the region to trade. (Houben, 2003) I, however, do not agree. The religions and influences that were brought into SEA were built upon the pre-existing religious frameworks that were already present and are not just imitation. To substantiate this point, the Islamic religion practised in insular SEA incorporates pre-Islamic rituals like “bersanding”. The Malay wedding ceremony being practiced which is a legacy of Indian influence. These influences, though not Islamic, are seen as such a central aspect of Malay life that it is even written in the Malay Muslim marriage law. (Buss-Tjen, 1958) If we were to argue hence that this is just a case of importation of external influences, there would have not been any merger between the pre-Islamic and Islamic practices since, strictly speaking, a Malay is defined as a Muslim and bersanding is not an Islamic ritual.

This is evidence of hybridization and the imperfect transference of various external influences into an amalgamation of cultures thus serves to prove that this phenomenon creates a uniquely Southeast Asian flavour. This essay argues too that culture is a continuum and there is no culture free from external influences. There is also an imperfect transference of such influences and there are many cultures which are results of assimilation or responses to the social climate and environment. In fact, we cannot claim that there are cultures that have arisen as a result of spontaneous generation. The origin of culture is traced back to our evolutionary roots of the arising of human cultures in which sociality and culture initially served as a mode of learning. (Richerson and Boyd, 1998) Thereafter, all the resulting cultures can be seen as a deviation from this original culture that morphs as each population continues to respond and adapt to the particular environment and develop its own sense of culture.

An excellent example embodying the idea of the ever-changing state of culture, the power of external factors to cause paradigm shifts and culture as not a result of spontaneous generation is the United States of America (USA). The USA today that has its own distinctive culture that permeates much of the world is also an immigrant state that is a result of external influences where previously before the arrival of the pilgrims, animalistic American Indian traditions were most prevalent. After the arrival of the Europeans however, there was a cultural paradigm shift that led to the subsequent near-eradication of American Indian traditions and the arising of a completely new culture and identity. (Hamby, 2005) Therefore, to claim that SEA is a region without an identity due to its openness to external influences would be to ignore the obvious evidence standing against such a claim and also to ignore the continual progression of culture, which is not static but always evolving.

ASEAN’s Establishment and Modus Operandi
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established by states that were bound by the shared interests of accelerating economic growth, social progress and cultural development and the belief that regional resilience was important to national resilience. (Phanit, 1980 from Siti Darwinda Mohamed Pero, 2011) It was also set to promote greater cooperation within the SEA region for the continued progress and growth of all member states. (ASEAN Secretariat, 2009) “It was the role of the five political leaders of ASEAN’s five founding members… who initiated ASEAN and determined the aims of the Association… The establishment of ASEAN would not have been possible without shared interests, common beliefs and strong trust among the ASEAN leaders at that moment.” (Phanit, 1980 from Siti Darwinda Mohamed Pero, 2011) I assert here that there is a unique mode of operation of the SEA countries and ASEAN itself that fundamentally differs from other notable supranational organisations such as the European Union (EU) in that there is a greater sense of equality and its characteristic as a loose regional association. (Dosch and Mols, 1994)

ASEAN operates upon consensus and deliberation. As stated in the 1971 Kuala Lumpur Declaration, the member countries are to resolve disputes by friendly negotiation. This is in contrast to the other supra-national organisations where they may have obvious countries in leadership positions. (Ibid) For example, recently, due to the Euro Zone’s financial degradation, increasing German influence on the EU have prompted the director of the Policy Network think-tank based in London, Olaf Cramme to say, “Germany does everything it can to portray an image of evenness,… however the relationship has become extremely one-sided, and Germany is calling the shots.” (Dowling, 2011) To conclude, I reassert that SEA is a region with its own sense of identity that is a result of the assimilation of external influences into existing cultures that results in its own form of culture, an uncommon sense of self and social-perception that is very characteristic of the region, and the defining political modus operandi that is characteristic of the region. Total words: 2000


1) (ASEAN Secretariat, 2009) About ASEAN, Overview by ASEAN Secretariat retrieved 2009 from http://www.aseansec.org/about_ASEAN.html

2) (Bloodsworth, 1970): An Eye for the Dragon. by Dennis Bloodworth. Southeast Asia Observed, 1954-1970 New York: Farrar, 1970. p. xiii.

3) (Business Source Premier, 2012): People. Thailand Country Review [serial online]. July 2012;:159-160. Available from: Business Source Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 16, 2012.

4) (Buss-Tjen, 1958) Malay Law by P. P. Buss-Tjen. The American Journal of Comparative Law , Vol. 7, No. 2 Spring, 1958, pp. 248-267

5) (Crisp, 2010) The Psychology of Social and Cultural Diversity edited by Richard J. Crisp. Blackwell Publishing Limited 2010, pp 63

6) (Dosch and Mols, 1994) Why ASEAN Co-operation Cannot Work as a Model for Regionalism Elsewhere — A Reply by Jörn Dosch and Manfred Mols. ASEAN Economic Bulletin , Vol. 11, No. 2 (NOVEMBER 1994), pp. 212-222

7) (Dowling, 2011): There’s No Getting Around It, Germany Is Taking Over Europe by Siobhan Dowling. November 19, 2011. Retrieved September 16, 2012 from http://articles.businessinsider.com/2011-11-19/europe/30418846_1_euro-zone-euro-crisis-german-power

8) (Emmerson, 1984) “’Southeast Asia’: What’s in a name?” by Donald K. Emmerson. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Mar., 1984) pp. 1-21

9) (Gillogly and Adams, 2011) Everyday Life in Southeast Asia edited by Kathleen M. Adams and Kathleen A. Gillogly page 53 Indiana University Press 2011

10) (Hamby, 2005) Outline of U.S. History is a publication of the U.S. Department of State written by Alonzo L. Hamby in November 2005. pp. 5-10

11) (Houben, 2003) Southeast Asia and Islam. Vincent J. H. Houben. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science , Vol. 588, Islam: Enduring Myths and Changing Realities (Jul., 2003), pp. 149-170 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science 12) (Leifer, 1972) Dilemmas of Statehood in Southeast Asia by Michael Leifer. 1972, Asia Pacific press pages 47-57 13) (Phanit, 1980) Regional Integration Attempts in Southeast Asia: A Study of ASEAN’s Problems and Progress. By Phanit, T. PhD, University Microfilm International England. 13) (Reynolds, 1995) A New Look at Old Southeast Asia. Craig J. Reynolds. The Journal of Asian Studies , Vol. 54, No. 2 (May, 1995), pp. 419-446. Published by: Association for Asian Studies 14) (Richerson and Boyd, 1998) The Pleistocene and the Origins of Human Culture: Built for Speed by Peter J. Richerson, Department of Environmental Science
and Policy and Robert Boyd, Department of Anthropology, University of California, 1998. Retrieved from: http://www.des.ucdavis.edu/faculty/Richerson/Speed.htm

15) (Siti Darwinda Mohamed Pero, 2011) Political Leadership in ASEAN Community Building Compared with the EU by Siti Darwinda Mohamed Pero School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Melbourne. Prepared for ISA Asia-Pacific Regional Section Inaugural Conference 2011 Brisbane, Australia, September 29-30, 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.uq.edu.au/isaasiapacific/content/sitimohammedpero1-3.pdf?&lang=en_us&output=json&session-id=ca3a45fa8f2cb9a21ee29f0177795ac9

16) (Winzeler, 2011) Winzeler, Robert L. (2011) Chapter 1: Introduction. “The Peoples of Southeast Asia: Ethnography, Ethnology and Change in a complex region. Lanham: Alta Mira Press, pp 1-23.

17) (Yinger, 1985) Ethnicity by J. Milton Yinger. Annual Review of Sociology , Vol. 11, (1985), pp. 151-180

18) (Zulueta, Year Unknown) “I speak Chinese but…” Code-switching and identity construction among Chinese-Filipino Youth. By Johanna O. Zulueta. Student in Sociology at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, Japan. MA from the Ateneo de Manila, University in the Philippines. Retrieved from: http://www.eca.usp.br/caligrama/english/01_zulueta.pdf

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