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Salient: An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University of Wellington. Vol. 24, No. 5. 1961

New and Old at Singapore

New and Old at Singapore

"I am one of the last representatives of that revolutionary force known as colonialism!" So, if I remember correctly, said Tom Harrison, Government Anthropologist in Sarawak, at the First Conference of Historians of Southeast Asia (at Singapore) last January. It took some saying to the historians from the area itself, most of whose countries had just emerged from colonialism and were often concerned to blame their present discontents on to their past rulers. Especially so when you remember that the conference had gathered in order to discuss how to rewrite the history of Southeast Asia from the point of view of Southeast Asians.

Southeast Asian

But, you will ask, is there anything such as a Southeast Asian? Indonesians I know, you will say, Burmese, and Chinese, yes. But Southeast Asians? This was one of the problems the conference turned to when it got away from the papers on specialised topics and on to the teaching of the history of the area as a whole. The answer is, I think, that Southeast Asia is in process of becoming. It was first so named, after all, only in 1943, by K. M. Panikkar; it was first treated as a unit by the Allies in the last war, when they placed Mountbatten in charge. It has always had a basic culture which marks it off from both India and China, though parts of it have occasionally followed fashions set in these countries, principally India. But until Mr Harrison's revolutionary force arrived, the various parts of Southeast Asia to a large extent remained discrete, unconnected units. Western techniques are broadening the horizons of the various people of Southeast Asia so that they are aware that they are involved in one another, and know that they differ from the populous countries to their north and west.

Colonial Policies Discussed

Nineteenth centry colonial policies were discussed, and so were their nationalist successor's of the 20th century.

Throughout, the discussion was very even-tempered; there was no attempt to strike godlike poses by distributing moral judgments left, right, and centre.

It was much more a search for causes than a hunt for culprits; a search all the more pleasant for the contributions of the delegates from that part of the world geo. graphers call Asia.

For instance, a young historian of the Philippines analysed the corruption to be found in his country as the consequence of the imposition of a bureaucratic system, which assumes loyalty to an impersonal idea, the state, on a culture such as the Filipino, which demands loyalty first and foremost to persons: kinfolk, friends. Another example of the value of such contributions could be taken from the session dealing with Islam in Southeast Asia.

One "interesting" (i.e., mind-numbingly boring) paper attempted to explain the shape of the Indonesian mosque by showing its affinities with various similar edifices in the Indian sub-continent. An Indonesian participant, however, showed that the shape was also very similar to that of the Balinese temple, and suggested that perhaps the Indonesian mosque had indigenous roots. There was much sympathy for his viewpoint.

Thus Southeast Asia through her historians is concerned to stress her individuality; the superficial view, still too widely peddled, that she only exists as the shadow of whichever dog is having his day in Asia is doomed to extinction, and not before time.

The Danger of Chauvinism

Unfortunately, emphasis on the indigenous component in Southeast Asian history carries the danger of chauvinism, which would have the historian say nothing which does not contribute to the glory of the "nation," whatever that means. In Southeast Asia, what we are pleased now to call nations are often simply conglomerations of disparate peoples living within boundaries laid down for colonial administrative convenience. In consequence, there is a high risk of defection and instability. Hence the governments ruling over these groups are prone to demand that historians write nothing which does not contribute to the national image they can concerned to sell to maintain their authority. This, Perhaps, is Where Asian Historians at the Moment Differ from their Western Counterparts: it Requires more Courage to be Objective in the Writing of History in Asia than it does in the West.

The transgressor finds that passports to leave the country to attend courses or conferences abroad are impossible or difficult to get; he is not given the fellowships, etc., dispensed by international bodies to governments for distribution among their nationals; he is not placed on the committees which are concerned with cultural affairs ol one kind or another.

Instead, all these perquisites go to the sycophants who never criticise the bureaucrasy, or the "nation." Of course, objective writing gives a historian recognition by the international world of scholarship, but this often has to be his consolation for being without honour in his own country.

Singapore an Oasis

Apart from the main business of the conference there were several affairs on the side which oiled the wheels, both big and little. Lunches and dinners generously given by local bodies; there was a launch trip round Singapore harbour, and an evening lecture at which even a few conferees turned up. All these were helped along by the personality of Singapore. The island has less ground on which to work up anti-European sentiment than many other parts of the area, for after all it owes its very existence to colonialism, here to be taken to mean the conversion of a swamp into a free port with the highest standard of living in Southeast Asia. Like all immigrants, the forebears of its people did not come there because they were enthusiasts for their indigenous culture, but because the change of air offered them more hope.

Visibly, there is occurring a fusion of what came from the West with what originated in the East; not through compulsion, but just by allowing people to make their own choices, combining elements from both worlds to suit their individual convenience. Social attitudes tend to be general, and the absence of anti-European feeling seems to have led to acceptance of racial diversity, producing the Singapore atmosphere of tolerance, stability, and good government; a combination which makes the island virtually an oasis in Southeast Asia.

The Outcome

All this made it very easy for the participants of the conference to mix not only inside the discussion chamber but also outside. This was one of the main achievements ol the conference; names became men, and new men came forward to be accepted by the old without regard to racial or national origin. There were disappointments with regard to some of the papers presented (and they were not all world-shaking contributions to knowledge). But this was more than made up for by these informal contacts. Another conference is promised for 1964; one can only hope that the participants will find it as pleasant as was the first.