Southeast Asia: A Very Short Introduction


Southeast Asia has always been an area of contestation even before it went under colonial rule, and especially during the Cold War. It may be easy to think of Southeast Asia as the region which conveniently links Western powers to those of Asia, or to discuss it from a Euro-American perspective, thereby ignoring its cultural specificities and reducing it to simply another part of the “East”. Southeast Asia is complex and distinct; the region has always been culturally diverse, and the people highly adaptable to changes, as evidenced in their embrace of new trade opportunities, and indigenisation of major religions introduced by traders and missionaries in pre-modern times. Southeast Asia’s position between India and China gave rise to its multiple religions, cultures, and extensive trade history, with its evolving role as a link between India and China, between US, Europe, and China reflected in its current economic strategies.

Even while it is frequently thought of as a bridge between Euro-American and larger Asian powers, Southeast Asia’s agency in world history cannot be disregarded. Rush’s book offers a concise discussion of Southeast Asia, covering events from pre-modern Asia to current developments in the region. This book provides a summary of Southeast Asia’s history, and its scope is comparable to Nicholas Tarling’s volumes on Southeast Asia. As Rush explains, the purpose of this book is “to tell a complicated story simply and legibly” and that “anecdotal information about Southeast Asia… can be understood in the context of larger patterns of history, politics, and society”. And this is exactly what he sets out to do. His organisation of chapters – in chronological and thematic order – allows for a more organic discussion of Southeast Asia, and for readers to simultaneously consider the many aspects of the region.

Even as he maps Southeast Asia’s geopolitics, sociocultural, and environmental developments, Rush maintains that Southeast Asians are heterogeneous, and will continue to be. The multiplicity and complexity which characterises Southeast Asian societies is a result of inter-cultural and inter-religious interactions from trade, migration and, later on, colonisation. Southeast Asia has a heterogeneous population and Rush’s awareness of the heterogeneity of its population is evident in, for example, his careful distinction between the land people (most Southeast Asians) and the hill people (hill tribes, minority ethnic groups, sometimes stateless Southeast Asians). Rush’s descriptions of the various and ever-changing kingdoms, or mandalas, in pre-modern Southeast Asia reinforce his point that there are frequent interactions and exchanges between the people, especially when borders are porous, and at times, even overlap. These frequent interactions not only allow for the syntheses of new cultural practices, but also, enable the people to embrace change readily. Yet, the borders fixed by the European colonisers are at times, ambiguous, and do not fully allow these free interactions and heterogeneity.

Rush argues Southeast Asia’s colonial history is not one-dimensional when he observes that “resistance and rebellion were constant phenomenon in the colonial world”. The resistance to colonial rule intensified at the end of the Japanese occupation. More often than not, nationalists who actively resist colonial rule collaborate with their communist counterparts to regain self-rule. Rush is right to point out that while there were groups of nationalists who worked with the Japanese, there were underground resistance forces, such as the Hukbalahap or Huks in Philippines, who took on the role of defending their homeland. Rush provides a good example in his brief mention of the Huks and their communist ties but he fails to discuss the nuances in the redefinition of ‘communist’ during the Cold War. Nevertheless, he reminds us that Southeast Asia’s Cold War history and policies continue to define contemporary Southeast Asia, and it is these histories and policies that can offer us an approach to understanding the region’s geopolitics and cultures.

The end of the Cold War also meant that Southeast Asian nations were able to properly de-colonise and, in Chen Kuan-Hsing’s words, to de-cold war. And as Rush has shown, the formation of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) allows Southeast Asia to be modern in its own way, and use its own method to handle the nation states’ interdependence for military and trade security. Identifying the crises and booms that Southeast Asia goes through, Rush argues that Southeast Asia is becoming a much more stable region that is capable of engaging with the rest of Asia. In his exposition of the present and near future of Southeast Asia’s development, Rush rightly points out China’s continuous influence (even though the nature of that influence has changed) in the region through its contestation of territories in the South China Sea, and the Belt and Road initiative. And now that China’s Belt and Road Initiative has once again thrust Southeast Asia into the spotlight, a revitalised interest in Southeast Asia comes with many approaches to understanding the region. James R. Rush’s book no doubt serves as an essential introduction to the study of Southeast Asia.

James R. Rush. Southeast Asia: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018

Lye Kit Ying is currently a lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences. Her dissertation focuses on the use of magical realism in the re-presentation of violence that occurred during the Cold War in Southeast Asian literature. Her research interests are mainly magical realism, the Cold War in Southeast Asia, history and its remembrance, postmodernism, and postcolonialism. She has published writings that discuss the use of literature to represent civil wars in Southeast Asian countries.

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