Commentary: Colonialism’s long shadow over Southeast Asia today

How did Southeast Asian identities originate? The  legacy of the 19th century continues to shape us more than we think, writes Dr Farish A Noor, host of the new series Inventing Southeast Asia.

How did Southeast Asian identities originate? The  legacy of the 19th century continues to shape us more than we think, writes Dr Farish A Noor, host of the new series Inventing Southeast Asia.

SINGAPORE: We live in a Southeast Asia that is perhaps better connected now than ever before. Or so one would think – if one were unaware of how inter-connected all of Asia once was before the advent of colonial rule, and before the creation of the colonies that would gain their independence as the nation-states we recognise today.

Southeast Asians today are caught up in the web of identity politics, as we appropriate elements of history, language and material culture as ours. Sometimes exclusively so.

Yet it pays to remind ourselves that many of the things that we regard as “ours”, in the nationalistic sense, emerged and developed in a pre-modern Southeast Asian region – one where communities were more mobile than we realise, and where movement, migration, settlement and commerce linked the respective nations together.

How did the idea of Southeast Asia come about? That’s what we set out to explore in Inventing Southeast Asia, a three-part series that premieres on Aug 30.

Specifically, we look at a particular time-period in the region’s history, namely the early 19th century when colonial power was at its height.

The series focuses on how Southeast Asia came to be known in different ways by the different powers that had ambitions upon the region. And how, in the process of colonial expansion by trade and conquest, Southeast Asia was imagined, configured, labelled and defined – by men who wielded not only economic and political power, but also the power to imagine and translate their imaginings into political reality.

For example, we return to some of the key events that shaped Southeast Asia back then – some of which have been forgotten by Southeast Asians themselves.


The British invasion of Java in 1811 and brief rule under Sir Stamford Raffles, for instance, was an important period in the region’s history, as it was accompanied by an attempt to define Java as an antiquated land that had to be “preserved” for its own sake.

But in this process, stock and general stereotypes of Javanese-ness were also generated, which persist until today.

Borneo, on the other hand, was seen and cast as a hostile region – a den of pirates and head-hunters – that needed to be pacified at all costs. In the pursuit of this goal, the stereotype of the “savage” was conjured to justify what was really the invasion, and eventual conquest, of a foreign land.

Indochina was imagined by the French as a zone that shared cultural, linguistic and historical commonalities. But in the process of “civilising” that part of Asia, the colonial power had also attempted to redefine the identity of its people along Eurocentric notions of civilisation and progress.

What we hoped to achieve in this series was not just a broad historical tour of our region’s past – via Indonesia, Borneo, Vietnam and Cambodia – but to also question how the idea of ‘Southeast Asia’ came about, as well as to identify the actors and agents behind it (be they explorer, conqueror or merchant), and the agendas that guided that endeavour.


This is a part of Southeast Asian history that is often forgotten, or mentioned only in passing, but whose legacy is still around us today.

We see it in the form of the political borders that we negotiate on a daily basis; our notions of identity that are sometimes based on essentialised ethnic stereotypes; and our approach to development which is decidedly modern, and which sees the land and sea as territories to be dominated and exploited.

Modern though these concerns are, their genesis dates back to the 19th century when the modern colonial state was assembled with the tools of modernity at hand: The modern company, the modern army, and modern modes of social engineering and control.

We also wanted to show how many of the things that we may accept and take as ‘normal’ and ever-present in our part of the world were, in fact, fairly recent innovations introduced to Southeast Asia during the colonial era.

The colonial census, for example, paved the way for identity-differences which we today accept as the politics of multiculturalism.

And our security concerns – about pirates and piracy for instance – hark back to a time when freedom of movement at sea was regarded as problematic by powerful Western militarised companies such as the British East India Company and the Dutch East Indies Company, which wished to control maritime trade routes as well as land, in their quest for resources and markets.

In that respect, it could be asked whether we, Southeast Asians today, have really walked out of the long shadow of the 19th century.

Perhaps that is the most important point we wanted to get across: That while Southeast Asians have always had their own understanding of who and where they were in the global frame of things, the 19th century re-imagining of Southeast Asia – as a land of opportunity, as a market for goods, as a place of thrills and danger – has had a lasting impact upon the region.

Dr Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian, and an Associate Professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He hosts Inventing Southeast Asia, a three-part series by Channel NewsAsia that premieres Tuesday, Aug 30, at 8pm (SG/HK).