In March 1974, Professor Kernial Singh Sandhu, Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), launched a major new publishing initiative, the Institute’s annual Southeast Asian Affairs. The appearance of Southeast Asian Affairs 1974 was the first of its kind: an annual review devoted to the international relations, politics, and economies of the region and its nation-states. The project was part of the ISEAS mandate to be a leader in research on the problems of stability and security, economic development, and political and social change in Southeast Asia.
The comprehensiveness of coverage in the annual series expanded as ASEAN itself expanded from its original five members to today’s ten. The collected volumes of Southeast Asian Affairs have become a compendium documenting the dynamic evolution of regional and national developments in Southeast Asia from the end of the “second” Vietnam War to the alarms and struggles of today. Over the years, the editors of Southeast Asian Affairs have drawn on the talents and expertise not only of ISEAS’ own professional research staff and visiting fellows, but also have reached out to tap leading scholars and analysts elsewhere in Southeast and East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, North America, and Europe. A full list of contributors over forty years reads like a kind of who’s who in Southeast Asian Studies.
When asked to contribute this special introduction to the current Southeast Asian Affairs, I went back to look again at the first number in the series. I was struck by how many of the themes raised some forty years ago resonate today. It is not a matter of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. It is that persistent problems and structural issues continue to be in play. For example, in 1974 three general levels of political threat were identified. The first level was international, where in the region there was a sense of anxiety and insecurity with respect to the future roles of the great powers in the regional international order. Special mention was made of China’s forceful expulsion of Vietnam from the Paracel Islands and claims to the Spratlys. The second, regional, level consisted of unsettled territorial claims, described as “smouldering embers that could give rise to future fires”. The fires burned over the years. At the third, domestic, level, attention was [End Page ix] given to separatism, struggles for autonomy, and ethnic and religious tensions; all threatening national and regional stability; and they still do.
Looking at the regional economies, Southeast Asian Affairs 1974 underlined the continued dependency of Southeast Asia on the state of the global economy. Then, the issue was an energy crisis. The authors also looked at the indicators of real economic development but worried about growing income inequalities. The conclusions were generally upbeat, buoyed by the tremendous economic development potentials in Southeast Asia. In retrospect, it is fair to say that Southeast Asian Affairs 2013 bears out the economic optimism of the previous generation. Arguably, ASEAN’s greatest real achievements have come on its economic playing fields.
The anxieties in the broad patterns of ASEAN’s international political and security environments laid out in Southeast Asian Affairs 1974 give a historical dimension to the contemporary anxieties felt in the region. All of the categories of threat at the three levels — international, regional, and domestic — that informed the first number of Southeast Asian Affairs exist today. Steady forward steps towards economic integration within the region and between the region and its trading partners have not been matched in the political and security fields. The conflicting interests in the South China Sea threaten to undo ASEAN itself, let alone its vision of community. Bangkok and Phnom Penh are waiting for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to drop the other shoe in the Preah Vihear dispute. Significant ethnic and religious conflict persists at different levels of violence and humanitarian suffering in Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines, to mention only the more prominent among the many unresolved political and security problems. Overarching them all are the uncertainties about China’s ultimate ambitions in...