- A New History of Southeast Asia
Does the study of Southeast Asian history need a new textbook history of Southeast Asia? If so, what should it look like? How should it differ from its predecessors?
An attempt to answer these questions may be found in the recent publication of A New History of Southeast Asia, a joint effort by Singapore-based historians of Southeast Asia, M. C. Ricklefs, Bruce Lockhart, Albert Lau, Portia Reyes, and Maitri Aung Thwin.
A New History of Southeast Asia was conceived as a ‘new edition’ of D. G. E. Hall’s monumental, 1000-page tome, A History of South-East Asia, first published in 1955 and reprinted in several revised editions until as late as 1985. This imposing volume has long been a required work on the reading lists of all students of Southeast Asian history—even if few students could honestly admit to having read it from cover to cover. Since the original publication of A History of SouthEast Asia there have, of course, been great changes both to scholarship on the region and to the Southeast Asian region itself.
Hall wrote his great work just as the field of Southeast Asian history (not to mention the name ‘Southeast Asia’/‘South East Asia’/‘South-East Asia’) was establishing itself and the region was in the throes of decolonization. Hall himself held the first chair of South East Asian History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, a sign that Southeast Asian history was beginning to come into its own as a discrete field of study. The onset of the Cold War largely determined the development of scholarship on Southeast Asia for at least the next two decades. North American universities, in particular Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program, set the pace for what in retrospect can be seen as the golden age of Southeast Asian studies in the West. Following the end of the Cold War and the decline in funding support to Area Studies programs generally, Southeast Asian history has often struggled in the former Western centres. But the expansion of the tertiary education system within Southeast Asia has given impetus to the study of Southeast Asian history by Southeast Asians in the region. With a population of upwards of 600 million people it is likely that the future development of scholarship on Southeast Asian history will be determined more and more by Southeast Asian scholars. A New History of Southeast Asia to a certain extent represents this trend, a ‘book, written in Southeast Asia by historians who live there’ (p. 471)—even if Singapore is a part of Southeast Asia with rather unique characteristics—especially its organic connection to the Western, English-speaking academic world.
Southeast Asia, and Asia more generally, has undergone massive transformation since the publication of Hall’s History. Today Southeast Asia is a far more [End Page 122] politically stable and economically prosperous place. Economists predict that Asia as a whole will soon constitute the greater part of the world economy, as once was the case before the era of European imperialism. In historical terms this turnaround, from the humiliation of colonial rule and the widespread poverty which characterized the region just a few decades ago, has taken place in a remarkably short period of time. With the rise of China and latterly India, Southeast Asia is also becoming more integrated. Despite its many failings the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as the ASEAN Free Trade Area, the ASEAN Regional Forum, not to mention low-cost air travel, are all bringing the region together in ways that could hardly have been imagined six decades ago. The very concept of ‘Southeast Asia’, a staple topic for discussion in early lectures on Southeast Asia in most history programmes, today has become so reified that it can be difficult to explain to students why the concept was once so problematic.
If it was once possible to keep...