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FARISH A. NOOR――Across Borders in Southeast Asia Today:Envisioning Future ASEAN Integration based on the Complex Reality of Human Lives

Presentation / Asia Hundreds

Seeking "Southeast Asia" on the Local Level

That ASEAN seems distant to so many ordinary Southeast Asian citizens today strikes me as something to be expected. Yet as I have tried to show earlier, there exists all over the Southeast Asian region plentiful instances of real, organic, and everyday interaction between peoples and communities who crisscross borders with ease and who may have a sense of identity and belonging rooted in the immediate environment of their sub-region. Upland communities and border communities locate their sense of identity and belonging to shared domains that may be separated by political frontiers drawn on maps; such as the Dayaks of East Malaysian-West Kalimantan border*8 that make up much of the interior of the great island of Borneo. Often such communities may belong to more than one nation-state, and may be spread across several states of ASEAN. Yet within the context of their own respective national histories, they have often been relegated to the margins as "minorities" or those who reside at the periphery, and their concerns and worldviews have likewise been deemed peripheral as well.

*8 Kalimantan is the Indonesian reference of the island of Borneo. The name "Borneo" refers to the entire island that comprises of the East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, as well as the kingdom of Brunei and the Indonesian provinces of West, South, East, Central and Northern Kalimantan.

Malaysia-Indonesia border in East Kalimantan, Indonesia
The Malaysian-Indonesian border in East Kalimantan, Indonesia
Cambodian families to thw Thai-Cambodian border
Cambodian families on their way to the Thai-Cambodian border

A bottom-up, organic approach to a study of ASEAN should look at these sub-regional domains as human habitus in their own right, and take as its starting point the meaning of "home" and the "local" to these communities. Official, national histories may have some difficulty in dealing with such local, sub-regional conceptions of homeland and belonging, for they may appear to contradict the official, state-centric discourse of governance or official national histories that tend to be linear and totalizing. How, for instance, would an official history of Indonesia, or Malaysia, accommodate the worldview of the Dayaks who live in both countries and still have affinity to their fellow Dayaks across the political border? Such an understanding would require the appreciation of the fact that identities are not totalizing after all, and not singular either: that a Dayak Malaysian or Dayak Indonesian can be both Dayak and have a national identity/citizenship at the same time, without the two being mutually exclusive.

What this means is that we could and perhaps should be studying Southeast Asia not as a pre-defined geographical bloc or area, and not as a region defined solely by ASEAN, but rather as a patchwork of networks, life-worlds, trading systems, and pathways of human contact. If such an approach were to be taken, there are some domains in particular that I would single out as deserving of closer, sustained research. These domains exist in the here-and-now, are real enough on the ground-level, and are actually rather mundane.

Looking Beyond State Law and Legality

Let me return to the example I began with, that of the Thai T-shirt makers and their smuggling activity across the border. The unfortunate bias of the modern postcolonial policymaker and/or technocrat is that she/he often fails to see beyond the structural limitations of the state and therefore cannot have a conception of human reality and social relations outside the vocabulary of governance, legality, policing, and statecraft. The net effect of this is that all forms of socio-economic and socio-cultural behavior that does not conform to the standards of state-ordained legality can only be categorized as the opposite: forms of behavior that are outside the law, illegal, and seen as potentially harmful and dangerous to the sovereignty of the nation-state and its society. But as I have seen for myself in my fieldwork along such border zones, much, much more is happening when people cross borders along unofficial channels, or engage in commerce that is not strictly legal. I am not, of course, suggesting that the illegality of such behavior is trivial or can be dismissed, but I am stating that more is happening than simply smuggling, for instance.

If we were to take a more nuanced look at these forms of "illegal activity"—such as smuggling, crossing borders without permits, et cetera—we may see that alongside forms of economic transaction that may be taking place are also other forms of human contact. Marriages occur, children are born, families and individuals can at times assume multiple personas and identities, and significantly a kind of "borderland" community is created as a result. All of this merits serious work that should be done by historians, human geographers, sociologists, and anthropologists who may show that at an organic level, different and multiple senses of local/sub-regional belonging do indeed emerge and evolve organically. If ASEAN truly wishes to build a stronger sense of community among its own citizens, perhaps looking at these alternative forms of social-bolding and sub-regional identity formation is worth more than simple censure and policing.

Looking for Southeast Asia at the Dining Table

Farish A. Noor
Farish A. Noor's "pan-ASEAN" family (with his wife and daughter) during stay in Nara, Japan

But perhaps the easiest thing to see and research is that which stares us right in the face on a daily basis, and presents itself to us in the most common and mundane garb. By this I mean the manifold instances of intra-ASEAN communication and interaction that takes place on a daily basis among the many millions of families that are already—by virtue of the composition of its members—ASEAN families.

Here I speak from personal experience, as a Malaysian of Indonesian (Javanese) origin, married to my Singaporean wife and father to my Singaporean daughter. ASEAN—or Southeast Asia—is not a distant, abstract concept for my family and I; for we encounter ASEAN every single day and every single night at our dinner table. By virtue of our marriage and our life-work patterns, my family and I negotiate the realities of ASEAN on a daily basis. While ASEAN governments work to foster a stronger sense of kinship, fellow-feeling, and neighborliness among their citizens, for millions of pan-ASEAN families such as my own, these concerns are real, evident, and daily, and they are not directed by any state policy or governmental agency.

And yet I have yet to come across a serious study of such pan-ASEAN families by any of the governments of the region, or even by ASEAN itself; conducted on a broad comparative base and having a longitudinal approach. Yet if such a study were to be done today, it might yield conclusions that are strikingly familiar, and which may remind us of the borderless world of Asia that was envisioned in the work by K. N. Chaudhuri mentioned earlier: Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular was and remains a region of movement, migration, and settlement; and that Southeast Asians continue to live complicated inter-connected lives in a complicated inter-connected world.

With ASEAN integration proceeding along its own appointed pace, and with the governments of ASEAN working towards making inter-ASEAN and/or intra-ASEAN movement easier and cheaper for all, such instances of pan-ASEAN families may well increase. The long-term outcome of such a combination of processes—state intervention as well as human agency—may be larger and more important than we imagine. For a start, the phenomenon of inter-ASEAN marriages and pan-ASEAN families may, in the long run, be the basis for a meaningful sense of ASEAN identity and belonging, where ASEAN citizens may feel a tangible sense of belonging to their culture, ethnicity, religion, state, and region all at the same time.

Envisioning Future ASEAN Integration based on the Complex Reality of Human Lives

Farish A. Noor
Farish A. Noor at the Thai-Cambodian border

By way of a conclusion, allow me to return to the beginning: I happen to be a political historian of Southeast Asia, though I would be the first to note, again, that the very notion of Southeast Asia itself is a "discursive construct," one that was the result of multiple encounters with colonialism, imperialism, modernity, and colonial-capitalism in the recent past. As someone who studies the historical development of Southeast Asian states and their attendant institutions, I would be the first to say that ASEAN has been one of the most important developments in the region during the postcolonial era. But though I have much respect for ASEAN, and consider myself an ASEAN citizen, my own work—notably on the field doing ground-level research across the region—has convinced me that ASEAN is only one facet of Southeast Asia, and the story of ASEAN is only one of many stories of the Southeast Asian region and its peoples.

I have tried to argue and show how, on the ground level of mundane daily interactions, Southeast Asian integration has already been happening on a regularity and scale that boggles the imagination. Southeast Asia is already undergoing the process of integration because Southeast Asians are themselves integrating; and on this person-to-person, people-to-people level integration takes place in a myriad of forms, using modalities that may not be conventionally understood or taken seriously by some of the disciplines we know.

It is for that reason that I truly feel that a more complex and nuanced approach has to be taken by social scientists in and around the region to study what it really happening in Southeast Asia today—along its border zones, in its maritime seascape, in its virtual space on the Internet, and in the living rooms of thousands of pan-ASEAN families on a daily basis. Looking at the future of ASEAN integration as we conceive it today, we need to appreciate the fact that the states that brought together the ASEAN bloc may not be the only, or even the primary agents and vectors of change in the future. But if we are to even begin to speculate what the future may look like, we need to return to the humanities and social sciences, and focus on the human dimension of complex relationships to place, space, and belonging. Southeast Asia cannot simply be understood in terms of terrestrial geography. What makes it what it is, are the people who live there, and it is at that subjective, human level that the very idea of "Southeast Asia" comes to have meaning in the first place.

Thank you.

Farish A. Noor

Plates: Courtesy of Farish A. Noor
Photo (Symposium): Motoi Sato