Friday, November 19, 2010

Seas are part and parcel of Asean

IT is interesting to note that in both Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia, the word for "homeland" happens to be tanah air, which translates as "land and sea". While one can understand how and why land can be seen as territory, the question remains how the seas and oceans can be thought of as home as well. Home for whom? And how?
Such a question may arise these days for we -- the peoples of Southeast Asia -- currently live in a post-colonial world where the nation-state has become the dominant actor in international politics.

Every citizen of Southeast Asia is a citizen of one country or another, and we live under and within an order of knowledge and power where our identities are quarantined and defined according to a hegemonic system where the identity card, passport, national flag and national language serve as the markers of our identities.

Yet, years ago, I learned that this was not necessarily the case with many Southeast Asians who may not have fully adjusted to the realities of the modern post-colonial world.
Interviewing an illegal migrant who had crossed the Malacca Straits without identity papers, I was stunned somewhat by the man's reply: "But why do I need a passport? My father came without a passport, my grandfather came without a passport, as did all my ancestors who came without a passport."

In a sense, the man had a point -- but, more importantly, what he had demonstrated was an acute sense of regional belonging and homeliness that was not necessarily based on documents and legal papers; it was something deeper, a sense of common belonging that predated modern nationalism.

Southeast Asia is still full of millions of people who share such sentiments and live their lives accordingly.

Over the years. I have conducted field research with itinerant religious scholars, preachers, missionaries and even smugglers who likewise see Southeast Asia as a common home for all.

I have met smugglers who may start the day in southern Thailand, spend the afternoon dealing in northern Malaysia and spend the night in north Sumatra. All of this, mind you, with no legal papers whatsoever and scant regard for the presence of nation-state borders.

What many scholars and technocrats have failed to do is take into account the long-shared history of the sea lanes of Southeast Asia and how these maritime spaces were actually productive spaces of social activity, interaction and cultural production.

Indeed, the bodies of water that course around us, the South China Sea, the Java Sea, the Malacca Straits and the Sunda Straits, ought to be seen as precisely that: "seascapes", where cultures live and thrive; and not merely empty spaces of water with fish and the odd oil tanker.

"Seascapes" are not some novel invention of funky academics with nothing to do and who have run out of territories to research.

Over the past two decades, research into seascapes as living spaces where productive human activity takes place has been growing in Europe and North America, and as an area of research has grown in prominence and seriousness.

In Germany, between 2002 and 2007, the universities I worked with, Freie and Humbolt, were both spending a considerable amount of time and money into the research of sea-scapes, with special emphasis on the Indian Ocean, the Arab Sea and the Mediterranean.

The premise of these grand projects was the simple idea that seas and oceans are not simply empty places devoid of life but rather that they are connecting spaces that unite, rather than divide.

This is how we ought to look at the oceans and seas around us. The Indian Ocean does not divide South and Southeast Asia, but rather unites these two land masses, bringing peoples and cultures together. And it was this connectivity that accounts for the prolonged cultural contact between the two parts of the world.

Likewise, the South China Sea and the Java Sea have always been productive spaces where cultures connect, ideas are spread and developed, goods exchanged and identities are formed.

In the past, long before the advent of the modern nation-state, the peoples of Southeast Asia lived in a world where land and sea were, alike, their home; hence the term tanah air.

Entire communities, such as the Bugis and Orang Laut, regarded the sea as their homeland as well, rather than some hostile environment where human life was sparse.

Today, as Southeast Asia develops according to the logic of inter-state relations where the nation-state is the primary actor in bilateral and multilateral politics, we need to be aware of the fact that the oceans and seas around us form part and parcel of Asean as a whole.

Though urban-based politicians and technocrats may not realise it, for millions of Southeast Asian citizens, the sea is as much their home as the land, and many of these people of dubious national identity and who live from place to place -- be they smugglers or pirates -- are in fact more integrated into the region than we realise.

I raise this point only because of the propensity for technocrats to think that Asean-building is a process that begins from the government downwards.

However, a closer look at the reality on the ground and in some of the more blurred spaces where territories overlap will show that millions of Southeast Asians are already living as Asean citizens, crossing seas that connect us, on a daily basis.

We just haven't noticed them, because we do not realise that the sea is their home, too.

By Dr Farish A. Noor senior research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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