Imagining the “West” in Southeast Asia: Construction, Deconstruction and Contestation
Part 1Session 6
Thu 14:00-15:30 Room 3.01
Part 2Session 7
Thu 16:00-17:30 Room 3.01
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“Acts of ignorance”: (re)imagining maritime heritage along the Silk and Spice Routes
Marina Kaneti National University of Singapore
“Ridiculous. This is not what a VOC ship looks like. They have it all wrong,” quipped the Dutch government official in polite disbelief. “This thing,” he continued, pointing to the image of a ship with a huge VOC banner on top, “won’t be sailing anywhere. It is missing a mast and the deck makes no sense.”
The ship in question was part of a giant mural, entitled “Strength of the Merchant Fleet” (Kekuatan Armada Dagang) at the new maritime museum in Jakarta, unveiled in 2019, shortly before the Covid Pandemic. The Dutch official’s remarks came during a private tour, staged for an international delegation comprising representatives of government and international organizations, as well as museum experts and academics. But what to the Dutch official may have appeared as an instance of sheer ignorance, could also be understood as an “act of ignoring” of what is considered proper, both in terms of the factual accuracy of representation and the type of sensibility it was meant to generate.
Drawing on Jacques Rancière’s notion of “aesthetic ignorance” this paper suggests that representations, such as the VOC ship are not the mistake of former colonial subjects with no knowledge of ship building technology or history. Instead, these can be understood as political acts of disrupting the clear line between ignorance and knowledge, subjugation and freedom. In changing the roles and allowances of the who, what, and how of representation, visual renderings of ancient maritime interactions point to the aesthetic construction of a different world: one with equal possibilities to visualize and give meaning to history and heritage. To explore this thesis, the paper discusses images and representations of the “West” from select locations along the ancient maritime routes.
“More like a Republic”: The Contestations of Images of the West in King Chulalongkorn’s 1897 trip to Sweden and Denmark
Preedee Hongsaton Linnaeus University
Previous historical narratives of Thai-Scandinavian relationships tend to focus on the friendships and collaborations between the two regions. This focus, however, overlooks contestations and conflicts that brought the Siamese elites into contact with Sweden and Denmark in the first place. To be sure, although Siam was not directly colonised, it had similar experience with other colonised mainland Southeast Asian nations. This talk takes into account the Franco-Siamese War in 1893 as it redefined the Siamese elite perception towards the West and marked a watershed to the Siamese diplomatic policy: the absolute monarchy under King Chulalongkorn (r.1868-1910) must seek ways to come to terms with the rapidly transforming world. With this task in mind, his first European trip was decided in 1897. This talk will focus on his visit to Sweden and Denmark in the summer of 1897 as part of his European tour. It will show how his perceptions towards the Scandinavians were constructed and contested through reports, commentaries, and his own personal memoir from the trip.
The West and the World in Indonesian Imagination and Experience
Judith Schlehe University of Freiburg
Jürgen Rüland University of Freiburg
In 2005 Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit published a remarkable book about what they saw as a rise of Occidentalism in many parts of the Global South. In Southeast Asia, intellectuals critical of the West (such as Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani), postcolonial and Islamist thinkers, perfectly fit Buruma and Margalit’s observation that these Occidentalist perspectives represent a complete reversal of what once Edward Said had harshly criticized as “Orientalism” in Europe’s relationship to the “East:” Essentializing the cultural “Other” in highly unfavorable terms as a rhetoric frame to legitimize the West’s colonial and neo-colonialist mission.
In the envisaged paper, we strive to ground this debate on Occidentalism in empirical field research and seek to provide answers to the following research question: “how are the various ways to make sense of the West related to world-making in Indonesia?” We thereby focus on a number of issues including religious practice and morality, attitudes towards Covid-19 vaccination and Indonesian views of the West in the field of international relations. In the paper we draw from data collected in the course of a research project entitled “Beyond Occidentalism: Indonesian images of the West” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and subsequent work at the University of Freiburg’s Southeast Asia study group. We combine anthropological and international relations perspectives which best converge in a constructivist, relational analytical framework, highlighting the significance of images, frames and identities. In our findings we note that Indonesia’s relationship to the West is much more complex than the adherents of the Occidentalism argument claim. Varying across issue areas, situations and contexts, it is characterized by a marked decentering of the West and the rise of other important “Others” including East Asia (particularly China) and the Arab world. Thus, the various ways of world-making in Indonesia refer primarily to the conditions, experiences and imagination within the country.
The Commercialisation of The Imaginaries of The West among Vietnamese Migrant E-Traders in Berlin
Jessica Steinman Universität Leipzig
In Vietnam, as elsewhere in the developing world, narratives of going West (đi Tây) often go hand in hand with the imagination of a good life. The idea of the West, which is distant and inaccessible but also omnipresent and attractive, drives the imagination of many who search for the “going “West” dream (giấc mơ đi Tây)” at all costs. Once at their new locality, migrants often live a “constructed life” that evokes imaginations of the West as modern, organised, and ideal in contrast to the backward, disorganised, and corrupt homeland. For many migrants, “‘the West’ depicts an idealised life that helps them escape their precarious lives in Vietnam. The global circulation of Western ideologies and images of the West driven by intense Globalisation seems to have mapped out a certain trajectory in the collective imagination of the West for many Vietnamese migrants. Based on long term ethnography with Vietnamese migrant traders in Germany, this paper addresses how Vietnamese e-traders in Germany capitalise on the imagination of the “west” to conduct transnational trade. Contrasting their ability to get better and safer western products in contrast to the low quality and unsafe products in Vietnam, traders simultaneously perpetuate the ideas of western modernity and orderliness in comparison to Vietnam’s backward lawlessness. The promotion of such products perpetuates the association of foreign products with upward mobility and prosperity. Nevertheless, even when they advertise a carefree lifestyle in the West, migrant traders themselves experience the deliberating instability and precariousness brought on by global neoliberalism. This paper thus focuses on how migrants navigate the world between expectations, imaginations and lived reality in their host land.
The standard international in international standard: The ‘West’ And Its Imaginaries At The Workplace
Kim Anh Dang Universität Bielefeld
In Vietnam, while there is a push for international standards, its application is still unregulated and voluntary. Despite being the driving force of the Vietnamese economy, the vast majority of SMEs do not follow a specific set of standards such as the ISO. Instead, practices under the claim of international standard take on more general labels of ‘international standardised management techniques’, ‘advanced management practices’ or ‘Western management practices’. In this context, the looming presence of international standards, whether in the form of actual laws and regulation or just simply a tagline or buzzword, reflects Vietnam’s many transformations under the forces of globalisation, neoliberal ideals and the pressure to integrate into the global economy. This paper presents an ethnographic exploration of the management of Vietnamese workers under such aspiration for international standard. By exploring what practices are considered standard and what makes one practice considered international while other not, this paper discusses how imaginaries of the ‘West’ as the ‘standard international’ are produced and consumed, aspired to and contested. I argue that imaginaries of the ‘West’ act both as discursive and technical technologies of governance, where the strategic employment of the terms west/western participate in the perception and construction of identities and desire at the workplace. Through the narrative of science and progress, these imaginaries are intertwined with the state’s discourse of socialist Modernity to form subjectivities that align with both the state’s economic agenda and its ongoing moral and political nation building project. Furthermore, through workers’ accounts of both past experiences and future aspirations for mobility and internationalisation, I investigate how imaginaries of the ‘Western way’ of thinking and working open up spaces for the construction, contestation and reconfiguration of the post-reform selfhood.
Despite decades of calls from scholars to move away from the ongoing forms of westerncentric knowledge production (Nandy 1983, Hall 1992, Comaroff & Comaroff 2012, Cooper & Morrell 2014), the force of neoliberal globalisation has intensified the desire for “the West” in the “rest”. In Southeast Asia, states’ global aspirations and outlook have driven them toward the so-called “western standards” in governance, economic development, and everyday practices. Within the region, various economic, social, and political transformations have been shaped by ideals of “the West” as the model for nation-building, modernisation, and knowledge production. Promoted largely under Western and/or international tags by many scholars, policymakers and citizens alike, these new ideas, practices, and values often mean different things and advocate different values to different stakeholders. Yet, they also evoke certain imaginaries of what the “West” is. Aspirations toward idealised versions of the West as models for societal advancements intrinsically reveal the underlying imperial and colonial indoctrination that continues to exist in Southeast Asia, in which imaginations of the West continue to perpetuate an imperialist hierarchy between the global “core” and “peripheral”, and among the “peripheral”.
Acknowledging and calling attention to the need to move the conversation beyond a neocolonial and comparative gaze from the West, this panel welcomes contributions that examine how the West is perceived, imagined and practised across Southeast Asia and discipline; as well as de-colonial and de-imperialising approaches aiming at dismantling the Western-centralism that has constituted the prevailing structure of desire and knowledge to construct new research understanding and imaginations.