Launch of Oxford’s Southeast Asia Studies Centre Campaign

Vice-Chancellor, heads of house, ladies and gentlemen:


  1. I am delighted to accept the Vice-Chancellor’s invitation to be the Patron of the University’s Centre for Southeast Asia Studies. This new and innovative Centre will be based in the Oxford School for Global and Area Studies.   As  Patron,  I  will do all  I can  to support the University’s remarkable vision for the Centre, and to help it to flourish and thrive in the years to come.



  1. My role as Patron unites two of my foremost passions: firstly, my region of  the  world,  Southeast  Asia  and  the  citizens  of  the  ASEAN countries; and secondly, my alma mater, the University of Oxford where, during  and  through  my  studies,  I  was  able  to  develop  further  my longstanding  personal  commitment  to  sustainable  development,  social justice,  and  maintaining  mutually  productive  relationships  among  the community of nations.



  1. I do  not  exaggerate  when  I  say  that  I  am  thrilled  by  this  timely initiative on Oxford’s part.  With its rapidly expanding economy and ever- increasing prominence on the global stage, Southeast Asia is a region of the world which undoubtedly warrants  the focused, scholarly study that Oxford’s  new Centre  will  facilitate.   To  my mind, Southeast  Asia is, at once, both uniquely fascinating and exceptionally complex because of its geography, its history and, as a result, its rich and incredible diversity.


  1. In terms of geography, the ASEAN community comprises a vibrant region of ten countries and 650 million people. To put the scale of this into some perspective, the European Union has 28 member countries and a population of 512 million.  The ASEAN area is flanked by two large and resurgent  global  powers,  China  and  India,  and  it  straddles  strategic maritime   routes   of   vital   importance   to   all   trading   nations.      This geographical position undoubtedly has its benefits, and is integral to the economic expansion the region is currently enjoying.   But it also means that ASEAN must carefully navigate the competing vested interests of the big  powers  on  all  sides  –  a  potential  challenge  to  the  cohesion  of  the region if these big powers collide.



  1. The history of the ASEAN community, meanwhile, is characterized by the  many  changes  in  sovereignty  which  have  taken  place  over  the centuries.  Almost all of Southeast Asia lost their sovereignty for several centuries  to  Western  colonial  powers.    The  region  was  invaded  and occupied  by  an  Asian  power  during  the  Second  World  War.    When regaining sovereignty in the aftermath of this war, many countries in the region therefore had to re-define themselves as states following changes in   demographics   and   identity,  and   rebuild   themselves   as   modern, independent nations. The later decades of the twentieth century marked a crucial period of nation-building for the region.  Much progress has been made, and much stability regained, though the nation-building process is still an ongoing one for some countries.


  1. Both the  geography  and  history  of  the  region,  meanwhile,  have helped  to  bring  about  its  rich  and  incredible  diversity.    The  ASEAN countries are home to citizens of varying ethnicities, languages, cultures and faiths.   Indonesia, for instance, is a predominantly Muslim country, while Thailand  a predominantly Buddhist  country and the Philippines a predominantly  Christian  one.     The  ten  countries  differ  in  size  and population from among the world’s largest to among the world’s smallest, and  are  governed  by  diverse  political  systems  ranging  from  absolute monarchies  to  socialist  regimes  and  democracies.     There  are  also enormous differences in terms of economic structure, income, and human development.  For example, the average person in Singapore is more that 50 times wealthier than the average person in Cambodia.   Meanwhile, Brunei is the fourth richest country in the world in GDP per capita PPP terms, but its economy is only one-hundredth the size of Indonesia’s.  The ASEAN  region  is  experiencing  exciting  and  unprecedented  economic expansion,  with a  combined GDP  of  USD  2.55 trillion.   While  we may celebrate this progress, we must also recognize that the expansion is not evenly distributed  across  all  countries  and  peoples.   A  more  thorough scholarly analysis of the region’s inequalities will be an important step in working to redress them.


  1. For all of these reasons of geography, history and diversity, it seems to me that it is vital for the world’s leading academic institutions to invest time and  resources  in  studying  this  unique  and  exciting  region  of  the world.  As in so many fields, Oxford will lead the way in this endeavour.  It is not only the ASEAN countries themselves that stand to benefit from this research.  Social scientists can have a better understanding of our world as a whole by reflecting upon empirical data from Southeast Asia, and by drawing on it as they develop new conceptual frameworks which describe different  aspects  of  the  human  experience.    In  the  English-language academic canon,  we have seen already how social  science disciplines can be enriched by concepts derived from the careful study of this region. Take,    for    instance,    Benedict    Anderson’s    concept    of    ‘imagined communities’,1   which  draws  substantially  on  his  experiences  of  and research  into  twentieth-century  Indonesian  politics;  or  James  Scott’s classic analyses of the rural poor in Vietnam and Malaysia;2 or else Aiwah Ong’s work on factories in Malaysia, and on Cambodian immigrants in the United   States,   works   which   have   contributed   significantly   to   the development of important academic theories of citizenship and gender.3


  1. I have no doubt that Oxford’s new Centre will encourage much more of this  kind  of  conceptual  innovation,  based  on  empirical  study  and understanding of Southeast Asia. However, I also have even bolder, more ambitious  hopes  for  the  Centre.    I  hope  that  the  Centre  will  not  only produce outstanding research, but also communicate it to the  world.   I want both Oxford graduates and the general public to learn more about the fine research of leading scholars from the region, giving people an insight into how human experience might be theorised and understood from  Southeast  Asia’s  vantage  point.    This  could  encompass,  among other initiatives, including the publications of ASEAN’s foremost scholars in students’ reading lists here, internationalizing Oxford faculties to include visiting  scholars  from  the  region,  and  fostering  increased  person-to- person  academic  collaborations  between  Oxford  and  the  scholars  at ASEAN’s  best  universities.   Southeast  Asia has outstanding  academic departments and scholars across a wide range of fields, including but not limited to geography and the environment, demography, visual culture and political economy, and these are all areas which the new Centre in Oxford will also prioritise.   By means of teaching, collaborative research, public lectures and conferences, I believe that the Centre can demonstrate to the world how studying Southeast Asia’s economy, society and  culture benefits all of humankind, and how the unique perspective offered by the region   gives   scholarship   new   ways   of   conceptualizing   the   human experience.  Above all, I believe that the Centre can play a crucial role in fostering  a  better  global  understanding  ofand  engagement  with,  the ASEAN region.


  1. Southeast Asia is a rapidly transforming and growing region of the world. Oxford is an old and venerable institution.   We will listen to and learn  from  each  other’s  varied  expertise  throughout  the  process  of establishing the new Centre.  However, I am sure we are all agreed that this  Centre  for  Southeast  Asia  Studies  is  long  overdue,  and  that  it  is therefore important for us to make up for missed time.  I promise you today that I will do all I can to encourage like-minded and successful individuals from my region to invest in this vital initiative, so that we can make the Centre a reality in the next two to three years.


  1. By creating a dedicated focus for research and teaching excellence in Southeast Asia Studies, Oxford will make a significant contribution to the global academy. Very few universities in the world can match Oxford for  the  range  and  intensity  of  its  academic  expertise.   This  ambitious, thoughtfully-integrated knowledge enterprise will put Southeast Asia at its heart, benefiting both the citizens of the ASEAN countries and the people of the wider world.


  1. It is for all of these reasons that I am keen to see this world-class Centre established as soon  as  possible, so that  it can  begin  to play a pivotal and timely role in building long-standing and mutually beneficial connections  between  the  University  of  Oxford  and  the  countries  of Southeast Asia.  I am proud to be a champion for both, my University and my region, in creating opportunities for collaborations between the two in perpetuity.


Thank you.

1  Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

2  James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1977).

3  Aiwah Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1999).


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