Vice-Chancellor, heads of house, ladies and gentlemen:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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 of, and engagement with, the ASEAN region.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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