Lord Chancellor, Heads of House, ladies and gentlemen:
- I would like to begin by welcoming you all to our dinner this evening, which celebrates the foundation of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Oxford. In particular, I would like to welcome the Chancellor of the University, The Right Honourable The Lord Patten of Barnes. In his former role as Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten visited Malaysia many times, but I believe this is his first visit to the country since his election as Chancellor of the University in 2003. We are delighted to have him back! I would also like to welcome the Heads of Keble, Hertford and St Antony’s who have joined us this evening, as well as Professor Sarah Whatmore, the Head of the Social Sciences Division, who is overseeing the establishment of the new Centre.
- Five months ago, I was privileged to stand in the historic Sheldonian Theatre at the University, where I accepted the invitation of the Vice-Chancellor to become the Patron of the University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies. This innovative new Centre will be based in the Oxford School for Global and Area Studies. In accepting the role of Patron, I committed myself to support the University’s remarkable vision for the Centre, and to help it to flourish and thrive in the years to come.
- Fast-forward to today, and I must say how delighted I am to be celebrating this thrilling new collaboration between the University and Southeast Asia once again, this time not in Oxford, but in the other half of the partnership. Our event this evening gathers together individuals from all ten of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, along with members of the University, in the vibrant, modern and rapidly growing city of Kuala Lumpur. This is, I believe, both a symbol of and a testament to the exciting international vision of Oxford’s new Centre. With all the academic rigour of an old and venerable institution, the new Centre for Southeast Asian Studies will nonetheless look always to the future, broadening horizons and strengthening international bonds as it strives for ground-breaking developments in academic knowledge and human progress.
- Indeed, I feel privileged to say to you this evening – as I said previously – that my new role as Patron truly 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.
- Back in Michaelmas Term last year, in the Sheldonian Theatre, I spoke about why the new Centre is such a thrilling and timely initiative, and outlined some of the exciting opportunities for academic discovery that the Centre will afford. These crucial points, I believe, bear repeating today. 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 the Centre will facilitate. To my mind, Southeast Asia is both uniquely fascinating and exceptionally complex because of its geography, its history and, as a result, its rich and incredible diversity.
- It seems to me, that for all these reasons, it is vital for the world’s leading academic institutions to invest time and resources in studying this unique region of the world. As in so many fields, Oxford will lead the way in this endeavour.
- It is crucial to recognize, too, that Southeast Asia is not simply a fascinating object of study. I have hinted already that there is much to be learned from our region, and this is true from an academic perspective, as well as a diplomatic or political one. 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’, which draws substantially on his experiences of, and research into, twentieth-century Indonesian politics; or Clifford Geertz’s magisterial essays in The Interpretation of Cultures, also based largely on fieldwork in Indonesia; or James Scott’s classic analyses of the rural poor in Vietnam and Malaysia; or else Aiwah Ong’s work on factories in Malaysia, and on Cambodian immigrants in the United States, studies which have contributed significantly to the development of important academic theories of citizenship and gender. Whenever social scientists speak of ‘imagined communities’, ‘thick description’, or ‘weapons of the weak’, they are in fact using concepts developed through their studies of Southeast Asia.
- 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 the ASEAN countries. However, I also have even bolder, more ambitious hopes for the Southeast Asian Studies 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 excellent 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 back in Oxford, internationalizing our faculties there to include visiting scholars from this region, and fostering increased person-to-person academic collaborations between Oxford and the scholars at ASEAN’s best universities.
- There are, I believe, exciting developments on the horizon, and we must work together to ensure that the Centre is able to realize its full and exceptional potential. As I suggested at the beginning of my speech, the opening of the new Centre will represent a marriage of the old and the new: Oxford is a prestigious and historic institution, while Southeast Asia is vibrant, innovative and a rapidly developing region of the world, and we will have much to learn from each other’s varied expertise throughout the process of this exciting collaboration. I am sure we are all agreed, however, that the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies is long overdue, and that it is important for us to make up for missed time. Therefore, I urge all like-minded 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.
- The opening of the University’s new Centre will undoubtedly represent an enormously significant landmark in the relationship between the University of Oxford and Southeast Asia. As a proud alumnus, though, I am delighted to observe that the connections between Oxford and Southeast Asia are, in fact, many centuries old. Did you know, for example, that the oldest existing letter in my native Malay language, which was sent from the ruler of Aceh, Sultan Iskandar Muda, to King James in 1615, has been held in Oxford’s Bodleian Library since 1635? The University has long been engaged in the scholarly study of Southeast Asia, moreover: at the time of the American Independence, in the late 18th century, an Oxford scholar, William Marsden, was already writing the first English-language history of Sumatra. Many individuals from the Southeast Asian region, like myself, have studied at the University over the years, fostering long-standing personal connections. Indeed, in 1899, Prince Vajiravudh, the future King Rama VI of Siam, arrived at Christ Church to read law and history. A century later, Oxford was home to many of the leading lights of modern Southeast Asian Studies in the West, including Peter Carey, Robert Barnes and M.C. Ricklefs. With the opening of the new Centre, Oxford will, without doubt, become home to many more such ground-breaking scholars in the years to come.
- The new Centre, then, is a revolutionary innovation, but it is also a new page in the long and fruitful history of collaboration and connection between the University and Southeast Asia. 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 get up and running as soon as possible, so that it can begin to play a pivotal role in continuing and strengthening the long-standing, mutually beneficial connections between the University and the countries of Southeast Asia. To see citizens of those countries and members of the University gathered together this evening, in celebration of the venture, makes me immensely hopeful that it will thrive and flourish in the years to come. As I said last October, as Patron to the Centre, I am proud to be a champion for both my University and my region, in creating opportunities for collaborations between the two in perpetuity. I hope that you will join me in supporting this endeavour that is so important and exciting for our part of the world.
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