Asia-specific, Steve Hoadley

Nations and States in Southeast Asia
Nicholas Tarling
Cambridge University Press
ISBN 0 52162564 5

Asia Pacific: New Geographies of the Pacific Rim
R F Watters and T G McGee (ed)
Victoria University Press
ISBN 0 86473334 8

As Asia continues to draw our attention, so too should these books. But perspective, not instant understanding of the current crisis, is their offering. The geographic regions invoked – Southeast Asia, and the Asia Pacific/ Pacific Rim – are those accepted by convention. But is Asia, in whatever regional package, still credible as an analytic concept? Or only as a convenient verbal handle? Let these questions hover while each book is considered in turn.


Nicholas Tarling is arguably the best-known historian of Southeast Asia at work today. In this book, his latest of a substantial oeuvre, he transcends his career speciality and lays claim to becoming an historian’s historian. His warrant is credible. He has always ruminated upon large ideas, and his extra-curricular commentaries on opera suggest an appreciation of a wide range of human affairs. Nevertheless, his previous academic publications have been models of the chronological narrative, accessible by the casual fact-seeker, comprehensible to the keen undergraduate, quotable by the academic colleague.

Now, Tarling takes Southeast Asia’s historical milestones (many of which he has made visible) as starting points for reflections on time, space, theme and perception in the evolution of nations into states. His mordant comparisons with European and American history tell us as much about our own conventional way of seeing and telling (often parochial, imperial, and Eurocentric) as they do about the Southeast Asian peoples.

The familiar country-by-country format is retained, in which the emergence of modern states from mini-empires, monarchies, and chieftaincies is sketched in bold strokes and embellished with observations by officials of the day. Readers may refresh their understandings of the histories of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Burma, Vietnam, and Thailand in successive chapters. But this accounts for only a third of the book.

The second third is given over to themes, comparative and contrastive, each illuminating the interaction between the indigenous subject and the exotic influence, that is, the impacts of colonialism, internationalism, and finally globalism. Thus issues of boundaries, authority, nationalism, democracy, foreign policy, and trade are traversed, issues long contested. Each theme-chapter is a free-standing interpretative essay, best appreciated by readers with some knowledge of the region’s history and its historiography.

The final third of the book will alternately puzzle, awe, and inspire. The chapter on time and place is elegant and erudite but relates only tenuously to Southeast Asia – is it a pilot for a subsequent work on historiography? The chapter on New Zealand’s and Australia’s position vis-à-vis Southeast Asia is surprisingly contemporary and argumentative for a book otherwise so Olympian in tone. From his south-of-the-equator perspective Tarling proffers a neologism – “septentrionalism” (a focus on northern countries) – as a foil to “orientalism” and its opposite “occidentalism”. Is this a satirical swipe at Mahathir’s put-down of the West embodied in his tendentious “Asian values” construct? Never mind, the cryptic message is capable of translation: contributions by scholars from the Antipodes, less encumbered by imperial heritage, Eurocentrism or North American chauvinism, will improve the study of Southeast Asia. A gratifying thought.

But shouldn’t “national histories” be written by Southeast Asians to supplant those flawed by imperialism, orientalist and septentrionalism, and also to undergird the fragile nationhoods of the region? Yes, of course. But they will escape the distortions of historical perspective no more successfully than their predecessors unless they take those predecessors into account. “A sense of nationhood is after all born of knowing others as well as oneself,” Tarling concludes. History is an adventure in which we can all participate, to the improvement of which we can all contribute.


Watters and McGee are geographers, as are most of their chapter-authors, but maps of the Asia-Pacific bind them no more than the Southeast Asian past binds Tarling. Indeed most of the contributions are oriented to the phenomenon of economic development, broadly construed, and considered globally as well as regionally and locally.

Tension between global integration and local responses is the animating theme. This in turn provides the organising principle of the volume. First appear chapters documenting the economic, institutional, demographic and ideational internationalisation of the states and societies of the Pacific Rim (defined geographically, and synonymous with the designation Asia Pacific). These thickening links lead to integration and interdependence – at least among governments and elites.

But these trends are far from uniform in speed, penetration, and effect, and also produce differentiation, then disagreement, and potentially, conflict. Sub-regions and urban megalopolises have emerged in the Singapore-Johore-Riau triangle, the Hong Kong-Fujian-Taiwan “natural economic territory”, and the Kanto-Fujian-Nagasaki corridor. National “new protectionism” lurks persistently behind international commitments to APEC’s 2020 free trade target. Mexico City’s, Bangkok’s, Kuala Lumpur’s, and Manila’s cosmopolitan development elites intrude upon Chiapas Maya, Chiagrai Meo, Sarawak Iban and Philippine barangay peoples, with disruptive, demoralising, wasteful consequences, and worse.

Thus the book’s chapters proceed from interactions at the international, regional and sub-regional levels down to the national and parochial loci of action of, and reaction to, the “global steamroller”. Policy initiatives and responses of China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia are reviewed in light of the coalescing of WTO, APEC, AFTA, NAFTA, and other associations for economic liberalisation; and the consequences for their societies, both urban and hinterland, are speculated upon.

McGee and Watters summarise the policy challenges arising out of the globalisation of the Asia Pacific region as six-fold:

(1) balancing population growth with economic growth,
(2) providing sufficient food,
(3) retarding environmental despoliation,
(4) meliorating social and inter-ethnic tensions,
(5) adapting to Western pressure for rapid liberalisation and democratisation, and
(6) integrating new values, technology, and migrants into existing cultural forms.

Each must be managed so as to forestall violence, maximise efficient use of scarce resources, and enhance the sustainability of societies.

Nevertheless, the “global steamroller”, while ascendant, may not entirely prevail, because:

the “paradoxical” effect of globalisation is that increased communication and “global knowledge” permits the local entities of the region to construct “identities” which draw upon indigenous realities and constructed images for the benefit of a global audience.

Local, ethnic, and religious peoples are becoming self-aware, banding together for self-help, attracting exogenous resources, and finding international forums in which to negotiate terms with cosmopolitan demands. New Zealand Maori are absent from this book but the revitalisation of their culture and language stands as a prime example of a successful local adaptive reaction to Europeanisation.


But what of the concepts embedded in the titles of these two books: Southeast Asia, Asia Pacific, Pacific Rim? Do these terms have any analytic or synthetic utility beyond connotative platitude? Or are they vapid, useless, or worse than useless, misleading, or pernicious? The answer is: “all of the above”. And: “it depends”.

To their credit, the authors of both books resist the popular temptation to construct yet another Western caricature of “Asia”, choosing more fruitfully to focus on its variegated elements. Watters and McGee prudently warn that:

the cherished notion of a Pacific community – involving shared interests, values, responsibilities and mutual respect, as well as a common psychology of belonging – involves much wishful thinking. Resting as it does on a vision of noble proportions, it may well prove to be a chimera.

Tarling, with characteristic pithiness, admonishes his readers, “Look not only to the Asia-Pacific, but to the Asia-specific.”

The authors prudently resist overreaction. Not arid deconstructions but richly textured analyses, mosaics framed recognisably by history and geography, are present in each book. Each author designates a region, sub-region, or state relevant to his purposes and sets to work without quibble to tell his story. By the end of the books, informative and satisfying pictures of Southeast Asia, and of the Asia Pacific, respectively, have emerged, but inductively and empirically, rather than deductively or axiomatically. Region is not reified as actor or stereotyped as “threat” or “opportunity”, but treated with common sense as arena, venue, or context.


Finally, comparison. The geographic overlap of the two books is evident. And both enquire into cosmopolitan-parochial tensions and economic interactions. Thereafter contrast prevails. Tarling is more concerned with the past, and with concepts, perceptions and points of view. His composition is discursive, cryptic and extravagant by turns. The contributors to Watters and McGee are more contemporary and prosaic, employing conventional terms unselfconsciously and deploying verbal and quantitative information about present interactions and prospective trends.

While it would be invidious to describe one book as less informative or thought-provoking than the other, it would not be unreasonable to contrast the emphases of the books on that axis. I invite the reader of this review, on the evidence presented, to place each book at the appropriate pole.

Steve Hoadley is Associate Professor of Political Studies at the University of Auckland.

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