The Japanese invasion in Southeast Asia and the region's subsequent response to it helped shape the region, said historian Professor Wang Gungwu.
Wang was speaking at his lecture on Wednesday, October 3, titled "Before Southeast Asia: Passages and Terrains", which seeks to explain how the concept of Southeast Asia as a region came about.
It was the last in a series of public lectures held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
This is his account of how the Southeast Asia region was shaped (in chronological order):
Before it started
Wang first went back to the time before the conception of Southeast Asia as a region, which was before the 1500s.
He said that the region was very diverse, both in terms of terrains and people, but remained open to ideas and people from the outside world.
And the reason for them not having a political unit of any kind at that time (he did, however, mention the exception of Java) was not because they lacked the capacity or capability, but because there was no need to form one:
"Underlying that openness, there was a certain self-confidence, a certain assurance, that they could always pick and choose what they need, adapt it for their purposes, and not feel inferior or insecure about it.
That kind of confidence, in a way that kind of self-respect, which led them to be content with the kind of autonomy which each of those units have, and the kind confidence to deal with one another without fear and without needing to set up some big bureaucratic system.
I felt that that was quite a strong characteristic.”
Enter the foreign & colonial powers
However, he said that things began to change around 1500 when some sense of region began to form.
This was largely due to outside forces such as the Mongol power, which was the first major force that introduced the beginnings of some form of border between the Mongol empire, Vietnam and Burma in particular.
And then, after the 1500s, although "not dominating in any way", certain European powers like the Portuguese came for trade and influenced the region by setting up ports for instance.
Other colonial powers such as the French and the British also started to arrive around the 1800s, causing fragmentation in the region by marking out different kinds of borders "not related to most of the earlier borders".
The colonial powers introduced new laws and new ways of governance to the region, and in the process, borders were drawn up.
Such borders were firmed up in the 20th century, such as the one between Cambodia and Thailand, the one between Burma and Thailand, as well as the one between China and Burma.
Enter the Japanese
Wang said that when the Japanese invaded Southeast Asia using the concept of "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" as a justification, it recognised it as a region:
"The Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia was the first obvious recognition of it as a region."
Before that, when Imperial Japan first took Taiwan, it was "a major step into the region" as Taiwan was arguably at the edge of the Southeast Asian region.
To him, the response to the Japanese invasion also helped create the region of Southeast Asia.
Since then, universities in western countries took up the challenge of defining the region. Books on the region were also published.
Finally, he said, at the end of 1945, Southeast Asia "became real" in the eyes of others.
Formation of ASEAN
And with the formation of the ASEAN-5 in 1967, the Southeast Asian region became more solidified -- and later, even more so with ASEAN-10 in the 1990s:
"The 1990s serves as another turning point, at which somewhat new factors come into play.
United States as the sole superpower. China, rising, but not yet risen in the 1990s.
ASEAN becoming 10. And really for the first time, made Southeast Asia a truly regional order. It wasn't really regional before that with ASEAN-5 or ASEAN-6.
But when it became ASEAN-10, we can now confidently say there is a Southeast Asia that is operating through ASEAN and capable of developing itself as a self-assured region which has a future."
Building nations while staying united as a region
However, Wang said that ASEAN countries also faced the difficult task of building their own nation state upon the borders left behind by the colonial powers, which resulted in "kind of a pullback from the region":
"Within ASEAN itself, two processes were happening at the same time.
On the one hand, (you have) the newly created ASEAN and Southeast Asia as the new reality.
On the other hand, strengthening efforts to build nations that would be separated and clearly distinct from Mandala at the same time.
Both were sometimes contradictory, and certainly, slowing down the possibility of regional identity, oneness or unity that people try for.
This tension between modern concept of nation state and this new idea of a region would remain for some time.
This is definitely a work in progress."
He judged the process so far as being "fairly successful", which has demanded "sensitivities and willingness to compromise" from the leaders" to manage the differences within the country itself and also with their neighbours.
He also noted that calls for ASEAN's unity from the outside is "very different" from the calls for unity from inside ASEAN.
This is because although the various powers want ASEAN to be united, it is for themselves against the others.
Southeast Asia is going to remain open despite challenges
Wang concluded his lecture by saying that despite the voices calling for protectionism, the trend of globalisation is "irreversible" and is not going to stop in Southeast Asia.
The region has been open since the past, and would continue to be open.
This is why he thinks Southeast Asia should take advantage of this openness, "turn that into new opportunities" for itself, strengthen the body and make the region more unified even with internal interests in mind.
Top image via ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute