“Sea Is a Region Without an Identity.” Discuss.

Topics: Southeast Asia, Singapore, Culture Pages: 8 (2673 words) Published: February 23, 2013
Name: Soh Chang Yuan
Email Address: a0096459@nus.edu.sg
Matriculation Number: A0096459L
Tutorial Number: D12
Tutor: Ng Shi Wen
Question 3
“SEA is a region without an identity.” Discuss this statement with reference to at least 3 examples. 

Southeast Asia (SEA) is a region whose countries include and are classified into 2 different regions namely the mainland, consisting of Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Peninsula Malaysia, and the insular regions, consisting of East Malaysia, East Timor, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and The Philippines. This distinction however, is not only geographical but also one of cultural and religious differences. The literal meaning of the term SEA comes from a historical classification of the region by Westerners as being in Asia but south of China and east of India. (Bloodsworth, 1970) The two asian countries mentioned were more prominent to the European countries due to their relations in commerce. Hence, the rest of the regions within Asia were residually referred to as SEA. (Emmerson, 1984) What then, can be defined as identity within a region or even a country? State identity requires commonalities, ranging from cultural to historical to economical to other beliefs etc, amongst the various levels of people from individuals, groups and all citizens of the state. These are essential if we consider nation building as the creation of a cohesive political community, which is characterized by an abiding sense of identity and common consciousness. (Leifer, 1972) For the purposes of this essay, this definition will then be extrapolated to include regional identity as a common sense of identity amongst regional member countries as defined by the factors above. To suggest that SEA is a region without an identity would lead one to perceive Southeast Asia as more of a geographical expression, rather than a region that embodies unique traditions and cultures that defines the people of this region as being Southeast Asians. In my opinion however, I assert that SEA is not just a residual collection of all these countries unaccounted for but rather, a region with its own blend of culture, self-perception, politics and most importantly, identity that has been built over time.

The presence of underlying culture of self and social-perception within a region of immense cultural diversity It is often disputed if SEA is considered a region with identity due to its huge cultural and religious diversity. Even the premise of whether the individual countries have a national identity has often been questioned. There are overlapping boundaries where cultural, knowledge and economic exchanges have taken place for centuries, which also bears cross border influences. Upon deeper analysis, there even exist intra-country cultural dissimilarities. (Winzeler, 2011) An example of this could be seen within Thailand, where there are subsets of peoples known as Central Thai, Thai-Lao, Northern and Southern Thai. Further breakdown of Thailand’s demographics reveals smaller ethnic groups of Lao, Khmer, Malays, etc. (Business Source Premier, 2012) Ethnic diversity and spread is especially prevalent within the mainland SEA where mobility across state boundaries is higher. There are people belonging to the same language family with similar (if not the same) cultures that inhabit cross-border areas within different countries. (Winzeler, 2011)

When we consider the above-defined identity, peripherally, there are seemingly no commonalities to unify the regional members. However, if we strip away all of the ethnic and superficial differences, such underlying similarities do emerge. Across SEA, people often switch social identities by switching languages or declaration of identity for a host of reasons. The reasons for such shifts range from political to economic to trade to social. (Moerman 1965 from Gillogly and Adams 2011)

I surmise that this multiplicity and switching of identities has...
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