"Southeast Asia Is a Region Without an Identity." Discuss.

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“SEA is a region without an identity”. Discuss this statement with reference to at least 3 examples.

The term “Southeast Asia” has been debatable to be an imaginary “Unicorn” or true “Rose” as suggested by Ronald K. Emmerson in 1984. Over the years, “Southeast Asia” remains as a name given to this particular region, seemingly for convenience sake, to address the countries within this region collectively. “I began by picturing Southeast Asia as a cross between an unicorn and a rose – partly imaginary, partly real.” (Emmerson, 1984) Indeed, it is dismissive to simply state that Southeast Asia is a region without an identity. I acknowledge the reasons why some people advocate the idea that Southeast Asia has no identity. However, we cannot neglect and overlook the efforts of creating one. There may not be a concrete identity to talk about, but there are definitely traces of one being created in progress. In the past, people may see Southeast Asia as an “Unicorn”. However, the region is moving towards becoming a “Rose”, establishing an identity of its own slowly but visibly.

“I do not mean to suggest that ‘neotraditional’ scholarship can discover a cultural synthesis on whose basis Southeast Asia will be unified.” (Emmerson, 1984) The word ‘identity’ is usually associated with something in common and in unison. Indeed, nations classified under Southeast Asia are pretty different from each other. Does this necessarily mean that a regional identity cannot be forged? Can an identity be established from differences instead of similarities?

There are many arguments showing the differences of the Southeast Asian nations, which in turn translate to the regional identity becoming a fallacy. For instance, “differences between values and political systems within Southeast Asia also impede the creation of a common identity.” (Jönsson, 2008) The differences do not only surface in the political sense. Ethnically and linguistically, “the region contains thirty-two ethno-linguistic groups, with each state containing at least four major ethnic communities.” (Yao, 2001) This reflects the wide diversity of ethnic groups and languages spoken in Southeast Asian nations and that there is no basis of similarities. Given the variety of ethnic groups found in Southeast Asia, cultural differences amongst and within the nations are also evident. In terms of religion, Southeast Asians have also different beliefs, ranging from Buddhism to Hinduism, as well as Christianity and others as mention in the lecture. “Governments of the nation-states utilized national histories to explain and justify their existence; similarly the dominant majority transformed the national identity (based on their formulation) to legitimize their dominance in all spheres from political power to socio-cultural elements.” (Ooi, 2009) After gaining independence from the various colonial powers, individual Southeast Asian countries also established their own national identities. The disparities between the nations’ identities may also be as seen as conflicting for a regional one to be formed. With all these differences in place, it is tough to be convinced that a regional identity can even exist to begin with. However, it is possible that this identity is present in the form of “unity-in-diversity”. (Jönsson, 2008)

The beauty and uniqueness of Southeast Asia lies in the diversity of the culture, religion and ethnicity, which leads to an exchange within the nations. There is a good mix of the diversified culture and ethnic groups within and across the nations of Southeast Asia. Hence, this special attribute of Southeast Asia being multi-cultural, multi-lingual and cosmopolitan is in fact a possible identity for the region. This coincides with the idea of “unity-in-diversity” brought up by Kristina Jönsson. As much as there may be heterogenity within the region, it does not mean that the nations are disunited....
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