What if Malaysia were never colonized?

Security in Southeast Asia

Claudia Derichs

To person

Dr. phil., born 1965; Professor of Comparative Political Science and International Development Studies at the Philipps University of Marburg; currently Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Cooperation Research, Schifferstrasse 196, 47059 Duisburg. [email protected]

Explaining the history of Southeast Asia in a few pages is like trying to touch a hot stove without getting burned. Especially since the question arises: Is Southeast Asia actually a coherent, independent region? After all, it cannot invoke shared characteristics such as a common language or common political achievements. Rather, diversity and heterogeneity in every respect - culturally, religiously, politically, economically - are the most obvious characteristics. There are very different views on the question of regions, which are exchanged with verve and sometimes extremely controversial in Southeast Asian studies.

On closer inspection, "Southeast Asia" turns out to be a relatively young region, the name of which as an entity is primarily based on political developments and decisions. Before decolonization, hardly anyone would have spoken of "Southeast Asia" if the focus was on Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam. This sub-region operated under the term "Indochina". To understand it as an integral part of a region that is nowadays naturally assigned to the academic subject of Southeast Asian Studies is, historically speaking, a relatively new phenomenon. In today's diction, Indochinese studies would be politically incorrect. In contrast to Japanology and Sinology, most of the nation-states of today's Southeast Asia that emerged from decolonization are not units that can look back on a long national tradition. The most famous empires of the pre-colonial period include Pagan in Burma (11th – 13th centuries), Angkor in Cambodia (9th – 14th centuries), the Thai empires (14th – 15th centuries) and Srivijaya (7th – 14th centuries) 13th century) and Majapahit (14th - 15th / 16th centuries) on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and East Java. Although they formed a certain basis for the later nation-states in Southeast Asia, they had completely different borders. They left their traces more in the form of cultural traditions. In most cases, the borders of today's Southeast Asian states were drawn purely for political reasons, or they followed the political situation after the region was occupied by Japan or the "reconquest" by the former colonial powers.

Malaysia is a striking example. In 1957, an independent nation state, the Malaya Federation (Malaya for short), was established in what is now West Malaysia. The composition of the national territory at that time is an example of the "skill" of colonial powers to draw boundaries and to regulate territorial conflicts while largely ignoring indigenous relationships and affinities. Malaya included the former trading posts of Penang and Malacca, the sultanates of the Federated Malay States (Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Selangor) and the sultanates of the Unfederated Malay States (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu). In 1963 Malaya, today's Singapore and parts of the island of Borneo on the other side of the South China Sea were combined to form the state of Malaysia. Singapore left the federation after two years. The states of Sabah and Sarawak in northern Borneo, which make up today's East Malaysia, are four hours by flight from the politically dominant West Malaysia.

The power-political considerations behind this east-west construction were due to the demographic structure: The majority of the inhabitants of Malayas were ethnic Malay and Muslim; ethnic Indians, but especially ethnic Chinese, formed significant minorities. With the accession of Singapore, the Malays feared too high a proportion of ethnic Chinese. In order to ensure a strong non-Chinese majority of the population, the part of Borneo, which was still controlled by the British, was added to Malaysia - to the annoyance of Indonesia. Only Brunei Darussalam was left out. From there campaigns to create a "Greater Malaya" - Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei - were organized in the 1960s, but they failed.

The immediate post-colonial governments of Southeast Asia appealed to nationalist sentiments in order to bring about an integration of the different ethnic and religious population groups. [1] Nevertheless, the transnational and local connections are intact to this day. They sometimes lead to militant disputes over the recognition of state authority, as is still the case today in the south of Thailand or in the south of the Philippines. In order to counter separatist efforts, the states reacted partly with repression, partly with concessions to local autonomy - for example in Indonesia: While the province of Papua still suffers from a constant military presence, the province of Aceh has been granted generous autonomy rights.

Countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) or Cambodia have to bear the legacies of the pre-colonial period, colonization and the immediate past. This is one of the reasons why the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), founded in 1967, is still extremely keen on the principle of non-interference in national affairs. Its member states do not suppress their history, but draw arguments from it again and again in order to legitimize national action (also against each other). There are therefore a number of obstacles to political integration through supranational institutions within ASEAN. Nevertheless, the ten ASEAN countries (Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) can be considered to be the ones that generally embody today's Southeast Asia and make up its economic, political and cultural dynamics.

Booming trade and cosmopolitan metropolises

The conventional world perspective of states, in the spectrum of which orders and their changes cannot be described without the idea of ​​a nation-state structure, is inspired by modernization theory. Over the years it has gained a dominant influence on the scientific discussion of the world order and the way we look at it. Sometimes it is forgotten how well the premodern, pre-state world knew cosmopolitan metropolises, transregional trade and financial systems that are tailored to them. The pre-state world order showed state-like formations in Southeast Asia, which are usually referred to as "Indianized", but actually existed before the adoption of Indian ideas. "Certainly, states were formed much later in Southeast Asia than in the Indian subcontinent and in East Asia, but there is little doubt that in the last centuries of the first millennium BC, even before Indian influences became discernible, in whole Southeast Asia (...) settlements existed that have at least some attributes of states. "[2]

The historian Xiaoming Huang differentiates between pre-colonial "Indianized" and "Sinized" state or state-like forms. [3] In the Indian variant, local and regional patronage relationships dominated. The formation, which was shaped by the administrative order in the Chinese Empire, relied on bureaucratic or feudal ties to regulate the balance of power. The legitimation of a particular order was accompanied by theoretical-philosophical ideas; the "state" order reflected the cosmic order. The underlying conception of political and social systems was determined metaphysically, which is why it is now also referred to as the "galactic" order or, in the Indianized variant, the "mandala state". [4]

However, knowledge of the pre-colonial and premodern times is limited. Today's Southeast Asian countries also have a lot of catching up to do in this regard, because their history is generally linked to the geopolitical developments of the 20th century and our view of them is shaped by them. The critical processing of "colonial knowledge" and the exposure of one's own knowledge traditions are one work in progress. In addition, the supposed influence of India on Southeast Asia has been overestimated. Terms like "Indochina", "East India" or "Indonesia" testify to a perception of the insular and continental Southeast Asia as "extensions" of India. A more comprehensive research brings to light other perspectives, which on the one hand take into account the importance of East Asia and the Arab-Islamic world, and on the other hand point to a strong influence in the opposite direction - from Southeast Asia to India. [5]

This is flanked by studies on inter- and intra-regional trade in the pre-colonial period, when Southeast Asia was an important hub. Port cities in what is now Indonesia lived from trade between South and East Asia; Since around 1400 AD, the port metropolis of Malacca (in present-day Malaysia) formed the connecting center for the trade route system between the Red and South China Seas. [6] Indian, Arab and Chinese traders established a sophisticated trade and financial network on which the European colonial powers could later rely. What's more, without the financial and marketing services of the mobile dealer communities in Asia, European capital would never have been able to penetrate the interior of the region. [7]

European colonialism, which began as trade colonialism, broke the unwritten rules of reciprocity among the region's merchant communities, which, regardless of linguistic, cultural and ethnic heterogeneity, had allowed, among other things, the flow of capital, the conclusion of credit agreements, partnerships and price fixing. With the appearance of Portugal and Spain in the 16th century and the forced entry of others in the following centuries - Dutch in the 17th, British in the 18th, French in the 19th and Americans in the 20th century - this changed. Increasing contacts with Western representatives from religion and science replaced the traditional notions of order or at least ensured a diffusion and mixing of Western and Eastern ideas. When the European colonial powers began to determine the state structures of their areas of control and influence in the late 19th century, the concept of the nation state advanced to become the main frame of reference for political action and international relations. Pan-Asian endeavors arose at the beginning of the 20th century (after Japan's victory over Russia), but came less from Southeast Asia than from intellectuals of the great, imperial-oriented powers China, Japan and India. They could not assert themselves against the idea of ​​the nation state. From then on, cultural identity followed state-dominated ideas and was subject to the colonial view of the societies of the countries, which was usually focused on elites.