APARC Celebrates 25 Years of Southeast Asia Studies at Stanford

APARC Celebrates 25 Years of Southeast Asia Studies at Stanford

The Southeast Asia Program at Shorenstein APARC commemorated its 25th anniversary at the conference “Reconsidering Southeast Asia: Issues and Prospects,” gathering leading scholars to examine current trends affecting Southeast Asia’s present and shaping its future.
Reconsidering Southeast Asia: Issues and Prospects participants gather for a group photo Conference participants gather for a group photo. [Photo Credit: Rod Searcey]

On May 16, 2024, the Southeast Asia Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) celebrated 25 years of Southeast Asia studies at Stanford University by convening the conference Reconsidering Southeast Asia: Issues and Prospects. The full-day event brought together esteemed scholars from Stanford, the United States, and Southeast Asia to examine the forces shaping the region’s present and future, discuss the state of Southeast Asia studies, and consider the issues that will define Southeast Asia scholarship in the coming years.

Stanford President Richard Saller congratulated the Southeast Asia Program on its global relevance, noting the university’s belief in the importance of Southeast Asia studies. “With its diversity, its population, Southeast Asia is an essential region for the United States to understand in greater depth, and the Southeast Asia Program has added an important intellectual and cultural dynamic to Stanford,” said Saller.

APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin, the William J. Perry Professor of Contemporary Korea, remarked that, “over the last 25 years, the program has conducted research with clear implications and has fostered meaningful engagements with scholars and policymakers from Southeast Asia.” Speaking of Program Director Don Emmerson, Shin said that “Don has embodied the essence of interdisciplinary discourse, investigating multiple topics from multiple angles.”

Emmerson, who has led the program since its founding in 1999, will retire from Stanford at the end of the academic year. He received praise from conference participants, including Kathryn Stoner, the Mosbacher Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law, who remarked that the conference celebrates not just the Southeast Asia Program’s impact but also Emmerson’s achievements.

The opening session included congratulatory video messages from Anwar Ibrahim, the prime minister of Malaysia, and Pita Limjaroenrat, a member of Thailand’s Parliament and a prime ministerial candidate of the Move Forward Party. Ibrahim, who had previously spoken at Stanford, asserted that “in its rapidly evolving landscape, Southeast Asia is no longer in the periphery, it is now at the crossroads of innovation and global commerce.” Limjaroenrat congratulated the program and discussed the need for ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to “reinforce its credibility and respectability [...] and do a better job of managing the emerging great power competition.”

A Multidisciplinary Approach

Delving into themes ranging from the environment to the nuances of gender inequality, the conference panels offered a multidisciplinary approach to better understand the complexities of the region's past, present, and future.

The opening panel, "The Anthropocene in Southeast Asia: Two Rivers," set the stage by exploring the centrality of the Irrawaddy and Mekong rivers in shaping the region's cultural and ecological landscape. James Scott, Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University, highlighted the two rivers’ vitality, emphasizing their importance beyond mere water sources. Drawing attention to the symbiotic relationship between humans and rivers, Scott underscored the need for a deeper ecological understanding that transcends human-centric perspectives

Spotlighting the ecological and economic significance of floods in sustaining livelihoods, Stimson Center Senior Fellow Brian Eyler raised concerns about the impact of human interventions such as dam construction, which disrupt the natural flood pulse and endanger ecosystems. Rebakah Daro Minarchek, an assistant teaching professor at the University of Washington, moderated the discussion.

Transitioning to geopolitics, the "Geopolitics and U.S. Policy in Southeast Asia" panel offered insights into the evolving regional power dynamics. Yuen Foong Khong, the Li Ka Shing Professor in Political Science at the National University of Singapore, shared a recent analysis of alignment indices which revealed shifting geopolitical allegiances, influenced by domestic politics, economic considerations, and security concerns. APARC’s Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow Scot Marciel, a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, Indonesia, and ASEAN, asserted that China’s influence vis-a-vis Southeast Asia has increased, and suggested, regarding U.S. impact in the region, that “if you fail to engage and convince that your commitment is long and serious, then you lose geopolitical pull.”

Elina Noor, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned against reducing Southeast Asia to derivatives and “getting sucked into the bipolarity of great power competition.” Gregory Poling, a senior fellow at CSIS, also shared indices built to track geopolitical alignments in the region and discussed the prevalence of minilateralism, arguing that it might serve as a building block toward future multilateralism. The panelists emphasized the need for nuanced approaches to understanding Southeast Asia's engagement with major powers, highlighting the region's agency in navigating complex geopolitical realities.

Highlighting the research experiences of Southeast Asia Program alumni, the subsequent panel, “Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellowship on Southeast Asia: Looking Back and Forward,” delved into the challenges and opportunities in Southeast Asian studies, bridging academia and policy. Alumni of the Lee Kong Chian NUS-Fellowship reflected on the evolving nature of Southeast Asia scholarship in the post-COVID era, emphasizing the importance of interdisciplinary perspectives and contextual understanding.

Panelists included Jacques Bertrand, professor of political science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Affairs, University of Toronto; Paul Schuler, associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy; Gerald Sim, professor of Film and Media Studies at Florida Atlantic University; Mark R. Thompson, chair professor of Public and International Affairs at the City University of Hong Kong; David Timberman, an independent analyst and consultant; Angie Ngọc Trần, professor of political economy at California State University, Monterey Bay; and moderator Robert Hefner, professor at the Pardee School of Global Affairs at Boston University. Discussions ranged from historical comparisons to contemporary geopolitical shifts, highlighting the need for critical and comparative engagement with the region.

Research on gender took center stage during the "Gender Inequality in SE Asia: Causes, Consequences, Solutions" panel, where speakers shed light on pervasive societal norms and systemic barriers to gender parity. Mina Roces, a professor at The University of New South Wales, shared her nuanced analysis of gender roles in the Philippines revealed entrenched patriarchal structures. Roces advocated for greater integration of feminist ideals into the democratic process, critiques of heterosexual masculinity and marriage imperatives, and protections for migrant women.

Mala Htun, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, emphasized the need for intersectional approaches to address gender disparities, and introduced recent findings from the Asian Barometer Survey. Htun described how social roles and identity are culturally interpreted and constructed, and noted the difficulty of practicing feminist activism in authoritarian settings. Barbara Watson Andaya, professor in the Asian Studies Program at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, moderated the panel. The panelists underscored the importance of grassroots activism and policy reforms in promoting gender equality across the region.

Looking Ahead

In the concluding panel, "The Future of Southeast Asia," two experts offered contrasting perspectives on the region's trajectory amidst geopolitical uncertainties and economic challenges. APARC Visiting Scholar Gita Wirjawan highlighted the imperative of inclusive development and the role of public intellectuals and storytelling in shaping regional narratives. Wirjawan argued that greater investments in education would result in increased integrity, competence, and accountability in a meritocratic public sphere.

Richard Heydarian, senior lecturer at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines, Diliman, analyzed current trends in regional geopolitics that underscored the complexities of regional alignments and the implications of great power competition. According to Heydarian, tensions resulting from the U.S.-China competition will inevitably affect the region. He predicted that “hedging will give way to full-blown alignment and we will see a bifurcation.” The panelists called for strategic foresight and regional cooperation to navigate an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape.

Don Emmerson, who moderated the panel, described a fundamental “messiness” within ASEAN, and spoke of the “contradiction between the ability to act on the world stage and the difficulties of creating the conditions within ASEAN for that to happen.” A lively discussion followed as audience members furthered the conversation with questions related to climate change, transnational crime, and the role of middle powers and minilateral groupings in steering the region’s future.

Marked by interdisciplinary exchange and policy-relevant inquiries, the conference highlighted Southeast Asia's manifold narratives and the imperative to understand this richly diverse region on its own terms.

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