The challenge for Asean academics

SOUTHEAST Asia is an extremely diverse region - perhaps one of the most juxtaposed in the world. If you think about it, the 11 countries are run by a motley crew of regimes ranging from a sultanate, authoritarian rule, socialist states to illiberal democracies and developing democracies.

Our cultures are very different from each other. We do not speak a similar language, neither are our language roots or scripts related. Our religious beliefs are far from homogeneous nor do we share a similar history – each different and equally rich on its own. Geography is perhaps what connects us best. This to me is fascinating, and is one of the reasons I've gone back to being a student again.

However when looking for information on Southeast Asia, what is prevalent is that the range of materials available on the region is limited. On one hand it means there are many more themes that can be studied but it is also worrying that the gaps are still not filled. There are many factors that contribute to the lack of local academic contribution. First, our universities and formal academia history is relatively young.

This perhaps contributes to why there are so few Asian scholars publishing, and this is quite disheartening. Also the level of writing skill and research resilience makes it difficult to publish. With most journals being produced in English for example, the skill-level in mastering the language makes it challenging for local scholarship to be produced let alone made available globally.

Second, there is limited interest and funding available to study. Imagine what would happen if you meet a young person who is passionate about studying Southeast Asian heritage or history. What would their career projection be – how will they earn a living? Or what if someone tells you they want to study Asian dance forms or the anthropology of local food. There is a genuine concern for how they will survive in the real world? These are very real concerns. But it also shows the value society places on what is deemed as peripheral interests that are worthy when pursued as hobbies but not something to make a career out of.

Third, is the absence of academic rigour and stamina. Writing journal articles that are globally recognised and peer-reviewed is not easy nor is it financially rewarding. Writing an article, an op-ed or even policy paper does take less time and has a wider readership. So the incentive to sit and produce a detailed study is time-consuming and financially not rewarding with limited recognition or even interest.

Yes, academic writing tends to be elitist and not inclusive, fencing out everyday interest on subject matters. However that does not mean it should not be pursued. There is tremendous value in the skill set academic study builds, but it requires resilience and passion but it does not hurt to have a better support system that encourages contributions.

Fourth – the diminishing ability to critically think. When citizens are threatened for having independent thought and questioning systems the message being sent is that you should not develop ideas or as we tend to say "Aiyo, don't think so much" and "Mind your own business". And we see this in many parts of the world.

When academics are slapped with political opinion bans and are restricted from speaking freely or limited in what they can research or write about, it limits the ability to critically think. When such an assault happens, resource materials churned out end up being bland. Not only does society suffer from intelligent and sound reasoning but it inadvertently chokes the space where local academics can thrive. We kill their spirit or end up losing our talent to more welcoming countries.

What also happens is that we let non-locals set the narrative and become specialists on our country, our culture, our traditions and histories.

While there is no patent as to who can and should be studying Southeast Asia, having someone from a different culture interpreting what happens in our countries has its limitations. As a local or Southeast Asian, there is a certain wisdom that we attain from growing up in the region.

We understand the cultures, the behaviour, traditions and local know-how and are able to navigate through local complexities with ease. This is something that cannot be taught but it is learnt by growing up and living in the region. Such experience adds value to research and allows us to tell our stories giving depth to studies and not discounting analysis to mere explanations of exoticness of Southeast Asia.

To add we look to older more developed societies for theories and interpretations but our diversity does not always fit their frameworks. This is where there is a deficiency in local contribution.

Finally, but not exhaustively is the different visions for academia. On one hand organisations need to be financially independent and stable and on the other hand they need to be relevant and fulfilling their purpose. This balance has meant that administrators that run academic institutions are not necessarily academics. So the idea of staff going on sabbatical and funding them while they are away from the desk reflects negatively in the accounts. The value placed on doing both research and being a practitioner while being an academic is still not practised well in this part of the world.

Desk research versus fieldwork produces very different outcomes and dictates the value and richness of research produced feeding back into the value of the organisation or university.

Because we are relatively small or rather not as big as other diasporas, it is necessary that we are not forgotten in the world of academia.

We ourselves need to leave our mark and should be the ones constricting the narrative instead of leaving it to others. The next generation also needs to be able to have Asian thinkers that are sound and worth emulating instead of always looking outside. We have to start building and finding value in studying us and our region better. There are some Asean countries that have had the vision to invest mindfully in regional and area studies but there is ample room to do more and contribute meaningfully.