We’re Not There Yet: Dismantling Colonial Ghosts of Southeast Asia

This article was first published on the Warwick ASEAN Conference Blog. WAC is a student-run conference which aims to foster an engaging community where passionate youths have a platform to gain insights into ASEAN.

by Ang Kia Yee

“And you, uneasy
orphan of their racial
memories, merely

Polish up your alien
techniques of observation,
while the city burns.”

—“Minority Poem”, Nissim Ezekiel

Postcolonial Studies is, as Singaporean sociologist Chua Beng Huat articulated in “Southeast Asia in Postcolonial Studies: an introduction,” a field of academic study and research in which “Southeast Asia, one of the most colonized regions in the world, is conspicuously absent”. Chua cites reasons for this:

This is partly due to the negligence of the many practicing Postcolonial Studies practitioners, including editors of anthologies. It is, however, more significantly a consequence of the preoccupation of Southeast Asian scholars who were otherwise occupied with the more imminent issues that face the Southeast Asian nations that have been caught up with the Cold War and the post independence economic developments.

Chua here places the work of deciphering our colonial histories through postcolonial lenses in the hands of academics. Departing from his reasons, I would suggest, also, that Southeast Asian countries have themselves failed to thoroughly address their complex colonial histories and bodies of trauma in our rebounding runs towards stability and power. Our preoccupations with progress were and are understandably practical, especially at moments of fresh independence when national psyches and narratives turn fiercely survivalist. While bearing in mind that each nation in Southeast Asia is acting within its own timelines of progress, I contend that it is time for us to turn our gaze backward.


I speak primarily from a Singaporean perspective, but I think it is safe to say that the work done in the region to address and acknowledge our postcolonial histories in thorough and multi-dimensional ways has been insufficient; instead these tangled narratives are distilled into individual battles studied in isolation, “key moments” that fail to address the overarching trajectory Southeast Asia has taken in relation to our colonial history. Rather than colour our textbooks with simplified narratives that group nuanced experiences into broad categories, rather than focus primarily on moving forward, perhaps there is immense social and emotional value in confronting our ghosts. This act of recall, articulation, and examination on a wider scale and a deeper level is a necessary act of humanity. It is an act that even, or in particular, those who did not live through those pasts must engage in.

I am not suggesting that we dwell on the past. There are ample economic, political, social, and emotional reasons in favour of moving ahead and discarding these moments that now appear such old artefacts of our nations. I am arguing, however, that we have not done the work necessary to shed these histories; in fact, I would say that by engaging with them, we might use our past as forms of social empowerment, as means of developing new languages with which we can speak of trauma past and present. Perhaps we might even move closer to the unification Brazilian poet and diplomat João Cabral de Melo Neto attempted in Education by Stone: a unification that comes only when we dissolve the distance between subject and object, “I” and the Other. Just as Southeast Asians of the past endured the physical and cultural cruelty of the West, Southeast Asians of the present confront new, quieter forms of cruelty I will proceed to present. It is important that young Southeast Asians develop the tools with which we can express the various forms of invisible and visible discrimination we continue to face today.


The new, quieter forms of cruelty I am about to refer to are not always conscious acts. They are rarely inventions of our age so much as they are vestiges of archaic systems of organizing society. Now that the loud, explicit forms of racism have been largely eradicated, what remains are insidious breeds – discrimination that comes small, silent, blurred (see: microaggressions); difficult to express because its smallness makes our anger look “petty” and “ungrateful”, because we have few spaces in which we can express discontent against those with far more power (often social and cultural, sometimes political and economic) than us. We do not have a shared language (by this I mean a medium of communication taking any form; for example writers write, painters paint – those media are forms of language) that properly serves the oppressed. Other communities have made considerable progress on this front in terms of the English language, such as through the reclamation and redefinition of words like “bitch,” “queer,” “suffragette,” even (with varied success) “cunt”. As Tony Thorne, curator of the Slang and New Language archive at King’s College London, mentions in a 2015 article by Gary Nunn of The Guardian:

Reappropriation of ethnic and sexual slurs starts as an act of bravado by a few of the oppressed, then may become an empowering mechanism for a much wider community. It’s pleasingly ironic that those discriminated against have learned the Orwellian trick employed by the state and the establishment of hijacking everyday language (as in ‘doublespeak’) for their own nefarious purposes. Alternative discourse ousts and replaces the discourses of power.

Quieter forms of discrimination include a continued Eurocentric organization of history, world-systems, world-ecology, culture, and academic fields. They include racial slurs by drunk men in bars, assumptions made about ethnic backgrounds of non-white people, and ignorant compliments on the “excellent” English of citizens of former British colonies. They manifest in the dominance of the violin over the sitar, the symphony orchestra over the gamelan, the Western appropriation of yoga, sushi and curry (and most recently, pandan). They manifest in the need to learn English to have global power, in stereotypes in the media, in a reverence for some accents over others,  in the still surviving systemic preference for white English teachers (“true native speakers”) over non-white English speakers whose first language is English (again, cue former British colonies such as Singapore). (French-accented English is often considered attractive, while Chinese-accented English signals a bad grasp of language.) These systemic preferences are not only exercised in Western countries; Southeast Asians themselves, inheritors of a Eurocentric age, sometimes set their own traps.

Other subtle but necessarily impacting forms of discrimination come in our semiotics and language structures. Perhaps this is most easily illustrated in pop culture. For example, a Southeast Asian singer might be described as “the Justin Bieber of Southeast Asia”, or a Southeast Asian poet described as “the Byron of Southeast Asia”, but rarely or never do we exercise the reverse comparison. We are measured against milestones, benchmarks, notable figures of the West, but rarely or never are their culture-makers measured in the terms of ours. Comparisons that bridge cultural gaps and offer means of relation and understanding are important, but comparisons that only run one way but not the other assert unfair dominance. They limit one culture to the practices and definitions of another.


While the work to disassemble long-established forms of systemic discrimination straggles on, the process of unravelling colonial hangovers, baggage, or lack thereof (because absence, too, is interesting and speaks volumes) will illuminate national psyches and individual attitudes in new ways. Perhaps we might, from the patterns that emerge, articulate a new regional model of understanding the effect of colonization on countries. Why do some Southeast Asian countries favour Western influences, practices, and models? Why do others possess stronger anti-Western attitudes? What sort of national psyches have our colonial pasts created for our present? I see it in terms of a slightly odd, somewhat incompatible but possibly useful analogy: if we consider past colonial masters as the (foster) parents that guided, shaped, even traumatized various Southeast Asian nations in their developmental infancy, perhaps then this unpacking of our colonial pasts can be seen as the relieving of childhood trauma. Once the traumatized child has been articulated, seen, and understood, the adult can rise up, empowered, with a more complex and generosity humanity and stronger selfhood (identity and belonging) that together feed into positive actions for the future.




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