Premodern Southeast Asia as a guide to international relations between peoples: prowess and prestige in "intersocietal relations" in the Sejarah Melayu.

Author:Chong, Alan


Contemporary research on the international relations of Southeast Asia has neglected the latent possibilities of reading non-western indigenous forms of international relations as a contribution to worldwide debates on the nature of international politics. Drawing on one precolonial account of Southeast Asian political practices in the Malay Archipelago, the Sejarah Melayu, this article proposes that Southeast Asians have previously philosophized about "intersocietal relations" in ways that privilege noble prowess, knowledge quests, and hierarchical justice through the interdependence of trade and culture within the region, and with India, China, and the Arab world. These features can still speak to contemporary relations between peoples rather than states and to security issues within borderless regions.


Sejarah Melayu, Southeast Asian international thought, intersocietal relations

Historians and philosophers often claim that the records of the ancient past are as much a repository of civilization as are the writings of the present. As such, myth history can be interpreted in ways that offer insights into contemporary international relations. Inspired by this sense of historical sociological continuity, this article aims to read one prominent Malay politicohistorical text, the Sejarah Melayu, as an indigenous Southeast Asian contribution to theories of international relations.

This text is especially interesting in that it engages with relations between peoples without reference to conventional nation-state boundaries and offers a way of understanding security within borderless regions. It challenges the pervasive argument that most indigenous voices tend to reproduce Western frames of international theorising. (1) It also challenges the view expressed by many "Asia specialists" that Southeast Asia is unique and cannot be understood within the supposedly universal categories of "Western theory" (2) (a view that is often made by peoples who nevertheless embrace forms of modernization imported from the West). In this way, it responds to difficulties that arise when attempts to analyze post-1945 international relations in Southeast Asia try to account for the presence of culturally non-Western traits in war, economics, and diplomacy among the nascent states. (3)

Despite the specific Malay and Southeast Asian cultural baggage of the Sejarah Melayu, I will argue that the geopolitical and geodemographic settings of the Sejarah can shed light on how heterogeneous peoples in an increasingly postinternational world might interact among themselves hierarchically. James Rosenau's well-known conceptualization of a postinternational world order has already provided us with elementary observations about a growing rivalry between sovereignty-bound and sovereignty-free actors. (4) Rosenau suggests that the latter, encompassing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), terrorist entities, and individuals, are increasingly empowered to push their agendas against sovereign interests because of capability revolutions in electronic communication and education. Internet-based political activism is certainly one manifestation of this phenomenon, and so are the issues of human security generated by the accessibility of transnational travel. Encounters at regional and international forums between states and nonstate representatives have likewise taken an increasingly caustic turn. The intensity of transnational civil society protests signaled by the "Battle of Seattle" in 1999 through to the populist anger at the World Social Forum associated with the NGOs that founded the roundtable at the "alternative" site of Porto Alegre in Brazil suggests escalating contestations of normative world order. Sovereign states have lost some of their legitimacy as monopolies of knowledge and wisdom.

The world of the Sejarah does not address sovereignty per se. Instead, the problems of cross-border insecurity are explained as a consequence of maladjusted relations between leaders and populations, and other issues of governance. The polities of the Sejarah cannot be read retrospectively as constituting a security community in the sense popularized by Karl Deutsch, Emmanuel Adler, and Richard Barnett, but they do regard the rendering of justice as sufficiently important to justify mediation and demonstrations of superior moral prowess, even if some degree of selective violence has to be employed as a cautionary precedent. In this way, the interpersonal application of private personal morality is extended to intersocietal relations predicated upon porous geography. Although the perspectives of the Sejarah cannot be considered fully amenable to liberal concepts, they offer an alternative to the avoidance of public attributions of blame for the exodus of refugees or economic weaknesses arising from poor governance of domestic arenas. Ongoing debates about the implementation of a "responsibility to protect" suggest the need for a richer and less culture-bound way of addressing the moral dimensions of governing peoples in a collectively responsible fashion. (5)

To read indigenous traditional political and literary texts like the Sarah may contribute to the recent interest in "post-Western critical international relations theory."(6) This does not imply any simple denigration of the Atlanticist origins of modern international relations theory, but it does affirm the need to explore encounters with culturally filtered international practices in a much richer manner. Western approaches to some kind of more humane visions of international relations could greatly benefit from alternative visions of how non-western peoples have ordered their relations in spite of the recurring condition of war and rival claims to political superiority. In fact, superiority could be legitimized between peoples and governmental leaders in a civilized intercultural setting of permeable borders through demonstrations of normative nobility. Thus David Kang has suggested that an East Asian international order could well be structured hierarchically, though he did not sketch the operational aspects of such an order beyond a critique of neo-realist interpretations of East Asian international order.' Reading the Sejarah will go some way toward addressing this aspect of inquiry into hierarchical relations.

The argument will proceed as follows. First, the selection of the Sejarah will be justified as a representative, indigenous historical and cultural text. In the process, I will provide a brief sketch of the precolonial Malay political context. I will then offer a thematic textual analysis of the Sejarah, suggesting that the common themes that arise from the Sejarah can be clustered around the two concepts of "prowess and prestige." In the conclusion, I will argue that the precolonial Malay world provides us with a qualified model of intersocietal political relations as an ideational alternative to the modern international system of sovereignty-bound states.

The Context of the Sejarah

There is a clear consensus in most of the secondary literature commenting on the text to be examined here that the ancient Malay world (roughly, from the twelfth to seventeenth centuries) was a representative swathe of the contemporary Southeast Asian region of ten states along with their attendant transnational nation-building problems. (8) This is roughly analogous to a localized version of a fledgling "world international society," to use Hedley Bull's tenn, (9) through which one can observe political relations on a "laboratory scale" for extrapolation toward broader and more complex forms of international relations theory. As a historical category, the Malay world stretched from the island of Penang and the present day southern Thai province of Patani in its northwestern extremity to large parts of Kalimantan, the Moluccas and Mindanao in the southeast. It also encompassed the entire Malay peninsula, the island of Sumatra, and Java. (10) Both archaeological artifacts, and references in the Sejarah, indicate that Malay political entities interacted with kingdoms in South Asia (the lands of Kalinga), Arabia, Siam, China and, from the late fifteenth century, the Portuguese, Dutch, and English. It was characteristic of the period that references to these entities I I in the Sejarah identified them as the collective "other" conducting intercourse with the Malay polities on a broad continuum ranging from voluntary assimilation, to friendship and to extreme hostility. Furthermore, the Malay world was constructed with a unique blend of Hindu Buddhist cultural styles, layered more recently with thick Islamic associations in matters of piety, education, and diplomacy.

This feature of culturally synthesized continuity, coupled with the absence of specific date references in the text, may even allow the contemporary reader to project the characteristics of the Malay world backward into the synchronized time of the Greco-Roman empires. Indeed, the Sejarah makes passing references to Alexander the Great and the land of Macedonia. These intercultural contacts may be relevant to contemporary research, given the frequency of religious and cultural frictions in an increasingly borderless world.

Interestingly, many scholars have cautioned that claims of Malay primordial identity cannot be taken at face value since historical investigation reveals an entrenched pattern of identity formation through incremental syncretization. (12) This pattern of cultural synthesis is also "typically Southeast Asian" in its comparability to the political and social processes in the rest of the region. Likewise, Indochina experienced waves of Indianization and Sinicization from its demographically larger Asian neighbors, and exhibited these syntheses in sculpture, language, warfare, monarchic form, and religious worship. The Malay world can be regarded as a political sphere for study insofar as it captured a...

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