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South by south text

It is a great historical mystery why most of Southeast Asia became Indianised rather than Sinicised, writes Kishore Mahbubani.

india Updated: May 21, 2008, 22:59 IST
Kishore Mahbubani
Kishore Mahbubani

Small meetings can produce big ideas. This happened recently at the first India-Singapore Strategic Dialogue held in Singapore between May 5-6, 2008. One big idea that surfaced was the recognition that the time has come to re-establish the natural historical integration and synergy between India and Southeast Asia.

Two adverse geo-political developments interrupted this natural connection. The first was European colonial expansion. After India was totally colonised by the British for well over a century, Indian minds naturally looked to London as the centre of their mental universe. The second was the Cold War, which surfaced around the time India gained Independence. When the geo-political deck of cards were dealt in the Cold War, India and Southeast Asia found themselves in different camps. As a result of the close American alliance with both China and Pakistan, India found geo-political comfort in moving closer to the Soviet Union. Over in Southeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) emerged as a pro-American gathering to initially counter-balance China and later North Vietnam.

These adverse geopolitical developments have come to an end; Asean has now embraced Vietnam and also developed close ties with China. Simultaneously, the end of the era of Western domination of world history has begun to peel away the last lingering layers of Western cultural and political influence from Asian minds. Fewer Indian minds, for example, look at London as the centre of their universe. As this process of de-Westernisation accelerates, Indian minds will also re-discover how deeply Indian thought and culture has penetrated the history and soul of Southeast Asia.

It is a great historical mystery why most of Southeast Asia became Indianised rather than Sinicised. Of the ten Asean countries, only one, Vietnam, has clear Sinic roots in its culture. The remaining nine have cultural roots which in one way or another have emanated from all the different cultural strands of India, including Hinduism, Buddhism and even Indian Islam.

Over the past 2,000 years, China has been unified and been a stronger military and political power than India for a much longer period. Indeed, there is a long historical record of many Southeast Asian kingdoms paying tribute to the emperors in Xian or in Beijing. These include Annam (North Vietnam), Siam (Thailand), Sulu (South Philippines), Burma and Laos. In the 15th century, when Admiral Zheng He’s mighty fleet of more than 200 vessels sailed through Southeast Asian waters to visit Africa, Southeast Asia was again reminded of the might of the Chinese empire. Given this prevailing might, why then did Southeast Asia not emerge as a Chinese cultural lake? This is a historical project worthy of investigation by Indian and Asean historians.

The dominant Buddhist cultures in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia can trace their roots directly to India. When one looks at the magnificent monuments of Angkor Wat, one can also trace strong Indian influence in the remarkably beautiful statues. Insular Southeast Asia, especially contemporary Malaysia and Indonesia, can trace their cultural roots to the influence of both Hinduism and Indian Islam. The founder of Indonesian nationalism, President Sukarno, expressed these connections well: “In the veins of every one of my people flows the blood of Indian ancestors and the culture that we possess is steeped through with Indian influences. Two thousand years ago people from your country (India) came to Jawadvipa and Suvarnadvipa in the spirit of brotherly love. They gave the initiative to found powerful kingdoms such as those of Sri Vijaya, Mataram and Majapahit. We then learnt to worship the very gods that you now worship still and we fashioned a culture that even today is largely identical with your own. Later we turned to Islam: but that religion too was brought by people coming from both sides of India.” Indeed, Islam in Southeast Asia remained moderate and peaceful for centuries because it was brought to Southeast Asia by peaceful Indian traders, not by the sword.

One other unfortunate relic of the Cold War was the American decision to export the more violent forms of jihadist fervour to all corners of the Islamic world, from Algeria to Indonesia, in an effort to find brave mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation. When the Soviets withdrew and the Cold War ended, American thoroughly disengaged from its erstwhile jihadist allies, leaving behind pools of new jihadist fervour in all corners, including Southeast Asia. Paradoxically, the Arabisation of Southeast Asian Islam was in many ways encouraged, if not promoted, by America. Similarly, as demonstrated by the recent tragic Jaipur bombings, India too has suffered from militant Islam.

With the end of the old geopolitical contradictions, the time has come for the more natural reconnections between Indian and Asean cultures to re-merge in strength. Few Indians, especially in the North, are aware that while India has imported many cultural influences from the West (especially during the great Mughal period), it has exported equally important cultural influences to the East. As Sukarno observed above, any Indian walking into the courts of Sri Vijaya (7th to 12th century) and Majapahit (13th to 16th century) kingdoms would have felt totally at home, while watching tales of the Ramayana and Mahabharata being recounted in court performances.

One major mistake that contemporary policymakers make is to assume that history is only about the past. Actually, the history we choose to remember also determines the paths we will take into the future. Hence, if schoolchildren in South India and Southeast Asia learn more about the ancient and deep connections between their respective cultures, they will naturally establish deeper connections in future.

The Atlantic is a mighty ocean. It could have easily separated America from Europe. However, as American schoolchildren are taught to trace their roots to ancient Greece and Rome, this leads to a natural affinity that transcends the geographical distance. The Indian Ocean, which separates India from Southeast Asia, is much smaller. Few Indians are conscious of the fact that the distance between Indira point, the Southern tip of the Nicobar islands, and the island of Pu Breush in Northwest Sumatra, is only 92 nautical miles, a short boat ride. If both Indian and Southeast Asian textbooks could begin to weave together a common history, the future generations of these two regions could once again be energised by past connections.

A major Asian cultural renaissance is about to emerge as more and more Asian nations succeed in their economic modernisation efforts. When this Asian renaissance surfaces in strength, the natural links between India and Southeast Asia will also become clear and evident. If both India and Singapore could show more leadership in this area, these old connections might surface even sooner, showing the value of forums like the India-Singapore Strategic Dialogue.

Kishore Mahbubani, Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and author of The New Asian Hemisphere.

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