Crisis and Future: On the Demise of Dreams of Connectivity and Mobility
By Farish A. Noor
Crises are not simple objects that we encounter as we walk along, and they cannot be simply pinned down through ostensive definition. We never encounter crisis as something that is already fully-constituted and fully present, but rather we see instances of crisis as we interpret and outline the world around us. For something to be seen as a crisis it has to be understood and delineated as such, and this requires human agency. As such, “crisis” has to be understood in discursive terms, as something that is historical and generational.
Today Southeast Asia seems to be in yet another state of crisis as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic that has swept across the region and has made life extremely difficult for millions of people. Yet some questions could be asked: Is Southeast Asia not a region that is already used to crisis, and have there not been many crises in the past?
Every generation has its own perception of what a crisis is, and defines it accordingly. When Buchara al-Jauhari wrote his Taj-us Salatin (The Crown of Kings) in 1603, crisis, for him, meant the breakdown of the social-feudal order. He was fearful that in instances when the ruler had absolute power and no longer consulted his advisers, a state of disconnect would appear as the ruler grew increasingly alienated from his people. Crisis, in this case, was understood as a breakdown of communication and occurred when the praxis of rule no longer mirrored the realities of socio-political life. For al-Jauhari, the solution lay in communication and consultation, and crisis could be averted if and when the ruler genuinely reflected or mirrored the needs and wants of the society he ruled over.
When Munshi Abdullah Abdul Kadir wrote in the mid-19th century, he lived as a colonial subject and for him crisis meant the loss of time and the inability of colonised societies to adapt, reform, and/or modernise in time. Mushi Abdullah lamented the fact that Southeast Asians were falling behind in the race for capital and technology, and beseeched his people to learn from the rest of the world. Though he himself was subject to colonial rule he did not always live and suffer as a colonial subject. He argued that one could engage with the realities of colonialism and imperialism, and that Asians could use the tools of Empire to dismantle it from within.
Today’s perception of crisis has to do with the demise of our dreams of connectivity and social mobility, and though the pandemic itself poses a serious threat, what we seem to be seeing is a wider sense of collective anxiety and apprehension about the future. Since the 1980s, Southeast Asia has been dubbed as the home of the “Asian Tiger” economies—and there was indeed spectacular growth on all levels. The region has witnessed mass and rapid urbanisation, the expansion of the education sector, the near-eradication of illiteracy, and the emergence of a new middle class. Today, young Southeast Asians are driven by their middle class aspirations and many of these longings are related to the promise of upward social mobility as well as connectivity. Young Southeast Asians dream of studying abroad, working abroad, living abroad, and they hope that their lives will be better than those of their parents. Yet Covid has arrested the region’s development in no uncertain terms, and for the first time in a generation, younger Southeast Asians are beginning to wonder if their futures will be bleak and their lives harder than the generation before them.
So while the Covid pandemic remains a serious medical issue and health concern for all the countries of the region, we need to appreciate the fact that the pandemic has also triggered a host of other deeper long-term existential concerns. Curing the disease is only part of the challenge. The bigger challenge to be addressed is the collective angst of an entire generation that now wonders if the era of Southeast Asian development is over for good, and whether the Tiger economies of Asia can ever rise again.
This blogpost is an expanded summary of an intervention given at the GO SOUTH 2020 Annual Convention on the Global South “Global South in the Era of Pandemic : Order, Development and Security” on November 2nd, 2020 at the Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Farish A. Noor is a political scientist, historian, and an Associate Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University NTU, Singapore. Among his publications are: Data Gathering in Colonial Southeast Asia: Framing the Other (Amsterdam University Press, 2020), America’s Encounters with Southeast Asia 1800-1900: Before the Pivot (Amsterdam University Press, 2018), The Discursive Construction of Southeast Asia in 19th Century Colonial-Capitalist Discourse (Amsterdam University Press, 2016), and Quran and Cricket: Travels Through the Madrasahs of Asia and Other Stories (Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur, 2009). In 1998 he participated in the Summer Academy “Crisis and Memory” in Beirut, organised by the EUME predecessor Working Group Modernity and Islam (AKMI) at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. He was also an AKMI Fellow in 1999–2000. Following the fellowship, he was a researcher at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin.
Citation: Farish A. Noor, Crisis and Future: On the Demise of Dreams of Connectivity and Mobility, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.11.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25426.