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Southeast Asia and Oxford: A History

Southeast Asia is a vitally important region.

It contains almost 600 million people, collectively living in 11 nation states. Their populations are some of the most diverse on earth, including 250 million Muslims (20% of the world’s total), 140 million Buddhists (40%), and 30 million of the world’s overseas Chinese population (75%). It is a maritime crossroads between the Chinese and Indian cultures, between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and a vital crossroads of the world economy. Nearly 50% of the world’s commercial traffic passes through the Malacca Straits, 30% of it headed for Southeast Asian ports.

Southeast Asia is an economic powerhouse in its own right. ASEAN is the 11th largest economy in the world – on a par with Brazil, Canada and South Asia – and is growing rapidly. The world’s 4th largest exporter, ASEAN supplies the world with a tremendous variety of primary products, manufactured goods, technology and services. These include half of the world’s rice exports, 75% of the world’s natural rubber, 60% of its tin, as well as significant amounts of oil and natural gas. ASEAN is also a major supplier of industrial equipment, electronics, chemicals, textiles and consumer goods. The microprocessors it manufactures drive more of the computers which fuel the information age than any other country.

In addition, Southeast Asia is an ecological treasure trove. Rich in flora and fauna, it is a distinct biogeographical region with unique species of native plants and animals. Southeast Asia is home to the Coral Triangle, the most diverse marine environment in the world, encompassing more than half of the world’s reefs and 75% of the world’s coral species. Its terrestrial biodiversity is second only to the Amazon.

In recent decades, Southeast Asia has been one of the most dynamic regions of the world in terms of both economic transformation and political change. Dramatic growth and some of the associated social, political and environmental consequences have created both tremendous opportunity and potential crisis.

The University of Oxford’s links with Southeast Asia date back to 1682, when the Directors of the English East India Company first proposed two lecturerships in Malay Language and Literature. Many British diplomats, statesmen and scholars who made their mark in Southeast Asia were educated at Oxford, including Sir Richard Olaf Winstedt (New College, 1898), founder President of Raffles College, Singapore. Winstedt was the first British scholar to make a systematic survey of Malay literature for historical purposes, and laid the true foundation of a scientific approach to the writing of Malayan history. Botanist Sir William Thiselton-Dyer (Christ Church, 1863), assisted the introduction of rubber trees to Malaya and helped change Malaya’s economic future.

Other Oxford-educated prominent figures in Southeast Asia include Sir Henry Gurney (University, 1919), Governor of Malaya 1948-51; Sir Edward Gent (Trinity, 1920), Governor of Malaya 1946-1948; Sir Donald MacGillivray (Trinity, 1925), the last Malayan High Commissioner 1954-57; Sir William Goode (Worcester, 1926), Governor of Singapore 1957-59, Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore 1959-60, and Governor of North Borneo 1960-63; and Lord Gore-Booth (Balliol, 1928), ambassador to Burma 1953-56, among many others.

Oxford has also educated or provided visiting fellowships to many famous leaders of Southeast Asia, including: King Vajiravudh of Siam (Christ Church, 1899) and former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva (St John’s, 1985); Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah of Brunei (Magdalen, 1997); the current sultans of Pahang and Kedah, the crown princes of Kedah and Perak, and the consort of the Sultan of Johor, Raja Zarith Sofia (Somerville, 1979); Timor-Leste’s First Lady Kirsty Sword-Gusmão (Refugee Studies Centre, 1990) and current President, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr José Ramos-Horta (St Antony’s, 1987); and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (St Hugh’s, 1964).