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SEA Studies Symposium 2015 – Reports, Photos, and Videos

General Report

For the first time, the University of Oxford brought its flagship Southeast Asian Studies Symposium to Southeast Asia. It was held 20 – 24 March 2015 at Sunway University, Malaysia. The world’s largest annual Southeast Asian Studies conference, it was organised by Project Southeast Asia, with the theme of ‘The Year of ASEAN: Integrating Southeast Asia’. The Symposium was attended by over 700 participants from 25 countries, and featured panels on subjects ranging from “Art and Society in Southeast Asia” to “Understanding the Reformed ASEAN”. Sixteen thematic roundtables saw academics engaging with politicians, civil society activists, diplomats, and business leaders.

DYMM Sultan of Perak Nazrin Shah opened the Symposium. A graduate of the University of Oxford (Worcester, 1975), in his Royal Keynote he declared ASEAN as absolutely essential for the peace and prosperity of its people and nations. Where ethnic and religious divisions give rise to social and security challenges, “neighbours can assist to mediate in the process as in the case with the Philippines and Thailand,” he said, alluding to the role of Malaysia, which is the current chairman of ASEAN, in peace efforts in the two countries. As member economies became more integrated, and a stronger common identity was cultivated, the Sultan said, authority over some decision-making may be usefully transferred to ASEAN bodies. “ASEAN should also relax the requirement of consensus in decision-making,” he said, adding that the flexibility that came with it would make for a more dynamic entity and facilitating nimbler responses to challenges.

Prof Wang Gungwu delivered the Symposium keynote, in which he proposed a unified way of understanding the giant arc of history. He argued that world history can be understood as the gradual shift of power from the Eurasian core to its western and eastern edges, that the contest between the nomadic societies of Central Asia and the agrarian states of Europe and China led to the emergence of Western and Chinese civilizations, and that maritime power eventually enabled continental powers to achieve global dominance. This, he argued, provided a framework for making sense of seemingly disconnected historical phenomena. Thanks to this trend, Southeast Asia now had a vital role to play in world history. It is the only region which is both continental and maritime, both Western and Eastern due to its history of colonialism, and highly interconnected. However, its influence depended on its own ability to unify and integrate.

Highlights of the conference included:

  • Eight roundtables and panels on governance and politics, including “Jokowi Six Months On: Has the Promise Been Fulfilled?” featuring Grace Leksana (Indonesian Institute of Social History), Mohtar Masoed (Universitas Gadjah Mada), and AE Priyono (LP3ES), and chaired by Peter Carey (Oxford); “Breaking the Cycle of Coups: The Future of Thai Democracy”, featuring Patrick Jory (University of Queensland); Paul Chambers (Chiang Mai University); Pavin Chachavalpongpun (Kyoto University); Claudio Sopranzetti (Oxford); and Wimonsiri Hemtanon (Universität Passau); and a series of roundtables on democratisation, values, identity, and race in Singapore and Malaysia, including “Can we have Race without Racialisation in Singapore?”, “The Role of Democratic Media in Malaysia and Singapore”, “The Future of Singapore Values and Identity”, and “Neoliberal Governmentality: The Singaporean Context”.
  • Ten panels addressing natural resource and environmental issues, including a three-part panel on “Natural Resources, Environment and Landscape Management”. Part 1 dealt with institutions and policies; part 2 with land use systems; and part 3 with communities and networks. Speakers included Constance McDermott (Oxford), Gillian Petrokofsky (Oxford), Mohd. Nor Salleh, (former Director General, FRIM),Tomi Haryadi (RECOFTC), Amy Ickowitz and Christine Padoch (both of CIFOR, Indonesia), and Roger Montgomery (LSE). A roundtable on “Achieving Transparency and Accountability in Natural Resource Development” was also very well received.
  • Nine panels on public health, including a two part panel on historical and contemporary “Philippine Narratives of Public Health”, “Genomics in the Understanding of Human Origins and Disease in Southeast Asia”, “Social and Genetic Challenges to Effective Malaria Treatment in Southeast Asia” and “Public Health Challenges in Southeast Asia”. Panels dealt with a wide variety of factors and issues, including genetics, lifestyle, reproductive health, rights, historical factors, and interdisciplinary challenges. Many speakers came from Oxford’s massive public health and tropical medicine research programmes, including Stephen Oppenheimer, Mark Harrison, Gerry Bodeker, Iqbal Elyazar, Ari W. Satyagraha, Lenny Ekawati, Dewi Ismajani Puradiredja, and Alexander Mentzer. Other speakers included Soobitha Subenthiran (Institute of Medical Research, Malaysia), Pascale Allotey & Daniel Reidpath (Monash University Malaysia), and Sean Eng (Universiti Sains Malaysia).
  • A roundtable and workshop on “State-Society Interactions in Southeast Asia”. Chaired by Phyllis Ferguson (Oxford), a roundtable of civil society leaders and academics set the stage by suggesting various questions and issues facing civil society common to all Southeast Asian countries. Through a lively discussion, ideas were exchanged and challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia discussed, generating agenda for later workshop. In the workshop, participants discussed issues related specifically to effective civil society organisation and more effective engagement with the public and with the state. Solutions were debated and best practices exchanged. A report will soon be available at
  • Twenty panels on economics and sustainable development, organised in conjunction with the Asian Economic Panel conference, including “Key Challenges for Asia in the 21st Century”, “Slower Growth in Southeast Asia: What is to be done?”, “Are the Benefits from ASEAN Integration Sustainable?”, and “Malaysia’s Past Successes and Uncertain Future: Graduating from the Middle or Caught in the Middle?”.
  • A series of documentaries, including “The Look of Silence”, Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to his Academy Award-nominated “The Act of Killing”, followed by a roundtable on the film featuring the celebrated Indonesian poet, writer, and former detainee Putu Oka Sukanta; “Diwalwal: Cursed Gold of the Philippines”, followed by a roundtable featuring filmmaker Philippe Couture, Yuyun Ismawati (Balifokus) and chaired by Aurelia Gomez (University of the Philippines, Mindanao); and “Sunset over Selungo” and “Save Sarawak: Stop the Dams”, followed by a roundtable with Peter Kallang (SAVE Rivers); Lukas Straumann (Bruno Manser Fund); Sia Ngedau (Penan Peace Park); chaired by Awang Hasmadi Awang Mois (International Islamic University Malaysia).
  • Public lectures by Nick Rawlins (Oxford); Barry Eichengreen (University of California Berkeley); and Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University). The lecture Prof Sachs, on“The Age of Sustainable Development”, closed the five days of events.

Videos of the sessions and photos will be available at and The 5th Symposium will return to Oxford in April 2016.