The Southeast Asia Research Center and Hub (SEARCH)  is the latest academic initiative of De La Salle University (DLSU) with the audacious mission and vision  of becoming a cutting-edge research center and networking hub .SEARCH quietly came into existence last September, 2019, when its organizers convened the Democracy Discourse Series followed by the   Southeast Asia Lecture series in cooperation with  the University of Malaya and a number of  provincial universities in  the Philippines.

Last Monday, SEARCH had a more formal launch with the presentation of  the “Southeast Asia  Research Forum”  which will henceforth be an annual event that aims to set priorities for the center’s research agenda and for assessing  results. Three eminent academics were invited to the inaugural research forum: Drs. Rommel A. Curaming, Farish A. Noor, and Reynaldo E. Ileto. Dr. Curaming has two master’s degrees from the National University of Singapore and of the Philippines and a PhD  from the Australian National University. He is a senior associate professor of the History and International Studies Programme of the University of Brunei Darussalam. His area of research is composed of historiography, knowledge politics, state-scholar relations, memory of violence, heritage-making, knowledge production and consumption in Indonesia and the Philippines. His most recent publication is Power and Knowledge in Southeast Asia: State and Scholars in Indonesia and the Philippines  (Routledge, 2019)

Dr. Farish Noor  who joined via Skype is  associate professor (with tenure) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. His area of interest includes   the political history of Southeast Asia and religio-political movements. He masteral and   doctorate studies were on philosophy,  politics, and government at the University of Essex. Among his published works are : America’s Encounters with Southeast Asia, 1800-1900, Before the Pivot (Amsterdam University Press, 2018) and The Discursive Construction of Southeast Asia in the 19th Century Colonial Capitalist Discourse (Amsterdam U. Press, 2016). Dr. Noor is a member of the United Nations Panel of Experts on Religion and Politics.

Last but certainly not the least is  Dr. Reynaldo Ileto of Pasyon and Revolution fame. His other works on our Revolution and on the US conquest  are  just as incisive. He contributed, “ Religion and Anticolonial Movements” to the Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. He received the Benda Prize in Southeast Asian Studies, the Ohira Book prize, and the Academic Laureate of the 14th Fukuoka Asian Culture prize. He was awarded  the Gawad Tanglaw ng Lahi by Ateneo de Manila University and Gawad Balagtas by the Writers Union of the Philippines.

Dr. Curaming spoke about the decolonization of knowledge which in the Philippines began with Jose Rizal and extended  to  Amado Guerrero;  but the decoloniality movement is far from over, it is an unfinished project  and one of its unintended consequences is our looking into the  colonial past for the roots of current problems. But can knowledge be truly decolonized? Or, is it  a mere liberal fantasy? He said that to study knowledge, we have to  delve into power relations; we need to map out how knowledge is being used and abused  and how this will help the marginalized sectors of society. We need to do this not only from an intellectual’s standpoint, but also from the view of the marginalized. We need a cartography of knowledge and power to determine what is true and what is believed to be true.

Still on the decolonization of knowledge, Dr. Noor said we need a textual analysis of language because what we have inherited from the 18th and 19th centuries are still current in Southeast Asia. For example, we invite tourists to come to our countries using the tropes of the 19th century, so we present ourselves as exotic, which is submitting to the standards of non-Southeast Asians. We frame our identities within the Western concept of “the other.” He reads the works of 19th century Western academics and colonized scholars not to understand the Asian region but to analyze how these Westerners   looked at us. He said Raffles’ History of Java and Bigmore’s travelogues both  pretended to be scholarly and scientific works, but their authors  were in touch only with colonial collaborators, so they never wrote about the violence of subjugation. Their knowledge emerged from during the height of colonial capitalism,   their books  had shared premises about the subjugated people. Dr. Noor said we Asians have borrowed words and concepts from that colonial pool of  knowledge. For example, the British, Dutch, and Spaniards attacked each other’s naval fleets, but they called that war, not piracy which was a word used only for natives; piracy was racialized.  We have to understand our colonial coordinates; the history of the empires  should not be left in the hands of the West.

Dr. Ileto spoke about the Western scholars he had read and met like Benedict Anderson, Glenn May, Anthony Reid,  and David Steinberg. He also met the venerable   D.G.E. Hall, author of Looking at Southeast Asia History (1955); that monumental opus did not include the Philippines! Mr. Hall said the Philippines is not Southeast Asian and is under the sway of the USA; we are also  more Latin than Asian. So, I asked Dr. Ileto  if Southeast Asian academics still hold  Mr. Halls’ point of view, or have, they  changed their minds since then. I suppose we are all decolonizing at various speeds. Proof  is the involvement of other Southeast Asians in  DLSU’s project SEARCH.