Precarity, Territory, and Identity Politics Panel



Southeast Asia and the Transboundary

L'Asie du Sud-Est et le transfrontalier


Friday, October 22, 2021


15:45 – 17:30

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This panel explores the conceptualization and limitations of “transboundary” in Southeast Asia. In the context of Southeast Asian international and regional politics, “transboundary” has gained geopolitical significance in a number of agreements between Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to combat and prevent “transboundary haze”—air pollution that crosses national borders. At the crux of these agreements is the tension between each nation states’ sovereign rights and the accountability for pollution that travels into another nation’s areas. ASEAN’s invocation of the transboundary is circumscribed to and premised upon the very problem it attempts to address: national interests and sovereignty over the well-being of the public, regardless of boundaries. Our panel critically examines how the nation-state remains the geopolitical infrastructure and paradigm of neoliberal globalization that dictates how Southeast Asian issues and solutions continue to be framed. To do so, we study how the transboundary outlines the imperatives of Southeast Asian states—while also offering alternatives—through our analyses of the oil industry, visual imaginaries and weather reports, banana republics, and digital theatre. Collectively, the papers argue for comparative approaches, shifting away from Southeast Asian transboundary regionalism to studies of border crossings that account for capitalism, empire, and narratives of economic development.

Convenor/Animateur: Ben Tran, Vanderbilt University

Chair/Président: Joanne Leow, University of Saskatchewan

Discussant/Intervenant: Ben Tran, Vanderbilt University

Event poster


Visibilities of Inequality in Infrastructural Imaginaries of Transboundary Haze and Environmental Vulnerability

Elmo Gonzaga, Division of Cultural Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

This paper analyzes how visual imaginaries of transboundary haze pollution define the parameters of agency of institutions and infrastructures to respond to natural and man-made ecological disasters. Sociological studies of “developing” or “emerging” economies of Indonesia and the Philippines tend to examine their susceptibility to natural calamities like eruptions and earthquakes as part of “Pacific Ring of Fire.” The inability of their existing infrastructures to withstand the potential for catastrophe and return to the normalcy of life is supposed to distinguish them from the so-called “advanced industrialized” Japan and Taiwan. These contrasting representations of agency echo the developmental discourse of the international press about the vulnerability of Southeast Asian nations to destruction and death due to lack of political will and material wealth. If natural calamities such as typhoons and tsunamis test the authority and resources of national governments to confront them, man-made environmental problems like forest fires and air pollution are framed as requiring the cooperation of institutions and organizations on different scales. Transnational haze pollution from palm oil plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan has recurrently plagued Singapore and Malaysia with the impression that this environmental problem is beyond the control of prosperous nation-states. Vulnerability from haze is articulated through CNN and BBC photos of rust-coloured skies. Facebook jokes and memes highlight the helplessness of everyday victims. Online satellite maps by the World Air Quality Index and ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Center visualize it as a catastrophe to be solved only through the intervention of a nascent regional community.

Reading for Oil in Singapore and Beyond

Joanne Leow, Assistant Professor of Transnational, Diasporic, Decolonizing/Postcolonial Literatures, University of Saskatchewan

Singapore is a key node in Southeast Asia’s extractive zones as the region’s largest and most prolific refiner of petrochemicals. Its refineries are all situated in offshore islands that were once home to indigenous communities who were displaced and then amalgamated through land reclamation. These corporatized spaces are now staffed by a large percentage of the 750,000 migrant workers who work in the island-state, supervised by American, European, and Australian expatriate managers—a clear example of what Amitav Ghosh has noted: that the spaces of oil are often suppressed, invisible, deterritorialized, and linguistically heterogenous. This paper examines the transboundary traces of oil in contemporary Singaporean coastal photography, art, and documentary that exist in spite of the country’s glossy City in a Garden exterior. I examine how photography, art, and even official documentary forms offer us alternate, affective methods of accessing what is an often-elided aspect of Singapore’s postcolonial economic success. Read contrapuntally, texts like Darren Soh’s night photography of oil refineries, visual and site-specific performances at littoral zones, and official state narratives like the Channel NewsAsia documentary “The Islands that Made Us,” depict cross-border, generational, and familial complicities in Singapore’s energy industries. Thus, my work posits a more intimate look at oil as it has affected the ways in which reclaimed land, migrant labour, and national community are represented in the island republic.

The Digital Turn in Southeast Asian Theater: New Routes Through a Global Pandemic

Sheela Jane Menon, English, Dickinson College

In Staging Nation, English Language Theatre in Malaysia and Singapore, Jacqueline Lo asserts that “theatrical representation is a practice that intervenes in contemporary history. ‘Doing’ theatre entails more than producing a reflection of society; rather, the act of re-presentation assumes the potential for commentary on and intervention in the ideological reproduction of the nation and its subjects.” Lo emphasizes theatre’s potential as a mediating force, one which actively shapes our past and present. In the midst of this global pandemic, Southeast Asian theatre makers have showcased this dynamism at a moment of social and political crisis. Despite dire conditions, they rallied to reimagine theater in the time of COVID, employing Zoom, social media, online streaming, and virtual talk-backs. In this presentation, I trace how three theatre makers— Jo Kukathas (Malaysia), Sim Yan Yang (Singapore), and Kwin Bhichitkul (Thailand)—designed innovative forms of digital theatre that reconfigured geographic, cultural, and material boundaries. By providing an inside view into these theatre makers’ perspectives, shared during a Facebook Live roundtable hosted by Singapore’s WILD RICE Theatre, I illuminate the creative and critical approaches that guided the digital turn in Southeast Asian theatre. I demonstrate how these artists have circumvented established boundaries for performance and participation; crossed national boundaries in circulation and collaboration; and exceeded the boundaries of form and convention. In charting these new routes, these artists have intervened in urgent conversations surrounding race, identity, and belonging and they have brought global audiences along with them.

Asia’s Banana Republic: Rethinking Empire in the Transnational Philippines

Alyssa Paredes, Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan

The term “banana republic,” a racializing pejorative most commonly used to describe Central American economies, does not usually conjure images of Southeast Asia. Yet it has become a common moniker for the state of the Philippines’ political and economic systems as well as its transnational relationship with Japan. Both journalistic and academic writing have used the label to characterize every administration from Ferdinand Marcos (1965–1986) to Rodrigo Duterte (2016–current), citing foreign intervention in politics, a state of bloodshed and rebellion, the persistence of kleptocracy in high office, the lack of government accountability, and the rampancy of inequality. These popular references offer opportunities to rethink the nature of empire. This paper thus turns to the export banana zones of southeastern Mindanao as both the metaphoric root and a material source of the power asymmetries that define the Philippine south’s transboundary ties to East Asian consumer markets. It offers historical comparisons between the Southeast Asian nation and Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Honduras to demonstrate how scholarly understandings of the “banana republics” shift in this regional context. Focusing on (1) new land control schemes devised by the same American fruit conglomerates; (2) foundational ties to import markets in Japan, rather than to the United States and Europe; and (3) a history of internal settler colonialism, this paper shows the role that the industry has played both in shaping local political and economic conditions, and in differentiating Philippine banana trade from networks in the same commodity elsewhere in the world.

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