30 December 2021 marks the 125th death anniversary of José Rizal.
Rizal is a man of many titles: The First Filipino, Pride of the Malay Race, national hero of the Philippines, Father of Filipino Nationalism, and many more - I call him the first Pan-Southeast Asianist. Unfortunately, I knew so little about the man whom I call my source of inspiration, and to make up for that I decided to read John Nery’s Revolutionary Spirit.
There are many influential revolutionary figures in Southeast Asia, but few would be regarded as inspirational outside of their own countries - not to mention the creation of a whole academic field surrounding himself. The 1956 Republic Act No. 1425 (also known as the “Rizal Law”) mandated the teaching of Rizal in both public and private institutions.
With our reverence of Rizal we run the risk of misunderstanding and misrepresenting him. We must see Rizal in his own light, and even I myself have at times overstated his visions. In this book, Nery summarizes three major types of errors in Rizal studies. First, instructive errors reflect mistakes in facts about Rizal or interpretations of him; second, unfortunate errors are imprecisions in the details of Rizal’s biography; lastly, pernicious errors manifest in gross misinterpretation guided by ideology.
In the rest of the book Nery goes on to address and critique many other works on Rizal, supported by extensive research. In the process of reading it, I also discovered several interesting new facts about Rizal’s influence in the wider Southeast Asian region.
Rizal, Multatuli and his Great Nephew are related in unexpected ways.
Eduard Douwes Dekker, more widely known by his pen name Multatuli, is a Dutch writer who used to work as a civil servant in the Dutch East Indies. First published in 1860, his book Max Havelaar exposes the corrupt government system in the Dutch colony, in which colonial administrators and indigenous elites benefit at the expense of the common people. Rizal read it in 1888 and held high praises for this book: “so viciously anti-colonial — but was so beautiful.” He would write to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt several times about Max Havelaar and sought hard to send him a copy to read.
Twenty-five years later, Multatuli’s grandnephew E. F. E. Douwes Dekker, known to Indonesians as Setiabudi, would discover Rizal. He was the first to openly advocate independence for Indonesia, and conducted his own research on the Philippines under American colonial rule. Setiabudi subsequently wrote an essay titled “Rizal” in the magazine he founded, Het Tijdschrift. In this essay published on 15 May 1913, Setiabudi drew parallels between the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies: “I am comforted. If our Rizals, our Josefines, our Pascianos, our Aguinaldos, our Maximo Paternos, our Burgoses, our Zamoras, our Gomezes would be needed — Fate forbid — they — will be there!"
Rizal was not that much the hero of Sukarno.
At the International Congress on Rizal held 4-8 December 1961, Indonesian journalist Rosihan Anwar credited the country's Founding President Sukarno for popularizing Rizal’s name in Indonesia. Given Sukarno's early involvement in the idea of Maphilindo, I assumed like me he would be a big fan of Rizal. However, Nery shows that Sukarno did not actually have a clear understanding of Rizal: he mistakenly pronounced his full name as “Jose Rizal y Mercado”, and claimed that he “was shot dead by the Spanish in 1903” when in fact he was killed in 1896.
//That, as I see it, was what was missing from Sukarno’s picture of the Philippine national hero. He never read Rizal; he must have only read about him.//
Seen in this light, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Rizal was simply one of Sukarno’s long list of examples. He was not that much of an inspirational figure for the latter, his story was just conveniently used in Sukarno's oratory. Nevertheless, Rizal did influence the young generation in their struggle for independence from the Dutch. Rosihan Anwar's translation of Rizal's final poem Mi Ultimo Adios was published in the newspaper Asia Raya in 1944. Rosihan Anwar later recalled that the his translation of the poem was circulated in the frontlines of the Battle of Surabaya.
//...at least in Java, Indonesian nationalists at a moment of real peril had taken inspiration from a stirring poem that promised a useful, even glorious martyrdom.//
Rizal influenced a lineage of Malaysian scholars on the sociology of knowledge.
Apart from Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, another of Rizal’s most iconic works would be the essay On the Indolence of the Filipinos (Sobre la indolencia de los filipinos). What I did not know, however, was that Rizal has also influenced a pipeline of scholars in Malaysia on the sociology of knowledge. This area of research studies how we arrive at certain notions, with our thinking shaped by the social context and vice-versa.
Syed Hussein Alatas carried the torch in this topic, resulting in the classic book The Myth of the Lazy Native where he dedicates a full chapter to Rizal’s essay. Alatas’ own student Chandra Muzaffar and grandstudent Shaharuddin bin Maaruf would later go on to make their own marks in other topics: the former studied patronage under UMNO and the latter wrote another classic titled Concept of a Hero in Malay Society.
Rizal had a role to play in the Buru Quartet.
Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) is my favorite Indonesian movie of all times, though the original novel remains on my long list of unfinished readings. It is the first book of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s famous Buru Quartet, which tells the story of Indonesian nationalism through fiction. In 1999 the widely-acclaimed author traveled to accept an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Michigan, and in an interview he recognised Rizal as an influence.
In the second book of the series, Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations), the Dutch journalist Ter Haar likened the protagonist Minke to Rizal:
"Someone as cultivated as that, writing poems in Spanish, just as you write in Dutch. A doctor, Mr. Tollenaar, and you too intend to become a doctor. Perhaps that is no coincidence."
The book would continue to mention Rizal: learning about the events in the Philippines including Rizal’s death would be an essential catalyst to Minke’s growth. Both in history and in fiction, Rizal has influenced Indonesian thought in profound ways.
If there is something I wished to see more in this book, it would be on how Rizal sought to reconnect the Philippines with its wider regional Malay heritage - to undo the severance of historical ties caused by the Spanish colonists. This, to me, is the greatest reason why Rizal should be hailed not just as a national hero of the Philippines, but a hero of Southeast Asia-at-large. That being said, Revolutionary Spirit is undoubtedly a valuable book, a condensation of John Nery’s hard work and the essence of many historical sources he extracted from. As shown in the above examples, this book serves as a testament to Rizal’s legacy in the wider Malay archipelago while also taking a deep dive into a variety of issues in the Southeast Asian region.
Revolutionary Spirit is my very first reading about Rizal, and I am not sure at all whether this is the best starting point. The upside of starting with this book is that I am “warned” of the deficiencies in the many works on Rizal, before my understanding of him gets “contaminated”. The downside, however, is that I had a hard time following the book. Some parts were simply too abstract as I have not read anything that Nery was critiquing. If I were to choose again, I would at least start with Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo for a basic understanding before jumping straight into Revolution Spirit. This book is like a beacon in the vast world of Rizal studies, and anyone wishing to get to know Rizal better probably should read this book at some point.
Signed on 15 November 2020, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) brings together the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states as well as five ASEAN dialogue partners under the world’s largest free trade agreement to date. For Southeast Asia, RCEP is particularly significant as a manifestation of ASEAN Centrality.
While many observers characterized RCEP as a China-backed alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) from half a decade ago, the agency of ASEAN should not be underestimated. Notwithstanding India's withdrawal due to concerns over trade deficits, the RCEP negotiations have been a largely successful one in a diplomatic sense. RCEP brought together countries with uneasy historical relationships, such as China, Japan, and South Korea. This is a remarkable accomplishment for Southeast Asia as a collective of small states, reflecting the success of ASEAN Centrality.
This article inspects the idea of ASEAN Centrality, tracing its history to explain how a relatively weak entity like ASEAN is able to bring such many dialogue partners into the same trade agreement. Particularly, this article looks at the transformation of Southeast Asia’s geopolitical order and argues that ASEAN Centrality will be increasingly relevant in the future.
Recognition of ASEAN Centrality
ASEAN Centrality is a broad term referring to the central stage the institution takes when it comes to regional and even cross-regional affairs. It can also refer to the relevance of ASEAN regionalism in the decision-making process of its member states. While various scholars may differ in the specifics when interpreting “ASEAN Centrality”, intuitively speaking, it is the idea that ASEAN should be the centerpiece in crafting multilateral cooperation. Within Southeast Asia, ASEAN Centrality demands that countries consider not only their own national agenda but also the realities of fellow member states; Externally, ASEAN Centrality implores dialogue partners like China or the United States to formulate multilateral policies under the ASEAN framework instead of developing a separate one of their own.
ASEAN Centrality is enshrined in Article 2 of The ASEAN Charter.
Bilhari Kausikan, prominent Singaporean diplomat who used to serve as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, commented that ASEAN Centrality is a political construct: “if you don’t recognize it, it does not exist.” Thus, the effectiveness of this doctrine hinges upon the extent to which countries adhere to it. ASEAN’s successes with platforms like ASEAN Plus Three (APT), East Asia Summit (EAS), and now RCEP have proven that ASEAN Centrality is indeed widely recognized by external partners.
Discussions surrounding ASEAN Plus Three began in December 1997 with an informal summit attended by the leaders of ASEAN member states as well as China, Japan, and Korea. In a joint statement issued ten years later, the relevant parties reaffirmed that “the APT process would remain as a main vehicle towards the long-term goal of building an East Asian community, with ASEAN as the driving force.”
The first East Asia Summit was subsequently convened in 2005, and it can be seen as a platform for the convergence of East Asia and major external players. On top of the APT countries, EAS includes key players such as the United States, Russia, India, Australia, and New Zealand.
Boasting 27 members from the European Union to Mongolia, ASEAN Regional Forum is the epitome of ASEAN’s efforts to mediate between various countries on political-security issues beyond Southeast Asia. Most remarkably, the ARF managed to bring together antagonistic countries like North Korea and the United States - an impressive feat that few other international organizations could claim.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) is a notable exception, being a multilateral platform in the Asia-Pacific that is not hosted by ASEAN. Even then, ASEAN is well-integrated into this system as the ASEAN Secretariat is an official observer of APEC. Amusingly, due to the initials “APEC” many lay persons have mistaken it as an ASEAN institution - proving the prevalence of the image of ASEAN Centrality today.
The evolution of ASEAN Centrality reaches a new milestone with RCEP. From its inception RCEP has been negotiated under the ASEAN framework, and it was finally signed at the ASEAN Summit chaired by Vietnam. This trade agreement could be seen as an aggregation of ASEAN’s bilateral FTAs - each of the 5 dialogue partners had established trade agreements with Southeast Asia before: China in 2002, Japan in 2003, South Korea in 2006, Australia and New Zealand in 2009. ASEAN is at the centre of the world’s largest regional trade agreement.
There are several reasons for the success of ASEAN Centrality. Indonesian economist Hadi Soesastro remarked that ASEAN is ‘least objectionable’ to various parties. Indeed, Southeast Asia is non-threatening as a collective of small states; ASEAN is committed to neutrality by not taking sides in great power competition; the rules-based order ASEAN champions provides the most common ground for rival states.
Agency of Southeast Asia
It is equally important to recognize Southeast Asia’s initiative in formulating ASEAN Centrality. ASEAN seized the opportunity early, before any other party has come up with alternative frameworks. Alice Ba from the University of Delaware described ASEAN Centrality as a product of Southeast Asia’s insecurity in the face of much more powerful neighbours - they are afraid of domination by external parties, yet they fear marginalization even more. By proactively brokering international conversations under its own frameworks, ASEAN is able to write its own rules instead of having them imposed by more powerful countries.
In her article Regionalism's multiple negotiations: ASEAN in East Asia, Ba described a “difficult and still evolving relationship” between Southeast Asia and the wider East Asian region. For the past few decades most of the economic growth has been concentrated in the Northeast Asian trio Japan, Korea, and China. While Southeast Asia is widely recognized as the emerging market today, the region’s growth was severely impacted by the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. ASEAN economies lacked “scale, size and complexity”. This meant that ASEAN Centrality emerged against a backdrop of huge disparity in economic development between Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia.
The dilemma is that ASEAN needs East Asia for its own economic growth and as a platform to engage the rest of the world, yet ASEAN also fears that the greater Northeast Asian economies might overwhelm its member states - due to the sheer economic power of Northeast Asia, it may very well result in a “3+ASEAN“ instead of “ASEAN+3”. A solution to this would be for ASEAN to take up the pioneering role in coordinating East Asia, leading this regional bloc to initiate the various platforms discussed above. Thus, ASEAN Centrality was an active effort to assert Southeast Asia’s agency given the East Asian and global forces present. This agency is well respected by external partners like China and Japan, which lacked the legitimacy, in each other’s eyes, to organize an East Asian multilateral platform.
Increasing Relevance of ASEAN Centrality
The notion of ASEAN Centrality is an aberration from much of Southeast Asia’s history. For centuries Southeast Asia has been at the mercy of stronger foreign powers, seeking to divide the region and profit from it. It began in the colonial period when European seafarers carved up territories for themselves and extracted resources from Southeast Asia. The region became highly polarized during the Cold War, during which several hot wars broke out in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. It was under this context that ASEAN began as an anti-communist organization seeking to ensure the survival and sovereignty of its member states. For the first time in ages, Southeast Asia’s agency is being recognized by the external powers.
In an increasingly bipolar world, great power contestation will likely seek to tear Southeast Asian apart once again, forcing countries into different camps. On the issue of the South China Sea territorial dispute, for example, China has clearly expressed its preference for resolving disputes in a bilateral manner. A very valid reason for this would be that Southeast Asian countries themselves have not resolved their internal territorial disputes; Yet another motivation could be that it is easier to divide and conquer Southeast Asia this way. Similarly, the United States may call on its traditional allies like Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, forcing them to choose sides.
For Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN Centrality is particularly important as a means of protecting the integrity of the regional bloc as well as allowing more space for individual countries to maneuver. Maintaining Southeast Asia’s agency would become more important than ever, such that ASEAN member states are not turned into pawns of the greater powers outside the region.
ASEAN Centrality and ASEAN Identity
ASEAN Centrality can be further reinforced by engaging the peoples of ASEAN. As mentioned previously, this notion is a construct that depends on the extent to which people believe in it. Ensuring the continuation of ASEAN’s agency in international affairs would require that Southeast Asians continue to believe in ASEAN Centrality.
The governments of Southeast Asia are now working together to construct a common regional identity that is shared not only by the public officials but also the citizens of Southeast Asia. 2020 was designated the Year of ASEAN Identity as ASEAN leaders seek to advance this constructivist agenda.
ASEAN Centrality is defined as a part of ASEAN Identity - in The Narrative of ASEAN Identity adopted at the 37th ASEAN Summit on 12 November 2020, it is said that “The constructed values of ASEAN Identity are reflected in Article 2 of the ASEAN Charter,”including “ASEAN Centrality in conducting external relations.” The norm of ASEAN Centrality will become cemented as a fundamental component of what it means to be a part of ASEAN. Protecting ASEAN’s institutional integrity and agency would become a formal expectation for the next generation of Southeast Asian leaders.
ASEAN Centrality has come a long way to arrive where it is today, and RCEP is the perfect manifestation of this. It is worth noting, however, that RCEP is not without its limitations: Compared to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), RCEP is seen as less progressive in terms of cutting tariffs as well as addressing labour and environment issues. Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called the RCEP “a really low ambition trade deal”. As such, the trade and economic dimensions of RCEP’s implications might not be as transformative as some would expect. That being said, RCEP is still a significant first step on a long journey towards trade integration in the Asia-Pacific.
At this point it may still be too early to tell how well RCEP would be implemented; One thing for certain is that the very conception of RCEP could not have materialized if not under the auspices of ASEAN. RCEP marks the symbolic triumph of ASEAN Centrality and shows to the world that a collective of small states, too, can make a huge difference in the international arena.
19 June 2021 marks the 160th anniversary of the birth of Philippine national hero José Rizal. Hong Kong and Southeast Asia are closely intertwined in many ways - one of which includes Rizal’s extensive stay in the city. Being an admirer of Rizal myself and stranded in the city for the time being, I set out on a pilgrimage in search of his footprints in Hong Kong.
Rizal is a man with many hats: writer, naturalist, and even engineer (in fact, my pursuit of all-roundedness might be partly influenced by him!). However, Rizal’s “main profession” is actually a doctor - ophthalmologist, to be exact. Between 1891 and 1892, Rizal practiced medicine at a clinic in Central.
Rizal is also a man with many homes: he stayed in Spain, Japan, Germany, and many other places. After publishing the sensational novel Noli Me Tángere in 1887, Rizal angered the colonial authorities and left for Hong Kong the year after. “They forced me to leave my own country,” he wrote in a letter to Austrian friend Ferdinand Blumentritt.
After a three year sojourn in Europe, Rizal went into a self-imposed exile in Hong Kong in 1891. This British outpost was Rizal’s final home until he returned to the Philippines and was eventually executed in 1896. Together with a friend from the Philippines, I visited two key spots in Central to pay tribute to Rizal.
2 Rednaxela Terrace - Rizal’s former residence
“Rednaxela” sounds like an exoitic name, but it is in fact the original owner’s name “Alexander” spelt backwards by mistake. Rizal lived here between December 1891 and June 1892, and his family moved in as well. Under the plaque we found a bouquet and paper sign commemorating the 160th birthday of Rizal.
Rednaxela is a long and steep climb from the main street as well as from Rizal’s clinic. This site is a condominium now and there is the Central–Mid-Levels escalator for pedestrians; but I wonder how fit Rizal must have been to commute back and forth from here on a daily basis.
5 D'Aguilar St - Rizal’s former clinic
Rizal’s clinic once stood at 5 D'Aguilar Street. A commemorative plaque can be found on the exterior of a mall called Century Square. Put up in 1997, it was the first Rizal commemorative plaque in Hong Kong. I have passed by this place so many times over the years, but it was only today that I discovered it - the plaque is above eye level so you would have to look upwards.
In addition to the two sites in Central, there is another Rizal plaque in Morrison Hill, Wan Chai, where the first Philippine flag was sewn. The former British colony has harboured many revolutionary figures from China’s Sun Yat-sen to Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh. While there is not much left to see of Rizal’s footprints in Hong Kong, it is important to recognize the city’s historic role in facilitating reformation in Southeast Asia and the wider Asian region
A review of the movie Raya and the Last Dragon by Disney.
In a time of #BlackLivesMatter and #StopAsianHate, the animated movies Soul and Raya and the Last Dragon came about as refreshing pieces that gave a voice to the otherwise voiceless people in Disney productions. I thoroughly enjoyed the former, which shared many similarities with Inside Out; I was finally able to watch the latter in the cinema with a Southeast Asian friend of mine. It was mostly kids with their parents in the audience, but my friend and I did not come to watch a fairytale - we were here to see how our home region is portrayed in Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess movie.
I went in without watching the trailer, so I had little idea of what to anticipate beyond my first impression: that the protagonist is a girl named “greatness” (Raya in Bahasa) and she wields a keris sword. I did not have much expectation, thinking that it would just be another Tangled or Frozen but with a person of colour as the main character. But as soon as I saw the wayang in the narration of the dragon legend, I knew that this would be a great movie in terms of authentic Southeast Asian elements.
Unlike other Disney movies, Raya starts with a dystopian scene with the protagonist riding through a hot barren. Raya rides her gigantic unicycle with her legs open, with her hands on the handles - resembling a motorbike driver. That reminds me of my Gojek days in Jakarta on a hot July.
The whole story takes place in a civilization called Kumandra, with a big river in the shape of a dragon spanning across the land. Kumandra was ravaged by the Druun, a mindless plague which turned everyone it touches into stone. Five hundred years ago, the dragons united and created a magical orb (the Dragon Gem) that wiped out the Druun but left the dragon species extinct - except Sisu, the last dragon.
Fighting over what remains of the dragon magic, Kumandra disintegrated into five kingdoms called Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail - each of them representing different biomes. Chief Benja of Heart, father of Raya and Guardian of the Dragon Gem, sought to bring the five kingdoms together to form a united Kumandra again. His vision was unfortunately sabotaged by Fang.
Namaari, the daughter of Fang’s leader Virana, befriended Raya and followed her into the altar of the Dragon Gem. She betrayed her and led the Fang army into the altar. The magical orb fell on ground amidst the chaos and shattered into pieces. Immediately, the Druun spread like wildfire. Each of the leaders left with a piece of the gem, Benja gave his to Raya and told her to run just before he himself was turned to stone. Six years later, Raya was on the quest to find Sisu, thus her journeys across the dystopian world in the beginning of the movie.
Raya is different from most Disney movies in the sense that it is not a love story and there is absolutely no singing involved. As a Southeast Asian (and Southeast Asianist), watching Raya was like a hunt for Easter eggs: the way Raya took her shoes off before entering the altar of the dragon gem; the jade traded as currency; the frangipanis Sisu scattered on the water.
Raya put in lots of effort in showcasing a wide variety of regional delicacies throughout the whole movie. There are many familiar Southeast Asian foodstuffs starting with the tom yum broth Raya's father made and ending with the kuih lapis in the credits. It was literally eye candy all the way. Some of the references are quite colloquial. I could totally resonate with how Sisu dislikes Raya's homemade jackfruit jerky, and I completely agree with Tong: “Of course you love mango. Only a tongue-less creaton wouldn't.”
There is plenty of martial arts fighting going on in Raya, again setting it apart from previous Disney princess movies. In the beginning Raya sneaked into the temple guarding the Dragon Gem with two sticks that are known as arnis. This is the Phillipine national martial arts. Raya then inherited her father’s sword, a retractable keris that can be made to work like a whip or Batman's grappling hook. I thought of this as an innovative interpretation of ancient weaponry.
Whether it is lush green rice paddies or riverside communities, most of the settings in Raya fit into Southeast Asian geography. Like ice in Frozen, water is the central theme that runs through Raya. “Water, rain, and peace” are what paradise meant for Kumandra. The giant river flowing through Kumandra's map immediately reminded me of the Mekong. Southeast Asia, too, is a region of water - the subcontinent sits between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with rivers flowing through the lands.
The first human to join Raya’s team was a child from Tail named Boun, who owns the boat restaurant called the Shrimporium. On his boat, Raya and her team traversed the five kingdoms of Kumandra. Their journey on the waters resembled Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.
I liked the shrimp theme a lot, for I come from a town called Cirebon, which literally means river (ci) of shrimps (rebon) in Sundanese. Traces of my hometown are also present in the credits, with clouds resembling Cirebon’s mega mendung motif.
Tail is a sparsely populated region, said to represent “pockets of villages” along the Mekong.
Talon is a familiar sight for anyone who has been to Thailand’s floating markets. The colourful lanterns at night looked just like Cibadak in Bandung, Indonesia.
The bamboo forests of Spine are said to be linked to Vietnam, and the snow-covered highlands allude to the mountain town of Sa Pa.
My friend said Fang resembled Singapore, and I thought it made a lot of sense. On the map it was a red dot on the tip of a peninsula, just like the Lion City in relation to Malaya. Fang is also portrayed as an insecure nation, not unlike Singapore in its early days of independence. The magnificent architecture is said to be inspired by Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and the Minangkabau people's rumah gadang.
It is amazing to see the extent to which the characters resembled the cast or vice-versa. Chief Benja looks exactly like an animated version of Daniel Dae Kim, so does Virana with Sandra Oh. Even Sisu the dragon convinced me that she was Awkwafina (or at least Goh Peik Lin from Crazy Rich Asians). It makes me wonder whether the characters were actually modelled after the cast, or if they created the characters first and then found people who look exactly like them.
I also adored the Ongis - half monkey, half catfish creatures that appeared together with conbaby Noi. They are cute yet very cunning, just like the monkeys that attacked me at Uluwatu, Bali.
In order to accurately represent Southeast Asia, Disney formed a Southeast Asia Story Trust, a collective of consultants led by Lao visual anthropologist Steve Arounsack “with areas of expertise ranging from music and choreography to architecture and martial arts.” The Studio members did fieldwork in Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore to learn about their cultures.
Some people criticized Raya for packing too much into a two-hour movie, and elements from different countries are jumbled up together. On the contrary, I think this is the best part of Raya. Southeast Asia was meant to be one before the concept of national borders were transplanted from Europe. Raya accounted for contiguity along cultures in Southeast Asia, presenting various elements together in a natural way. And since Raya is pure fantasy instead of a historical story, factual accuracy is of less importance (think Mulan living in a Tulou).
I appreciate how the crew took care not to make Raya explicitly associated with any single Southeast Asian culture. Take the Kumandran hand gesture, for example, which sort of resembles dhyana mudra. When paying respect to elders and the dragons, they formed a circle with their hand and bow or kneel. Had they just adopt the wai gesture, the whole movie would have been so obviously Thai. This is because that is the average person's understanding of Southeast Asia, even though you would find people doing the same gesture in other places like Yogyakarta.
Another noteworthy point is the way they portrayed dragon culture. The dragons in Raya, including Sisu, are said to be inspired by “Nāga from Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.” Not all dragons are Chinese, and it is commendable that Raya presented a different kind of dragon culture from Mulan’s Mushu.
Some people also lament that Raya cast is not Southeast Asian enough; most of them are actors from North America with Northeast Asian descent. However, this did not prevent the screenplay from presenting an authentic Southeast Asia. It may be that the pool of people for the Disney team to choose from is simply too small to begin with, and this structural issue is not something that can be solved within a movie.
One could say that they have made up for Southeast Asian representation by engaging Southeast Asian singers in the Raya music pieces, such as Via Vallen's Kita Bisa as well as Trust Again featuring artists from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. If Raya gets a live action remake like Aladdin and Mulan, then perhaps we could see a homegrown Southeast Asian on the big screens (I am rooting for Maudy Ayunda!).
“The world's broken. You can't trust anyone.” “Maybe it's broken because you don't trust anyone.”
Throughout the two hours the movie has been preaching trust and unity. This is very much relevant to the context of Southeast Asia. Kumandra was once a united civilization but split into five kingdoms; Southeast Asia was arbitrarily carved out into separate states and the division was further entrenched as nascent governments sought to set themselves apart from their neighbours. The Druun that feeds on human discord is a testament to the way evil forces thrive when the people are divided; Southeast Asia has to be united in face of external threats.
There are no villains within Kumandra; while we get tyrant rulers from time to time in Southeast Asia, the people are always innocent. Because of a long history of separation, a majority of Southeast Asians hold onto their own national identities without recognizing the threads that bring us together. There needs to be visionaries who could rise up and align national interests with that of the wider region. The movies exemplifies how important it is to have somebody take the first step - the world is broken when nobody is willing to.
At the end of the movie, everyone on Raya’s team came together: Boun from Tail, Noi and the Ongis from Talon, Tong from Spine, and finally Namaari from Fang. None of them were de facto leaders of their home regions, but together they saved the world: the solution was not an agreement between leaders; it was the trust between peoples. In other words, maybe, the trust and unity of a region is not defined by the governments of the respective nations, but the population at large.
One could also say that when the leadership is ineffective in forging regional unity, it is us the people who should rise to the challenge. Beyond the unity of governments, we should strive for a unity of peoples. This is part of the reason I started One Southeast Asian Civilization.
“Ba, welcome to Kumandra.”
Benja’s vision of one Kumandra is turned into reality at last.
There are still many more Southeast Asian cues that I have not been able to pick up or understand. Watching this movie, I was reminded of just how much I still do not know about this region. Perhaps a few years down the road, I would be able to re-watch Raya with a better ability to appreciate the nuances; perhaps by then there would have been more pieces one could compare Raya with. Having watched the movie for the first time, what I could say for now is this: I feel represented.
The Southeast Asianist is officially launched on 21 April 2021.
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