Association of South-East Asian Studies in the United Kingdom (ASEASUK)

Source: Victor T. King, Emeritus Professor of South East Asian Studies, University of Leeds, United Kingdom: “A History of ASEASUK on its 40th Anniversary” (2009). See the original text on: http://aseasuk.org.uk/v2/aboutus

The ASEASUK Association was born in London 1968. It was created to “meet the felt needs consequent to the growth of South East Asian Studies in the United Kingdom.”

The South East Asian Studies constituency was relatively small and residentially concentrated in the 1970s and very much focused on the three main Centres of South‐East Asian Studies ‐ London, Hull and Kent.

Already by the 1980s the Association had expanded considerably in its membership and the presence and participation of scholars from several universities outside the three Centres had increased markedly. This trend has continued to strengthen to the present.

The Association has continued to struggle to protect South‐East Asian language‐based area studies programmes from the vagaries of government funding and policy.

The first list of members compiled in 1971 totalled 64 just over two‐thirds of the membership came from the three recognised Centres.

It is worth emphasising the important role of the London School of Economics (LSE) in the early development of the study of South‐East Asia in the United Kingdom.

Most certainly those professionally involved in research and teaching in language and literature joined the Association as members, some served on the Committee from time to time and they attended the annual conferences but perhaps ASEASUK’s attention to their scholarly interests was not as energetic and positive as it might have been until relatively recently. Our conferences, for example, were primarily directed to issues and themes in the social sciences and humanities, though more recently we have introduced through panels on Indonesian and Malay Manuscript Studies.

Language specialists have also moved into such multidisciplinary areas as cultural-media, film and gender studies and through these interests they contribute increasingly to the Association’s conferences.

Nevertheless, one result of this relative neglect was the founding of Indonesia Circle at SOAS in 1973, with its own association newsletter (later to become the journal Indonesia and the Malay World). It was also accompanied by the setting up of the Indonesian Etymological Project which organized colloquia in different European countries every two years. Specialists in the broader field of Austronesian languages also did not confine their regional interests to what came to be defined as South‐East Asia in the post‐war period for that matter neither did the small number of archaeologists and pre-historians who were active in ASEASUK.

British Institute in South-East Asia and the Academy Committee

Discussions in the Academy and with the British Council and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the need to found an Institute in Asia go back to at least 1958. These deliberations prompted by the recommendations of the Scarborough Report (1947) and initially coordinated by a Committee of the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London focused on the possibility of establishing an Institute in Far Eastern or East Asian Studies. This was to concentrate primarily on China and Japan and the preferred location was Tokyo. Largely for financial reasons the plans for an Institute, which originally was to share premises with the British Council in Tokyo, eventually fell through. The decision was taken at that point to recommend to the Council of the Academy that a British Institute be established, setting down various options, requirements and recommendations.

Proposals went to the Council at its meeting on 26 October 1972 and approval was given to proceed to found an Institute, which was to be located in Singapore for an initial period of three years.

Its purpose was to promote joint endeavours with local scholars on research objectives of mutual interest in South‐East Asia (particularly in the fields of archaeology, history, art history and Anthropology) to keep British scholars informed of needs and priorities in regard to research work in the region and to arrange for collaboration and secure the necessary permits for British scholars to work there.

The Institute’s directorship was advertised in 1974. Dr Milton Osborne, an Australian citizen who was then in the Department of History at Yale, with experience in the Australian Foreign Service and good relations with French academy and a distinguished historian of Indochina, was appointed to the post in October of that year. The link to Australia was confirmed.

The Institute moved in mid 1984 and was formally registered in Bangkok in October 1984. Yet the difficult financial situation continued and the decision was taken eventually to close the Institute officially in December 1985.

Its operations were gradually run down and the library sold off and sadly the Institute, just over a decade after its foundation, ceased operations in Bangkok in June 1986.

British Academy Committee for South-East Asian Studies

It was decided to establish a London‐based Committee for South‐East Asian Studies in 1986, on a very modest budget, whose main responsibilities were to approve and sponsor research projects and activities, and to keep the Academy informed about the needs of British‐based researchers in South‐East Asia and the opportunities for research.

There ASEASUK was also successful in securing continuing research funding for a five‐year period from 2005‐06 from the Academy and is recognised currently as an Academy‐funded Learned Society with the responsibility of disbursing grants for field research and for the support of conference panels, publications, and related outreach activities.

In particular, if it had not been for Academy financial support from 1986 there would only have been a most modest level of British field and primary research in South‐East Asia. It is also very unlikely that the Association’s newsletter, which is part‐funded by Academy resources, would have been able to sustain and develop a substantial twice‐yearly programme of publication and an international outreach.

Co-ordinating Council of Area Studies Associations

Another important development a few years after the establishment of the British Institute was the founding of the Co‐ordinating Council of Area Studies Associations (CCASA) which held its constituent meeting on 19 June 1980 at the University of Birmingham.

The Council continues to function with some energy to this day (and ASEASUK continues its membership).

Annual meetings and conferences are organized, and some of them lead to publications. From 2000 it was decided that ASEASUK should not go head‐to‐head with the European Association of Southeast Asian Studies (EUROSEAS) and that it should relax and take a year out when EUROSEAS meets.

The European Association was founded in 1992; it organises its major international conferences every three years, which many ASEASUK members attend and at which they present papers.

The membership has steadily increased over the past 25 years. In 2004 the Association’s membership stood at 152, which included 16 students (26 overseas and 15 retired members). It now stands at about 190. This certainly does not exhaust all those individuals who undertake research in and on South‐East Asia.

Our newsletter and the website

Perhaps one of the most significant developments for the Association was the decision taken at the Annual General Meeting on 30 March 1984 to circulate a Newsletter entitled, perhaps rather unimaginatively, ASEASUK News.

The development of an enlarged newsletter issued twice‐yearly was in part to fill the gap left by the demise of the British Institute and its Southeast Asian Studies Newsletter, which was published quarterly between September 1980 and January 1986.

Present and future

At the moment ASEASUK enjoys the firm support of the British Academy which has accepted, endorsed and funded its five‐year plan entitled ‘Integration and Interaction in the South‐East Asian Region’ which was launched in 2005‐06.

It goes without saying that for a modestly resourced Association like ours the grant from the Academy has been invaluable. It has to be said that an annual grant, in 2008‐09 it stood at £78 000, can sustain a whole area of field research, and relatively small amounts of public funding have helped support an enormous amount of research activity in South‐East Asia during the past two decades, across a wide range of disciplines and subject areas, some of which (in the social sciences in particular) are not well represented in the Academy.

Therefore, it has enabled us to fund primary research in and on the region, to encourage early career scholars in undertaking field research, to continue with our newsletter at current levels of production and circulation, to develop our website and support registers, surveys, and public lectures, and to provide strategic resources for our annual conferences. We can now, for example, give some financial support to postgraduate students and ‘emerging scholars’ to present their research at our conferences in a national and international forum, and, as our founders envisage, to enable and underpin ‘the projection of South‐East Asia as an important field of study within the United Kingdom generally’.

We have a programme of annual meetings planned until 2012. The bi‐annual newsletter will continue to be produced, the website is undergoing further development, and we are currently updating our register of researchers (at the moment exceeding 100 individuals) which is also available on our website.

From Victor T. King,
Emeritus Professor of South East Asian Studies, University of Leeds, United Kingdom
“A History of ASEASUK on its 40th Anniversary” (2009). See the original text on: http://aseasuk.org.uk/v2/aboutus


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