Contemporary Southeast Asia is what it is today rich in diversity of culture and achieving general economic and political stability due to a combination of factors. However to find out whether Southeast Asia would be different without colonialism, there is a need to examine the European role and the extent of their impact politically, socially and economically. Also there is a need to examine the pre colonial Southeast Asia and “have an awareness of the rich and important history of Southeast Asian states”.(Osborne : 1998: 61) .It is necessary to examine all these factors to determine whether there would be a significant change in Southeast Asia without colonialism.
The impact of colonialism in Southeast Asia before the nineteenth century was negligible. It was after the Portuguese conquered Malacca that the thrust of European imperialism in Southeast Asia was felt. Though Thailand is the only Southeast Asian state that is never colonized, it is still as competitive as the rest of the states in its economy and as modernized. However it must not be forgotten that it was still under pressure from colonial powers that it adopted policies of westernization and modernization to avoid being colonized. Though never under colonialism, it still experienced indirect colonial rule in this manner. It might be argued that colonial rule did not shape Southeast Asia significantly by using the example of Thailand since it has achieved a similar state of progress however it must not be forgotten that it was still under indirect colonial influence.
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What was most evidential in modern Southeast Asia that was established during colonial rule was modernization and westernization. It was possible that colonialism did act as a catalyst to modernization in these states. It must be noted that pre colonial Southeast Asia was not inferior to the colonial powers as by Osborne’s words ( 1998: 68), Vietnam was “unified and expanding” and other states also had organized political systems and peaceful societies. However colonialism saw an overhaul of the old village system to introduce more modern and westernized political administration as well as improvements to communications and economy. All in all, it introduced “a new framework to society”. New western concepts were introduced and economically, new mechanization techniques of agriculture as well as a sound communication system was established. This can be seen by the railway built across from Thailand to Malaysia greatly increased efficiency of transportation and trade even till present day. From this, we can speculate that perhaps Southeast Asia may not acquire such knowledge and technology that quickly and be less modernized if not for colonialism. As Sardesai (1997: 141) said colonialism “introduced far reaching changes in most walks of life and the impact surviving colonial rule itself”. The foundation of a strong and sound infrastructure in Southeast Asia may not exist today if not for economic reforms during colonialism.
By examining how Southeast Asia was affected by colonialism socio-culturally, we would be able to infer if Southeast Asian would be different without colonial influence. Though colonial language and culture were enforced during that time however few outlasted colonialism. As noted because the adoption of foreign socio-culture was strained and resented by the natives, countries like Indonesia and the Philippines still largely stuck to their native languages and beliefs. Also, the cultures in many countries are rich and deeply rooted and resisted assimilating into foreign culture and language. This saw limited dissipation of foreign influence. In fact Vietnam and Cambodia are more sinicised in clothing and architecture instead of influenced by the French. ( Osborne: 1998) However in Singapore and Malaysia, there is the usage of British English and laws which exist till present day.
Though not much success were gained in the spread of colonial socio-culture however education policies as suggested by Sardesai( 1997: 147) did “opened the minds of the youth to political ideas of the west” and boost literacy rates in the countries. A more lasting effect could be seen in the greater mix of ethnicity, higher literacy rates and liberalization in modern Southeast Asia. It could be possible that Southeast Asia could be less liberal and educated if not for the compulsory education system during colonial rule and the extent of western influence could be reduced greatly and perhaps only through trading. However this does not mean that Southeast Asians would not achieve literacy but perhaps would take a longer time to achieve the same progress.
Religion wise, Spain did successfully convert many Filipinos to become Catholics and Osborne (1998: 79 ) said there is a ‘profound effect inseparably linked with the experience of Spanish rule.’ Catholicism seems to lay the foundation of Filipino society and even up till today, Philippines is still a largely Catholic country. Also the Dutch did extend some form of religious influence as Osborne (1998: 74) mentioned “implantation of Christianity” in Sumatra and Ambon and there is some extent that Christianity still prevails in these areas though the rest of Indonesia is largely Muslim. However the natives “did not accept the alien rule passively” (Sardesai: 1997: 204) and had their own beliefs and culture. Southeast Asia was open to other form of religions as well due to influence of foreign traders as well as missionaries and it could be possible that they would adopt the same religion despite colonialism and it was more a matter of receptiveness by the people as shown above.
“Nationalism was one of Europe’s exports to the colonial world”. (Sardesai: 1997: 145) The “economic dislocation and distress caused by western rule” (Sardesai: 1995: 146) raised awareness and nationalistic feelings among the people. The development of a sense of loyalty and patriotism towards their country among Southeast Asians was definitely perpetuated by colonialism as seen by the widespread resistance movements and many came together to stand as one against colonialism. Pre colonial times saw many Southeast Asians only seeing their country as a means to survive and more individualistic behaviours of the people. Without the aggravation of colonialism, Southeast Asians might not develop such a strong sense of national identity and be as united as modern Southeast Asia today.
Historically, the colonial powers did make a lasting impact in a “revival of a glorious historical past” (Sardesai: 1997: 147) of Southeast Asia when archaeological excavations, temples were restored and arts were studied. Most notable are the efforts by “Thomas Stamford Raffles in Malaya and Java” (Sardesai: 1997: 147) and all these achievements is eminent in modern Southeast Asia.
Geographically, the colonial masters defined the boundaries of Southeast Asia existing today. Osborne said (1998: 77) “The importance of the European powers in the creation of new boundaries is abundantly apparent in relation to peninsular Malaysia.” as well as Philippines and without colonial rule, it could be possible that the boundaries of many Southeast Asian states with the exception of Vietnam may not be what they are today.
However, the modern Southeast Asia cannot be attributed to only one factor and factors like Japanese imperialism during World War two, the people of each individual country, their leaders and their culture and beliefs all played a part in making Southeast Asia what it is today. The combination of these factors help shaped the history of Southeast Asia. It is no doubt that colonialism did play an important role in that “it generated forces of industrialization, urbanization, modernization, intellectual ferment, and political ambition that inspired at least a small elite in each colony to abandon part of the traditional trappings” ( Sardesai : 1997: 141 ) however there’s only a limited extent to its influence in modern Southeast Asia. Although we will not know for sure whether Southeast Asia would be substantially different without colonialism however it is possible to speculate from all the above reasons Southeast Asia may not be what it is today- a competitive, educated people if not for formal colonial rule.
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