Introduction to SEAARC

(Introductory speech at the inaugural SEAARC Symposium by Chang Jiat Hwee)

Good morning friends, colleagues and guests. Once again a very warm welcome to the inaugural SEAARC symposium.

I have been tasked to introduce SEAARC – the acronym in the title of this symposium. Another acronym in this world already full of acronyms.

Another just-enough-alphabets-to-say-who-you-are in this city-state that values efficiency that abbreviation brings and apparently loves confounding acronyms too. On your way here, you would most likely to have encountered quite a few of these acronyms – ECP, AYE, MRT, SBS, NUS, SDE and so on and so forth.

Though many acronyms may seem like enigmatic signifiers that refer to abstract and obscure entities, some acronyms refer to very real and widely-known entities, such as large organizations with vast bureaucracies, massive physical presences and are endowed with real power. Like everywhere else, Singapore has many of these entities known primarily by their acronyms and they loom large in our popular imagination. Even my late grandmother who didn’t speak a word of English had no problem recognizing state-linked acronyms like HDB and, of course, PAP.

SEAARC is obviously not one of those acronyms. To begin with, it has 6 alphabets instead of 3, so it is rather lengthy and easily mis-spelt, as it has been on numerous occasions by various people, including ourselves. Furthermore, SEAARC has only 3 members – Imran, Kah Wee and myself, 3 untenured faculty members who are also the convenors of this symposium. In our case, convenor is really a shorthand for saying that we are the ideologues, the secretariat, the event organizers and the odd job labourers all rolled into one.

SEAARC was not established on the edict from the top. It began as an informal lunch discussion between the 3 of us at the verandah of the McDonald’s a short walk away from this building. The lunch took place because of a chance encounter. We all bought local hawker food from the canteen next to the McDonald’s and bumped into each other while walking back to our offices. And we decided to eat our packed local lunch at the verandah of one of the outlets of the largest global fast food chain. We were squatters on an in-between space – just outside the comfort of the air-conditioned interior but thankfully sheltered from the exterior tropical heat.

As many of you know, the term verandah came into the English language from India and it was used to describe one of the key features of the Anglo-Indian bungalow – the semi-enclosed space encircling the bungalow. The verandah was the “contact zone” where the British interacted and transacted with the natives. It was also the safe and secure space for the English woman to observe the noxious colony from the comfort of her island of Englishness, and literally the “servant space” where the native servants – like the sew-sew and room boys on the screen – occupied because they were not permitted to enter the interior proper.

Occupying the interstitial space is perhaps an apt metaphor for what SEAARC sets out to do. Living on borrowed, or more accurately appropriated, space allows us to avoid two forms of parochialism that are likely to plague architectural historians and theorists based in Singapore. For the want of better words, I call these forms of parochialism localism and globalism. These are obviously loaded words so please permit me to elaborate.

It is obviously important for architectural history and theory to engage the “local” and the production, circulation and reception of architectural knowledge can never be divorced from the “local”. So I am certainly not trying to belittle the “local” here. Rather, I am cautioning against the danger of close-minded localism lurking behind the “local”. The danger of localism has nothing to do with Singapore’s smallness although it is probably true that if we try to form a society of architectural historian here, it is unlikely to have more than 10 members. The dangerous localism is more of a mindset – a navel-gazing, excessively inward-looking one that dogmatically looks to claim architectural originality and mythologise architectural geniuses. In slavishly applying external concepts and outdated methods, and regurgitating grandfather stories from the favoured circle, localism displaces the deep cosmopolitan local histories with hagiographies of dead white men.

As descendants of immigrants and citizens of a nation-state that was separated from its quote-unquote “hinterland” on the day of its independence, my co-convenors and I are naturally inclined to set our sights beyond the local. While the extra-local or the global offers much for us to learn from, certain construction of the global can also be a form of parochialism. By uncritically referencing the “West”, mimicking its practices and aspiring for its status through spurious benchmarking exercises under the audit culture, we might be unwittingly promoting globalism as a new kind of parochialism. Instead of provincializing Europe and questioning its purported universalism, globalism self-provincializes and self-negates. Perhaps the narrowness of globalism is so pervasive and oppressive that some might choose to retreat from one form of parochialism only to enter the other form, i.e. the aforementioned localism, and indulge in the antiquarianism of local stories and curios. Unfortunately this is typically not just a retreat from narrow globalism, this is simultaneously also a rejection of the global’s self-critical scholarly rigour and theoretical sophistication.

SEAARC tries to avoid these two forms of parochialism by foregrounding the built environment of Southeast Asia, the region in which we are located, as our research focus. This is what the S-E-A of SEAARC stands for. While we see the region of Southeast Asia a way of mediating between the global and local, and avoiding the potential parochialism of both spatial scales and their attendant outlooks, others might see the focus on Southeast Asia’s architecture as rendering ourselves obsolete. That concern is understandable – after all how many architectural historians in the Anglophonic world work on Asia, let alone Southeast Asia?  And isn’t Southeast Asia an invention of World-War-II military strategy and Southeast Asian Studies, particularly in North America, a Cold War relic that has been in crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall?

In our Call for Papers, we have argued that Southeast Asia as a fluid and polyvalent geographic conception has analytical strength that could be productive.  We would also like to think that the assumptions behind the two questions raised earlier represent Euro-American biases. If we look beyond the Anglophonic academic world in Europe and North America, and direct our attention to this region, for example, we will be able to find many scholars researching on Southeast Asia’s architectural histories in their vernacular languages.

We should also not forget our very own history of researching Southeast Asia. Senior colleagues and former teachers here at the Department of Architecture have been teaching history of Southeast Asian architecture since, I believe, the 1980s if not earlier. The Department has also published a Journal of Southeast Asian Architecture since 1996. Singapore has an even longer history of researching on Southeast Asia. In 1968, the year when the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies was established by the Singapore Government through an Act of Parliament, the bilingual Journal of Southeast Asian Researches was already in its fourth volume. That journal was in turn intimately connected to the longer tradition of Chinese research on Nanyang, or the Southern Seas, that was initiated in the early twentieth century.

Having identified the research focus, we would need to do the research – that is where the R in SEAARC stands for. Research in architectural history and theory can be a very lonely endeavour. Most of us spend a large part of our research time working in solitude. Unlike scholars based in North America and Europe that have established scholarly organizations such as the SAH (Society of Architectural Historians) and EAHN (European Architectural History Network) and dense networks of research universities for support, we seldom have the chance to meet like-minded people who have overlapping research interests as ourselves in Southeast Asia.

It is thus important for us to take the initiative to reach out to scholars in the region and beyond who might share similar research interests in Southeast Asia’s architecture. And what better way to do that than to organize a symposium? This is especially so when SEAARC’s raison d’etre is to help cultivate a research culture through the organization of activities.

This is how the first SEAARC symposium come into being. As we do not have a precedent to follow, the theme for the first SEAARC symposium is about questions – questions on what is a history of Southeast Asia’s architecture, what are the epistemological assumptions, theoretical frameworks and methodologies. As we take nothing for granted, we also put the very notion of Southeast Asia’s architecture into question. And to avoid the discussion degenerating into a cosy insider’s dialogue, we also invite scholars who are working on outside but overlapping areas to this symposium to question what we do. We are very grateful that you have accepted our invitation to come to this symposium.

We might see ourselves as occupying an interstitial space and having the lofty ambition of driving research and advancing knowledge in Southeast Asia’s architectural history and theory, but this symposium would not have been possible if there is no home institutional support and generous sponsors. We are grateful to Prof YC Wong, the Head of Department of Architecture, for seeing the value in what we are trying to do and agreeing to fund this symposium generously. We are also very grateful for Lee Foundation’s support. The last organization that we are indebted too is smaller and more modest but no less generous. It’s HCFA, a medium-sized architectural firm, and especially its principal Mr Fong Hoo Cheong.

We are thankful for the support of student assistants. They are Loh Kin Kit, Ng Keng Khoon, Brian Khoo, Seow Yeong Chuan and Kenny Chen.

Thank you.

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