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Connecting Southeast Asia and Stanford University

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Donald K. Emmerson, SEAP director, meets with Stanford University alumni in Jakarta to discuss ideas for improving international awareness of and expertise on Indonesia.
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Donald Emmerson

Much has changed in the region since SEAF first began to bring Southeast Asia to Stanford. Its population has grown from 485 million in 1999 to more than 620 million in 2013. While in 1999 Southeast Asia was just recovering from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the region weathered the 2008 American financial crisis almost unscathed, and in 2013 is a largely prospering zone of growth in a faltering world economy.

In 1999 SEAF director Donald K. Emmerson, having observed East Timor’s resounding “yes” vote for independence from Indonesia, was evacuated from the half-island as it fell prey to lethal pro-Indonesian militias wreaking revenge. In 2013 the independent country now known as Timor-Leste enjoys domestic stability, good relations with Indonesia, and one of the world’s highest rates of economic growth. A brutal, isolated dictatorship in 1999, Myanmar (Burma) has undergone significant reform and is set to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014. Yet across the region daunting challenges remain, including poverty, corruption, pollution, repression, intolerance, and tensions with China over who owns what in the South China Sea.

Over fourteen years SEAF has hosted more than 150 speakers on these and other aspects of Southeast Asia’s polities, economies, and cultures, and the region’s interactions with the rest of the world. In the latest academic year a dozen SEAF speakers—scholars and diplomats, journalists and activists—have shared their views of authoritarian development in Singapore, bigotry and rebellion in Indonesia, the Cao Dai religion in Vietnam and the United States, climate change in Southeast Asia, the ASEAN Summit, foreign aid to Cambodia, Muslim politics in Malaysia, and the modernity of Thai peasants.

Advancing Scholars and Scholarship

SEAF has also enabled a series of academic specialists on Southeast Asia to spend time at Stanford doing research and writing. Noteworthy among these visiting scholars have been the recipients of the endowed Lee Kong Chian Distinguished Fellowship on Southeast Asia, awarded annually in cooperation with the National University of Singapore (NUS), where recipients spend half their fellowship term. Inaugurated at Stanford by the presidents of Stanford and NUS in 2007, the program’s first awardee was Robert Hefner, a Boston University anthropologist who went on to become president of the Association for Asian Studies. Two Lee Kong Chian professors were on campus in 2013—a development expert from the London School of Economics and Political Science and an anthropologist from the University of Southern California.

The many books and articles that SEAF has facilitated include a volume edited by its director, Hard Choices: Security, Democracy, and Regionalism in Southeast Asia. Co-published by Shorenstein APARC and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, one reviewer called Hard Choices “required reading for graduate students specializing in Southeast Asia and a must-have for ASEAN specialists and observers.”

Outreach in Southeast Asia and at Home

SEAF has also brought Stanford to Southeast Asia. Every year SEAF’s director has traveled to the region to do research, lecture, take part in workshops, and interact with Southeast Asian colleagues, including a 2012 SEAF-organized workshop in Singapore for the authors of a planned volume on Southeast Asia’s relations with China. SEAF’s director has also taken Stanford students to the region to do research, most recently in Indonesia.

SEAF has even stimulated the formation of two Stanford student-led organizations designed to share knowledge and ideas about Southeast Asia. The Malaysia Forum has grown from its 2003 founding into a global community that encourages “civil conversation” on the many issues the country faces. In 2004, also on campus, SEALNet was born—the Southeast Asian Service and Leadership Network—and it too has expanded far beyond Stanford. Its activities include sending Southeast Asian students abroad back to the region for community service during vacations.

These highlights illustrate how, since its birth fourteen years ago, SEAF has managed “to bring Southeast Asia to Stanford, and Stanford to Southeast Asia”—and how it hopes to continue that mission in the years to come.

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