FIFTH INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION OF ASIA SCHOLARS: For better or worse

The New Straits Online - 2007/08/11

By : NURJEHAN MOHAMED

Asia's brisk progress has been dubbed a miracle but sharing its fortune means sharing its problems too. SUZIEANA UDA NAGU and NURJEHAN MOHAMED report.

ICAS5 Kuala Lumpur participants exchange notes on the study of Asia. - Pictures by S. SUGUMARAN
ICAS5 Kuala Lumpur participants exchange notes on the study of Asia. - Pictures by S. SUGUMARAN

 

Shamsul
Shamsul
Abdul Rahman
Abdul Rahman

MISSION accomplished. That is how Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin sums up the recently concluded fifth International Convention of Asia Scholars, or ICAS5, held in Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, Kuala Lumpur last week.

"Our mission impossible has become, with all its imperfections, mission accomplished," says the director of the Institute of Occidental Studies (or IKON, its Malay acronym).

Ikon and the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation (or ATMA, its Malay acronym), both based at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), had jointly organised ICAS5 with the International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden University, The Netherlands.

Shamsul, who was chairman of the organising committee, uses the term "world-class" to describe Malaysia's effort to bring together more than 1,500 scholars, researchers and observers from some 50 countries to discuss issues pertaining to the humanities and social sciences in Asia.

A big scale event on the humanities and social sciences such as ICAS has never taken place in Malaysia before.

"Yet the humanities and social sciences are critical areas of study especially to a multi-ethnic country like Malaysia. They are the pivot of Malaysia's well-being, not computers and technology.

No amount of computers can help us stay together," says Shamsul, adding that it is high time that the social sciences are championed.

Participants had gathered at the KL Convention Centre to sit in on some 350 panels in 22 concurrent sessions daily for four days.

The diversity of the themes, the plurality of the participants -who came from a vast range of backgrounds and expertise from all continents of the world and representing a variety of disciplines and theoretical persuasions - made the convention a truly "world-class" event.

Indeed, Shamsul was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of participation.

"I think it will be a long time before another ICAS can be held next to the world's tallest twin towers or a place of similar significance," says Shamsul, quoting an Austrian scholar, who had marvelled at the glorious backdrop of the Petronas Twin Towers. A number of delegates had expressed their admiration for the venue of the convention -the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (see accompanying story).

ICAS5 is the fifth instalment of the "Olympics of Asia studies" which was born out of the dream of the Association for Asian Studies and the International Institute for Asian Studies to internationalise the scholarship on Asia.

The transatlantic dialogue was initially seen as an arena in which American and European "Asianists" could exchange notes on the study of Asia. But over the years, ICAS has grown into the largest biennial forum for Asia studies outside of the United States.

The first ICAS took place in Leiden, The Netherlands in 1998 followed by ICAS2 in Berlin, Germany (2001), ICAS3 in Singapore (2003) and ICAS4 in Shanghai, China (2005), each with a theme that was relevant to Asia's development.

ICAS5 had picked "Sharing a Future in Asia" as its theme, alluding to Asia's brisk progress -particularly East Asia -which has prompted Western scholars to dub it the "East Asian Miracle".

"Asia is often proclaimed as the fast growing region in the world today, in spite of the fact that nearly a billion of its population is still living in poverty. It is Asia's resilience in the face of extreme adversities and its ability to rise above the challenge of differences that have enhanced the global perception that it is a region of hope and prosperity.

"ICAS5 Kuala Lumpur provides a timely opportunity to examine critically this possibility," states the ICAS5 website, in explaining the rationale behind the theme.

Some social scientists feel that the rapid growth in Asia has perpetuated Asian "triumphalism" which denotes an overwhelming sense of optimism and bullishness in the region.

Several theories on Asian development seems to support this notion.

"The flat world concept, for example, has allowed Asian players to compete on a level playing field with the rest of the world and acquire a strong position in industries such as IT," says Shamsul.

He also cites other contributing factors such as the emerging middle class in Asian countries, the "Easternisation of the West" -where Westerners adopt and embrace Eastern values -and "Easternisation of Asia" which refers to Asian countries learning from each other, such as Malaysia's "Look East" policy.

But UKM's Datuk Dr Abdul Rahman Embong, a professor of sociology of development, warned Asian countries against "going overboard with it".

In his keynote address titled Towards a Shared Future in Asia: Illusion or Emerging Reality?, the president of Malaysian Social Sciences Association, was critical of Asian "triumphalism".

"If we want to share a future in Asia, we have to share its problems too," says Abdul Rahman.

He believes that before Asia can begin to blow its own trumpet, it must address critical issues taking place in its own backyard such as the illegal immigrant phenomenon, hotspots for conflicts and its one billion population living in poverty.

"It is also a warning to international bodies which are pumping money here without really looking at the problems," says Shamsul, commenting on Abdul Rahman's keynote speech.

Shamsul believes that some countries have been disadvantaged by Asian "triumphalism" which Abdul Rahman had cautioned about.

Malaysia is an example of this, he says.

"We have made it in some aspects. But in the process of ‘making it', we have (prematurely) proclaimed that we are a developed country.

"That is why we are not entitled to subsidies such as those for books. We complain about the lack of the reading culture here yet we continue to raise the price of books because we are a ‘developed country'. Not everyone in Malaysia can afford to buy books yet," adds Shamsul.

Shamsul urges Asian countries to adopt what he terms as "cautious triumphalism".

He also highlights the "uneven socio-economic scape". It is a situation where some areas are doing well while others require support to make that leap.

"Every region in Asia has areas with potential for development. But there is a tendency to focus on only the highly developed zones. You can't continue investing in those places and choke them.

You have to open up new corridors of growth. This is where Malaysia is doing the right thing," says Shamsul, referring to Malaysia's initiative to speed up economic growth in parts of the country which require it.

The Northern Corridor Economic Region development programme is one example. Its multipronged strategy is to elevate income levels in Perlis, Kedah, Penang and the north of Perak.

Malaysia also suffers from the "Asian triumphalism" syndrome, says Shamsul.

"So we have to temper it with activities that can benefit both the high potential areas and the ones that are left behind. Malaysia's growth corridor concept is doing just that.

Shamsul, who now sits on the exclusive ICAS advisory board, expects the next ICAS -which will be held in South Korea in 2009 -to attract participation from research institutes on Asian studies worldwide.

The exchange of ideas on the study of Asia continues.