Sharing a future in Asia

From 2 to 5 August 2007 the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) took place in the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, Malaysia. It was hosted, (under the aegis of the ICAS Secretariat), by the Institute of Occidental Studies and the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation, both based at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). The local host picked ‘Sharing a Future in Asia' as its overarching theme, alluding to Asia's brisk progress.

Paul van der Velde and Josine Stremmelaar

ICAS 2007 was the first time such a large scale event on the humanities and social sciences has taken place in Malaysia. "Yet the humanities and social sciences are critical areas of study especially to a multi-ethnic country like Malaysia", says host Datuk Prof. Shamsul AB. "They are the pivot of Malaysia's well-being... no amount of computers can help us stay together." He added that "it is high time that the social sciences are championed" [New Straits Times, 8 August 2007]. This is just one of the reasons why the ICAS Secretariat believes that it is imperative for ICAS to remain a travelling conference in Asia, drawing special attention to local dynamics of the country where the convention is held.

Triumphalism

"Asia is often proclaimed as the fastest growing region in the world today, in spite of the fact that nearly a billion of its population is still living in poverty. 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" [NST, 8 August 2007]. In his keynote address entitled Towards a Shared Future in Asia: Illusion or Emerging Reality?, Datuk Dr Abdul Rahman Embong (President of the Malaysian Social Sciences Association), was critical of this notion of Asian "triumphalism". "If we want to share a future in Asia, we have to share its problems too, says Abdul Rahman. "Before Asia can begin to blow its own trumpet, it must address critical issues taking place in its own backyard". Shamsul took this argument a step further by stating that Malaysia has "been disadvantaged by Asian "triumphalism". We have ‘made it' in some aspects. But in the process of 'making it', we have (prematurely) proclaimed that we are a developed country".

In his opening address Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak approached this topic pragmatically by stating that "This will require leadership and looking at Asia today, I don't doubt for a minute that leadership can be brought forth. What is needed is a serious and collective effort of Asian countries towards this end. Whether Asia will succeed in doing so, or whether we will continue to remain a continent united on a map, but not quite in reality, remains to be seen. Of course only time will tell. But all of you, scholars of Asia, can contribute towards the outcome of this question", he said. [NST online 6 September 2007].

Olympics of Asia studies

This debate and many other discussions took place in more than 300 different panels in 22 concurrent sessions convened during ICAS 5 which was dubbed by its local host Shamsul AB as the ‘Olympics of Asian studies'. The majority of the nearly 1500 participants were from the social sciences and humanities - scholars, researchers, graduate students and representatives of civil society at large - originating from over 50 countries. Interestingly, the interdisciplinary and interregional nature of the convention has drawn an increasing number of natural scientists from medical and health studies, environmentalists, and engineers whose research specialisations are in Asia. This is an important development for ICAS, as we can only start working towards solutions for global problems by transcending borders and widening our focus.

We hope this trend will be strengthened at ICAS 6. The next torch-bearer is Chungnam National University and its Centre for Asian Regional Studies (CARS) in Daejeon Metropolitan City in South Korea. Daejeon boasts more than one hundred institutes focussing on a wide variety of applied sciences. Daejeon is the capital of science in the heart of the Korean peninsula. It is a major communication and transportation hub with a one-hour bullet train link to the international airport near Seoul. Daejeon merges its long history of culture and tradition with leading research in science and technology. The intruiging intersection of technology and human sciences has been a decisive factor in why Daejeon was chosen above two other cities in Korea to be the next venue of ICAS. For the ICAS Secretariat Daejeon is the embodiment of a trend which was already sensed at ICAS 5 in Kuala Lumpur: the increasing awareness of the interconnectedness of all sciences.