Four Waves of Southeast Asia: Forming the most diverse region in the world

Dubbed the “Balkans of the Orient” by British historian C.A Fisher, Southeast Asia is probably the most diverse corner of the world. It is home to over 600 million people who have enjoyed immense peace and prosperity over the past half-century. This region was historically the battleground of external forces that drastically influenced the territorial and demographic make-up of the area, helping form countries of different peoples and cultures such as the Hindu Javanese Majapahit Empire, the Islamic Malacca Sultanate in Malaya, or its immediate neighbour: the Buddhist Kingdom of Siam – located across the seas from their Confucian acquaintances of the Lanfang Chinese Republic in Borneo. One would be justified in suggesting that Southeast Asia is far more diverse than the Balkans. As such, it is surprising that this troubled land came together in the late 20th century to settle their differences of extremely varied linguistics and ethnicities in the pursuit of a peaceful and prosperous, multicultural dream. 

 “India, China, Islam and the West”.

Kishore Mahbubani, in his book The ASEAN Miracle, exploring how Southeast Asia has been significantly influenced by four of the greatest cultures and civilisations of human history.


At the Non-Aligned Movement Summit of 1976 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, it was made quite clear that India believed much of Southeast Asia fell within its sphere of influence. When the Myanmar foreign minister had said Myanmar belonged to Southeast Asia, the Indian Minister of External Affairs Yashwantrao Chavan was quick to make clear to him “Myanmar belongs to South Asia.”. In reality, Myanmar had for its history focused on its neighbours on mainland Indochina, founding the largest kingdom in Southeast Asian history in the 17th Century; the Toungoo Empire stretched from the hills of Manipur (Assam) to the far isthmus of Kra (southern Thailand) and to the mountains of Champassak (eastern Laos). Burma was only ever ruled by an administration in India during the British India period, eventually having to be detached from Delhi in 1937 as a separate crown colony governed in Rangoon (Yangon). Nevertheless, Myanmar still has a significant Bengali population in Yangon and a pocket of many Hindi and Nepali speakers in the old colonial outpost of Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin). Buddhist pagodas and shrines are still active religious sites in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.

Despite the necessity to emphasise the non-alignment of Southeast Asian countries from its powerful neighbours, it cannot be denied Indian culture has flowed through the heritage of the region for many millennia. The ancient Mahayana pilgrimage site of Borobudur in Java or the grand Hindu temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia have stood the test of time for a thousand years already, displaying the sheer admiration and respect for Indian religion and customs brought by centuries of migration from the subcontinent and the seas. Indian influences still exist in religious practices and traditions in various Southeast Asian countries. Thai royal court practices, for instance, hold importance for Brahmins and the Hindu white elephant, the symbol of the Thai monarchy, was seen paying respects to the late King Rama IX in 2019. All over Indochina and the islands of Java and Sumatra, one could read the Sanskrit texts that adorn monuments and temples of the ancient world where Hindu kings reigned over large swaths of the mainland as well as maritime Southeast Asia. Whilst Indochinese kingdoms spoke drastically distinct languages such as Bamar, Mon-Khmer, Malay, Tai, or Lao, it was the use of Sanskrit and Pali as the language of academics and religion that prominently allowed great ease of communication and diplomacy between countries in their endless rivalries for land and power. 

“People of distant places with diverse customs generally designate the land they admire as India”

The Great Tang Dynasty Records of the Western Regions written by the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang and translated by Li Rongxi

This is shown by Southeast Asia’s extensive acceptance of Indian religion and culture for over 3000 years of coexistence.


Having been united multiple times under various dynastic empires, China had always been the colossal powerful neighbour to the north, ruling lands many times larger than the landmass of all Southeast Asian kingdoms put together. Any relationship between smaller kingdoms and the celestial empire existed through the paying of tributes in raw materials and providing nobles to attend the Chinese courts. However, despite the subsidiary stature Southeast Asia was given by the more dominant empire to the north, it cannot be emphasised enough how the tributary system had in fact been mostly voluntary. This was for the rewards that could be achieved by simple gestures that bolster the pride of the emperors, which were far greater than the value of spices and timbers. Since the Confucian bureaucrats of the Chinese courts believed that lesser countries had little to offer their great empire, Southeast Asian kingdoms would enjoy relatively better gifts of luxury goods such as porcelain and silk. One such example was the continuous missions of Siam to pay tribute to various Chinese dynasties since the Sui dynasty (581-618) till the last years of the crumbling Qing dynasty in 1853. Despite Southeast Asian kingdoms symbolically announcing their vassalage to the Chinese court, their borders had mostly been undisturbed due to the Chinese belief that the southern lands were undesirable for expansion, save for Vietnam.

Whilst most of Southeast Asia had generally accepted Indian culture and religions, Vietnam has had an especially close relationship with China. This culminated in being a part of China for a thousand years, then living for another thousand years in somewhat existential threat from the larger neighbour. Despite being independent of Chinese empires since Emperor Dinh Bo Linh’s establishment of Dai Viet, Vietnam was seen in high regard as a ‘civilised’ nation on par with Korea due to their extensive acceptance of Confucian philosophical and political practices – in contrast to the devout Hindu & Buddhist court rituals of Javanese kingdoms and the current Thai monarchy. One of the greatest heights of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia was the largest naval expedition in history led by Admiral Zheng He, commanding over 300 ships – the largest maritime fleet in history until the era of battleship warfare in the early 20th century. Despite such potential for colonisation, the purpose of such a fleet was for forming diplomatic relations and establishing new tributaries, such as the Yongle Emperor’s recognition of Malacca as the most important trading port of Southeast Asia with the grant of an imperial inscription in November 1405. This particular blessing from China had bolstered the prominent position of Malacca as the trading capital of Southeast Asia, linking commerce of India and the Islamic world to the port cities of southern China, long before the arrival of European colonists and the rise of Singapore. Although Singapore was founded as a breakaway republic from Malaysia with a large majority of Chinese descendants (over 70%), Singapore is not a Chinese country. Tamil and English are two of its four national languages extensively inscribed on institution plaques and road signs and the national anthem is most commonly sung in Malay.


One of the greatest achievements of the Islamic civilisation was undoubtedly the extensive cosmopolitan world built by trade and academia. From the 7th to 16th century, global trade was dominated by Islamic traders, pilgrims, travellers, and teachers sailing fast triangle-sail dhow vessels across the Indian Ocean or riding camel trains in Central Asia. The Islamic world stretched from Al-Usbana (Lisbon) to Quanzhou, China. As with the Indianisation of Southeast Asian culture on the mainland Southeast Asia, Islam was spread across most of Malaya and the Indonesian archipelago due to its political and intellectual appeal to emerging kingdoms to attract foreign commerce from Arab traders. Following increased historical demand for spices and the monopoly of the Middle East as the crossroads between Europe and Asia, new Muslim kingdoms developed in Southeast Asia in the 14th to 17th century, leading to the creation of the famous trading cities of Malacca, Makassar, Aceh, Grisek, and Pattani upon the coasts of the Malaya and Sumatra. In the first half of the 15th century, Islam was quickly adopted by various merchants of the Far East, as regional trade was dominated by the grand fleets of Zheng He. Himself and many of his key officers were Chinese Muslims. Along the routes of Zheng He’s voyages, diplomats of the Middle East and the Chinese courts regularly travelled through the narrow Strait of Malacca, creating long-lasting bonds and friendships with the people of Southeast Asia.

Today, the Republic of Indonesia is home to 12.7% of the world’s Muslims, the largest Islamic population on Earth. Its neighbouring country, Malaysia also has a majority Muslim population, whilst in between them lies the truly global city-state of Singapore. Unlike the antagonistic attitude of Western governments and media to what is viewed as a completely alien civilisation to Judeo-Christian values, Southeast Asian countries managed to incorporate and coexist with Muslim communities despite strong Indian and Chinese influences already existing in the soil, sands, and hearts of the people. Despite Indonesia’s population being well over 85% Islamic, Southeast Asia’s largest nation is extremely tolerant of religious freedom constitutionally and historically, living amongst Austronesian tribes, descendants of southern Chinese traders, and a sizeable Christian populace (over 10% of the country). According to Professor K. Mahbubani, the strong sense of cultural tolerance in Southeast Asia could also explain the stout resolve of Bali’s existence as an “isolated island of Hindu culture amidst a sea of Islamic neighbours,” for one can still observe the high proportion of Hindu practitioners on the island province to this day at 83% of the Balinese population. One could simply contrast that whilst a little pocket of Hinduism was protected by the commerce and diplomacy of its Islamic neighbours since its founding in 1343, the Iberian Peninsula experienced severe Islamophobia from the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834). The sheer diversity of Southeast Asian lands was an acute cause for the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch empires to implement Christianity in their clustered colonies in order to ease the administration of such different peoples, for the assumption that the locals were ‘godless people’ was far from the truth.

The West

Western culture is almost a staple for our present times and the idea of ‘Westernisation’ is seen as synonymous to modernisation. However, some disagree.

“Aberration in human history”

Kishore Mahbubani, lecturer at Singapore National University, describes the rise of the West as such.

This is because the global economy had for millennia been dominated by the booming mercantile industries of the Indian subcontinent and the ancient innovations of the Chinese civilisation states. Nevertheless, the current borders of Southeast Asia were artificially shaped by European colonial powers, mostly using brute force with little consideration of the local people. Miraculously, the Kingdom of Thailand was the only country not to be colonised – it was the sacrifices that the Chakri Kings made to play colonial powers against each other that allowed Siam to merely watch as its friends and neighbours fell from grace. One of the saddest moments of Burmese history was the forced abdication and exile of King Thibaw Min in 1885 to the village of Ratnagiri in British India; the bridge in which the Burmese Royal Family left Mandalay Palace has since been left preserved in the same state it was in over a century ago in memory of the beloved late Konbaung Dynasty that ruled Burma. In short, the fall of Southeast Asian monarchs and their kingdoms to the superior might of Western colonialism foreseeably should have crushed the spirit of the people and faith in their own local heritage and culture.

Except for the Philippines, which had been violently Christianised by the Spanish Empire, Southeast Asia managed to remain relatively undisturbed by Western colonialism in the cultural makeup of its people. This could be attributed to the adaptive nature of Southeast Asia – it cannot be stressed enough that the region already had an extremely multicultural history. Therefore, when the British Raj displaced thousands of Indian civilians to fill the institutional roles of Burma and Malaya, and when Chinese indentured servants were taken from Hong Kong & French Guangdong to work the plantations of Singapore, local populations were able to welcome and assimilate the new migrants to a great extent as they had been intertwined in familiarity for centuries already. The assimilation of Chinese was easier in the Philippines and British Singapore, as they were favourable middlemen (derogatory term of “Uncle Chans”) to aid colonial administration and business. In the words of Spanish writer Carlos Recur, “from the commercial point of view, the Philippines is an Anglo-Chinese colony with a Spanish flag,”. This exhibited the need of Europeans to employ locals in order to properly interact with their colonies, most likely due to how diverse and restrained Southeast Asia had been towards Western influence. When the decolonisation movement occurred, fuelled the brief pseudo-independence of Southeast Asia from the reach of the Japanese Empire during WWII, most institutions were preserved in the respective former colonies such as the Westminster-style parliamentary system of Malaysia or the extremely meritocratic and effective civil service of Singapore. Although the political map of Southeast Asia had insincerely been drawn out by colonial governors at their desks in Europe – with a glass of sherry but no book on the region’s history & culture – Southeast Asia was blessed to be fortunate enough to have their borders fit fairly well in encompassing the social fabric of the region. This is in contrast to the horrific shocks experienced by people during the dissection of the Middle East; Scramble for Africa; and the Partition of India. As Southeast Asia had undoubtedly benefitted technologically and economically from the leftover industries and commerce of the Western powers, the impact of Western colonialism is a mixed issue that Southeast Asian historians still widely study today.

In our current era of growing pessimism and rising populism, it is apparent that mainstream corporate media and global governments talk of a ‘clash of civilisations’ – the increase of Islamophobia in Europe or the second coming of Yellow Peril by the countries of the Anglosphere. The ten countries of ASEAN, home to 625 million, prove a clear example of multicultural coexistence in which it is absolutely possible for people to live in harmony. How has such a ‘Balkanised’ region of the world succeeded in accomplishing peace and prosperity whilst having some of the most optimistic young populations on Earth? I strongly agree with Professor Kishore Mahbubani that we can attribute the success of Southeast Asia to the role of ASEAN as an extension of Southeast Asian history and a shining example of the pursuit of multilateralism and mutual benefits.

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