The Urgency of the “Universal” in a Global Age: A view on new politics in Southeast Asia

GOH Beng Lan

IUAES2015 Keynotes #1 15 July 2015, 10.15 – 11.00 hrs.


In recent times, hopelessly fractured public spheres, especially in many Southeast Asian societies,have dampened hope in bringing about more equal, just and humane societies. Nonetheless, out of impotence also grew possibilities. The bigotry and futility observed have pushed some to seek alternative interventions. These new practices, forged by instinctive reactions against the schisms and constraints of currentstruggles, produce clues on how resistant politics may have to change course in a new global age. These actions do not fit neatly into what social scientists would usually consider as politics. Neither do these actors always consider themselves to be political. Their actions are not always collective, consistent or determinedly radical. Rather, they are made up of loose collectives of like-minded young people who come together as and when the occasion requires. Their alternative imaginations about society, community and humanity however strike powerful cords with fellow members of their societies. These new politics often reveal that sensory, aesthetic and virtualstrategies may be conducive sites for alternative ethical-political conceptions of society and community in a world corrupt of ideas and critical interventions.

Hence, we are faced with the need to produce new epistemologies to better capture the significance of these new politics — namely, the interactive, transient and increasingly virtual and instantaneously global nature of such alternative public meaning-making. My explorations are informed by my positionality as both an anthropologist and area studies scholar of Southeast Asia who has been thinking through these contested meanings of the “universal” and the “global”. In sum, I propose that starting from the ethics of anti-foundational thought offers new grounds to rethink our shared ethos in a perilous world increasingly incapable of overcoming temporal and territorial differences and divides.

GOH Beng Lan is an Associate Professor at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. She researches on issues of knowledge production, intellectual history, urbanism, postcolonial identities and visual arts and politics in Southeast Asia. She is author of Modern Dreams: An Inquiry into Power, Cultural Production, and the Cityscape in Contemporary Urban Penang, Malaysia (2002),a co-editor of Asia in Europe, Europe in Asia: Rethinking Academic, Social and Cultural Linkages,and editor of Decentering and Diversifying Southeast Asian Studies: Perspectives from the Region (2011)