Why is Southeast Asia so culturally diverse? The 4 waves. Part II: The Muslim and the Western wave.

Table of Contents

The journey to the east

As we said in the previous post, in which we talked about the Indian and Chinese waves, it is the only region that has felt the impact of four different waves of cultural influence. In this post, we will read about the Muslim and the Western waves. Before I begin I must thank Professor Kishore Mahbubani for his magnificent book «The Asean miracle» on which this post is based.

The Muslim wave

At school, we learned that Islam came to Southeast Asia peacefully through traders. Today historians write about the cosmopolitan world of Islam, linked by traders, travelers, pilgrims, and teachers, which stretched from Al-Andalus in Spain to Quanzhou in China, between the 7th and 16th centuries. China’s Muslims were influential in this picture and formed part of the history of the introduction of Islam into Southeast Asia, even though Islam’s entry into the region remains an enigma.

By the end of the 7th century, there was already a tiny colony of foreign Muslims on the west coast of Sumatra, and further settlements developed in the following century. It was not until the 12th and 13th centuries, however, that there was evidence of conversions. Why?

A typical pattern was for any ruler to adopt Islam to attract traders; either to associate with mighty Muslim kingdoms like Mamluk Egypt, then Ottoman Turkey or Mughal India; or the appeal of Muslim teaching. Sufism, which sought direct contact with Allah with the help of a teacher using techniques such as meditation and trance, was highly attractive to rulers seeking to boost their charisma.

Europa Asia Silk Road
The spread of Islam

The significant development came with Europe’s demand

for Southeast Asian products, with the spice trade booming following the Crusades and opening the Red Sea-Suez route to the Mediterranean. A revolutionary transformation of the international trading environment triggered an economic and social change that marked the period when many Southeast Asians embraced Islam. Gujerat, Bengal, and the Muslim areas of southern India had strong trade links with Southeast Asia.

An inflection point was the adoption of Islam by Malacca’s ruler. Tomé Pires, a Portuguese traveler, argued that the rulers of Malacca were inspired by how the Muslim Pasais benefited from the patronage of Indian Muslim traders. A Christian, Pires argued that Islam’s success was due to pragmatic rather than spiritual motives.


Muslim merchant networks dominated world trade in the 15th century as they controlled East-West trade routes stretching from Europe to China, including Maluku in the spice archipelago of eastern Indonesia. Zheng He, leader of the great Chinese fleet that dominated the Southeast Asian seas through the first 30 years of the century, was a Muslim, as were many of his lieutenants. There was a contradiction between politics and commerce: the port cities of insular Southeast Asia were experiencing a situation where the king was a pagan while the merchants were Muslims.

Europa Asia Silk Road
Portuguese traveller and merchant A. Pires map of Southeast Asia (S XVI)
Europa Asia Silk Road
Portuguese traveller and merchant A. Pires map of Southeast Asia (S XVI)

The conversion to Islam resolved the dichotomy between political authority and commercial power. By joining the Muslim orbit, Melaka had everything to gain. Furthermore, Islam provided Melaka with a political instrument of great potential value. Finally, informally adopting Islam secured Melaka’s admission to the unity of Islam and its promise of solid allies.

Brunei in Borneo was another essential part of the spread of Islam. The Brunei ruling family was converted to Islam in the early 16th century, though records may show Muslim princes as many as 200 years earlier. In addition, Brunéi became known for sponsoring Islamic missionary activity in the Philippine archipelago. By the time the Spanish reached the Philippines in 1565, the Sulu and Maguindanao courts were already Muslim-ruled, and relatives of the Sultan of Brunei already controlled Manila.

While most ports along the main trade routes between Melaka and the Spice Islands had a Muslim merchant community, not all coastal rulers accepted the faith, despite long exposure to the Muslim presence. Islamic spread was mainly in insular Southeast Asia, and successful incursions into mainland Southeast Asia were few. It took many centuries for Islam to permeate the eastern parts of Java and the archipelago. By the time the Dutch first arrived in Java around 1657, most of the interior was still ‘infidel.’ Bali continued to have close ties with the Hindu-Buddhist states of East Java. It, therefore, became a repository of ancient Javanese culture and literature after the advance of Islam drove them out of Java and elsewhere.

Europa Asia Silk Road
Malacac, now Malaysia

Throughout many parts of insular Southeast Asia,

the people’s strong allegiance to their customary law meant that they were not interested in the stricter, more orthodox schools of Islam. Therefore, it is not surprising that it was an unconventional and mystical variant of Islam that gained considerable success in Southeast Asia: Sufism. Even today, Islam in Southeast Asia is still very diverse, varying from place to place and even among different people in the same district.

Historically, there has always been a coexistence between the Islamic religion and Hindu myths, a tolerance that is part of Indonesian society – except for the persecution and murder of communists during the Cold War. The five principles of President Sukarno’s Pancasila captured this culture well: belief in the one God, just and civilised humanity, Indonesian unity, democracy, and social justice. Such a culture of tolerance may explain Indonesia’s resilience as a state after independence, given that Indonesia, because of its geography, history, and culture, remains one of the most diverse countries in the world, far more varied than the former Yugoslavia was.

President Sukarno , 1st President of independent Indonesia, serving from 1945 to 1967

Such a culture of tolerance may explain the resilience of Bali, an isolated small island of Hindu culture surrounded by a sea of Islamic island neighbours. On the contrary, advanced Europe could not tolerate the relatively cultural societies of the Jews or the Romany people, which indicates the general difficulty of human society to accept people from different cultures. Given that many European Christian communities today believe that Islamic societies are intrinsically intolerant, perhaps we should remind ourselves of the long history of tolerance in many regions worldwide.

For example, Mughal Emperor Akbar, ruler of India in the 16th century, espoused the importance of religious neutrality on the part of the state and the pursuit of reason rather than reliance on tradition in addressing the challenging problems of social harmony, which included a vital celebration of reasoned dialogue.

Europa Asia Silk Road
The Emperor Akbar is petitioned by a courtier, 1590-95

The Mughal emperors’ sense of the responsibilities of State

and norms of governance are particularly important for understanding how they maintained political stability in the vast empire they founded, presiding over a flourishing economy and ensuring the mutually respectful coexistence of diverse communities of people. Military victories and open-mindedness in terms of conquest and governance were together shaped by the view that the rulers needed to dismount from their horses to govern equitably — establishing a just regime in which people were not discriminated against on religious grounds.

At that time, all over Europe, was undergoing the trials of the Holy Inquisition.

The Western wave (or tsunami)

One great paradox of the Western wave’s impact on Southeast Asia is that it transformed the region completely in some respects while leaving it untouched in others. Over the last 150 years in particular, the geopolitical and economic systems of the region underwent a complete transformation. With the exception of the Philippines, however – Christianised under Spanish colonial rule – religion, the basic cultural fabric of the region was left untouched by the Western wave.

So why wasn’t all of Southeast Asia Christianised like the Philippines? Conclusive answers may be difficult, nonetheless it should be noted that the Western wave was associated with two key features: mercantilism and violence. Arguably, the missionary goals were low on the list of priorities of the Europeans who arrived in the region, even though the Portuguese used the Crusades to justify their slaughter of Muslims. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Southeast Asia was attracted to Europeans because of the equivalent of the ‘gold rush’ of the time: seeking direct access to Southeast Asia’s valuable spices. Before the Industrial Revolution of the mid- to late 19th century, European imperialism was driven by the demand for goods such as tea, spices, porcelain and silk.

The unbridled violence used by the Portuguese to conquer Malacca would become a hallmark of the Western wave and its impact on Southeast Asia. The Malay Malacca Sultanate was a tributary state and ally to Ming Dynasty China. When Portugal conquered Malacca in 1511, the Chinese responded with violent force against the Portuguese. Following the attack, the Chinese refused to accept a Portuguese embassy.

Europa Asia Silk Road
Dutch´s VOC private army conquering Indonesia

In time, the Western wave would bring many benefits to the region. Indeed, the modernisation of the region could not have happened without it. However, given that many Western historians tend to emphasise the supposedly civilising aspects of Western influence, it is vital to stress that the Westerners appearing in Southeast Asia had no desire to civilise. On the contrary, they came in search of pure profit and were willing to use any means to secure their commercial goals; there was no restraint on the use of violent means.

Europa Asia Silk Road
A pogrom in which Dutch East Indies soldiers and native collaborators killed ethnic Chinese residents of present-day Jakarta

Viewed from the perspective of native rulers and traders,

the violence and superior weaponry failed to change the basic shape of the region’s world, including the trading system. Europeans simply spread themselves too thinly over the ports and key points needed to extract and take the goods they were interested in. Asians quickly learned to use and manufacture improved weapons to minimize the Europeans’ military advantage, at least until the 19th century. When the Europeans had an advantage, they did not hesitate to use it. Portuguese and Spanish, as well as British, Dutch and French, did not shy away from using violent means.

Since the main objectives of the colonisers were mercantile, conquering and maintaining control of key trade nodes was the main focus. Colonisers fought each other for control of these nodes even more than the Asian trading powers. Rivalries between the colonial powers in Southeast Asia were basically reflections of the wars and rivalries in mainland Europe. Malacca was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511, only to be lost to superior Dutch forces in 1641, which ruled Malacca for two centuries, before its control was surrendered to the British.

Europa Asia Silk Road
British forces arrival in Burma

During the 18th century, the Europeans focused on the ‘New World’, though in the 19th century the British, Dutch and French moved their economies to Southeast Asia. This colonial state was to last for about 100 years, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century.

Southeast Asia’s modern map reflects the result of the European powers’ geopolitical clashes and conflicts in Europe. Because colonial powers defined the modern boundaries of Southeast Asia, prompted by external agreements signed in Europe rather than by native tendencies, Southeast Asia may well have ended up with disorderly and unworkable political boundaries. Geopolitically, it is a miracle that modern Southeast Asia ended up with manageable borders. One obvious contrast helps to understand this fact. British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot mapped completely arbitrary borders in the Middle East in the desert in 1916. Their artificial maps have cursed the region for a century. That agreement set in motion a 9-year process – as well as other accords, statements and agreements – which created the modern states of the Middle East out of the Ottoman carcass. The new boundaries in the end bore little similarity to the original Sykes-Picot map, but that map is considered the root cause of much of the history that has followed since.

Colonies in Southeast Asia in 1895

The Southeast Asian region may have ended up with a number of artificial and unnatural political borders, as in the Middle East.

Strikingly, mainland Southeast Asia ended up with national boundaries that well reflected traditional entities. Britain’s domination of Burma-Myanmar and France’s domination of Indochina (modern Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) resulted in workable states after their decolonisation. While Thailand was never colonised, it preserved most of its territory thanks to a clear payoff from the French against the British.

There can be no doubt that the Western wave had a profound impact on East and Southeast Asia. Notwithstanding the modernisation it unleashed, nothing in this means that the Western colonisers should merit a note of thanks from the Southeast Asian states. The brutal violence employed against weaker military societies and the ruthless exploitation of peasant and urban labour are equally strong legacies of European colonial rule. One final but significant example: in the 1840s, the Dutch Cultivation System caused famines and epidemics throughout Java, as the Dutch made excessive demands on village labour to grow cash crops such as coffee, sugar, cane and indigo.

And here we come to the end of the second part of the four waves that influenced Southeast Asia diversity. But the Journey to the East continues so… … If you want to know how our Journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully, and for any clarifications, comments, suggestions, or inputs, please email us at info@danielecheverria.com.

The journey to the east
Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to info@danielecheverria.com. Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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