Building on the work of historians like Frederick Cooper (2005) we seek to challenge this presumption of conventional historiography and to suggest an alternative approach. Modernity refers to secularization, rationality, bureaucratization, to notions of development, progress and mobility, to ideas of the citizen as carrier of universal human rights. We also refer to the dark side of modernity, to colonialism, racism, and genocide. Modernity refers especially to the need to reformulate attitudes to a changing world. We agree with Cooper’s objections to ‘colonial’ modernities or ‘alternative’ modernities, because it suggests that these alternative forms were derived from an original and, by implication, superior Western modernity. Our aim is to elaborate on this discussion and investigate how certain groups of people in specific situations claimed and clarified particular aspects of modernity.
In conventional historiography there seems to be a divide between the late colonial period and the postcolonial period. Our intention is, through an interdisciplinary and comparative approach, to trace trajectories of modernity across regime changes in Southeast Asia from the 1920s to the 1970s, building explicitly on Remco Raben’s Crossing Orders. In doing so, we hope to gain insight:
– in the way people experienced and shaped modernity, and how that influenced society, thereby searching alternatives for the standard periodization in the histories of the region;
– in the way transnational connections and local structures influenced the ways people experienced and shaped modernity;
– in how aspects of modernity affected the making of Southeast Asia’s nation-states.
And thus, following Cooper, our ambition is to hear what men and women, the young and the old, the rich and the poor in Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, ‘are saying when – and if – they talk about being modern’ from colonial to postcolonial times.