Archipelago | Elmo Gonzaga

by Critical Asia

by Elmo Gonzaga, Dec. 2021】

The word “archipelago” evokes multiplicity and boundlessness.

“Archipelago” typically refers to a constellation of islands and islets separated by water but enclosed within a circumscribed national territory by a centralized sovereign authority. This image is the root of Benedict Anderson’s seminal theory of imagined communities, which explains how national identity arose from the consciousness of simultaneous activity across disparate locations.[1] While the Philippines comprises approximately 7,500 islands, Indonesia encompasses 15,000 islands, depending on whether sea levels are at high or low tide from the gravitational pull of the moon. The territorial boundaries of archipelagic states in the marginalized subregion of Southeast Asia were originally delineated by their colonial occupation under Spain, the Netherlands, France, United Kingdom, and the United States. Characterized by their ethnic, linguistic, religious, and ecological diversity, their national governments have since turned to republican democracy as the most workable political system to administer their populations despite the intrinsic tendency toward dispersal and deviation.

“Archipelago” could likewise be understood in terms of the relationship between islands and continents. In most examples of national sovereignty, a main continent or island exerts its centralizing authority over the local autonomy of so-called outlying islands. This hierarchy has translated to political, economic, and cultural dominance. In the Philippines, the main island of Luzon, where the seat of government and finance is situated, has instituted the supremacy of the Tagalog language over the two island groups of Visayas and Mindanao, where Bisaya is more commonly spoken. Despite being the smallest of Greater Sunda Islands in Indonesia, Java’s  political, economic, and cultural influence has extended over the major islands of Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan as well as the eastern provinces of Bali, Maluku, Maluku Utara, Nusa Tenggara Timur, Nusa Tenggara Barat, Papua, and Papua Barat. Singapore is conventionally presented as a single island but smaller islands orbit the main island of Pulau Ujong such as Sentosa, Pulau Ubin, Pulau Tekong, St. John’s Island, Kusu Island, and Lazarus Island. Jurong Island, which houses oil refineries and semiconductor factories on the periphery of Singapore’s Central Business District, was formed from seven smaller islands and reconnected to the main island through land reclamation for the purposes of developing its petrochemical and biotechnological industries.

Outlying islands historically have been converted by colonial and national governments into prison colonies, quarantine centers, or leprosy hospitals, where marginalized or criminalized individuals that must be segregated from the population can be interned and surveilled. Established as a fortress by the Dutch East India Company against the threat of the Sultanate of Gowa in the 17th Century, Pulau Buru in the Maluku Islands functioned as a penal colony for political prisoners under Suharto’s New Order during the 1960s and 1970s. Settled by the English East India Company in the 18th century, the tiny Côn Đảo or Poulo-Condore archipelago at the southern tip of Vietnam has housed Côn Sơn Prison, which confined anticolonial revolutionaries and foreign prisoners-of-war from the 1860s to 1970s. Meant to isolate incurable patients with the disfiguring disease of leprosy, Culion in Palawan was the world’s largest leprosarium when the Philippine Islands was under US colonial occupation in the early 20th century. South of the present Batam Special Economic Zone, Pulau Galang in the Riau Islands served as a refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people in the aftermath of the Second Indochina War in the 1970s to 1990s. Originally a Straits Settlement of the United Kingdom situated off the coasts of Java and Sumatra, Christmas Island is now an Immigration Detention Center administered by Serco, a private contractor, for asylum seekers to Australia arriving by boat. Because of their remote locations, which are proscribed and concealed from public access, outlying islands often constitute the periphery of the imagination of a national community.

“Archipelago” could alternately be thought of beyond the parameters of national sovereignty. Smaller archipelagos could exist within, beside, or across dominant island groups. Adjacent islands that belong to different national territories might share the same common language and monetary currency. For instance, the Riau Archipelago in Eastern Indonesia is closer geographically to Singapore than Jakarta. The Sulu Archipelago in the Southern Philippines has more religious and cultural affinity with Sabah in East Malaysia than Manila. Situated far from the center of political authority of their national territories, these cross-border archipelagos unsettle the solidity of a homogeneous identity.

Less critical and scholarly work has been devoted to comprehending the subregion of Southeast Asia through the frame of the archipelago. In Area Studies, the span of Southeast Asia is normally divided and categorized into continental and maritime based on racial, linguistic, religious, and historical affinities. Earlier notions of Southeast Asia as either Nanyang or Nusantara, translating to “south seas” or “outer islands,” emphasized the unity of the Chinese or Malay race based on the centrality of mainland China or Java. This imagination of an intraregional community founded on racial commonality inspired the vision of political leaders in the middle of the 20th century for the creation of Maphilindo, a Great Malayan Confederation comprising Indonesia, Malaya, and the Philippines that aspired to transcend the limitations of national boundaries.

In the early 21st century, the concept of the “archipelago” has gained more resonance as a global ethos in a time of heightened social and geopolitical tensions because of increasing ethnonationalist and authoritarian oppression and violence. Prasenjit Duara highlights the flexible approach to regional governance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, which rests on mutual respect for national sovereignty and cultural particularity informed by the guiding principle of non-intervention.[2] Enacting policies according to the variable circumstances of urgent issues, this mode of transnational cooperation resists imposing overarching laws, which were formulated from a distant center of authority, on the confederation’s diverse territories and populations.

Seeing the subregion of Southeast Asia as a greater archipelago has become vital for confronting transboundary problems from extreme weather. Typically used to refer to ecological resources like water and air, the term “transboundary” denotes common possessions that governments and populations in distant locations share the responsibility to protect because they are mutually impacted by any threat to them. Originating from fires instigated by the slash-and-burn tactics of pulpwood and palm oil plantations on tropical peatland in Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia, toxic haze has impacted the visibility and breathability of the air as far as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Phuket, and Ho Chi Minh City since the 1990s. Regional accords for the sustainable management of the environmental commons such as the ASEAN Agreement for Transboundary Haze Pollution sought to govern the repercussions of capitalist extraction and production in one national territory on other locations but ultimately lacked efficacy without binding political, legal, and moral frameworks.

In the face of a worsening climate crisis and a new Cold War, the ethos of the archipelago remains elusive because national governments concentrate their resources and expand their authority to prioritize the wellbeing and security of their citizens at the expense of the imagination and cultivation of a transboundary commons beyond the aggression and violence of ethnocentrism and provincialism.

Elmo Gonzaga, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong


[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1983.

[2] Prasenjit Duara, The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future, Cambridge UP, 2014.

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