What exactly is a nation and how do we define it? The word nation comes from Latin word nasci which refers to where something–or perhaps someone–is born. In the modern context, a nation is a large body of people united by a common descent, history, culture, language or territory.

No nation is ever born in a vacuum. A nation is always a conglomeration of diverse peoples, languages and beliefs. Our modern understanding of what a nation constitutes is the result of a long history; which involves both a specific nation as well as what a particular nation represents in the context of world affairs. Isolation has never served any country well in the long-run and neither has rampant openness.

On the surface, it may appear that the expansive oceans and the deep seas cocooned the development of the island nations of Southeast Asia. It has been tempting for some scholars to conclude that Southeast Asia is separated from ‘the rest of the world’ for it is a region that is bounded by the immeasurable waters that surround it.

But did Nature’s natural moat protect the region from settlers and invaders? I’m afraid the answer to that question is a loud and resounding no.

Over the millennia, traders and missionaries from India, China, the Arab world and Europe brought waves of peoples from foreign shores. They brought with them their cultures, their wares and their technologies. Ideas, innovations and inventions were disseminated throughout the Southeast Asian region due to the proliferation of maritime trade.

Nestled on the equator, the nations of Southeast Asia all share a hot and wet climate which once boasted thick rainforests that teemed with life. Floods have been cited as Southeast Asia’s chief climate change concern due to the abundance of water and rainfall that the region has been blessed with.

There is a social bond that results through trade. It is a bond that grows and strengthens between individuals and communities as they trade in goods, services and also favours. In the olden days, it was believed that a bond becomes permanent when two parties can no longer quantify what is owed to the other party. This is when both parties become entangled in an eternal cycle of giving and receiving. In such a setting, both parties are rich because wealth is shared. Reciprocity is the cornerstone of such relationships–a bond that I feel rarely exists in modern societies due to the tyranny of individualism that we all have to contend with on a daily basis.

In agricultural communities, reciprocal relationships played a definitive role in a nation’s development. The staple food source in most of Southeast Asia is rice. It is a plant that acquires its nutrients from the water–and not the soil in which it grows. As a result, if rice is cultivated in a wet environment, it can grow in the same soil year after year without exhausting the land on which it is grown. In ancient Southeast Asia, irrigation systems simulated marshy conditions and provided control over the volume of water that moved through the paddy fields. On any road trip through Southeast Asia, you will be greeted by rice terraces, canals and weirs–a hallmark of the ancient agricultural practises of the region.

rice terraces

Individual farmers controlled the flow of water in and out of their fields by paying close attention to what goes on upstream–as that was where the water originated. They also paid close attention to what went downstream–as that is where the water was drained. The challenge for them was to ensure that water was abundant when it was needed and scarce when it wasn’t. Too much water would attract pests which would eventually get out of hand and destroy all the crops. Too little water and the crops would drown.

The functioning of the irrigation system required a complex network of individual fields which were managed by interdependent family groups. The ancients prioritised the needs of the community over the individual. They believed in a scenario where individual needs were interlocked with the needs of their neighbours. They understood that the group yield was always greater than the sum of its individual parts.

So many in the modern world choose to dismiss the knowledge of our ancient ancestors as primitive. We relegate their belief systems to a past that no longer exists. Perhaps by deepening our understanding of their world–we may, at long last, finally grow to understand our own.

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