GAS Interview with Prof. Liu Hong (Global Asia Research Cluster at Nanyang Technological University)

“Going beyond compartmentalized frameworks and connecting Asia from Singapore

—— Our first question is, why and how did you initiate the Global Asia Research Cluster at NTU in the first place and how it proceeded and how it ended? Can you please briefly explain that to us?

“I set up this Research Cluster on Global Asia in 2011-2012. I was appointed as the Chair of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in 2011. Our school at that time had about 150-160 full-time faculty members and 6 departments, and I thought that NTU could develop comparative strengths and it would be important for our colleagues when they do research. So, I actually thought about a number of areas including Global Asia, Science, Technology and Society, and Cultural Studies. As to Global Asia, I felt that Singapore has played an important role in connecting both Southeast Asia, East Asia, South Asia, and beyond. So, this required us to think beyond existing frameworks that tend to be, what I call, “compartmentalization” of Asian studies. We have people who consider themselves as Southeast Asian specialists, or East Asian or South Asian, and their research kind of stops on the border of these regions, whereas there are a lot of issues that go beyond different regions. So, this required us to go beyond a very rigid organization of different regions of Asian Studies. That is the first reason for setting the Global Asia cluster.

The second was that we are at the time of globalization. The movement of people, ideas, trade, and other types of connections have some important impacts on our understandings of the regions when we are talking about a region that has been increasingly globalized. And Asia has been impacted by globalization and vice versa. So, this requires us to think about Asia both from within the region of Asia and from outside. This is another reason that I thought Singapore has the advantage of undertaking such research that can be conducive to understanding Asia.

The third reason was related to the faculty strength of our school, the composition of our faculty members and researchers is very cosmopolitan and very international. About 65% of professors came from outside of Singapore. Many of them came from different Asian countries such as Japan, China, Southeast Asia, India, and so on, and they brought with them different perspectives that can enhance our understanding of Global Asia. That is another comparative advantage that we have in terms of faculty members and their connections to different parts of Asia and beyond.

Finally, I have a personal and professional interest in starting this Global Asia from both transnational, inter-regional and interdisciplinary perspectives, because I myself was born in China, educated in China, the U.S. and Europe. I have worked in Singapore and the U.K, and also spent a year and a half Kyoto at Kyoto University and Ritsumeikan University. This is personal exposure to different types of scholarship and it gives me a better understanding for approaching Asia from different regional, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. So, there are four reasons of placing Global Asia as one of the main research foci of our school at the time.”

—— When the clusters were still running, how many members were there, and what are the main direction of the research of the members?

“I put the initiative in organizing different Clusters, but I was not personally involved in the organization of these clusters for two reasons. I did not want to dominate the process too much. Secondly, I want our younger colleagues to play a more active role. For all Research Clusters, what I did was that I appointed two faculty members from two different disciplines to be the coordinators of these research clusters. They are not the department heads, but I did give them some resources; for examples, postdoc fellowship, some funding for small workshop, public lectures, or seminar series. So, pretty much, I left the cluster coordinators to decide the direction they wanted to pursue and the member of those Clusters, which were entirely voluntary. So, if someone wants to be a Cluster member, he or she can join. If no one, or a particular person, does not want to be the member, it is also okay because after all this is not kind of a rigid structure. It is very much flexible.

So, what I did was kind of giving them the opportunity to work out different area focuses, and also because of my own research interest, I took part in some of the activities and also organizing some international conferences in conjunction with this Cluster. One of them was with Kyoto University (Center for Southeast Asian Studies), what we called the Plural Co-existences about Sustainable Development in Asia. And, also with Yunnan University and Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, we had a three-party collaboration and organized a series of the workshops where three institutions took turn in hosting. The idea was to bring in scholars from those institutions. It was very interdisciplinary, and we did not have particular kind of frameworks or formats. So, the idea was to ask my colleagues to think about going beyond the conventional boundary, thinking about Asia from both within and outside, and breaking down regional boundaries that we tend to think about East Asia, Southeast Asia, or South Asia. So, this is why our program tries to bring in scholars from different regions or other colleagues’ works on different regions and disciplines. These are some of the things that we have been doing. Not very much organized, but the focus is primarily looking at Global Asia as an approach to understand Asia, instead of a fixed geography and rigid framework. “

—— Thank you for your response. For your Cluster, who are the main targets and main audience?

“We had a few dozen faculty members, research fellows, lecturers, postdocs and doctoral students in our cluster, most of whom came from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. There were a few from other schools, such as Business School and so on. Because the Cluster was not a kind of organizational subject, it was pretty much based on voluntary participation. The difference from the other types of voluntary participation was that I did put in some resources. Also, I did appoint those whom I think had the potential to establish themselves in the field to be the coordinator. It was semi-autonomous; they had the free hand in organizing what they liked to organize in terms of inviting whom they want to invite and so on. Because many of them were relatively junior at the early stage of their professorship, they did not have a lot of connections with other institutions in Asia and beyond. So, I did help to connect them with some of international workshops for example in Kyoto because I was there probably for a year and two months.

The reason for choosing Yunnan was because we organized a few trips to a China-Myanmar border town called Ruili. We talked to some of the Burmese workers who came to work in Ruili by commuting every day. The idea was that the borders were very much artificially constructed by the political regime, whereas those people who are going between two countries on a daily basis do not have that strong sense of “this is Myanmar, this is China.” So, that is the idea having a workshop in Yunnan and making a trip to the border town of Ruili.”

—— The key takeaway from what you said is that Asian studies should go beyond the national borders, the Asia, from within and we should connect the voice from outside as well. So, how do you evaluate what you achieved in the past? Do you think you succeeded on this point with the research?

“It is very difficult to say whether it is successful or not. Mainly because from the beginning, we did not have kind of KPI. We did encourage our colleagues to publish papers, apply for research grants, and organize international workshops. So, in that regard, it was successful. Also, in terms of raising understanding Asia from a global perspective, we did have a couple of research projects that emerged from those Research Cluster activities. For example, I was awarded a big research grant for 700,000SGD to look at the interactions of the flow of ideas between China, Singapore, Southeast Asia and Africa. It was pretty much a kind of embodiment of looking at these four different regions or countries that have some commonalities and connecting them in a meaningful manner. This is what I call the flow of ideas, which form an important part of our research focus. Also, we do have quite a few more active members who were involved in the cluster activities, and they were successful in their tenure and promotion, which I think is the second indicator. The third one is that it got the university-level endorsement and support. In 2015, NTU was formulating the 2020 strategic research focus. There were five of them at the university, and the Global Asia became one of them. Initially, it was a school-level of focus, and after 2015, it became the university-level. When you become the university-level focus, then you receive more resources from the university and you get connected with different schools and colleagues such as Education or Business School, and even some colleagues from Engineering, Medicine and so on. By and large, it was successful, and at least on my part, it has accomplished the work I intended to accomplish when putting up these Clusters including Global Asia.”

——  Thank you for your response. You mentioned that you were working on research grant with the idea of flow of ideas. We are wondering if there are specific themes that Global Asia Research Clusters recently pay attention to.

“Yes, I can send you some publications by myself and some of the colleagues who were involved in the Cluster. There was no point in doing Global Asia by us only, so I mentioned working with Japanese and Chinese scholars. I worked with colleagues from Thailand, especially in Chiang Mai University, Prof. Yos Santasombat, whom I have collaborated for more than 7-8 years. At that time, Prof. Yos received a research project from Thai Research Fund, primarily about Southeast Asia and China, so I hosted one of the workshops for their project. We also connect with scholars from other Southeast Asian countries, such as Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and so on. I think that the institutional collaboration is very important. After all, I started doing this, partially influenced by the idea of approaching Asia from Asia. The idea was not just excluding those from outside the region but the region itself should produce scholarship that is based on local circumstances in terms of society,-politics, economy, culture, and so on. But in the meantime, (it is needed to) fully aware of how global scholarship including those from the West has an impact on Asia and Asian research. So, the main push force should be from within Asia itself, because after all we live in Asia, we experience Asia’s transformation on a daily basis. For example, I am currently in China. I went to do some fieldwork in Tangshan, which is about two hours from Beijing, and just returned from there two hours ago. Our experience can be more pertinent to some extent than those scholars who are based outside of the region. They probably look at from the outside, bringing in their own perspective, which is fine, but I do not think they have a kind of on-the-ground experience and perspective. What we need is to combine both from within the region and from the outside. But, the first perspective is more important, in my view. After all, many of us were born and raised in Asia but educated in the West. We kind of understand both worlds. That is the idea for doing such type of research as Global Asia.”

—— Your explanation was very much related to the perspective on Asia itself. Other institutions that we talked to seem to have their specific working themes such as migration, historical memory, and so on. We wonder if there is any topic-wide highlight that your colleagues are keener to when it compared with other institutes.

“We also have a thematic focus but not so clearly defined because these Clusters are open-ended to any subjects that can be understood from the perspective of Global Asia, from the perspective of flow of ideas, cultures, trade, and people. These of course are related to migration, religion, investment, cross border investment and so on. I think what’s more important, as I mentioned early, is the approach and perspective. But, at the end of the day, I want my colleagues to be thinking some kind of cutting-edge theoretical issues, very much in the center of global scholarship; for example, we look at identity, still a very important issue in social sciences, and also the rise of China and how it has an impact on Southeast Asia.”

—— Today, after hearing your explanations, we realized that Global Asia Cluster is a good on-the-job training program for the young scholars to think much bigger on what they are really doing. But, we think this is a kind of a dilemma because you are quite aware of the scope and limitations of conventional Area Studies. Sometimes youngsters start looking at small areas, rather than looking at a worldview of what they have to do. What sort of communication you try to make, especially when you closely work with young colleagues who need more direct outcomes for their promotion?

“It is a very good question. The advantage of being in charge of a school was that I was able to support junior colleagues. I invited senior scholars from other countries who have done outstanding scholarship about Asia and not just a country-focused to give seminars and lectures, including research methodologists; for example, I mentioned Kyoto University. So, that is what I felt can benefit our junior scholars. In a way, it was a kind of creating an intellectual environment, both within the school and university and also through international exposure. Fortunately, we were well endowed financially to support such kind of international exchanges. I was very grateful for many of those senior scholars who accepted our junior colleagues to visit them, including UTokyo as well.”

—— Thank you for your answer. How does your institute bring these differences under one umbrella? Or, as an institute, do you think we must have something in common, or is it no necessity to have this one umbrella?

“Junior faculty members need to be fully aware that their research can be very local, very Asian, but they should address some of the larger global scholarship issue, for example, collaboration was not just within Asia but global. I co-organized a workshop with Columbia University and UCLA with Prof. Lydia H. Liu, a very well-known scholar in Cultural Studies, and then invited them here to organize a workshop on what we call Bandung Humanism; looking at Bandung and how Bandung emerges as a new symbol of Asian and African understandings of global development and also how this global development shape our current world, for example, the Global South, Third World, Cold War, and so on. We did publish some special issues from those workshops such as Critical Asian Studies and Nature and Culture, which I consider very important for those junior faculty members and I also invited them to be co-editors of special issues. They were very energetic in terms of organizing events and preparing special issues. In turn, it can be conducive for their future promotion. There is a common thread in terms of connecting those people and scholarship that they are trans-national, trans-regional, and interdisciplinary approaches but still focus on Asia. That is beneficial for young scholars, in my view.”

—— Thank you for your response. Let us move to the next question about the concept of Global Asia. How do you evaluate the potential or the pitfall of the concept of Global Asia?

“Of course, I am glad to see University of Tokyo is taking the lead in exploring this issue both in terms of the status quo and the future direction of Global Asia, which is a quite promising. As we know, Asia, in terms of a share of global GDP, is gradually surpassing that of Europe. Also, the intra-Asian trade and economic activities are fast-paced and becoming more and more interconnected, and we have different intra-regional organizations. All these are pointing to important directions of continuing to look at Asia from the Global Asia perspective. We are not looking at Asia for the sake of Asia, because after all Asia cannot be separated from the world and vice versa. We do see a lot of external influences on Asia. We look at geopolitics between China and the US and how different countries in Asia have different preferences in terms of their political and economic positions with regards to China. This again requires us to continue what scholars have been doing in terms of how to move forward and look at the region, first and foremost from Asia itself and in the meantime bringing other elements from outside region into the picture. This requires scholars of Asian studies to go alongside with this current trend, while pointing to directions on how policies can be shaped by our research. That is why I published two articles in terms on theoretical perspective. One was in 1990, looking at China and Southeast Asia from cultural and historical perspective. In a more recent one, originally published in Korea from the institutional collaboration with a Korean university, I contributed to the inaugural journal primary from the political and policy perspective. The idea is that we should not just explain what has happened regarding Asia, but we give some suggestions on how policies should be shaped by our research.”

—— That’s very inspiring, especially the part when you mentioned that not Asia for the sake of Asia. We would like to ask the last question. What is your outlook from now on for the Global Asia Research Cluster at NTU?

“Now you do not see our cluster in the list of research clusters at NTU webpage, for two reasons, one is that after 2015 this became the university-level focus. We do not have that Cluster at the School-level, but we still have quite a few people who are studying Asia from this transnational perspective. Now the School of Humanities does have a Research Cluster on Southeast Asian studies, more about culture and history of Southeast Asia from the region itself. I was the Chair of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, when the School became the largest school at NTU in terms of the number of students and faculty members. Then, the university reorganized into 1) Humanities and 2) Social Sciences. We focused on a few new areas, such as Governance issue. I guess, in a way, it has fulfilled the initial purpose of creating greater awareness of understanding Asia from this global perspective and providing more institutional support, initially at the school-level and then being placed at the university-level. Now, we have a few colleagues who are active in the earlier clusters and have done a lot of good work. So, I’m sure that they continue to carry on some of those research that started earlier, but not as a format of the Cluster. That is why, particularly, I am happy to see this Global Asia focus at UTokyo.”

——  From the website of your university, we also found the minor in Global Asia and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. How did it grow and how do you evaluate this program?

“That’s also something we accomplished in terms of education because initially our purpose was to promote research. But, with more interest among students, including undergraduate students, this Global Asia minor serves as an option for our undergraduate from the college. Our college is very big. We have more than 4,000 undergrads altogether. They can choose some subjects/courses under this Global Asia minor. It is more like putting some related courses about Asia from Global Asia perspective in a basket.”

—— Thank you. We are witnessing the emergence of Asianization of Asian studies on the one hand, but at the same time, the younger generation in Japan seems to be losing the confidence in taking lead of the conventional, normative type of Asian Studies in Japan. So, we are encouraged by Prof. Liu’s comments, and we do think they will get more inspired by different attempts, by our Asian colleagues doing their own initiatives and their own program like NTU.

“Yes, I agree with you. Maybe in the Prof. Sonoda or Prof. Hamashita’s generation, Japan was the second largest economy, and a lot of intellectual exchanges with other Asian countries including China were going on. There was a strong sense of self confidence in terms of scholarship produced by Japan, but as far as I understand, not so many Japanese students are studying Ph.D. overseas. Of course, many promising young scholars from other Asian countries have also been based in Japan. In that sense, Japan is more open now to this international scholarship, but the earlier generation is more cosmopolitan. They grew up in the 1970s-80s when Japan, as a country, got a lot of self-confidence including about its scholarship. I’m sure that your initiative of bringing in Japanese younger generation of scholars into such a kind of collaborative project would be conducive to many of them, especially for re-establishing Japanese intellectual positioning in this process.”

——  Thank you so much. We got a lot of inspiration from your answers and there are a lot of things that we can learn to improve our institute from now on. We really appreciate your time and insight. Thank you very much.

“Thank you. I’m glad we got this chance of talking about Global Asia. It’s a good experience for me to reflect upon what we have been doing.”


Some of the ideas in the interview have been more fully elaborated in the publications below: