Fragments From A Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia by Ho Tzu Nyen

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Water is a constant and central feature in descriptions of early South-
east Asia. Closed in on the north by the mountain ranges of the east-
ern Himalayas, and internally choked by dense tropical forests and
swamps, this was a region dicult to access by land, but everywhere
opened up to navigable waterways. Its long, hospitable coastlines wel-
comed steady streams of seafarers for more than two thousand years,
bringing together a mosaic of people, things, ideas and languages, dis-
persed inland through its network of rivers. is understanding of the
role of water in the fertile plurality of the region’s genetic and memetic
matrix is born of an alignment between history and hydrography – a
science originating in the making of navigational charts, based on un-
derstanding the physical features of water bodies and a mapping of
their changes over time.
By the beginning of the Common Era, two distinct but sometimes
overlapping forms of polities had emerged in the region. e rst,
dissolves the separation between the inside and the outside (the birth of
a people through the synthesis of the local and foreign). 3 is is why in
many parts of Southeast Asia, it is said that a shaman or a sorcerer who
seeks to turn himself into a tiger did so in the midst of crossing a river.
Should a body of water not be close at hand, the would-be weretiger
performs three somersaults, drawing in the air the sign of the swastika
– the symbol of water and of cyclical return. To think hydrologically
is to think metamorphically, and in the context of Southeast Asia to
water, this means attending to water in its most prevalent but also most
invisible mode, as vapors permeating the atmosphere. Southeast Asia
is an empire of humidity. 4
Humidity is ambient oppression, at once imperceptible and visceral.
A human subject in a humid atmosphere is prone to breathing dicul-
ties and respiratory conditions such as asthma, along with symptoms
of hyperventilation, chronic anxiety, numbness, fainting, dizziness, fa-
tigue, nausea, and loss of concentration. e invisible forceeld of wa-
ter vapors in the air palpably impedes the body’s normal processes of
heat dissipation primarily by preventing sweat from evaporating. And
if the environment is as warm, or warmer than the skin, the heat-car-
rying blood that rises to the body surface is also prevented from cool-
ing via conduction into the air. is results in a continuous surging of
blood to the surface of the body and a corollary reduction of blood
ow to the active muscles, the brain, and other internal organs, which
in turn brings about a decline of physical strength, loss of alertness and
mental capacity, a condition known as ‘heat stress’, which in extreme
cases, leads to death by heat stroke. It has been predicted that by 2045
climate change would push heat stress impacts in Southeast Asia to a
boiling point, with dire implications for national economies and the
safety of workers. In Singapore, the number of heat stress days has
been projected to rise to 364 days (from the current 335), resulting in
a 25% loss of productivity. 5 For an island state engineered as a model
of ruthless eciency, humidity is an apocalyptic threat that can only be
contained by an intensication of microscopic control over the air. e
former, hydraulic systems of discipline are mutating into the hydro-
logical model of societal control, embodied by invisible, but pervasive,
air-conditioning. 6
found along the river plains of continental, or mainland, Southeast
Asia were religious-political systems centered on wet-rice agriculture.
ese were societies organized around the construction of large-scale
irrigation and drainage systems, from which a type of padi-politics was
born – the planting of rice and the pinning down of people, a popu-
lation rendered sedentary, countable and taxable. e second, found
in archipelagic, or island Southeast Asia, were thalassocracies fueled
by ows of maritime and riverine trade. eir modus operandi was
the struggle for the control of coastlines and strategic ‘choke-points’
along river-ways and their power measured by the number of boats
controlled. However, both types of domination are in their own ways,
techniques of distributing bodies through the manipulation of water
ows. erefore, analyses of both political systems are necessarily a
kind of hydraulic analytics, attentive to the generation, control, and
transmission of power by the use and control of pressurized water. 1
Although both the hydrographical and hydraulical modes of his-
torical understanding remain crucial to making sense of the region,
they are primarily mechanical systems engaged with quantitative rela-
tions of force and matter, dealing with water solely in its liquid state.
What escapes them is water’s inherent liminality and innate propen-
sity for qualitative phase changes; water not only ows, it freezes and
it evaporates. To fully grasp the manifold relationship between water
and Southeast Asia requires a third mode of thought – a hydrology
devoted to cyclical transformations; an ontology of metamorphosis to
supplement the mechanistic systemics of hydrography and hydraulics.
Intuitions of such a hydrology can be found in the animistic cos-
mologies of the region, where water plays a central role in the emer-
gence of life or in the founding of a people (usually through the union
of a local woman with a man who arrives from the sea). Yet the sa-
credness of water in Southeast Asia has always been accompanied by
an attitude of deep ambiguity to this element. It is attributed with the
powers of healing and purication, just as it is commonly dreaded as
the source of epidemics, bad spirits and bad deaths. 2 Water does not, in
itself, possess a value that is unequivocally positive or negative. It is be-
yond good and evil because it enables the transition between good and
evil. As a lubricant for transgressing boundaries of all kinds, it facilitates
passage across inanimate and animate states (the emergence of life) and
2 3