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ISEK - Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft Ethnologie


International Workshop “Aspirations for Change 4.0: Critical Perspectives from Southeast Asia”

While Southeast Asia is often described in terms of dynamism and economic success, in recent years the other side of this story has become increasingly evident. Not only are growth rates decelerating in a number of countries, many people, sectors, regions as well as major environmental issues have been overlooked, ignored, and/or negatively affected by economic growth (Rigg 2016). In Southeast Asia and elsewhere, there has been an acceleration of rapid and uneven change resulting from a combination of local and transnational processes, a phenomenon that Eriksen (2016) calls “overheating”. These issues have, however, not so much resulted in a critique of too much development, as they have prompted calls for smarter, more sustainable and socially responsible development. Related to this is the idea that development is no longer the exclusive purview of state planners or multilateral development organizations, but now requires the involvement of a range of new actors, practices and knowledges that are part of what Daromir Rudnyckyj and Anke Schwittay (2014) refer to as the “afterlives of development”. More and more, citizens are called upon to be innovative, creative and entrepreneurial in order to address the pressing issues related to reducing poverty, promoting economic growth, enhancing living conditions and protecting the environment. Indeed, it seems that, despite major economic, political and cultural differences, the dominant development mantra within contemporary Southeast Asia is one that emphasizes “innovation”, “creativity” and “entrepreneurship” as the foundation for “driving the growth and competitiveness of industries in the region” (ASEAN Declaration on Innovation 2017). Yet, as individual countries seek to move up global innovation and creativity indexes and ready themselves for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the question is: how does all of this relate to realities on the ground?

This two-day workshop aims to discuss critical perspectives on aspirations for change 4.0 within Southeast Asian contexts. Participants will analyze new concepts and visions of development from an anthropological perspective in relation to empirical research on new actors, practices and discourses in different countries in Southeast Asia. What are these practices and discourses about? Who is involved and who is left out? What kinds of societies are these new actors hoping to create? And what are the social and political consequences of these new ways of “rendering technical” (Li 2007) development problems and solutions?


Seeing Like the Market: Southeast Asia in the Wake of Human Capital

Daromir Rudnyckyj (University of Victoria)

In recent years, in both the popular press and in scholarly research, Southeast Asia has been largely invisible, especially in contrast to the attention paid to spectacular economic growth in other parts of Asia, such as China and India. This paper argues that developments in Southeast Asia offer a unique vantage point into some of the fundamental economic transformations taking place in the world today. In contrast to analyses that view neoliberalism as either an epochal designation (e.g. “the neoliberal era”) or as a cultural formation (e.g. “the culture of neoliberalism), the paper instead builds on work that has identified the notion of human capital as constitutive of contemporary neoliberalism. In so doing, the paper argues that one of the fundamental transformations associated with contemporary capitalism is that the binary between labor and capital, a structuring opposition that for so long undergirded both scholarly analysis and political mobilization, has in key respects collapsed. The paper illustrates this dynamic by providing empirical examples of how human capital has been represented and deployed in Southeast Asia. Thus, the paper shows how the creation of enterprise societies, the valorization of entrepreneurial aspiration, and the extension of market reason to domains not previously subjected to market logics are central to neoliberal human capital. The paper concludes by considering what a progressive politics might look like in this economic climate.


The Making of Innovation in Vietnam

Annuska Derks, Rivka Eisner and Esther Horat (University of Zurich)

“Innovation” has become the buzzword of our time. It contains the belief that technological improvements and progress are prime factors in increasing a country’s wealth and its citizens’ standard of living, and that key determinants of technological growth are people’s ability to innovate, work and think creatively, and implement their new ideas through entrepreneurial practices. The term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR) captures this belief very well, as it is expected to bring about the innovations that pave the way to a bright and sustainable future.

In this presentation, we focus on Vietnam, whose enthusiasm for 4IR-inspired development was unequivocally expressed by the General Secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party when he stated: “We will soon board Ship 4.0, and we will not leave any of our citizens behind” (Brown 2019). To get ready to “board the ship,” Vietnamese citizens are called upon to be or become innovative in the quest for a smart, sustainable and inclusive development of the country. This leads us to pursuing the following questions: What does innovation mean in Vietnam? What are the actual practices and which actors are involved in producing the “innovative (wo)man”? And, overall, how is innovation made in Vietnam?

Vietnam’s visions of “Change 4.0” are salient in various sectors, for example higher education, agriculture and energy, and also influence the economy, for instance through the ever-growing importance of entrepreneurship and the emergence of new forms of the sharing economy. Yet, while Vietnam is hailed as a possible new global innovation hub, these innovations are at the same time threatening to destroy the industries on which Vietnam’s recent economic growth was built. Thus, there is a clear need to interrogate the impact that the emerging discourse on innovation has on practices on the ground and the lives of those targeted for development.


When Permanence is Change: Singapore 4.0

Gerard Sasges (National University of Singapore)

Singapore sits uneasily in Southeast Asia: in the region geographically, but not exactly of it. And yet whether in abstract terms as a point of reference for developmental aspirations, or in more concrete terms through public and private involvement in planning, finance and development projects throughout the region, Singapore can be seen to represent Southeast Asia’s future. It is thus a perfect place to think the region and its aspirations for change. How do people respond to living in a place of permanent impermanence, where human and physical landscapes are constantly remolded, and neighborhoods literally vanish according to a 60-year cycle? How do individuals respond to life in a society where the human is being replaced by the technical? What if the change that people aspire for is stability, and dignity and independence are to be found at society’s margins? These questions emerge from a five-year project carried out by student researchers at the National University of Singapore. In it, students conducted almost 300 in-depth interviews of working people in Singapore across a range of occupations, ages, and ethnicities. Their stories document their aspirations for permanence as much as change and their ongoing efforts to maintain spaces of agency and dignity in a world where developmentalist rhetoric and technological practices converge in the promise of a perfectly depoliticized future. As Southeast Asia confronts the challenge of the Industrial Revolution 4.0, the voices of Singapore’s working people confirm the need to make the individual and the human central to our strategies of reconciling unprecedented technological, social, and environmental change.


Rise of the Machines versus Risks for the Marginalized: Automation, Unemployment and Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Huong Nguyen (Vietnam National University)

In the early spring of 2019 during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc expressed Vietnam’s desire to be at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0. The benefits that the fourth industrial revolution would bring to Vietnam are clear. At the same time, as one of the world’s manufacturing hubs in electronic products, smart phones, textile and footwear, Vietnam faces high risks of increased unemployment as a consequence of automation. According to the 2016 ILO Report on the Impact of Automation for the ASEAN-5 (Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam), the share of jobs with a high probability of automation is lowest in Thailand (44 per cent) and highest in Viet Nam (70 per cent). While the threat of human workers being replaced in favor of automation is inevitable, it is recognised that the situation of ‘technological unemployment’ is not uniform, with wide variations in the levels of consequences among ethnic groups in Vietnam. At the fore of this preliminary qualitative study conducted among some ethnic upland communities are the key questions of how technological unemployment has thus far affected ethnic minorities differently; how do ethnic groups react, cope with it, against the backdrop of current policies and practices concerning poverty reduction in ethnic minority and mountainous areas; how do ethnic groups inform strategies to mitigate the unemployment as a consequence of automation in order to sustain their wellbeing and community? And how the issue has been addressed in the respective policies and designated programs or projects initiated by the government, development partners, and other stakeholders?


Travelling Technologies and Moving Ideas: Conditional Cash Transfers, Targetting Technologies, and the Depolitisation of Poverty in Indonesia

Gerben Nooteboom (University of Amsterdam)

The government of Indonesia has embarked on large social projects to fight poverty. Many of these programmes focus on health, education and on social assistance to the poor. The programmes are based on travelling global ideas and simplifications for poverty eradication (so-called magic bullets) and accompanied by technologies of measurement, implementation and evaluation. Although these programmes and technologies appear neutral they bear implicit assumptions about governability, market-based solutions, and obscure political dimensions of inequality and poverty (rendering technical). They are attractive for politicians, appear politically neutral, obscure complex political dimensions on the ground and produce paradoxical social effects.

In this paper, I look at the travelling model of Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) and its transformative power in Indonesia. In CCT-programmes, beneficiaries - mostly women and children - receive cash under certain conditions in order to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty by investments in health and education (Lomeli 2009: 167). CCTs became popular in Brazil and Mexico, got introduced in other Latin American countries and Africa and recently gained momentum in Asian countries such as Cambodia, The Philippines and Indonesia (Gliszczynski and Leisering 2016; Ramesh 2014).

CCTs are a powerful example of magic bullet thinking and of travelling ideas in the world of development and anti-poverty governance today. Key questions for this paper are how these ideas travel, why they become popular among policy makers, how they render complex socio-political problems technical, and what social consequences they produce. The paper will focus on the genealogy of CCT adoption and implementation in Indonesia and includes case study material from its implementation based on long-term fieldwork in rural Java.


Stunted Development, Global Garments and Surplus Populations

Dennis Arnold (University of Amsterdam)

Cambodia, Myanmar and Bangladesh are considered the last three major low-cost labor sourcing options in Asia for international garment manufacturers and buyers. The employment and export earnings generated by labor intensive garment assembly remains central to economic development in these countries, yet work in the factories is highly exploitative. Better work options remain elusive given the lack of economic diversification, and current incomes support workers as well as hundreds of thousands of households in rural areas. Industry 4.0 thus presents unique challenges. The grip on the lower rungs of the global economy is already precarious, and the push to speed up to adapt to Industry 4.0 seems rather unrealistic. To date, investments in ‘4.0’ technologies in the textile and garment sector in Cambodia and Myanmar, the focus of this presentation, are limited, and future implications are currently speculative. The talk focuses, then, on garment industry trends and how this contributes to stunted development. In this wider context it looks at current problems associated with surplus populations at the ‘bottom’ of the (peri-) urban economy, to better understand the potential implications of widespread labor redundancy in contexts marked by limited social security and vocational training, alongside rapidly rising levels of household debt.


‘Every Person Counts’: The Problem of Scale in Citizen-Led Development

Anne-Meike Fechter (University of Sussex)

If it holds, as suggested, that ‘development is no longer the exclusive purview of state planners or multilateral development organizations, but now requires the involvement of a range of new actors, practices and knowledges’, then citizens, whether active nationally or internationally, play an increasing part in this. Their interventions may promise innovation, less bureaucracy, leave room for entrepreneurial energy and offer local solutions. By the same token, however, they face the challenge of scale, and scale-ability of their activities. What can the role of citizen-led projects be, if their activities tend to be focused on, and benefit only small groups of individuals and communities? How do they justify and attribute meaning to these often limited interventions, given that the scale of the problems they are tackling is always larger than what they can hope to achieve within their own means?  Based on ethnographic research with small-scale aid initiatives in Cambodia, the paper explores the imagined scope, ways of operating, and theories of change maintained by those involved. It emerges that the ‘logic of the one’, or as the motto of one such project, the insistence that ‘every person counts’, provides a guiding motivation for many. This does not mean that they imagine their effectiveness to be limited to their particular group of beneficiaries. Based on close engagement with such project founders, the paper asks how they position their efforts in the context of larger, often political challenges in the sites where they operate. It explores how, if at all, the small-scale is being related to the wider contexts. This ultimately leads to questions if, or in what way, simultaneous but unconnected citizen interventions may coalesce -or not- in order to effect wider social and political change.


Engines for Development, Again: Modest Fashion and the New Gendered Politics of the Indonesian Creative Economy

Carla Jones (University of Colorado Boulder)

Established in 2015, the new Ministry of Creative Economies represents the most formal expression of new development strategies around "soft skills" in Indonesia. At the heart of this new initiative is fashion, representing 56% of this subsector. Partially linked to other foreign diplomatic initiatives promoting the gentleness of Indonesian versions of Islamic piety, modest fashion in particular has received state investment because of its use of Indonesia's mass and custom garment production, as well as its elaborate and even flamboyant aesthetics. This vision aims to complicate the global fashion design system by situating Indonesia as the "kiblat" or center of modest fashion, aiming to re-orient the higher value design roles associated with London, New York or Paris, and the Arab centrism of Islamic authority. In this paper, I argue that this vision is in dialogue with two historical facts that have particular implications for aspiring designers and producers. First, the initiative resuscitates New Order era planning in which feminine subjects were to be harnessed as potential "motors" for development through either their unpaid work in the domestic sphere, or as low-paid employees in the global garment sector. Second, these visions intersect with official visions of appropriate style for Indonesia's appearance on global stages. As a result, young female designers whose tastes have been formed through international travel or culture find themselves less able to access state support unless they are willing to perform a nationally recognizable persona who champions particular categories of piety, heteronormativity and traditional arts. These effects are even more evident when analyzing the classed components of aesthetic judgment in contemporary Indonesia. I therefore suggest that a national program with aims for international visibility must be analyzed in the longer history of national conceptions of culture and femininity.