Between Africa and Southeast Asia

Compelling Coordinates

In December 1963, after a trip to the United States for the memorial of John F. Kennedy, Philippine president Diosdado Macapagal visited Libya, Tanganyika (part of present-day Tanzania), Madagascar, and Kenya. It was a trip motivated by diplomacy and goodwill, and a strategy to field for votes should the Philippine claim to Sabah prosper in the tribunal of the United Nations (U.N.). Writing about the necessity of the trip, Macapagal explains: “The African continent, like Asia itself, has long been a large fact in the geography of the World, but it is only in more recent times that the human implications of its geographic fact is beginning to be acknowledged as of political significance.”[1] Furthermore, he notes: “Yet between ours and the societies of the rest of Asia and of Africa are obvious common givens of historical circumstances. This, and the present situation of our political status is compelling enough, on our part, to make common cause and collaborate on general schemes with societies and peoples beyond the national geography.”[2]

Macapagal’s trip to the African continent threads through a number of contexts that make the years 1963/4 a salient timeframe for elaborating the trajectories of transregional solidarity between Southeast Asia and Africa: the death of Kennedy and the neocolonial relations between the U.S. and the Philippines, the place of the U.N. in the imagination and cultivation of a post-imperial world order, and the centrality of the Sabah question in the prospect of Southeast Asian regionalism. Although accounts of this period point to how relations between Africa and Southeast Asia “remain sparse, sporadic, and unspectacular,”[3] extrapolating from and speculating on such trajectories allows us to nuance ideas of solidarity and sovereign self-determination during this period.

In addressing these considerations, Southeast Asia as a framework allows us to map out latitudes for upsetting the usual entry points to Afro-Asian solidarity and Cold War geopolitics. In particular, the essay looks at Maphilindo, an earlier iteration of Southeast Asia regionalism based on a pan-Malayan worldview, as a frame of reference to account for disperse yet interested alignments that complicate the ease with which aspirations of transregional solidarity are understood and the configuration of its terms. Whereas the imagination of a more encompassing Southeast Asia regionalism may provide compelling narratives of neo-colonial politics during the Cold War, the discussion on Maphilindo provides sharper focus and allows us to become more sensitive in accounting for more granular historical and political moments.

Perhaps what makes reframing Afro-Asian solidarity with Afro-Southeast Asian relations is the history of Southeast Asia’s “altered citations”,[4] which trouble the geographic factuality of thinking about Asia and Africa. Indeed, with each iteration of Southeast Asian regionalism, a different understanding of the affinities between these two regions should be foregrounded. This way, what we conceptualize as Afro-Asian or Afro-Southeast Asian solidarities changes depending on what constellation or coordinates frame our analysis. Rhetorics of regionality and transregionality then become geopoetic, in the sense that their compositions are rendered dynamic and their prefigured coherence is questioned.

Maphilindo is exceptional in relation to how it plays out affinities with Africa. For instance, the pan-Malayan ethnos that the confederation invokes touches upon the history of Madagascar, an island nation located southeast of the African continent, as Malay space. Macapagal, for one, declares: “While proximate to Africa, [people of Madagascar] are more Asian than African.”[5] In Wenceslao Vinzons’s invocation of a Malaysia irredenta, he places Madagascar well within the pan-Malayan ethnos: “A unified Malaysia extending from the northern extremity of the Malay Peninsula to the shores of New Guinea, from Madagascar to the Philippines and to the remotest islands of Polynesia.”[6] Another aspect is related to Maphilindo’s role in the forestalling of the declaration of Malaysia, courtesy of Indonesian president Sukarno’s policy of Konfrontasi (1963-1966). In 1964, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visited 17 African states to discuss the formation of Malaysia and what this might mean for Afro-Asian solidarity.[7]

Maphilindo as a trajectory harnesses the potential of regional solidarity imagined by the Afro-Asia Conference in Bandung in 1955. In his speech before the University of Padjadjaran in Bandung in 1964, Filipino diplomat and Bandung delegate Carlos P. Romulo traced the continuity from Bandung to Maphilindo as the “recognition and assertion of the idea of ‘self-determinism’ of the countries of Asia against the big powers” that was “projected on a universal concept of a greater harmony among nations.”[8] He explains: “It was in [Bandung Conference] that the effort of the emergent countries of Asia and Africa to come to a formulation of their common cause was eloquently expressed.”[9] Afro-Asia connections find a sharper articulation and assume a more refractory capacity in Maphilindo. For Romulo, the confederation articulates the “actuality of a united world” shaped by “a new intellectual relation” that was needed to reconfigure the “outmoded…observations of the past colonial strategies and motivations in the politics of Asia.”[10]

These questions and concerns are transformed as issues of transregional alignments that become even more cogent because of the choice to appoint Southeast Asia as a discursive framework. This also speaks to particular articulations and iterations of “common causes” and interests between the two regions. Writing in 1965, American social scientist Fred R. von der Mehden accounts for trajectories of commonality between Africa and Southeast Asia. For example, in the context of the U.N., von der Mehden narrates: “Within the U.N. there has been a mutual interest expressed in the regional problems of the respective areas. African delegates spoke, but did not always vote unanimously, on Southeast Asian issues such as the West Irian and Malaysian issues. At the same time Southeast Asian states have spoken in support of the independence of the former French North African colonies and have entered the debate on the Congo. Southeast Asian governments have also sent troops to African on U.N. peacekeeping missions in the Congo and Gaza strip. However, no special relationship appears to have emerged between Southeast Asia and the new African states other than the one based on the fact that they are all ‘underdeveloped states’ with certain common problems.”[11]

By situating these problems within the iterative imaginations of Southeast Asia regionalism, we resist reducing both Africa and Southeast Asia as mere geographic facts and thus imagining them as fictive, interventive accounts, capable of reframing region-formation and worldmaking. This reconsideration also questions the insistent optimism in claims to solidarity and articulates the constitutive limits of affinities. This does not mean, however, that aspirations of solidarity or affinity prove to be superfluous – only that addressing these rhetorics requires us to be equally sensitive to both their optimism and idealist claims, and their ideological or instrumentalized implications.

Published January 2021.


[1] Diosdado Macapagal, “Report on United States and Africa Trip,” in Fullness of Freedom: Speeches and Statements of President Diosdado Macapagal, vol. IV (Manila: Bureau of Printing, 1965), 162.

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Fred R. von der Mehden, “Southeast Asian Relations with Africa,” Asian Survey 5, no. 7 (July 1965): 349.

[4] See Prasenjit Duara, Asia Redux: Conceptualizing a Region for Our Times (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013).

[5] Macapagal, “Report on United States and Africa Trip,” 157.

[6] Wenceslao Q. Vinzons, “Malaysia Irredenta,” in The Philippine Encyclopedia of Eloquence, ed. Andres R. Camasura (Manila: The Philippine Encyclopedia, 1936), 413.

[7] Kathleen Ditzig brought this to my attention. The two trips to Africa became the backbone for the exhibition we co-curated titled In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War, which opens at the NTU ADM Gallery this month and is scheduled to travel to the Vargas Museum in Manila later this year. Both iterations are part of a larger research project developed in partnership with KONNECT ASEAN.

[8] Carlos P. Romulo, “From Bandung to Maphilindo,” in Mission to Asia: The Dialogue Begins (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1964), 98.

[9] Ibid, 99.

[10] Ibid, 103.

[11] von der Mehden, “Southeast Asian Relations,” 343.

About the Writer

Carlos Quijon, Jr. (b. 1989) is an art historian, critic, and curator based in Manila. He is a fellow of the research platform Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia (MAHASSA), convened by the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories project. He writes exhibition reviews for Artforum and his research is part of the book From a History of Exhibitions Towards a Future of Exhibition-Making (Sternberg Press, 2019). He has published in MoMA’s post (NY), Queer Southeast Asia, ArtReview Asia (Singapore), Art Monthly (UK), Asia Art Archive’s Ideas (HK), and Trans Asia Photography Review (US), among others. He is an alumnus of the Ateneo National Writers Workshop in Manila and the inaugural Para Site Workshops for Emerging Professionals in Hong Kong in 2015 and was a scholar participant of the symposium “How Institutions Think” hosted by LUMA Foundation in Arles in 2016. In 2017, he was a research resident in MMCA Seoul and a fellow of the Transcuratorial Academy both in Berlin and Mumbai. He curated Courses of Action in Hong Kong in 2019, A will for prolific disclosures in Manila and co-curated Minor Infelicities in Seoul in 2020. Together with Singapore-based curator Kathleen Ditzig, he is co-curating the exhibition In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War in Singapore in January 2021.