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Nalanda a reminder of Asian collaboration

When the East Asia Summit convenes in Vientiane, Laos, later this year, several issues will be up for discussion. The South China Sea dispute between China and several South-east Asian countries over island and maritime claims will surely take centre stage. North Korea’s bellicose behavior and its implications for the region will be another. So too will Chinese and US contestation in the Western Pacific. These issues are now de rigueur and attest to the fractious politics at play in Asia today.

Nalanda a reminder of Asian collaboration

The ruins of Nalanda, which was established in the 5th century AD. Nalanda is vital to Asia and to Singapore because, as an ancient and illustrious seat of learning, it is a powerful icon of Asian knowledge. Photo: AFP

When the East Asia Summit convenes in Vientiane, Laos, later this year, several issues will be up for discussion. The South China Sea dispute between China and several South-east Asian countries over island and maritime claims will surely take centre stage. North Korea’s bellicose behavior and its implications for the region will be another. So too will Chinese and US contestation in the Western Pacific. These issues are now de rigueur and attest to the fractious politics at play in Asia today.

The East Asia Summit, however, is not just about mediation and fire-fighting. Since its inaugural meeting in 2005, the Summit has advanced several initiatives that sought to underline the linkages and networks, both historical and contemporary, in order to accentuate our commonality.

One such initiative has been the revival of the ancient Nalanda University in the state of Bihar, India. The idea to revive Nalanda as a modern university, to be hosted by India but “Pan-Asian” in vocation, was proposed by India at the 2006 East Asia Summit hosted by Philippines. All 16 member countries endorsed this at the January 2007 meeting of the East Asia Summit in Cebu.

Singapore has been at the forefront of Nalanda’s revival. The city-state, for example, has pledged S$10 million to the construction of the university’s library. Professor Wang Gungwu, an eminent historian and chairman of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS), and Mr George Yeo, former Foreign Minister of Singapore, serve as founding members of Nalanda University’s Governing Board. The latter is currently Chancellor of the University, having succeeded Nobel Laureate Prof Amartya Sen in 2015.

A powerful, inter-regional icon

Why is Nalanda important to Asia and, more specifically, Singapore?

Firstly, it is a powerful icon of Asian knowledge. It was one of the most ancient and illustrious seats of human learning, where students converged to study metaphysics, philosophy, literature, medicine, mathematics and astronomy. Nalanda was established in the 5th century AD and thus predates Al Azhar University (Egypt), University of Bologna (Italy), and Oxford University (United Kingdom).

Believed to have been destroyed by Turkic invaders in the 12th century AD, it ceased operations almost exactly when Oxford University was founded. Not unlike its later counterparts in the Islamic world and Christian Europe, Nalanda was created as a centre of higher learning attached to a prestigious religious institution, namely a Buddhist monastic complex (Mahavihara).

Secondly, besides its status as a capital of ancient knowledge, Nalanda also reminds us of deeply embedded linkages within Asia at a time that precedes nation-states and their borders. During its 800-year existence, Nalanda attracted thousands of monks, students, and teachers from Korea, Japan, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and other regions of Asia. Patronised by local ruling dynasties over several centuries, Nalanda was the destination for pilgrim-scholars such as the Chinese Buddhist monks, Xuanzang and Yijing, who traversed seas and mountains in search for texts and knowledge to bring back to their homeland.

THE SINGAPORE CONNECTION

The lesson for Singapore is that it is embedded in an ancient network of trade, knowledge and commerce. For while our finely-honed national instincts are understandably exclusive in nature, our memories and imaginations should continuously remind us that we are part of a larger entity. ASEAN as a regional organisation and East Asia Summit, as an annual gathering of world and regional leaders, as well as projects like the Nalanda University are vivid reminders that we are not an island.

Concrete steps towards the realisation of Nalanda University were taken in 2009 when George Yeo and Amartya Sen inaugurated the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre (NSC) at ISEAS in Singapore. The goal was to develop the “Nalanda idea” of building for contemporary Asia an appreciation of Asian achievements and mutual learning. To further institutionalise intra-Asian linkages, the “Sriwijaya idea” of South-east Asia as a place of mediation and trade among civilisations was emphasised.

Reconnecting Nalanda and Sriwijaya, located on opposite shores of the Bay of Bengal, yet linked by a shared history, would not have been possible without the vision and endorsement of East Asia Summit leaders in 2007. In September 2014, more than 800 years after its destruction, the “new” Nalanda University opened its doors to its first batch of students. A programme involving the exchange of researchers and faculty members between the two institutions is under way.

The new Nalanda University reminds us of what East Asia Summit countries can do beyond mere trade agreements and mediation. By reviving the best of Asia’s ancient past, we are reminded of our commonalities, links, and shared knowledge. These are firm footholds for both Nalanda University and our region’s future. This collaboration is a poignant reminder of how important inter-regional educational and cultural collaboration is in the context of today’s sectarian and inter-religious strife.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Terence Chong is Head of the ISEAS - Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre (NSC) and Andrea Acri is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - NSC and Assistant Professor at Nalanda University

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