The idea to establish a new programme in Southeast Asian Studies was first proposed at the Faculty’s Head of Departments meeting in April 1986 by former Dean, Professor Edwin Thumboo. The ad-hoc committee on Southeast Asian Studies was established and chaired by Assoc Prof Ernest Chew (then Head, Department of History). The committee, which included Assoc Prof Chan Heng Chee, Assoc Prof John Wong, Dr Victor R Savage and Dr Tong Chee Kiong, met in January 1987 and made recommendations for the Southeast Asian Studies Programme. In 1989, the Southeast Asian Studies Programme, besides two other programmes - European Studies and Linguistics - was mooted as an undergraduate programme.
The Southeast Asian Studies Programme was finally inaugurated in Academic Year 1991/1992 under Coordinator, Dr Tong Chee Kiong. He was succeeded by Assoc Prof Victor Savage from 1992 to 1997, Dr Hong Lysa from 1997 to 1999, Assoc Prof Victor Savage again from 1999 to June 2001, Prof Chua Beng Huat from July 2001 to May 2003, Prof Reynaldo C. Ileto from June 2003 to December 2005, Prof Brenda S.A. Yeoh from January 2006 to December 2008, and Assoc Prof Goh Beng Lan from January 2009 to December 2014. The present Head of Department is Assoc Prof Itty Abraham. The Department will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in the Academic Year 2016/2017.
One of the department’s key concerns has been to ensure that our undergraduate students are conversant in a Southeast Asian language. It is compulsory for our undergraduates to have a language offering, which is also meant to facilitate their understanding of the region’s customs, traditions, political and social activities. The Department began to conduct Bahasa Indonesia for Year II students in the 1992/93 academic session, Vietnamese in 1995/96 and Thai in 1998/99. In 2007/08, Malay became the fourth language which SE majors could read. Presently, the language modules are conducted by the Centre for Language Studies (CLS). Students majoring in Southeast Asian Studies have a choice of enrolling in either the Bahasa Indonesia, Malay, Vietnamese or Thai language modules.
Since 1997, the Department has postgraduate candidates both from the region and beyond for the MA (coursework), and MA and PhD research degrees. Since that time 590 have graduated with Masters degrees and 43 with PhDs. Our graduates can be found in professional capacities in Singapore, Southeast Asia and beyond.
In recognition of its maturation as a field of study in the University, the Southeast Asian Studies Programme was accorded the status of a full-fledged department from 1 July 2011.