Rotary International's 'Acid Test': Multi-ethnic associational life in 1930s Southeast Asia

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The social history of colonial Southeast Asia has often been narrated through the lens of ‘plural societies’, where various ethnic groups rarely mixed. This article challenges that narrative by pointing to traditions of multi-ethnic interaction, particularly in port cities, dating back to an early modern age of commerce. Although colonialism introduced new racial hierarchies that reinforced stark ethnic divides, it also created arenas where these could be transgressed. In the interwar era, international organizations, such as Rotary clubs, provided a way of breaking the colour bar of colonial society and a venue for multi-ethnic representation in a shared associational space. They converged with existing notions of civic duty, while promoting a public intellectual culture in cities for both men and women, as well as a new sense of regionalism. In ethnically divided Malaya, Asian Rotarians questioned the importance of race and debated the possibilities of a multi-ethnic future for the nation. While such cosmopolitan ideals were more vulnerable in the post-colonial era of nation-states, the organizations of the interwar era left important legacies for civil society in the region.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)302
Number of pages324
JournalJournal of Global History
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2012


  • civil society
  • sociability
  • Malaysia
  • colonialism
  • Thailand
  • Burma


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