1. Race and Ethnicity

The races and ethnicities of people in Southeast Asia could be understood from the ancient migration routes and recent waves of immigration.  

Homo Sapiens or modern humans started migrating by land from the Indian subcontinent to as far south as Australia around 30,000-55,000 years ago, then from Southern China 10,000-30,000 years ago.  And then the aborigines peoples from Taiwan migrated by sea into the Philippines and then Indonesia, the Pacific islands, and as far west as Madagascar.

Figure 1: Early modern human migrations based on the distribution of mitochondrial haplogroups

By User:Maulucioni – Migraciones humanas en haplogrupos mitocondriales.PNG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32585433

Genetically, according to scientific studies, there may be at least 98 areas in Southeast Asia that may have distinct genetic differences.

Figure 2: Areas of Southeast Asia with distinct genetic differences.


However, quite recently during the late 1800s up until the Great Chinese Famine between 1958–1961, millions of mainland Chinese immigrated to Southeast Asia to work in trade, commerce and finance.

Figure 3: Chinese migration route during late 1800s till mid-1900s.


A large number of the Chinese immigrants became wealthy, powerful and influential in their new home countries, which may have sparked controversy with the locals in some countries.  For example the Malaysian government has policies that are racially discriminatory towards Chinese-Malaysians and favor ‘Bumiputras’ who are Malays and other indigenous races of Southeast Asia.

Colonialism also played a  major role in the diversity of races in the region.  For example, the forced migration of South Asian “convict workers” for labor used to carry out public works projects in the British colonies of Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar starting between the late 18th and early 19th centuries till the late 19th century (Yang, 2003)

2. Language

There are about 800 native languages in the Southeast Asian region – with over 700 languages in over 17,000 islands across the Indonesian archipelago, making it the second most linguistically diverse country in the world just slightly behind Papua New Guinea (VistaWide.com).

Figure 4: Southeast Asian language families.

By Kwamikagami at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26940743

Table 1: Official/national and other spoken languages in ASEAN countries

CountriesOfficial and national languagesOther spoken languages
BruneiMalay, EnglishChinese
CambodiaKhmer (95% of population)Some French is still spoken, English increasingly popular as a second language
IndonesiaBahasa Indonesia (official modified form of Malay)English, Dutch, local dialects, the most widely spoken of which is Javanese
LaosLaoThai, French, English, and various ethnic languages
MalaysiaBahasa Melayu (Malay)English, Chinese dialects, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Panjabi, and Thai
MyanmarBurmeseSome English is spoken in tourist destinations, with 135 minority ethnic groups having their own languages
PhilippinesFilipino (based on Tagalog) and EnglishMajor dialects: Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocan, Hiligaynon or Ilonggo, Bicol, Waray, Pampango, and Pangasinense
SingaporeEnglishChinese, Malay, Tamil
Thailand ThaiEnglish (secondary language of the elite), ethnic and regional dialects
VietnamVietnameseEnglish (increasingly favored as a second language), some French, Chinese, and Khmer; mountain area languages (Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian)

3. Religion

Many different religions are practiced in Southeast Asia due to the rise and decline of ancient kingdoms, and also colonialism (Southeast Asia – Religion, Wikipedia).

1) Animism

Sometime between 2500 and 1500 B.C., people from southern China migrated into Southeast Asia (Stanford.edu), bringing with them their Animism beliefs, which could still be found in indigenous tribes all over the region, and also mixed and practiced along with mainstream religions.

2) Hinduism & Buddhism

Then Indian traders, adventurers, teachers and priests came into the region since the 1st century A.D. and started to dominate and influence the region until about 1500 A.D., which spread Hinduism and Buddhism into the region’s states.  The states of the mainland became mainly Buddhist, while some places like Bali are predominantly Hindu till this day.

3) Islam

Then around the end of the 12th century, Moslem rulers firmly established Islam in the north of India, which then spread to Southeast Asia in the 13th century.  Islam is the most practiced religion in the region today with approximately 240 million adherents, which is about 40% of the region’s total population concentrated in Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, southern Thailand and southern Philippines.

4) Confucianism

Ancestor worship and Confucianism came into Southeast Asia with the Chinese migrants, which are widely practiced in Vietnam and Singapore.

5) Christianity

Christianity was spread throughout the region by European missionaries during the colonization era.  Philippines has the largest Roman Catholic population in Asia.

4. Culture

The distribution of races, ethnicities, languages and religions in the previous sub-sections can help paint a picture of the cultural diversity in the region.  However, the different cultures can be grouped as:

  1. Mainland Southeast Asia (excluding Malaysia)
    • Mix of Burmese, Cambodian, Laotian and Thai cultures, which are descendants of the Indian influenced empires; and Vietnamese, which are related to Chinese cultures.  Chinese cultures are also very prevalent due to the mass immigration of Chinese people.
  2. Maritime Southeast Asia (including Malaysia)
    • Mix of indigenous Austronesia and Islamic cultures, with Brunei showing a strong influence from Arabia.  Western and Indian cultures are also present due to colonialism, and Chinese cultures due to the mass immigration of Chinese people.

In addition, the phrase ‘The ASEAN Way’ that refers to a methodology or approach to solving issues that respects the cultural norms of Southeast Asia (The ASEAN Way) could be a way to generalize the attitude and mindset of a Southeast Asian person. 

5. Western Colonialism

From the previous sub-sections, it could be seen that colonialism has been mentioned several times as it has a strong influence in the region whether economically, politically or culturally.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to enter Southeast Asia in the 16th century via Malacca, Maluku and the Philippines.  The Spanish occupied the Philippines after the Portuguese some years later.  Starting from the 17th century, the Dutch came to establish the Dutch East Indies in Indonesia; the French in Indochina; the British in Myanmar that is connected to the east of India, and the Strait Settlements in Malaysia and Singapore.  By the 19th century, all countries in the region were colonized, except for Thailand due to the diplomatic negotiations of King Rama V to keep the country independent.

Figure 5: Map of European colonies in the 19th century A.D.


In addition, apart from the European colonizers, the Philippines was also occupied by the US from 1898 after the brief Spanish-American War, and the Japanese between 1942-1945 during World War II and then finally gained independence from the US in 1946.

Table 2: Independence declaration dates and former colonizers of each ASEAN country

CountryIndependence Declaration DateFrom Country
Brunei1 January 1984UK
Cambodia9 November 1953France
Indonesia17 August 1945Netherlands
Laos19 July 1949France
Malaysia31 August 1957UK
Myanmar4 January 1948UK
Philippines4 July 1946US
Singapore9 August 1965Malaysian Federation
ThailandNever colonizedNever colonized
Vietnam2 September 1945France
Source: CIA World Factbook