Notwithstanding current posturing, free trade has always been a cornerstone of Western economic liberalism: “one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer on its people,” “based not on utility but on justice.”

Lesser known is the fact that a commitment to free trade was just as important to the rise of the mighty seafaring kingdoms of Southeast Asia, where a cultural predilection for pluralism, individual liberty and the primacy of contracts played an instrumental role.

The principle of Mare Liberum or freedom of the seas was first put forward in the West in the seventeenth century by the Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius, whose objective was to establish that the Dutch had as much right to sail the waters of the East Indies as the Portuguese in the scramble for global dominance.

Moral posturing aside, the Anglo-European powers were not as interested in an equal playing field as they were in establishing lucrative trade monopolies. When Dutch traders in the Sultanate of Makassar in Sulawesi demanded that the Sultan end trade with the Portuguese, the Sultan* replied:

God made the land and the sea; the land he divided among men and the sea he gave in common. It has never been heard that anyone should be forbidden to sail the seas.1

The Makassarese knew that success as a trading entrepôt depended on providing foreign traders with more than just a good harbour, of which there were quite a few in Southeast Asia. As the scholar Anthony Reid points out, “[w]hat the traders who brought the goods required was security of life and property, on one hand, and freedom of commercial and personal exchange on the other.” This was especially the case since Makassar, like most entrepôts, had few products of its own to otherwise attract traders.

History had shown that whenever rulers in other ports like Mataram and Aceh sought to monopolize and set the terms of trade with foreign merchants, the merchants would simply move elsewhere. (And indeed, this was the eventual fate of Makassar after the Dutch obtained their monopoly.)

Makassarese culture had certain unique traits that were conducive to the development of free trade.

Although Islam had been utilized as a unifying political ideology during a period of consolidation of power, when it came to conducting the actual affairs of state, local customs and animist beliefs were supreme. This pluralistic world view extended to the very structure of the sultanate itself, which was in fact more a partnership between dynasties, Makassar and Bugis, than a unitary entity.

Relations in a pluralistic environment were governed by a localized form of that most anglo-saxon of institutions, the contract. These agreements always took precedence over the king’s whims. It was believed that one who broke a sacred contract would be visited by great misfortune.

And although we associate freedom with the West today, in the seventeenth century, the reputation of the Bugis especially for being free men (albeit slave-owning ones, much like their Western counterparts) was known all the way in Europe, where disciples of Hobbes extolled them for being most like the English.

Makassar also had a unique system of labour, where slaves and other types of corvée labour were still given the opportunity to earn a private income for specified periods, thereby allowing room for competition and initiative.

One hopes that when so-called “western” values turn out to equally be “local” ones, our local ideologues will have less of an excuse for dismissing them.

*Sultan Ala’uddin, 1593-1639 CE.