The Datus and Nusas Workshop is a two-day workshop (May 27-28) for leaders from the Southeast Asian region’s leading institutions, and select individual thought leaders and scholars, to think about how the emerging science of protocols can be applied to the unique challenges and opportunities of the region. The Ethereum Foundation is convening this conversation with the help of researchers from the Centre for Strategic Futures, Singapore.

This workshop is part of the Summer of Protocols 2024 research program, and builds on the extensive research on protocols conducted in the 2023 program. The mission of the program is to advance the emerging multidisciplinary science of protocols, with a particular focus on bridging the gap between technological and humanities/social science aspects of modern protocols.

The goal of the Datus and Nusas Workshop is to explore creative new possibilities for Southeast Asia by looking at the region’s traditions and mechanisms of governance and regional coordination, both historic and contemporary, through the lens of the emerging science of protocols. Participants will be provided with briefing materials and online interaction opportunities in the weeks leading up to the live workshop. The workshop itself will be two intensive days devoted to challenging simulation and futures exercises and discussions, which will inform the development of a “Datus and Nusas Protocol Kit,” to be shared with participants after the workshop. The findings and output of the workshop will also be shared at other conference venues, and used to seed further research activity.

Participants will leave the workshop with a fresh perspective on their existing practices, and a sense of new possibilities for the future.

  • Date: May 27-28 (Monday-Tuesday)
  • Venue: Huone, Singapore
  • Logistics: This is an invite-only workshop hosted by the Ethereum Foundation limited to approximately 15-20 participants. There is no cost to attend, but participants are expected to make their own arrangements for travel and accommodation through their institutions. For out-of-town participants, we suggest the Lyf Funan hotel, which is located conveniently near the venue.

The inspiration and preliminary thinking behind the workshop can be found in the brief below. Additional briefing materials will be added to this page in the coming weeks, and workshop participants will have an opportunity to build on these initial ideas in structured ways. The tentative agenda is below.


Day 1 (Monday, May 27)
8.30am – 9.00am Registration
9.00am – 9.30am Welcome and Introductions 
9.30am – 11.00am Unpacking Nusantara (Panel)


11.00am – 11.15am  Tea Break

11.15am – 12.45pm

Small Group Discussion on what is the best way to showcase the Nusantara’s unique ways of being, living and interacting, focusing on organisations in 8 fields

Large Group Sharing

12.45pm – 2.00pm  Lunch
2.00pm – 3.00pm Unpacking Protocols 
3.00pm – 3.15pm  Tea Break
3.15pm – 4.30pm  Roundtable Discussion on Protocols
4.30pm – 5.00pm  Wrap-up of Day 1 and Homework for Researchers 
5.00pm – 6.30pm Free Time
7.00pm – 10.00pm  Dinner at The Malayan Council Fullerton
Day 2 (Tuesday, May 28)
9.00am – 9.15am Datus + Nusas Simulation Introduction
9.15am – 11.15am  Datus + Nusas Simulation
11.15am – 11.30am  Tea Break
11.30am – 12.30pm  Debrief and Large Group Discussion on Simulation
12.30pm – 2.00pm Lunch
2.00pm – 3.30pm  Coworking Session on Protocols in Breakout Groups 
3.30pm – 3.45pm  Tea Break
3.45pm – 4.30pm  Large Group Sharing on Principles/Protocols 
4.30pm – 5.00pm  Wrap-Up of Day 2 and Sharing of Next Steps 

Preliminary Brief

The region that comprises modern day Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Philippines and some parts of Thailand and Myanmar is sometimes described as Island Southeast Asia, which is an apt term to encapsulate why this region is so unique in the world. We will explore this uniqueness through understanding two intersecting circles of factors that underpin this region’s societies, cultures, and structures, which we shall call Nusas and Datus, that help us to understand the essential nature of the region. 

The goal of the Datus and Nusas workshop is to draw inspiration from this rich tradition as well as the emerging science of protocols to imagine new possibilities both for the region and the world. The intriguing resonances and correspondences between the naturally decentralized milieu that has evolved in Southeast Asia, and the emerging deep understandings of decentralized protocols emerging in the technology sector, suggest that the intersection is fertile with insight and opportunity.


Before we go into the factors, a broad overview of the region is required. Island Southeast Asia boasts a vibrant and diverse history that spans millennia, shaped by a tapestry of cultures, migrations, and trade networks. From the ancient maritime empires of Srivijaya and Majapahit to the influence of Indian, Chinese, and Islamic civilisations, the region has been a melting pot of ideas and peoples. Colonialism left a lasting imprint, with European powers such as the British and the Dutch establishing control over various territories, leading to the formation of modern nation-states. Post-independence, Island Southeast Asia has experienced rapid economic growth, urbanisation, and social change, while also grappling with issues of governance, identity, and environmental sustainability. Throughout its history, the region has been a place of commerce, cultural exchange, and innovation, which contributed to its rich tapestry of languages, religions, and traditions. 


Nusa is a word in the Malay/Indonesian languages meaning island, that was originally borrowed from Sanskrit, the classical language of India and Hinduism. Nusas can be said to be the basic building blocks of the region, due to three different physical and human geographical factors. 

  • Water: Island Southeast Asia’s geography is defined by its numerous islands, rivers, and coastlines. While these could be seen as natural barriers that impeded connectivity, they have also historically facilitated maritime trade, communication, and cultural exchange, serving as transportation routes that influenced settlement patterns, trade networks, and resource distribution.
  • Sparseness of Population: Despite the region’s geographical diversity, many areas within Island Southeast Asia remained sparsely populated until the 19th century 1 due to factors such as rugged terrain, dense forests, and inhospitable environments. This low population density contributed to the development of diverse and localised cultures, languages, and social structures within each Nusa. It also meant that humans were the paramount resource within the region due to their scarcity, and large-scale wars that decimated populations were comparatively rare. Combined with the connective power of water, many populations in the region were unusually mobile, with large groups of people uprooting and moving to another island for many reasons. 
  • Location on the “fringes” of world history: While Island Southeast Asia was where many major civilisations such as India and China interacted in terms of ideas, technologies, and cultural practices, the region was still at the periphery of the known world for most of modern history. It is thus not been invaded by foreign armies for much of its history, with the notable exceptions of the Cholas from South India, the Europeans at the age of colonialism, and the Japanese in World War Two. Notably, the region was one of only two places in Asia that the Mongols were unable to conquer.2

This region is thus formed of literal islands in the sea, in the highlands and on the lowlands along rivers valleys. Nusas then led to the paramount importance of Datus.


Datu is a native Austronesian3 word referring to a tribal chief or leader who held significant influence and authority within their community. The position of datu was typically hereditary, passed down through familial lines, although one’s status and power could also be earned through displays of bravery, wisdom, or wealth. The datu was central to the structure of societies in Island Southeast Asia.  

  • “Cakravartin”: A cakravartin refers to a universal monarch or a ruler who is considered to be the ideal and supreme sovereign. The term cakravartin originates from Sanskrit and is derived from the word cakra, meaning wheel or circle, and vartin, meaning one who turns or moves. Thus, a cakravartin is often interpreted as a “wheel-turning monarch” or a “universal ruler,” a datu writ large. The cakravartin/datu wielded authority through personal charisma, alliances, and networks of patronage.
  • Mandala System: Among the islands, the mandala system arose because of the compromise that had to be forged across the three geographical factors stated above. Political power was decentralised, with multiple smaller states or territories acknowledging the authority of a central, more powerful state. This central state, led by a cakravartin/datu claimed suzerainty over surrounding territories. Rulers of smaller states would acknowledge the authority of the central cakravartin/datu ruler in exchange for protection, trade privileges, or other benefits. This recognition of suzerainty was a form of subordination, but it was often pragmatic and flexible, allowing smaller states to maintain a degree of autonomy while benefiting from the security and stability provided by the cakravartin/datu.
  • Platforms, not institutions: Due to the autonomy of the islands, the cakravartin/datu had to make use of extensive diplomacy to get things done. The datu would engage in diplomatic exchanges, marriages, and gift-giving rituals to solidify relationships and ensure mutual support, and would often play a role in mediating disputes, forging alliances, and maintaining balance within the mandala. This was best done through platforms where people got together and negotiated. The cakravartin/datu needed to rely on interpersonal skills and cultural etiquette to maintain their influence and legitimacy within their communities, as brute force would just be met with abandonment. Graciousness, or “Halus” in Malay/Indonesian was thus valued as a sign of refinement, humility, and respect, essential qualities for garnering support and loyalty from followers. 


The intersection of these two circles of factors gave rise to the following dynamics. 

  • People Power: The historical emphasis on personal authority and informal networks over formal institutions has led to the situation where power was dispersed among multiple actors, resulting in a fragmented and often unpredictable political landscape. This means that there is a lot of “friction” within the system, as there are many power players that had to be brought on board before things could move forward. 
  • Slippery Structures: The absence of rigid structures and the reliance on informal mechanisms of governance have contributed to a system that is highly adaptable and responsive to changing circumstances, both from within and without. While the “activation energy” to move things was high, this flexibility has allowed for innovation, resilience, and the continuous negotiation of the social order.
  • Imperative to Broaden Base: Given the fluidity of power dynamics, datus had to navigate complex networks of alliances and affiliations to build and sustain their influence, often requiring them to cultivate relationships with diverse communities and interest groups spanning ethnic, religious, and linguistic boundaries. This necessity to build broad power bases fostered pragmatism, flexibility, but also opportunism.

Global Interactions

India and China have been the main outside players that have intensely interacted with the region. Indian traders brought Hinduism and Buddhism to the region, influencing fundamental aspects of society such as language (as was highlighted earlier in relation to the etymology of Nusa), religious ideas and practices (the words for heaven and hell in the Malay/Indonesian language used by many Muslims are derived from Sanskrit), and art and architecture. Chinese merchants meanwhile introduced everyday goods such as ceramics, silk, and tea and fostered a long-standing community of overseas Chinese that brought in Confucianism, Taoism, and Mahayana Buddhism, contributing further to the region’s cultural diversity and economic prosperity. 

The arrival of European powers in the 16th century, followed by the rise of the United States in the 20th century, continued a long line of global interactions in Island Southeast Asia. European colonialism brought about significant changes in governance, economy, and culture, as Western powers established control over various territories and imposed their political and economic systems. The legacy of colonialism continues to influence contemporary societies in the region, with remnants of European languages, legal systems, and cultural practices still evident today. Additionally, interactions with the United States, particularly during the Cold War period, shaped geopolitical alignments, economic policies, and cultural trends in Island Southeast Asia, as countries navigated alliances and rivalries between superpowers.

Current Situation

Where does all this take us? The historical legacy of Nusas and Datus continues to shape the region’s contemporary identities, which are characterised by diversity, complexity, and hybridity. Individuals and communities often navigate multiple cultural, linguistic, and religious affiliations, depending on context and personal experiences. While colonisation and consequent Westernisation have played significant roles in shaping contemporary societies in the region,4 its impact has been nuanced, with elements of Western culture being selectively adopted and adapted to local contexts, often as strategies for navigating power dynamics and asserting agency. Beneath the surface of visible social, political, and economic phenomena lies a complex web of social relations, power struggles, and cultural dynamics that shape the lived experiences of individuals and communities in this region. Understanding these undercurrents is essential for grasping the intricacies of the region’s societies and structures.

Motivating Questions

The Datus and Nusas workshop will explore some key questions against this backdrop

  1. How can the system of Nusas and Datus be understood as a system of protocols?
  2. How have these traditions evolved through history?
  3. How have they adapted to modernity?
  4. How can these ideas be generalized and adapted elsewhere in the world?
  5. What new possibilities are opened up by emerging protocol technologies?
  6. What can technologists learn about the design and architecture of protocols from Southeast Asia?

The workshop will aim to explore these motivating questions through discussions and exercises, and synthesize them in the form of a Datus and Nusas Protocol Toolkit that will be shared with all participants and disseminated broadly.

[1] In the 17th century there were only about 20 million people living in Southeast Asia. At about the same time, China had a population of 250 million.

[2] The Mongols tried to invade Java in 1293. 

[3] Austronesian refers to a major language family and a group of peoples who share linguistic and genetic ties originating from Taiwan and spreading across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The Austronesian language family is one of the largest in the world, comprising languages spoken in Taiwan, Maritime Southeast Asia, Madagascar, Micronesia, Polynesia, and parts of Melanesia. Some well-known Austronesian languages include Malay, Tagalog, Javanese, Maori, Hawaiian, and Malagasy.

[4] The Portuguese, Dutch, British and other colonial powers first came to the region as traders, inserting themselves in to the Datus and Nusas dynamic. They only coalesced into colonial hegemony later on in the late 1800s and early 1900s.