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Politics of Culture in Southeast Asia (10 EC)


Admission requirements

Admission to the MA Asian Studies (60 EC, 120 EC or research). Students who are interested in taking this course, but who have not been admitted to one of the MA programmes mentioned are requested to contact their education co-ordinator.


Ballet Philippines, the University of Culture in Yangon, Thailand’s National Identity Board: as these examples indicate, culture is a beloved object of state cultural policy, not least in the Southeast Asian region. UNESCO and non-governmental organizations are active in this field as well. And culture is also an industry; the market has a serious commercial interest in certain cultural genres. In earlier eras, too, the powers that be as well as oppositional groups used cultural genres like performance and literature to promote novel ideas and practices, or to try to maintain established ones.

The politics of culture in Southeast Asia has a double aim: to provide a comparative survey of Southeast Asian national politics in the cultural realm, in historical perspective, and on a more theoretical level to examine the ways in which institutions, communities, and individuals attempt to control the ways of doing and thinking that we call cultural.

There are two versions of this course, worth 5 EC or 10 EC. The 10-EC version consists of three parts. After two introductory seminars (= Part A), we survey cultural politics in the respective Southeast Asian countries, on the basis of weekly course readings, in seminars 3–7 (comprising Part B of the course). To give our discussions empirical substance and to facilitate comparison within Southeast Asia and with other parts of the world, we focus on concrete cultural categories. In 2021/22 these categories are performative: ritual, dance, music, drama, and literature. Some of the genres in question tend to be developed under state patronage while others tend to be left largely to the market. These genres allow us also to examine certain transnational connections and flows within and outside Southeast Asia. We begin our survey today and in the recent past, and gradually broaden our purview to include the early-modern period as well.

When the concepts and problematics are in place, in Part C we will apply them, in an exploratory mode, to the cultural politics surrounding a particular cultural production, a complex and dynamic one. This is the epic narrative of Amir Hamza, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, who according to this epic lived a thrillingly adventurous life while spreading monotheist religion throughout a vast region extending from the northwest of Africa to China. Until the early twentieth century, the Amir Hamza narrative was the epic of Asian Islam par excellence. It continues to be enjoyed today in literary form in Malaysia and as dance and puppetry in Java, Bali, and Lombok.

Course objectives

  • Knowledge of and comparative insight into contemporary cultural politics in the Southeast Asian countries, in historical perspective;

  • Analytical insight into the ways in which institutions, communities, and individuals work to control culture;

  • Self-critical awareness, especially the ability to relativize culturally instilled attitudes.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

The deadline(s) in MyTimetable is/are set for administrative purposes only. The actual date(s) will be communicated by the lecturer(s) in Brightspace.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

The core of each seminar in Parts A and B is a group discussion of that week’s readings. In preparation, all students formulate a webposting, reflecting critically on these readings. The aim of a webposting is to formulate a critical opinion that will trigger a productive group discussion of the readings. Postings must be published on the Brightspace course site at least 24 hours before the seminar begins. Every week one or two students will give short presentations (five minutes each).

Part C will be devoted to researching an aspect of the cultural politics of the Hamza epic in Southeast Asia. You will explore, formulate (propose), carry out, write up, and present a short and relatively simple research project. The aspect you focus on and the research question you examine can be of your own choosing, in consultation with the instructor
Attendance at seminar meetings is compulsory. Students must contribute actively to in-class discussion.

If a student cannot attend because of illness or misadventure, they should promptly inform the convener. Absence without notification may result in lower grades or exclusion from assessment components and a failing grade for the course.

Assessment method

Academic integrity

Students should familiarize themselves with the notion of academic integrity and the ways in which this plays out in their own work. A good place to start is this page. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. Students may not substantially reuse texts they have previously submitted in this or other courses. Minor overlap with previous work is allowed as long as it is duly noted in citation.

Students must submit their assignment(s) to Brightspace through Turnitin, so they can be checked for plagiarism. Submission via email is not accepted.

ChatGPT: What is possible and what is allowed? Dos and Don'ts.

Assessment and weighing

Partial Assessment Weighing
Active participation 40%
Written contributions to Part C 60%
* final research proposal 20%
* final paper 40%

Active participation is assessed based on the academic quality of weekly webpostings, presentations, and sustained constructive contribution to seminar discussions. It is a requirement for passing the course. In order to receive a mark for the course, you must have submitted webpostings for and participated actively in at least 75 per cent of the seminars. Webpostings submitted after the deadlines are not taken into account.

Written contributions to Part C is assessed based on the:

  • academic quality of the final research proposal

  • academic quality of the final paper

In order to pass the course, you must obtain a total weighted average mark of 5.50 (=6.0) or higher.

All elements of the course belong together and must be completed in the same academic year. No partial marks can be carried over into following years.


A resit (second chance to pass the course) is possible only for element (2), and only if you submitted the research proposal and final paper in time (before the submission deadlines) and received a total weighted average mark for the course of 5.49 or lower.

Inspection and feedback

Feedback will be supplied primarily through Brightspace. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the assessment results, a review will be organized.

Reading list

To be communicated in due course through Brighspace.


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.