Exploring Southeast Asian Cultural Values Through Short Stories


When it comes to a discussion on cultural values in a region, ones may assume that values are more or less evenly shared, despite a range of unique characteristics that differ one to another. In the context of Southeast Asia, it is quite easy to define the tangible values shared by the countries in the region, for instance, deeply-rooted from Eastern culture, people in Southeast Asia tend to respect older people than those who are older.

Not only that, people in this region often are projected as passive, friendly, and dedicated to their family—these patterns are most likely the products of Western influence that once colonialized them. In Southeast Asia, civil war and conflict settings are common to see. Even when we trace the history of the countries, we can witness how patriotism is held highly due to their difficult times in defeating Western countries.

An interesting study by Grace Macasaet and Teodoro Maranan attempted to seek the similarities and differences of cultural values in Southeast Asia by analysing the settings, customs, and plots which are found in the countries’ prominent short stories published by Southeast Asian authors.

Stories from well-known authors such as Indonesia’s Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Abdul Muis, Che Husna Azhari and Kassim Ahmad from Malaysia, Khin Hnin Yu and Daw Khin Myo Chit from Myanmar. Singapore’s finest writers like Alfian Sa’at and Arthur Yap also join the line, Suchit Wongthred and M.R.Kukrit Pramoj from Thailand, Vietnamese Nguyen Ban and Minh-Quan, also Amadis Ma Guerrero and Juan T. Gatbonton from the Philippines are only a few names of authors whose stories were used as the sample research to observe the cultural values in Southeast Asia. In total, there were 35  storybooks selected for this study.

Why short stories? Short stories are used as the tools for Macasaet and Maranan as the researchers because through short stories we can observe societal patterns and situations, and how these affect the relations with the characters told in it. Through the selected short stories of Southeast Asian literature, researchers have managed to investigate the commonalities of cultural values in the region.

For instance, in 1950s eras where Indonesia experienced a popular discontent towards post-independence live in the country—people once assumed that independence would automatically bring prosperity and happiness. This situation is well reflected in Inem, a short story by well-known Pramoedya Ananta Toer that tells the reader about the identity crisis. In reality, along with popular discontent due to difficulties to adapt in the post-independence era of Indonesia, Indonesians in the 1950s were still profoundly influenced by Western behaviours and gestures, so that identity crisis was indeed present in the social context during this era.

From a story titled Grave Harvest by a Malaysian author Ajikik, we can learn about religious beliefs and traditional values in Malaysia. And, during the period of the 1970s – 1980s Malaysia experienced Islamic literature debate. In the following years when Islamic values were redefined in the global context, Malaysia felt the need to strengthen its true identity and began to see the Islamic faith as an integral part of its society.

Furthermore, using a case of Philippines, the short stories about this country which were written in the 1960s mostly talked about the transformation of middle-class intellectuals who also suffered identity crisis like what Indonesians had been through a decade ago. In reality, many Filipino intellectuals who got the opportunity to continue their study in the US and came back to the Philippines whose economic condition was considered underdeveloped during that period found it difficult to harmonise Western and traditional values.

According to the research, the similarity of Southeast Asian cultural values found in the selected short stories is the fact that countries in this region tend to showcase cross-cultural interactions especially with the Chinese ethnic. In case of Singapore, this pattern is very apparent as, in real life, its approach towards society is highly dominated with recognition of plural society despite the fact that Chinese takes up the majority of the population in Singapore.

What makes this research is more interesting is it reveals detailed characteristics of each selected short story from Southeast Asian countries as well. Malaysian authors often wrote about Malays with a set of values like committing to traditional values, honouring parents and elderly, and respect for religion. Authors from Myanmar highly valued personal success, the welfare of the in-groups and others, and enjoyment in life. Vietnamese were exposed to values of personal success, self-direction, appreciation towards challenges in life, and family security.

This research also found, out of 35 Southeast Asian short stories used as the sample, value of power such as authority and wealth were only being recognized—as essential value— for 5.71% or equals to only two stories. While values of achievement, self-direction, security, and helpfulness are among the values Southeast Asia perceives as important.

Like it? Share with your friends!

Nadya Yolanda Moeda
A former travel blogger who is now a full time consultant & loves to write about everything under the sun