Branding Southeast Asia

This essay briefly explores the impact of development on expressions of belief and culture in Southeast Asia

Explorers, adventurers, and tourists

Early Europeans who travelled to this region, be it in search of gold or to spread their religion, ventured into remote areas where no other European had ventured and sent back tales of exotic encounters with the natives. They were the explorers, and through their eyes, the ancient civilisations of Asia were ‘discovered’. These stories would then inspire a wave of adventurers who yearned for the same thrills but without the risks.  Tourists would soon follow in their heels, craving for the romance of adventure, for the make-belief that they too are stepping in the same footsteps as the early pioneers. All three types of travellers would continue discovering and rediscovering Southeast Asia up to the present time. The region’s tourism sector lives off promoting this sense of mystery and intrigue to the curious foreigner, generating US$112.6 billion in tourism exports or foreign exchange earnings, and a further $294.4 billion in value added products (ASEAN, 2015). Tourism is a growing sector in Asean, contributing to 12.30% of the regional GDP. In 2013 ASEAN member states. Interestingly, intra-Asean tourists have come to account for the largest share at 46% of visitors. This clearly points to the rapid growth and increase in income experienced by some countries. 

With tourism emerging as a major source of revenue for many Southeast Asian nations, there is strong pressure for the state to be directly involved in its development. Governments are eager to identify and develop culture as an income-generating product to both increase its appeal to tourists and to offer alternate sources of income in primarily rural areas. If urban areas are characterised as metropolitan with a hybrid of cultures, then rural areas offer a safe haven for ‘authentic’ cultural identity. 

A collective cultural identity is the cumulative result of shared memories and experiences that continue to develop over time (Smith, 1991). This sense of identity is further strengthened and built upon when members of a community have shared values, which are expressed when people get together and do something together. Thus a cultural identity itself is an enduring process that is responsive to internal and external factors. In the following sections we will explore how development (specifically the tourism sector) continues to exert pressure on society and their traditional cultures.

The giants of Jakarta

Ondel-ondel is perhaps the most iconic figure of Betawi culture in Indonesia. The Betawi people are considered the native of Jakarta, being a highly hybridised culture with elements of Dutch, Chinese, Arab, Portuguese ((Farhan & Tamara, 2018) and with other ethnicities in Jakarta itself.  Traditionally it was known as barongan, a derivation of the word from barong, a protective spirit in animistic Austronesian culture that was present long before Hinduism arrived. The figures, always in pairs of male and female with gruesome facial features, were performed around villages to provide protection against calamities or for warding off evil spirits. Even during the modern colonial period, buskers performed the ondel-ondel on the streets as a form of entertainment. 

After the independence of Indonesia, the Governor of Jakarta Ali Sadikin (1966-1977), in an attempt to introduce a modernised image of Jakarta, modified the ondel-ondel by removing some of the gruesome elements and making them more friendly-looking. Thus the function of ondel-ondel transformed from communal protection to a figure of entertainment. The ondel ondel figures that were once sacred as they represented ancestors looking after the well-being of the community were now little more than oversized decorated dolls. The iconic figure quickly became a mascot of Jakarta and were always included in celebratory events such as inauguration of new buildings, welcoming guests of honor, or attending a wedding ceremony.

As Jakarta continued to modernise into a globalised megacity, the popularity of ondel-ondel as a sacred figure rapidly declined. They are rarely included in official events anymore. The figures are instead rented out to street peddlers who use them to beg for donations. And the government, again in a bid to clean up the image of Jakarta, has banned Onde-ondel from being used for busking in an effort to “maintain the spirit of ondel-ondel” (Nugraha, 2020). The local practitioners have, on the other hand, offered a different perspective. For them, the use of Ondel-ondel for busking helps them and the performers earn an income, while also making Betawi culture more visible in the public eye (Nugraha, 2020). They have also noted the government’s exclusion of Ondel-ondel from official events, even if its heritage status is continually reaffirmed by state officials. This situation presents a gap between the views of the state and the community in the continuity of traditional practices.

Note: It is interesting to speculate here that the somewhat authentic form and purpose of the Ondel-ondel is strikingly similar to the hantu tetek performed by the Chitty of Melaka.


Sekaten ceremony is a ceremony performed in Yogyajakarta to commemorate the birth date of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) (Utami, 2011). Historically, the ceremony is built upon the tradition of the Hindu and Buddhist Javanese who performed selamatan tradition for the gods and ancestors (Mulyana, 2017, p. 50). The ceremony was used by the early Muslim missionaries in Demak Kingdom, Java to spread the message of Islam in the 15th century. To attract the local crowd, Sultan Hamengkubuono I (1717 – 1792) ordered the inclusion of a gamelan performance, which was popular at the time. At the same time, the public square in front of the Grand Mosque was opened up as a night market, occupied by local traders. During the Grebeg component of the ritual, the Sultan presents a gunongan, which consists of seven ‘mountains’ made up of rice, fruits, vegetables and sweets. Huge crowds would gather and compete to grab a part of it from themselves. In line with their belief that all good things came from the Sultan, the Javanese believed that these gifts brought good fortune. The ceremony achieved two main functions, that is to promote Islam among the Javanese, and to reaffirm the position of the Sultan as the source of wealth and authority.

In 2003 the ceremony was privatised as part of a rejuvenation effort to make it more appealing to a wider audience. The name was changed into JES (Jogja Expo Sekaten). The format was changed into a cultural and handicraft exhibit, with the objective of promoting tourism and attracting potential investors. Big air-conditioned tents were erected covering the palace’s front yard, luxury booths set up, and visitors had to buy an entry ticket. Additionally, traditional merchants were excluded. After public protests, Sekaten has returned to its original format as a folk market. Now it featured a bazaar area where merchants and government institutions can rent at different rates. Widiastuti (2009) notes these changes as a decline in the Javanese cultural identity. The form of the ceremony has indeed turned into a tourist product with ‘almost minimal Javanese and Islamic atmosphere’ (Widiastuti, 2009). For example: tenants do not sell traditional food and handicrafts anymore and instead sell more profitable items like clothes and handphones, generally items that are to be found in any other bazaar. The main parts of the ceremony such as the narration of Prophet Muhammad’s life and history, the performance of the palace’s sacred gamelan and the Grebeg ceremony are still observed. This has resulted in a split between sekaten and grebeg, with the former becoming more commercialised, allowing grebeg to retain its sense of sacredness (Widiastuti, 2012). It is relevant for us to see these changes as a demonstrative of a desire for both the Sultan and state to negotiate the need to modernise, maintain a sense of dignity in Javanese culture, and boost the local economy. As a living ceremony, the Javanese will continue to modify and adapt the sekaten to their current needs. 

The ‘real’ Ulek Mayang

The following section demonstrates how development can radically shift the associated values of a traditional practice, and result in a complete transformation beyond its original form and purpose. In this sense, the question as to whether or not there is actual continuity is debated. Traditionally, the ulek mayang was performed in villages in Terengganu as a healing ritual. Participants gathered indoors in a circle with a designated ‘adi’ seated in the middle. The ‘adi’ functions as the leader who starts the singing of the Umbut Mayang song while holding the mayang (palm frond) over burning incense. The song is intended to invoke the presence of spirits, which aids in traditional healing practices. Participants begin to slip into a state of alternate consciousness and dances around the room in a state of frenzy. This is repeated with each participant until everyone is exhausted. The ulek mayang was performed at any time of the day except Friday night, and functioned as a form of social gathering. It can be performed with or without the accompaniment of music. The origins of the ritual is not clear, but it is likely a remnant of pre-Islamic folk rituals which called upon natural spirits for help in healing. 

Malaysia’s development strategy in the ’80s placed a heavy emphasis on industrialization. As a result, there was a huge shift of rural-urban migration where many young people moved to urban areas for better job and education opportunities. At the time, communities in the east coast states of the peninsula still relied on small-scale agriculture and fishing as the main economic activities. Uneven development across Malaya contributed to a sense of ‘regionalism’ as the peninsula was divided economically and politically into the west and east coast. Resisting federalism, both states of Kelantan and Terengganu opted for the Pan Islamic Party (Pas). In the following decades, the Islamic state governments would implement various policies that were directed at upholding the values of Islam. One of these changes was the removal of Hindu and animistic elements from traditional performances. In 1998 the Kelantan State Government prohibited the performance of menora, wayang kulit and main puteri for being un-Islamic. Even earlier, in the 1950s, the puja pantai ceremony was also similarly discouraged. The last ceremony was performed in 1976.

As the values of society shifted, the regularity and relevance of traditional rituals and practices also waned. There was now less interest in not just performing, but also consuming cultural activities, and instead society was encouraged to focus on spiritual enrichment. The model of Malay culture was now moulded as an Islamic one, and traditional arts and practices did not have a role in the modern narrative of society. Now that the core purpose of the ritual is no longer needed or wanted by society, the only way for it to continue existing as a cultural heritage was to rejuvenate its form so it can be packaged as a cultural product that can go on to be consumed by a younger, wider audience (Normah, 1978). 

Ulek Mayang was transformed from ritual to dance by Encik Aziz Sulaiman, Cultural Coach of the State Cultural Office (Jurulatih Kebudayaan, Pejabat Kebudayaan Negeri Terengganu) (Normah, 1978). Based on the original song, a dance was envisioned, which in turn was based on another traditional Terengganu dance called Saba’. Instead of a chaotic ‘dance’ where participants went into a trance, the dancers now danced in an orderly straight line dressed in colourful costumes. Gone are the mantras to invoke the ‘Tujuh Puteri’. The dance now is presented in the form of a narrative telling the story of a fisherman who falls in love with the princess of the sea. The only element of the original form of Ulek Mayang that remains is its name, and the fragmented imagery of the ‘Tujuh Puteri”. This form of Ulek Mayang is typically performed as a traditional dance at exhibitions and showcases promoting traditional Malay culture.


The developments identified above can be further applied to a variety of traditions and rituals across the region. We only have to look at how events like nyepi in Bali, songkran in Thailand, Thaipusam in Malaysia to realise things have evolved considerably. And these changes did not happen over a long period of time, but within the living memory of most people. Conversations with the older generation will inevitably invoke the cliché expression of the ‘good ol days’ when things used to be more ‘pure’ and more meaningful. In an increasingly globalised world where people and information from distant corners of the world are instantly connected, a new kind of traveller has emerged; the influencer. These travellers showcase themselves and by extension, their experiences as products. Culture and heritage becomes colourful backdrops in their photos and videos. Future trends will most likely continue to show a split between the state and communities, resulting in the inability for communities to hold on to their identity. Moving forward, it is imperative for governments to be more sensitive to the needs and wants of the community, which is often multi-dimensional. 


  1. Smith, A. D. (1991). National identity (Vol. 11). Reno: University of Nevada press.
  2. ASEAN. (2015). ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan (2016-2025).
  3. Farhan, B., & Tamara, A.-S. (2018). Knowledge Preservation of Ondel-ondel as Icon of Jakarta. Journal of Strategic and Global Studies, 1(2), 66–77.
  4. Nugraha, R. M. (2020, February 10). Jakarta Govt Eyeing to Outlaw Ondel-ondel Street Buskers. Tempo.,a%20tool%20for%20street%20busking.&text=This%20comes%20as%20the%20regulation’s,responsible%20for%20preserving%20Betawi%20culture.
  5. Mulyana, A. (2017). Sekaten Tradition: The Ritual Ceremony in Yogyakarta as Acculturation Reality of Javanese Culture in Indonesia. International Journal of Humanities & Social Science Studies (IJHSSS), 4(2), 50.
  6. Utami, H. E. (2011). Sekaten Chants between Relligion and Socio-cultural Rite. Harmonia Journal of Arts Research and Education11(2), 153-162.
  7. Widiastuti, A. (2009). Being Javanese in a changing Javanese city. Southeast Asian Culture and Heritage in a Globalising World: Diverging identities in a dynamic region, 115-127.
  8. Widiyastuti, D. (2012). Memorable Square: Identities, Meanings and the Production of Urban Space in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
  9. Normah Abdul Hamid (1978). Siri Stensilan Am Kebudayaan Bil:8. Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports.
  10. Tourism | ASEAN Investment. (n.d.). Invest Asean.

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