Event — Conference

State Policy and the Cultural Politics of Heritage-Making in East and Southeast Asia

A conference on cultural politics and heritage-making in East and Southeast Asia. Organized together with ISEAS and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (NUS).

Conference dates: 16 - 17 January 2014

Keynote speaker: Michael Herzfeld (Harvard University)


Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore
International Institute for Asian Studies


Dr Hui Yew-Foong, Senior Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
Dr Daniel Goh, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore
Dr Philippe Peycam, Director, International Institute for Asian Studies


Heritage, though suggestive of an immanent sense of that which is inherited, is not given. What is construed and articulated as heritage is embedded in a cultural politics where different actors jostle to determine which inherited objects, sites and practices are to be valued above others and represented as markers of identities. Very often, the actors involved in this process of heritage-making include the state, civil society and international organizations. The relationship between them can swing from constructive engagement and negotiation to contestation, though in most situations the state and social elites attached to it have the final say.

While we recognize that the making of “heritage” is embedded in multi-vocality and the power of definition does not reside with the state alone, the state and its international extensions, such as the UNESCO, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and other inter-state agencies, remain key actors in the articulation, preservation and promotion of “heritage”. This conference will focus on the multifaceted role of the state in determining which cultural attributes are considered “legitimate”.

The relation of the state to heritage is thus an ambivalent and critical one. On the one hand, in being embroiled in the politics of representing the nation, the state is readily projected as guardian of the “official” narrative of the nation. Indeed, the preservation, curation, governance and promotion of heritage are largely dependent on the resources and legitimacy of the state. On the other hand, the state, in having to allocate space and resources to different developmental needs, may be inclined to subject heritage to an ideological system of values such as the current neoliberal sway in favor of the “market”, with the corollary of creating a murky boundary between what is “public” and what is “private”. Furthermore, heritage is itself a contested thing-in-the-making within the state. We do not see the state as a unitary actor, but as a set of institutions providing arenas for competing claims, into which non-state local and international actors enter to articulate and lobby their interests. 

The multiple arenas of the state, where policies related to the governance of heritage are debated, formulated, legislated and enforced, need therefore to be subjected to critical examination. For instance, what is the legal framework governing the preservation of heritage? How does the state bureaucracy(ies) frame and administer heritage sites -- material and immaterial (e.g. language policy)? Do governments have a penchant for privileging material heritage to the detriment of the socio-cultural life revolving around sites, leading to their gentrification and therefore social exclusion? Conversely, what is the meaning of the recent focus by numerous Asian states on “intangible” heritage (e.g. food, dance, etc.)? On a related front, while tourism contributes to the commercial sustainability of heritage, how does it augment its meaning in the national landscape as sanctioned by the state? In other words, we need to scrutinize state policies on heritage and ask if they are framed in a sustainable and socially accountable way. We also need to investigate the different modalities of state-centered politics that complicate policy framing and execution over time, as heritage itself evolves in the nexus of the competing claims of state and non-state actors, locally and internationally.

With these issues in mind, we will discuss the following themes:

  • Neoliberalism, the state and heritage
  • Heritage and representing the nation
  • Heritage governance: legal framework and administration
  • Policies and sustainability
  • Tourism and heritage sites
  • Memory and identity in vernacular landscapes
  • Politics of language
  • Heritage diplomacy


Accommodations will be provided for all participants. For participants traveling from Asia, economy class airfare will be provided. Participants traveling from beyond Asia may receive partial funding for air travel.

Photo: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)