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thailand-997413_960_720Anyone experiencing Southeast Asia in person is immediately confronted by the difference between those societies and the West.

Yes, there are substantial variations in the superficial, such as traffic, population and pollution levels, but the differences clearly extend into much deeper levels of social interaction. I know I still remain puzzled, often and deeply, about how vast areas of Southeast Asian societies actually function when they very definitely don’t fit the ways I am familiar with.

There is, however, a model with three elements that may provide some clarity.

The first element is that in Southeast Asia social conformity often comprises of appreciably different expectations from the West. It isn’t just that religious beliefs are frequently more ingrained, it is also that concepts of good and bad, principle and pragmatism, and right and wrong can often be more flexible and/or more rigid in ways that are very different from Western approaches.

The second element is the law, where again there are considerable differences in the sometimes relaxed, sometimes overzealous, application of laws and regulations, and the communal priority accorded to adhering to them.

The third element is the market. Economic laws are certainly not suspended, but rather that that the market, with its demands and offers, is sometimes valued differently at both a societal and individual level relative to the other elements.

These three elements are highly interdependent, which is why I describe them as one model rather than three. Let’s see how this plays out in practice.

Road safety in the west may be managed by sometimes overlapping efforts to make driving while affected by alcohol socially unacceptable (through social conformity via democratically endorsed public advertising campaigns), legally risky (with the law offering a higher certainty of meaningful punishment) and financially punishing (with the market through insurance companies refusing to pay often substantial costs incurred while driving under the influence).

In contrast the risks of drink driving in Southeast Asia may be perceived as less consequential by referring to the will of a higher power, placing the will of Buddha (‘your destiny”) or Allah (“Inshallah”) ahead of social conformity, the often reduced risk of legal consequences affecting the power of the law, especially for those with diminished finances, and the reduced interaction with the market through the frequent absence of insurance.

The common thread here is that, in Southeast Asia, embracing favourable spiritual outcomes and distrusting the market to deliver favourable outcomes is underpinned by the widespread absence of the rule of law. With fewer people placing trust in the law to act fairly against crime, including enforcing fair trade regulations, the citizen’s faith is diluted to other support mechanisms, especially the spiritual and the familial.

This can be seen in the care of the elderly. In the West this care is underpinned by the law (the state, in the form of pensions), or the market (in the form of superannuation), but when these are not trusted then the expectation falls to the family, reflected in social conformity with different family values. Sometimes this approach, merely a small part in the wider notion of “Asian Values”, is presented as superior to the Western model.

I’ll leave it to you the reader to judge the better approach on the whole, but despite some claims to the contrary it certainly isn’t always superior. An example of this is the story here of an alleged young Indonesian terrorist. I will take his mother at her word that she didn’t know of his involvement, but his arrest reflects the intervention of the law to deal with a failure of social conformity (and possibly also a failure of the market depending on his motivation).

Which leads me to the critical and fundamental difference between the West and Southeast Asian societies. In the West you often invest a greater amount of your trust in laws, but in Southeast Asia a more significant part of your trust appears to be invested elsewhere.

To me, discovering just where that trust is placed in Southeast Asian societies is one of the great learning experiences in Southeast Asian studies.

Note 1 – I should also add that this experience is of course mirrored in those studying and experiencing unfamiliar cultures outside Southeast Asia, but it is the Southeast Asia blog so that is where the focus is.

Note 2 – The different forces of compulsion generated by the law and the market underline the different approaches to managing pollution, with variations of a carbon tax/emissions trading scheme respectively reflecting the choices confronting Southeast Asian states seeking to reduce pollution.