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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 3, 2009
Indonesia cut from a different cloth
By Sara Schonhardt

JAKARTA - Similarities in culture, language and religious customs should make Indonesia and Malaysia good neighbors. But long-running spats over everything from territorial boundaries to cultural ownership of culinary dishes, dances, instruments and even Malaysia's national anthem have over the years hampered ties.

The staking of claims over each other's culture came to a colorful head this Friday when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized batik, a wax-resistant dyeing technique, as part of Indonesia's distinct cultural heritage. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called for a party to celebrate the announcement and asked all Indonesians to wear their best batik garbs.

The Indonesian government expects UNESCO's recognition to

 

add a measure of protection to batik, despite the lack of any legally binding measures. By claiming the recognition, Indonesia agrees to take measures to promote and safeguard the tradition of batik-making, though the distinction does not impose any intellectual property rights over the technique. But it will nonetheless likely come as a snub to Malaysia, which also claims cultural ownership over the patterning method.

Batik is a way of hand-painting wax lines on cloth that is then dyed, explained designer and collector Josephine "Obin" Komara, who has collected batik clothes since the 1970s. "If you're talking about batik made in that way, it is only in Indonesia."

The motifs and colors on the cloth mean different things to different cultures. Indonesian batik typically incorporates folklore and flowers, also a common element in Malaysian batik, given their cultural similarities. In the past, patterns have also reflected one's social status. At present, Indonesia's 240 million people typically wear Western fashions, with batik worn more by government employees or for formal occasions.

A similar cultural flareup between Malaysia and Indonesia broke out in 2007 over the use of an Indonesian folk song, "Rasa Sayange", in a Malaysian tourism advertisement. That dispute sparked a resurgent nationalism among Indonesians, driving a newfound embrace for cultural items such as batik, and moving designers such as Edward Hutabarat to embark on a batik revival that saw a spike in local sales of the fabric.

The revival also saw synthetic batik flood in from China. Although definitions of batik now include cloth that is patterned using a machine, traditional batik is handmade, unlike the mass-market cloth Indonesia imports. With more synthetic batik on the market, vendors at Tanah Abang, Jakarta's largest textile market, have found they could only compete by producing their own machine-made batik, which they also sell to buyers in Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia.

Hera, a 30-year-old vendor wearing a sparkly black t-shirt and jeans, said she doesn't believe cultural protection of batik will do much to boost sales. "Business has been slow," she said. "Protection will only matter if people start buying."

Some designers say UNESCO's recognition comes too late to give Indonesia a market advantage in commercializing the tradition. "Indonesia has been really careless about claiming its heritage," said Sanchia Hamidjaja, 26, who designs leather bags with a trim and lining made from a rare and vibrant hand-drawn batik whose origins are ironically Chinese.

One man in a run-down section of Tanah Abang market believes the problem is not about batik, but rather stems from a lack of government support. "The government just doesn't protect small businesses," he said, explaining that while safeguarding batik is important, it won't help small businesses compete in an increasingly crowded market.

Sibling rivalry
Nor will it do much for regional goodwill. Politicians and academics often compare the relationship between Malaysia and Indonesia to that of two brothers always fighting over possessions. Since the batik spat began in August, Malaysia has claimed a host of shared cultural traditions as its own, including gamelan, a percussion instrument, and laksa, a spicy noodle soup.

These came in addition to the pendet, an Indonesian Balinese dance that sparked a dispute when it appeared in a promotional video for Malaysian tourism aired by the US-based Discovery Channel. "This was the last straw," said Yuli Ismartano, editor of Tempo Interaktif, a weekly news magazine. She said because of the Hindu traditions that make Bali so culturally distinct there was no mistaking that the dance originated in Malaysia. But the origins of many other art forms found throughout Southeast Asia, including batik, are more difficult to pinpoint.

The latest dispute over batik has provoked a spate of harsh newspaper editorials in Indonesia, setting off local protests. In early September, a group named the People's Democracy Defense set up identification checkpoints outside the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta in an effort to screen for Malaysians, though what they would have done to them is unclear because they showed up empty handed. Members of the same group also have launched "sweeps" against the roughly 10,000 Malaysians now living, studying or working in Indonesia.

Indonesians and Malaysians can be fiercely nationalistic when comes to the other. During the 1960s, independence hero and then Indonesian president Sukarno's ultra-nationalism resulted in a campaign of Konfrontasi, or undeclared war with Malaysia, over the then-contested, now split, territory of Borneo. That led to the famous declaration "Ganyang Malaysia" ("Crush Malaysia"), which has appeared on protest banners over the past month near certain government offices.

For their part, many Malaysians tend to look down their noses at Indonesians as poorer and less sophisticated. The bilateral issue important to many Malaysians concerns migrant labor and minimum wage laws for Indonesians, who are valued as an abundant and cheap work source who understands the local language, Bahasa.

On points of contention between the two countries, Ibrahim Suffin, program director at the Merdeka Center, an opinion research firm based in Kuala Lumpur, said Malaysia has taken a more "capitalistic" view. Indonesia has take a more nationalistic one, driving grassroots support for cultural ownership of batik, said Chitra Aziza Subiyakto, a creative buyer at Alun Alun, a Jakarta department store that sells Indonesian cultural products.

Activists and collectors say UNESCO designation will improve international recognition and help educate Indonesian consumers about the need to preserve the country's heritage. "We can't deny globalization and the fact that there is a segment in the market that is always branded," said Tina Sutanto, marketing head for Alun Alun. She calls the UN's recognition "shock therapy" and hopes it will help revive the batik-making industry.

According to an estimate by Indonesia's Industry Ministry, foreign-made batik accounted for 10%, or Rp 290 billion (US$31 million) of the Rp2.9 trillion domestic market in 2008. At places like Alun Alun, local batik retails from anywhere between Rp200,000 and Rp2 million, compared to imported batik from China, which sells for about half that price.

Improving preservation efforts, education and respect is the main purpose of UNESCO's so-called Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which it defines as the "practices, expressions, knowledge and skills, that communities ... recognize as part of their cultural heritage." But UNESCO designation is merely a tool to ensure that states take action to protect these traditions from disappearing, said Masanori Nagaoka, program specialist for culture at Jakarta's UNESCO office.

However, it neither puts a patent on batik's production nor grants intellectual property right protection, Nagaoka said, explaining diplomatically that UNESCO's acceptance of Indonesia's application for recognition does not involve a discussion about the relationship between Indonesian and Malaysian batik.

Despite claiming batik as part of its cultural tradition, Malaysia has not submitted its own bid to UNESCO for the technique. Of the 90 items on the UN's intangible cultural heritage list, Indonesia has three - batik, wayang kulit (shadow puppet theater) and the kris, a traditional dagger. Malaysia, which has not ratified the convention, has so far only submitted a bid for Mak Yong Theater, an ancient form of theater that incorporates ritual dancing and acting.

Unlike the heated discussions circulating in Indonesia, the batik issue has not run as hot in Malaysia. Even more economically substantive territorial disputes, such as the rights to the oil-rich region of Ambalat, which both Malaysia and Indonesia claim, are seldom talked about in Malaysia, said the Merdeka Center's Ibrahim.

"The average person doesn't see Indonesia as a threat, and he recognizes that the two countries have many commonalities and shared traditions," said Ibrahim. "Malaysians don't understand why Indonesia is so sensitive about its culture."

A September 9 newspaper editorial written by Malaysian Jamal Ibrahim argued that Malaysia's comparatively higher economic progress has sparked insecurity in Indonesia. Although Malaysia is geographically a third of the size of Indonesia, which spans 17,000 islands, its gross domestic product per capita of nearly US$14,500 is four times larger than Indonesia's.

Indonesian analysts, meanwhile, say that it's their country's poor ability to market its cultural heritage that contributes to its economic underperformance. When it comes to world heritage sites, the UN body likes to use the threat of delisting as an incentive to get governments to temper development plans in favor of preservation.

Whether UNESCO recognition of Indonesian batik acts as incentive for Indonesians to more fully embrace and protect their traditions is unclear. UNESCO, of course, has no authority to ensure that batik and its heritage is protected. But that doesn't matter to people like batik collector Obin. "It makes up what Indonesia is," she said. "Not claiming it would be like disowning your mother."

Sara Schonhardt is a freelance writer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for six years and has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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