|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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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