26 October 2007 (Jakarta Post) – I mentioned in the previous post about the Negara Kertagama about how Malaysia and Indonesia are embroiled in a dispute over the a traditional song, and I just wanted to highlight this editorial in the Jakarta Post which might shed light on our non-Southeast Asian readers who might not be familiar with the politics of the region. The term “Malay” does not mean the same thing in Malaysia and Indonesia!
This difference in the definition of Malay, while essentially a political one, has profound consequences in exploring the archaeology of the different Malay peoples in the region. I hope this editorial might add a little nuanced understanding in how current politics affects archaeology.
Malaysia, Indonesia out of tune
Ong Hock Chuan
Neighboring and serumpun (from the same root) countries Malaysia and Indonesia have been out of step with each other lately over the traditional song Rasa Sayang.
The song and dance over Rasa Sayang began when the Malaysian government used it as a jingle to promote the country’s tourism.
Indonesians were aghast that a homespun Ambonese song had been appropriated by its neighbor. Some legislators called for the Malaysian government to be sued in the international court for stealing an Indonesian song.
Malaysia reacted by saying that the song was as much theirs as Indonesia’s since the song came from the Malay Archipelago. And since Malaysia’s culture is dominantly Malay, they had a right to use it.
Though the Rasa Sayang issue seemed to center over the heritage of a common culture, what it really exposed was the vast cultural difference between Malaysia and Indonesia in what is meant by the word “Malay.”
The difference is rooted over the perception of the concept of “Malay” in.
To Indonesians, Malay means an “ethnic group located primarily in the Malay peninsula, and parts of Sumatra and Borneo,” if you go by the Wikipedia definition. In other words, being Malay is no different from being a Batak, a Javanese, an Ambonese or a Sundanese. They are all, however of one nationality Indonesian, no matter which ethnic group they belong to and everyone is considered equal in the constitution.
This is not so in Malaysia. To many Malaysians, especially the Malaysian government, the word Malay means a race, as proposed by the German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach.
It is a theory that has been dismissed by anthropologists but, says the Wikipedia entry, “is still often used in this context, and it is the basis for Malay identity within the Malaysian nation.”
And there lies the trap that destroys Malaysia’s claim to any ownership to Rasa Sayang or most of the so-called Malay traditions and culture.
In reality, the Malays in Malaysia are mostly of Indonesian origin, according to Michael Chick, a Malaysian film maker who has studied the issue in depth. He has commented in a blog that 75 percent of Malays in Peninsular Malaysia are of Javanese descent. An additional 20 percent are from the rest of Indonesia.
Yet, because of history and politics, the Malaysian government must maintain the notion that Malay is a race. The notion secures for the government the support and votes of the “Malays” in Malaysia, who constitute a majority of the population.
If it were to acknowledge that Malay is not a race, then it would mean that Malaysia is a diverse nation that comprise ethnic Javanese, Chinese, Tamils, Minangkabau, Negrito, Dayak?It would have to go the Indonesian route of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (unity in Diversity). If this happens the political elite would lose its hold on power.
So this is the reason why Malaysia can only spin poor excuses for its use of Rasa Sayang. And it is for this reason that when it comes to a pissing contest dealing with the ownership of culture and heritage in both countries, Indonesia will always be upwind.
Indonesia, however, should not let this be an excuse to sit on its haunches. Culturally, Indonesia suffers from an embarrassment of richness when compared to its neighbor, but the ability of the government to exploit these potential gems is an embarrassment when compared to Malaysia.
For all its faults the Malaysian government is much better at packaging and marketing than Indonesia.
Indonesians here all admire how Malaysia markets itself with it Truly Asia slogan while living in a country of immense cultural, ethnic and geographic diversity. Its own marketing efforts are miserable and one would be hard pressed to remember the Indonesian tourism slogan.
Indonesia needs to wake up to the fact that it is bad at marketing and if it continues to be bad, its competitors would take advantage. While Indonesia can be righteous, it would also be futile as we all live in a world where migration makes borders meaningless and competition razor sharp across borders.
Indonesia must be competitive to survive. It is blessed by natural resources and the diversity of its peoples and cultures that none can match. It is better to make the most of what we have rather than make much ado over what others take from us.
– Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology (New Directions in Archaeology) by P. L. Kohl, C. Fawcett (Eds)
– The Politics of Archaeology and Identity in a Global Context (Aia Colloquia and Conference Papers) by S. Kane