Are Malaysians buying up Indonesia's cultural heritage?

A rather disturbing report of Malaysian scholars allegedly buying up ancient manuscripts from private owners in the Indonesian Riau Islands (south of Singapore) in a bid “to find proof of their Malay identity”. The idea of Malay identity and ethnicity is a touchy issue in Malaysia, due to affirmative action policies that accord privileges to the Malays over the other ethnicities that share the country. However, this article should be seen in the light of relations between Indonesia and Malaysia, which are not at an all-time high at the moment. A few years ago, Indonesia accused Malaysia of using a traditional Indonesian song to promote Malaysian tourism. The most recent chilling of relations involves Indonesia freeze of domestic helpers working in Malaysia because of recent cases of abuse that has come to light. The reason I’m featuring this story is because, hey, it’s about ancient manuscripts (although most aren’t more than 200 years old so it can’t be that ancient) and it highlights a recurring theme in Indonesia that the government doesn’t have the will or the resources to take care of its own heritage, but are looking to blame Malaysia for buying up what little they have.

M`sians take ancient Malay manuscripts from Riau islands
Antara, 03 June 2009

A number of Malaysian academics have over the past three years moved some 60 ancient Malay manuscripts from Riau Islands province to their country, a culturalist said.

“Academics from a noted university in Malaysia have hunted ancient manuscripts and taken most of the documents from locations in Riau Islands such as Lingga Island, Bintan and Penyengat to their country. In Riau mainland, however, I never heard such a thing had happened,” Al-Azhar, the local culturalist said here Tuesday.

Al Azhar said, Malaysia had intensified hunts for ancient manuscripts in Indonesia in a bid to find proof of their Malay identity to support its advertising slogan of “truly Asia”.


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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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