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Malaysia-Indonesia cultural spat: A kin long forgotten?

COMMENT | In Oct 2017, Indonesians were angered over Miss Grand Malaysia’s costume, claiming it to be a blatant theft of their cultural heritage.

Miss Grand Malaysia 2017, Sanjeda John, was wearing a costume inspired by the Javanese-based kuda kepang. There are sizable Malaysians of Javanese ancestry residing in many parts of Malaysia.

As the people of Malaysia and Indonesia are part of the Malay Archipelago, both nations possess a number of cultural similarities.

The Malay Archipelago or Nusantara, as it is popularly known in Indonesia, was home to several bygone empires of the Malay race namely Langkasuka, Srivijaya, Majapahit, Malacca and Acheh.

The centres of political power of these kingdoms were scattered all over Nusantara, particularly on the islands of Sumatra, Java and the Malay peninsula itself.

These kingdoms flourished by exploiting the maritime trade routes that flowed via the Straits of Malacca and Singapore and the Sunda Strait.

After the sacking of the Sultanate of Malacca in 1511, the heirs to the throne of Malacca, Sultan Muzaffar Shah and Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah II established the Perak and the Johor-Riau Sultanates respectively, claiming territories once ruled by Malacca.

While Perak remained a backwater kingdom, Johor-Riau flourished into a formidable Malay power commanding over the Straits of Malacca and controlling one of the world’s major shipping route.

In 1619, the Dutch established Batavia on the island of Java and were successful in expanding their influence into Malacca in 1641.

In 1685, the British arrived in Southeast Asia and erected Fort Marlborough in their newly-founded colony of Bengkulu (Bencoolen) in Sumatra.

In the early 1600s, Aceh rose as a major native power in the region and colonised most parts of northern Sumatra and the Malay peninsula and also subjugated Johor and Kedah under its power.

The gradual decline of Aceh after the death of Sultan Iskandar Thani in 1641 strengthened Johor’s position as the foremost Malay power, taking control over the Strait of Malacca.

By 1680, Riau (part of the Johor-Riau Sultanate) became the foremost trading port in the region as affirmed by the Dutch governor of Malacca at that time, Thomas Slicher, who described Riau as a thriving port with bustling shipping activities.

The Dutch was not keen to develop Malacca as they put more importance on Batavia, their capital in the East.

The more serious competing claims in the Malay world began between the British and the Dutch when Stamford Raffles, the then governor-general of Bencoolen, decided that the British needed other strategic settlements, particularly on the Malay Peninsula, to counter Dutch hegemony in this region.

Initially, Bintan was identified as a possible candidate but eventually, Raffles had his eyes on Singapore, then a territory of the Johor-Riau Sultanate.

In 1824, Singapore was ceded to the British by the then ruler of Singapore, Tengku Hussein.

Despite the gradual encroachment of European powers into the Malay world, local Malay kingdoms were largely left untouched until the Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 was concluded.

This treaty was entered into by the colonial powers without taking into consideration its effect on the socio-political scenario of the Malay world.

The Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 - the momentous treaty that carved the Malay World into two parts – saw Singapore and the Malay Peninsula placed under British influence while Sumatra and the Riau Islands were put under the Dutch sphere of influence.

Upon the independence of Malaya in 1957 and Indonesia in 1945, these sovereign countries inherited territories not demarcated by previous kingdoms or sultanates, but by their former colonial masters, uniquely shaping the Malay world to become what it is today.

'Cultural theft'

The Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 separated the Malays into two nations, causing confusion in cultural identity that persists till today.

In past years, some Indonesians have protested against Malaysia for allegedly 'stealing' Indonesian cultures such as tari pendet from Bali, the rendang dish from Sumatra, batik from Java and the Rasa Sayange song from Maluku.

In 2010, this problem escalated as Indonesia was not happy with Malaysia claiming angklung as part of its national heritage.

This dispute continued up to 2012 when Malaysia was said to have ‘unethically’ recognised the Tor-Tor dance and the musical instrument Gordang Sambilan as part of its own culture.

The anti-Malaysia sentiment was particularly intense in between 2009 and 2011 to the extent that the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta was attacked a number of times and there were also attempts to ‘sweep’ Malaysians off the streets of Jakarta.

In addition, there were also intemperate calls for war against Malaysia even though they were never taken seriously.

The anti-Malaysia sentiment has receded as of late but the perception remains until this day and apparently sparked the negative sentiment against the costume worn by Miss Grand Malaysia 2017.

Despite being part of the "Malay race", the understanding of the term "Malay" is different in both countries.

While Malaysia defines ‘Malays’ to include Bataks, Javanese, Buginese, Minang, Acehnese and other related Indonesian ethnic groups, Indonesia defines "Malays" more narrowly.

"Malays" in Indonesia are generally regarded as people of Malay ancestry that inhabit most parts of Sumatra, the Riau province, Peninsular Malaysia and coastal areas of Borneo.

This differing definition of the word "Malay" had to a certain extent contributed to the ambiguity over cultural heritage and the misplaced notion of "cultural theft" alleged against Malaysia.

Malaysian history is quite significantly influenced by the past kingdoms across the Malay Archipelago – a region now largely part of Indonesia.

The Malay peninsula was once under the influence of Srivijaya and Majapahit, both of Sumatran and Javanese origins respectively.

The powerful 14th-century Sultanate of Malacca was a maritime empire ruled by Srivijaya princes of Sumatran origin.

Common roots

The people of the Malay race have been dwelling all across the archipelago for hundreds of years. Malaysia and Indonesia were only established in mid-20th century. How could people of the same roots commit cultural theft?

The Beijing government had never protested against Malaysia for allowing Chinese Malaysians to practise the culture of their ancestors.

Likewise, there have never been any complaints put forward by the Indian government against Malaysia for promoting Indian culture in Malaysian tourism advertisements.

Be that as it may, the Malays are still the same people – in Malaysia or Indonesia. This cultural confusion is undoubtedly the grim result of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

Malaysia and Indonesia (particularly West Indonesia) should realise that they possess a number of linguistic, religious and cultural similarities.

Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of Indonesia, has its roots in the Malay language, the national language of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam.

Nevertheless, there had never been any protests from these three countries against Indonesia for "stealing" the Malay language.

This prolonged cultural spat would obviously do no good for both Malaysians and Indonesians.

It is now time for Malaysians and Indonesians to stop arguing over this trivial matter as they are indeed part of the same people.


MOHD HAZMI MOHD RUSLI (PhD) is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a visiting professor at the School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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