Cultural nationalism will get us nowhere — Mario Rustan
JULY 6 — Staff on the news desk of Singapore’s Channel News Asia (CNA) must have had a good laugh to themselves recently. The joke was on Indonesian anger relating to the tortor dance, which the government of Malaysia acknowledged as a part of Malaysian culture. The Malaysian correspondent of CNA asked Malay guests at a luncheon whether they had heard of tortor and no one understood what she was talking about. A Malay lady was certain that the correspondent had confused “tattoo” with a nonsensical word.
Sujadi Siswo, the Indonesian Bureau chief who was in the studio, explained that the Indonesian media and public were really sensitive to any Malaysian actions regarding culture familiar to Indonesia, and were quick to view Malaysia as “stealing” Indonesian culture. He believes that Indonesians are unhappy that Malaysia’s economic performance and international profile are constantly above Indonesia, and the ensuing sense of injustice is directed at Malaysia.
In the end, the studio could not stop laughing. After all, Singaporeans never care if nasi lemak, teh tarik, or film legend P. Ramlee are Malaysian or Singaporean. Singaporeans simply believe that they share similar culture and heritage with Malaysians, a culture shaped by Malaysians, Chinese, Indians and the British.
Of course, in Indonesia nobody sees it as a laughing matter. Some students, scholars and politicians have called for the summoning or expulsion of the Malaysian Ambassador. When a representative of the ethnic Mandailing community in Malaysia said that the Mandailing community wished their transnational identity to be respected, Indonesian netizens said he was a “lying traitor”.
The Malaysian government is building a pan-Malay identity, in answer to the rising popularity of political Islam and in response to loss of support from Chinese, Indian and Orang Asli (indigenous) voters. In Malaysia, a Malay is not exclusively ethnic Malay.
A Malay is a Muslim Southeast Asian who speaks Malay, has Malay Islamic name, dresses like other Malays and socialises with other Malays. Using this definition, the Christian natives of Sabah and Sarawak are not accepted as Malays, and nor are Chinese Muslims who retain their Chinese culture.
Since the 19th century, various Southeast Asian ethnic groups had settled and worked on the peninsula, including Javanese, Bugis and Minang. As their descendants conform to the criteria of what constitutes a Malaysian, they are classified as ethnic Malays.
Their songs, dances and food are taken as part of Malay culture, partly to woo them and partly to contrast them to Chinese, Indian and European songs, dances, and food that form the larger Malaysian culture. The acknowledgment of tortor signifies the acknowledgment that Mandailing Malaysians are Malays too.
In Indonesia, we see things differently. We see Malaysia as a nation of Malays and thus it is impossible for them to practice a Javanese dance, sing a Maluku song, and eat a Minang meal. We hardly even refer to the name of ethnic groups but rely on the names of provinces, and act as if a province consists only of a single culture.
History has shaped this incompatibility and clash of interests. Sukarno fervently opposed the idea of federalism and insisted on unitary state, which is still the sacred model. The military put down differences through force during the 1950s, and was angry at Western aid and sympathy for the “rebels”. The finale of this unification campaign was the offensive against Dutch New Guinea, which is still unresolved today.
In the same decade, Malaya was granted independence by Britain and maintained good relations with London. In 1963, when Sukarno believed he was a global revolutionary leader on par with Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung, Malaya expanded its territory to include Northern Borneo and Singapore. Indonesia declared war as Sukarno wanted the whole of Borneo for Indonesia and claimed that Malaysia was a puppet state of Britain.
The effects are still strong today. Many members of today’s Indonesian middle class are fervently nationalistic with the NKRI (Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia) slogan and the trend to visit natural destinations in hard-to-reach places. The object of these trips is to experience deeper love for Indonesia. Malaysians, on the other hand, have no such concern when planning holidays.
The Malays are shopping for clothes and snacks in Indonesia while the Chinese are touring Malaysia in search of the best pork noodles and chilli crab, not to feel more Malaysian. And that is why many Indonesians say that Malaysians have no national identity — they don’t possess the romantic and patriotic pemuda spirit.
Like Siswo said, that is precisely where the frustration kicks in. I received news that the Indonesian programme in my alma mater had disbanded. The Facebook group discussion soon turned into another Malaysia-bashing session, where things like “maybe the Malaysians have claimed Bahasa Indonesia” and “we have a population 10 times the size of theirs” are written. Indonesia’s large population now seems like a liability, with the purchasing power parity of Malaysia four times that of Indonesia’s.
Malaysia holds a Formula One Grand Prix and hosts a steady influx of Taiwanese and Korean singers. Its airline and food and banking companies are operating through subsidiaries in Indonesia and even its tycoons own English soccer clubs. It is said that 80 per cent of Indonesians believe that the nation can become a superpower, but has no idea where to start.
Certainly, a superpower owns things globally. Its power comes not simply from the military, but more importantly from finance and popular culture. It comes from aggressive capitalist machines. And we do not seem to have any giant financial or media corporations.
So there is no way we can catch up with Malaysia at this point. That is why culinary critic William Wongso wants other Indonesians to refrain from patenting his beloved food, rendang. Like the media rage against Malaysia, it is pointless. If we want to catch up with Malaysia, then drop the jingoism and start piling up the cash. — The Jakarta Post
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.