MANY SIMILARITIES: The peoples of Indonesia and Malaysia should celebrate their inter-connected past
SCHOLARS who follow the long and complicated historical relations between Malaysia and Indonesia are sometimes baffled by how and why certain parties in both countries tend to view each other with incredulity and a lack of comprehension.
For many years now, some quarters in Indonesia have raised the question of why Malaysia has "claimed" some of Indonesia's symbols, artistic products and cultural practices as theirs, and this has been accompanied by demonstrations of anger and frustration.
Before going any further, allow me to reiterate for the umpteenth time that as a scholar who works and teaches in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, I see nothing but similarities between all three countries; and that these similarities can be traced back to a common history that they all share -- even if some quarters do not wish to admit it.
The recent spat erupted as a result of Malaysia stating that two dance forms are part of Malaysian culture as well, although they originated from Sumatra that neighbours the Peninsular Malaysia.
On the Indonesian side some groups are claiming that these dances are Sumatran in origin and that they are, therefore, Indonesian in character. But scholars need to be wary of the tendency to backdate historical claims too far, and we should remember that these dance forms presumably existed long before both Malaysia and Indonesia came into being in the form of the modern nation-states they now assume.
Southeast Asians need to remember that our culture, belief systems, cosmologies and languages came into being long before the era of modern nation-states, and long before the advent of colonial rule that divided the region into neatly-compartmentalised blocks. Have we forgotten that for more than a millenium, millions of people travelled regularly between the coastal port cities of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula?
And have we forgotten that millions of those who are regarded as "Malay" in Malaysia are themselves descendants of Minangs, Bugis, Javanese, Madurese, Acehnese, who hailed from what is now Indonesia? Until today my Indonesian students are startled when I tell them that there are plenty of Malaysians who speak Javanese, Minang, Bugis or other languages apart from Bahasa Malaysia, for the simple reason that their families (like mine) came from what is today modern Indonesia.
The reason for this confusion is simple enough to see. On both sides of the frontier, Malaysian and Indonesian history has been written by post-colonial historians who write for their respective national audiences.
In my reading of Indonesian history books, I am pleasantly surprised by the huge emphasis given to the rich cultural diversity of Indonesia, and the constant reminder that Indonesia is a complex nation with many nations-among-nations in it.
It is a pity that this celebration of diversity does not extend to the recognition of the many diasporas that have also settled in other parts of the archipelago such as Malaysia and Singapore -- where there are also thousands of Javanese, Minangs, Bugis, etc, who have become Malaysian and Singaporean citizens by now.
To return to the current huff over the Sumatran dances that are seen as part of Malaysia's cultural heritage as well: this was not an instance of Malaysia "stealing" an Indonesian dance but rather the recognition that so much of what constitutes Malaysian identity has been the contribution of our kith and kin from Sumatra as well. The same applies to the contribution from Java, Madura, Sulawesi, and further afield like India, China and the Arab lands. If I, as a Malaysian of Javanese descent, chose to wear the blankon and sarong, am I "stealing" Javanese culture, or am I celebrating my own diverse origins and roots?
As Asean inches closer to the Asean Charter in 2015, I hope that the peoples and governments of the region would choose to reconnect with our inter-connected past instead of emphasising our differences all the time.
Indonesia on the other hand should see this as testimony to its long and deep cultural outreach across the archipelago, and something it can be justifiably proud of. Nationalism does not have to be of the exclusive, bellicose variety: Sometimes accepting that others appreciate you can also pay dividends.