Last month, Twitter was all abuzz when a number of media outlets in Indonesia reported that the Malaysian government had allegedly claimed the Tor-Tor dance — originated from the Mandailing people in North Sumatra — as part of their cultural heritage. Now we all know that those reports are quite inaccurate: Malaysia actually added the dance to its National Heritage Law so that it would be preserved, practiced and even get budget allocation from the government, while, at the same time, recognized that it came from the Mandailing people — some of whom had migrated to and been living in Malaysia since many years ago.
I’m not going to delve into the discourse on Indonesia-Malaysia dispute here, but this has definitely piqued a new curiosity. After all the brouhahas we had that involved things ranging from batik to Reyog Ponorogo, it is apt to ask: What does it actually take to protect and preserve our cultural heritage?
To seek a new perspective, especially from legal point of view, I chatted with Rangga Dachlan, an Indonesian student who currently pursues his master degree on international law at Groningen University, Netherlands. He said until now a number of international agreements regulate cultural heritage, “but the one that directly addresses the intangible dimension of cultural heritage would be the 2003 Unesco Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH Convention), which aims at safeguarding not only intangible cultural heritage, like dances, but also any tangible element associated with them.”
In the case of Tor-Tor, Malaysia apparently is not a party to the Convention. Thus, it is not bound by any obligations. Also, as shown in the leaflet published by Unesco in 2011 on intangible cultural heritage, Indonesia has only registered five cultural elements to the international body: Saman dance, Angklung, Batik, Keris and Wayang theater.
“Even if Malaysia claims the Tor-Tor, Indonesia is not bound by that claim,” said Rangga. “The fact that Indonesia is offended may imply that the situation regarding cultural heritage is not about ownership, but about sovereignty instead. Sovereignty not only encompasses the denial of other authority than that of the State itself, but also the responsibility to, putting it simply, protect the people and the resources within that State’s authority.”
So, what can Indonesia do to safeguard its heritage?
“I think one of the ways is to fulfill its treaty obligation of the national level of safeguarding under the ICH Convention, one of which is making a national inventory.” Rangga admitted that the task is daunting, but it will also be beneficial. “Whenever Malaysia or any other country ‘claims’ Indonesia’s cultural heritage as ‘theirs,’ Indonesia can easily point out that the heritage in question has already been listed in its national inventory. “
Rangga also enlightened me about the phenomenon of cultural appropriation, which refers to “the taking of any element of culture from its original context to be performed or reproduced somewhere else, which will naturally include anything from a Chinese woman yodeling to an American boy practicing karate. I think, then, it is quite evident that if the threats are of deterioration, disappearance and destruction, cultural appropriation in fact replenishes and re-flourishes cultural heritage.”
This sentiment is also shared by Riza Aryani, a student and English debater at University of Indonesia. Riza said making our own culture more mainstream internationally could only be a good thing. “When Indonesia claims something as its own heritage, but in the end nothing is done to develop it, then there is no use of going through all the difficulties. It’s a globalization era after all, you cannot control everything.” She thought it was better to spread our culture globally. “It’s just like the Japanese and their sushi.”
To take another example, we can see how international fashion designers, such as Christopher Bailey of Burberry Prorsum or Dries Van Noten, used batik and ikat prints from Indonesia for their collections. It is a great validation for Indonesian craftsmanship and, as a result, our heritage becomes more well-known.
We might get easily angry that our culture is being claimed or utilized by other countries. But this time around, perhaps we need to adjust our mindset: Being known globally is good. It is not weird these days to see, say, sushi restaurants or salsa clubs in big cities around the world – and don’t get me started on Chinatown.
Only by starting to appreciate what we have in our own home, can Indonesian cultural heritage keep on thriving. It does not necessarily mean that we should wear batik every single day and watch traditional dance performances when spending the weekend (although, admittedly, that wouldn’t hurt). We can start educating ourselves, for instance, by checking out Web site like Budaya Indonesia, which lists various cultural elements that Indonesia has, from traditional music to food. And making effort to spread them will only ensure that our cultural heritage will not disappear in the future.