November 28, 2022
JAKARTA – A race to claim the kebaya (traditional blouse) is potentially on the cards after Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand announced plans to jointly nominate the traditional dress for inclusion in the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage (IHT), in what is seen as a slight against Indonesia’s own endeavor.
The four Southeast Asian nations announced the joint initiative in a statement from Singapore’s National Heritage Board (NHB) on Wednesday. The idea was proposed by Malaysia but was then expanded to include the other three following a string of meetings conducted throughout 2022.
“[The] kebaya has been – and continues to be – a central aspect in the representation and display of cultural heritage and identity for Malay, Peranakan and other communities in Singapore, and is an integral part of our heritage as a multicultural port city, with links across Southeast Asia and the world,” said NHB CEO Chang Hwee Nee in the statement.
An upper-body garment traditionally worn by women across Southeast Asia, the kebaya has become something of a fashion icon for the region. Several flag carriers from the region, notably Singapore Airlines and Garuda Indonesia, have adopted the kebaya as a uniform for their female flight attendants.
The multinational bid in effect serves as a counterproposal to Indonesia’s own Kebaya Goes to UNESCO campaign, for which it is the sole nominating country.
Back in August, Kompas daily reported that talks of a kebaya joint nomination with Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei faced strong opposition from the Indonesian public as well as the government.
“With many regional variants, the kebaya is more than just an outfit, it contains the philosophy and identity of Indonesian women,” Lana Koentjoro, head of the National Kebaya Day proponent team, was quoted as saying.
That same month, House of Representatives Commission X, which oversees education, sports and tourism, gave its blessing for Indonesia to put forward a single nomination, pointing out that Malaysia had once made a claim to batik before a UNESCO ruling in 2009 attributed the dyeing technique, which originated in Java, as Indonesia’s cultural heritage.
“The kebaya absolutely belongs to Indonesia, and we have to be firm in submitting the kebaya to UNESCO as the sole nominee,” said House Commission X deputy chairwoman Agustina Wilujeng at the time.
The country has made quite an effort in promoting the kebaya as well, with the Indonesian Embassy in the United States helping to organize a kebaya parade at the National Mall in Washington, DC, in August for Independence Day.
Unsurprisingly, Indonesians have reacted negatively to the NHB’s announcement, with the institution’s Instagram page being bombarded with comments asserting that the kebaya belongs to Indonesia.
Meanwhile, a few others point to the fact that Indonesia had pulled the rug out from under itself when it chose to go it alone for the UNESCO nomination.
Indonesia has submitted several bids for the intangible cultural heritage list as a single nomination, as was the case for the wayang puppet theater and the gamelan percussion ensemble. But the country has worked with Malaysia to jointly nominate shared traditions such as the pantun rhyming poetic form in 2020 as well.
Speaking to local news outlet Detik.com, Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Sandiaga Uno used the pantun case to help argue for a joint nomination.
“We should join them just like when we nominated pantun. Joint nominations typically have a better chance with UNESCO,” the former Jakarta deputy governor suggested on Thursday.
Sandiaga especially would like to avoid a repeat of the songket situation, a hand-woven fabric of intricate patterns Indonesia submitted to be included in the ICH list before UNESCO chose to recognize the Malaysian songket instead in December 2021.
While Singapore has previously submitted its hawker culture to be considered for ICH status, the joint kebaya nomination would be the island nation’s first multinational nomination, and the first joint nomination involving the four neighboring countries.
Crucially, the NHB press release states that “the four participating countries welcome other countries to join this multinational nomination”, potentially opening the door for Indonesia to join the nomination at a later date.
The press release merely serves as a statement of intent, with the nomination set to be formally submitted to UNESCO by March 2023.
Officials from the Education, Culture, Research and Technology Ministry, which oversees the formal bid for Indonesia, have not immediately responded to requests for comment.