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Indonesia vs. Malaysia: a cultural war

The neighboring nations are engaged in a tense struggle for superiority, and the rift is widening: It's cultural, it's political and, recently, it's gotten personal.

October 21, 2009|John M. Glionna

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — For decades, Uni Histayanti has performed the enigmatic movements of her country's traditional pendet dance. She learned the rhythms as an infant and years ago opened a dinner theater here in the Indonesian capital where, dressed in native costume, she performs nightly.

As she flutters her arms bird-like, darts her eyes and tilts her head at exotic angles, she invokes the welcoming spirit of the Hindu-majority Bali island where it originated centuries ago.

That's why it floored her to hear that neighboring Malaysia had reportedly tried to seize the pendet as its own. It's pure cultural piracy, Histayanti insists. And it makes her mad.

"It's a symbol of our heritage, not theirs," she said as she applied makeup in a backstage dressing room of her theater. "If you have something and someone tries to steal it, you take it back."

These two predominantly Muslim neighbors, which share ethnic and physical traits, are engaged in a tense struggle for superiority.

Nowadays, the rift is widening. It's cultural. It's political. And recently, it has gotten personal.

Many Malaysians dismiss the teeming Indonesian archipelago as a source for the low-class maids, parking-lot jockeys and waiters who work in Kuala Lumpur and other cities in Malaysia.

For their part, Indonesians icily counter that Malaysia is so desperate for a culture that it will resort to anything -- even outright theft -- to acquire one.

The pendet dance tiff, the latest slugfest over so-called proprietary traditions, emerged this summer when rumors spread that Malaysia was responsible for television ads claiming the invention of the pendet dance.

Within days, a private company producing a program for the Discovery Channel admitted they were behind the ads and that they had mistakenly picked the wrong dance to promote their upcoming program. The Malaysian government, they explained, had nothing to do with the foul-up.

But it was too late. Indonesia's feathers had been ruffled.

Indonesia's tourism minister demanded a written apology, which he said was needed for the record.

Meanwhile, outraged Indonesians waged a "Crush Malaysia" campaign reminiscent of a nationalistic tirade in the 1960s.

This time, mobs burned the Malaysian flag, which features a crescent moon and sun, and threw rotten eggs at the embassy in Jakarta.

For days, protesters wielding sharpened bamboo sticks stopped traffic in search of Malaysian motorists and pedestrians. Six Indonesians were arrested. No one was injured, but the Malaysian Embassy complained about the safety of its citizens.

Internet hackers attacked Malaysian government websites. One nationalist youth group began collecting signatures on the Internet for volunteers willing to go to war with Malaysia.

Though the leaders of the youth group concede that such a face-off is extremely unlikely, they say they have stockpiled food, medicine and weapons such as samurai swords and ninja throwing-stars.

Such high jinks baffle many Malaysians, not to mention Indonesians.

"These guys with pointed sticks, they're from the loony left," said Ong Hock Chuan, a Malaysian-born public relations consultant who lives in Jakarta. "If it wasn't Malaysia, they'd vent their anger at something else."

But many others here say the resentment is widespread and runs deep.

Newspapers run stories about mistreatment of some of the 2 million Indonesian workers by their bosses in Malaysia. Last year, Indonesia temporarily stopped sending maids to Malaysia until better security was provided for the workers.

"Many who want to invade Malaysia are former migrant workers or people who know one," said Aleksius Jemadu, a political scientist at Pelita Harapan University in Indonesia. "There is a sense that Malaysians look down on us. They insult us. And to tell you the truth, many Indonesians are secretly envious because they view most Malaysians as being better off than us."

The two governments also remain at loggerheads.

"Each wants to be seen as the regional leader in Southeast Asia," he said. "They both claim to be the leading Muslim nation."

A fresh skirmish of the culture wars breaks out now and then when Indonesians claim Malaysians have yet again plagiarized their indigenous art and music.

Malaysians have reportedly laid claim to the Indonesian reog performances -- a mix of dance and magic, as well as the angklung, a bamboo musical instrument, activists say.

In 2007, Indonesia threatened legal action against Malaysia for allegedly co-opting Indonesian songs and dances in its national tourism campaign. That resulted in a high-profile panel being convened to settle the dispute.

Many in Indonesia claim that even Malaysia's national anthem borrows from an Indonesian song. Experts solicited to settle the fight reported that both songs borrow from a 19th century French tune.

At home, many Indonesians say, Malaysians are protective of their own culture.

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