Are the Tor-Tor dance and other cultural elements that originated in Indonesia exclusively Indonesian, even though many Malaysians consider them part of their cultural heritage? (Graphic by Dayang Norazhar/The Mole)
KUALA LUMPUR: As anger builds in Indonesia over a Malaysian government decision to officially recognise a dance and music from Sumatra as part of Malaysia’s national heritage, there have been several calls for more recognition of both countries’ shared heritage – and for cooler heads to prevail.
The Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture announced last week that the Tor-Tor dance and Gordang Sambilan drums – both of which originated in the Batak and Mandailing cultures of North Sumatra – would be added to the country’s National Heritage Law, as there are many Malaysians of Mandailing descent.
The announcement prompted negative remarks from Indonesians, including a lawmaker, Ruhut Sitompul, who said “Once in a while, I think it’s necessary that we bomb [Malaysia] as a form of shock therapy. Otherwise they will keep oppressing us. There’s no need for diplomacy - they always find excuses.”
Remarks by Indonesian bloggers were less provocative but angry nonetheless. Blogger David Khoirul wrote a post about the controversy with the title ‘Malaysia steals Indonesia’s Tor Tor dance from North Sumatera’.
Blogger Klaten City wrote “Dear Malaysia, please don’t claim something…that is purely from Indonesia.”
Another Indonesian blogger, Raymond Ginting, said “I don’t know why Malaysia always want to have a problem with Indonesia, do they want to have a war with Indonesia?”
Anger boiled over last Friday during protests at the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta and the nearby Malaysia Hall, the latter suffering damage as a result of being pelted with rocks and wood.
Meanwhile, commentators in both countries have said Indonesian anger is misplaced because the two countries’ shared heritage should mean the recognition of Batak/Mandailing culture as part of Malaysian heritage is nothing controversial.
Malaysian blogger SeaDemon, himself a Mandailing by descent, said there were many notable Malaysian Mandailings, and that cross-border ties between Malaysia and Indonesia “bind the two together as the same people divided only by political and diplomatic boundaries, but who are really one”.
SeaDemon said Tor-Tor and Gordang Sambilan “should be preserved by the people of Malaysia as a heritage so they would and could remember how the bond of this Nusantara is still very much alive and...strengthens cultural and spiritual ties between nations”.
“The only way for this to be achieved is to suppress extremism and getting rid of ignorance,” he said.
Datuk Nuraina Samad was more blunt, writing in her blog, “We share a cultural heritage. Get over it. Deal with it.”
“We do not claim that batik, Rasa Sayang and Reyog originated in Malaysia. But they've been in Malaysia a mighty long time courtesy of those who came from Indonesia,” she said.
“So, we want to claim them as our cultural heritage. Why not? They belong to the people who came from Java and Sumatra during a time when neither Indonesia nor Malaysia was a sovereign nation,” she said, adding: “There is a large Mendailing community in Malaysia who came to these shores more than a century ago. They are proud of their heritage. Isn't that a good thing?”
The fact that the Tor-Tor dance and Gordang Sambilan predated the nationonal boundaries of Malaysia and Indonesia was pointed out on the Indonesian side as well, with Pangeran Siahaan writing in the Jakarta Globe that the predictable flag-waving during this controversy and similar ones before it made him question what Indonesian culture actually is, and whether it belongs to a single country.
“My layman understanding finds it hard to understand how a country could claim something whose origin predates the inception of the nation,” he said.
“Tor-Tor dance, like batik and Reyog, was already there before the nation of Indonesia and Malaysia declared their independence and formed a sovereign state,” he said.
Political scientist Dr Farish A Noor, a Malaysian who has spent considerable time in Indonesia and Singapore, wrote in the New Straits Times: “I see nothing but similarities between all three countries; and…these similarities can be traced back to a common history that they all share -- even if some quarters do not wish to admit it.”
“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,” he said.
“The same applies to the contribution from Java, Madura, Sulawesi, and further afield like India, China and the Arab lands,” he said.
Dr Farish asked, “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?”
"Indonesia...should see this as testimony to its long and deep cultural outreach across the archipelago, and something it can be justifiably proud of," he said, adding: "Nationalism does not have to be of the exclusive, bellicose variety: Sometimes accepting that others appreciate you can also pay dividends."