Who does the kebaya belong to?


Elegant fashion: An illustration of a painting in Didiet Maulana’s ‘Kisah Kebaya’ depicting several regional variations of kebaya worn by Indonesian women in the past century. — The Jakarta Post/ANN

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 organisation Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage, in what is seen as a slight against Indonesia’s own endeavour.

The four South-East 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 expanded to include the other three following 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 South-East Asia and the world,” said NHB CEO Chang Hwee Nee in the statement.

An upper-body garment traditionally worn by women across South-East 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.

In August, Kompas daily reported that talks of a kebaya joint nomination with Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei faced strong opposition from the Indonesian public and 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,” House Commission X deputy chairwoman Agustina Wilujeng said at the time.

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.

But others pointed out 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, such as the wayang puppet theatre and gamelan percussion ensemble. But the country has also worked with Malaysia to jointly nominate shared traditions such as the pantun rhyming poetic form in 2020.

Speaking to news outlet Detik.com, Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Sandiaga Uno said: “We should join them just like when we nominated pantun. Joint nominations typically have a better chance with Unesco.”

Crucially, the NHB statement says “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. — The Jakarta Post/ANN

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