Recognising our cultural diversity


Living heritage: A file picture showing a Chetti community celebrating Deepavali at Kampung Chetti Melaka.

PETALING JAYA: The unique dialects and languages. Or the adat (customary laws).

And there is also the heritage in Melaka as seen through the Chitty community in the state.

These are among suggestions by experts on Malaysia’s uniqueness that could be promoted, following news that Singapore’s hawker culture made it into Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity last month.

(Penang, known for its street food, had explained that it could not submit its application on time as it takes about five years to pursue the recognition, besides costing the state government RM5mil to do so.)

Universiti Malaya’s Dean of Arts and Social Science Faculty Prof Datuk Dr Danny Wong Tze Ken said there were many other cultural heritages that Malaysia should promote to get them in the Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

He cited Malaysia’s unique languages and dialects.

“For a start, there is the Kristang community in Melaka. They are Portuguese descendants who speak Kristang, ” he said when contacted.

In fact, Prof Wong said that Prof Stephanie Pillai of UM was leading a project to help preserve the language by developing materials and programmes including online classes.

Another example, he said, was the Hokkien dialect (originated from China’s Fujian province) in Penang which had a great deal of word-borrowing from the Malay language and other local languages.

“It has come to the point that when these people speak to one another, those from Fujian in China cannot understand them as the dialect has evolved so much, ” he said.

Prof Wong said that Sabah and Sarawak also had its share of languages and dialects among the indigenous people.

Although many are facing the threat of possible extinction as fewer people are able to speak them fluently, there are some efforts in promoting them, such as the Iban language.

“The Iban Language Foundation in Sarawak and the Kadazandusun Language Foundation in Sabah are such examples.

“These are languages unique to Malaysia, and should be part of Malaysia’s Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, ” he said.

Other areas to explore include the adat that are practised by the different communities.

Prof Wong said these unwritten laws governing community lives had been passed down through the generations.

“While these adat have lots of similarities in form or structure, they are also unique to each tribe.

“There have been efforts to codify them and to practise them as a form of legal system like the Native Court in Sabah, for instance, ” he said.

Prof Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria, who is associate fellow at UKM’s Institute of Ethnic Studies, felt that cultural practices, attire and food of the Peranakans should be looked into.

Although Melaka was declared a Unesco world heritage site, he said the focus should be on the living heritage.

He cited the Chitty or Chetti Melaka (Indian Peranakan) who had adopted both Chinese and Malay cultural practices and yet retained their Hindu heritage.

Malaysian Tourist Guides Council president Jimmy Leong named Kinta Valley in Perak and Sungei Lembing, both of which were known as tin mining communities.

The other is Kota Lama, which is a part of the rich history of the Johor Empire.

Leong said the “kangchu” system, which was a socio-economic system of organisation and administration developed by Chinese agricultural settlers in Johor, was put in place there.

“As a Unesco certified tourist guide trainer, my opinion is that any inscription of tangible or intangible properties onto the Unesco World Heritage List is an advantage in creating awareness on preservation, conservation, marketing and promotion and facilitating educational visitation for the public, ” he said.

However, National Council of Professors deputy president Prof Dr Kamaruddin M. Said felt that the Unesco’s list might do “more harm than good”.

He explained that some cultural heritage had no political boundaries because people belonged to one cultural entity before the formation of nation-states in South-East Asia.

“Before the creation of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, etc, people were free to move around.

“Nation-state boundaries were only formed in the early 20th century so it doesn’t make sense if we want to declare certain cultural heritage as belonging to a certain state or country, ” he said.

Kamaruddin also felt it was “not a good idea” to declare who owns a heritage.

“I think it is safe not to claim so many things (as your own heritage) unless and until we create something and are proud of it, ” he said.

Malaysia has had its own share of culture and heritage that had been added to the Unesco list.

Last month, pantun and the wangkang ceremony were placed on the list.

The pantun was jointly named with Indonesia, while wangkang is listed together with China.

In 2019, silat was also listed.

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