Can the National Cultural Policy 2021 help protect vulnerable heritage communities?

The nomadic Bajau Laut people live on small wooden sailing vessels while some who are semi-nomadic live in stilt huts such as these built in shallow waters. The UNHCR has determined that the Bajau Laut are a 'population of concern' in Sabah. They need protection to ensure their cultural heritage doesn't disappear. — Filepic/The Star

MALAYSIA's National Cultural Policy 2021 is scheduled to be launched today (Oct 26, 2021) by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob. According to Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri, the policy "will drive the nation's arts and culture industry".

The National Cultural Policy 2021 will focus on (1) the future implementation of the arts, (2) culture and heritage strategies that will include high value culture, (3) community harmony, (4) preservation and conservation of cultural heritage, (5) cultural development and expansion, (6) cultural empowerment, and (7) generation of a cultural economy and cultural excellence.

I believe this move will reenergise the arts and culture sector in Malaysia. At the same time, it strengthens the National Culture Policy 1971, which was implemented with three objectives: To strengthen national unity through culture, to foster and preserve national identity created through national culture, and to enrich and enhance the quality of human life in equilibrium with socioeconomic development.

The implementation of the National Culture Policy 1971 was carried out via restoration, preservation and development of culture towards strengthening national culture through joint research, development, education and cultural expansion and connections; by increasing and strengthening cultural leadership through training and guidance of interested individuals; by supporting and mobilising culture as an effective engine of growth; by establishing effective communication to instil national awareness and Malaysian nationalism; by fulfilling sociocultural needs; and by improving the standard and quality of the arts. In addition to the National Culture Policy 1971, Malaysia also implemented the National Creative Industry Policy 2010.

The National Cultural Policy 2021 further reflects Malaysia's commitment to safeguard intangible cultural heritage. This is in tandem with the obligations arising from the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003 (the ICH Convention).

At the heart of the National Culture Policy 2021 and the ICH Convention 2003 are the communities that are the bearers of heritage. The preamble to the ICH Convention emphasises the importance of such communities, recognising "that communities, in particular indigenous communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals, play an important role in the production, safeguarding, maintenance and re-creation of intangible cultural heritage, thus helping to enrich cultural diversity and human creativity".

Malaysia is geographically connected by land and/or sea with countries in Asean such as Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Cultural and historical ties were formed prior to the drawing of national borders by the colonial powers and because of this, Malaysia is now home to communities that are bearers of cultural heritage from various countries.

The revived focus on the diversity of culture and heritage as reflected in the National Culture Policy 2021 is highly welcome and signifies the country's aspirations to safeguard the cultural heritage of these communities.

An example of such communities are the Bajau Laut. The Regatta Lepa Festival held in Semporna, Sabah, celebrates the cultural heritage of the Bajau Laut community. These sea nomads reside in maritime areas around Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Some of them have settled on land (mostly in coastal villages) while some lead semi-nomadic lives.

The festival garners attention from tourists and generates income for the state and local business owners. Aside from the traditional boat-making skills of "lepa-lepa" and "boo'gok-boo'gok", the Bajau Laut community also practises traditional cultural expressions such as the igal dance. The community is globally recognised for its traditional knowledge and skills that allow it to thrive in a maritime environment, and its people are known for diving without the support of oxygen tanks. Nevertheless, the community is categorised as a "population of concern" in Sabah by the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) Malaysia and identified by the agency as "stateless".

I hope that the implementation of the National Cultural Policy 2021 will lead to better protection for indigenous communities such as these. Legal protection of the Bajau Laut may require a special cooperation framework involving Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. As bearers of their cultural heritage, the Bajau Laut people need equal protection in terms of access to healthcare, education and other basic human rights. With the spirit of "rumpun" (harmony) in Asean, this protection can potentially be accomplished.


Faculty of Law

Universiti Teknologi Mara

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