Intellectual Answer to Cultural Plagiarism

This article written by a well-known scholar is chosen as a response to my comment in Memperkasa Paradigma on 10 Sept 2009. Please visit:


Demo season has come early this year, and over the weekend it was reported that a number of anti-Malaysian demonstrations had flared up across several towns and cities in Indonesia. The reason for this latest round of acrimony lies in the claim that a tourism ad for Malaysia had presented a Balinese dance as being ‘Malaysian’ and as such quite a number of Indonesians were miffed about it.

The ASEAN region seems to be facing the prospect of what can be aptly described as the new ‘Cultural wars’ of the era. Over the past few years, we have witnessed clashes (some of them violent) over temples, artefacts, words/signifiers, handicrafts and local local products that some nations and communities claim as theirs, and which have been ’stolen’ by other societies. One of the hot topics at the moment is the Indonesian claim that batik is a uniquely Indonesian invention and that countries like Malaysia and Singapore have ’stolen’ batik by claiming that it is theirs as well.

On a superficial level one understands the nature of the complaint and the logic behind it. It would be perfectly reasonable for a country to be angry if its products were bought by another, only to be re-sold to the international market after the original ‘Made in X’ label was removed and replaced with a ‘Made in Y’ label instead. Intellectual copyright is something that this academic understands and appreciates very much, for it would be akin to someone stealing the contents of one of my academic papers or books and simply replacing the author’s name with his/her own. That is theft and copyright infringement, plain and simple.

But when it comes to copyrighting cultures, we move to an altogether more murky and complicated domain. For how does one copyright an idea, a colour, a theme, a sentiment or a musical note?

There are two points that require emphasis here, and both are related to the common shared cultural history of our Southeast Asian region:

Firstly it has to be recognised that much of the misunderstanding that has arisen thus far over issues of cultural borrowing has to do with the narrow nationalist histories that we have relied upon since the day our nation-states became independent. The realities of the colonial era were that the region of Southeast Asia – which historically has been one of the most fluid, cosmopolitan and diverse in the world – was cut up and divided according to the logic of colonies and then nation-states. As a result of this our postcolonial histories tend to be narrow and inward-looking, and fail to note the cultural continuity and overlap that has existed in the region for hundreds and thousands of years.

As an academic who moves between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, I am struck by how little the citizens of all three countries know about each other. Do Indonesians realise that all over Malaysia there are Malaysian communities who still speak Javanese? Why is this so? Because all over Malaysia there are millions of descendants of Javanese, Sumatran, Madurese, Bugis migrants who have settled there over the centuries, such as my own family who were first categorised as ‘Jawi Peranakan’ (Hybrid/Mixed Javanese) in the 19th century. So when some Malaysians speak Javanese at home, is this a case of Malaysians ’stealing’ the Javanese language? Surely not: If anything it points to the continuities of identities over time and space, which is a factor that enriches the region as a whole.

On the issue of Batik and other art and cultural forms, it should also be noted that Batik was worn by many of the communities of the region, and not merely the Javanese. Batik was the lingua franca of the plastic arts for Javanese, Sumatrans, Balinese, Bugis, Malays, Peranakan Chinese, Indians, Arabs and Eurasians for more than a century; and in my collection of photos of Batik as it was worn between the 19th to the 20th century we see how Batik was adapted, used, popularise and produced by practically all the communities of maritime Southeast Asia.

While I understand and sympathise with the complaint that some Indonesian batik may have been bought and then re-sold as ‘Malaysian’, let us not go overboard by claiming that Batik was produced by only one community in the region. Batik production was predominantly centred in Java and parts of Sumatra, but it was also produced in parts of Malaysia and worn all across the region. Indeed, batik production extends as far as Africa and even Europe, where European artists tried their hand at the batik technique to produce batik pieces that were inspired by the school of l’art nouveau and art deco. That is the factor that makes batik the rich cultural heritage of all, and not the parochial totem of a few…

Secondly, in the process of re-claiming our history let us not be provincial, or worse still, neglectful of the complexities of history. The popular art forms of Indonesia such as the wayang kulit puppet theatre is not unique to Indonesia alone, for it exists all across Southeast Asia (in Malaysia, Southern Thailand, parts of Cambodia and Southern Vietnam) and can be found in places as far apart as China to the East and Indian and Turkey to the West. Furthermore the repertoire of stories that are told and enacted include the Ramayana and Mahabharatta, both of which certainly did not come from Indonesia or any country in Southeast Asia, but India – the wellspring of so much classical Asian art, culture and religion from the time of the Gupta dynasty.

Thus if any country has the right to claim copyright to the wayang genre and the stories that make up the popular lore of Asia, it would be India. So how would the countries of ASEAN react if India were to lay claim to our arts and culture, our architecture, our religions (Hinduism and Buddhism come from South Asia, after all) and even our languages (the Thai, Khmer, Lao, Burmese, Malay and Indonesian languages all borrow heavily from Sanskrit and other South Asian tongues). What then?

As stated above, in the process of rediscovering our past and our culture, let us not be narrow-minded in our approach. Southeast Asia is a rich patchwork of diverse communities and cultures, and we are all the richer because we share this common legacy together. One understands the need for commercial regulation of goods and products, and in such cases theft and misrepresentation of labels is simply a case of criminal fraud that can be dealt with in the courts. But culture cannot and should not be cut up, demarcated and commodified as some may want it to be. By all means, sue and penalise unscrupulous businessmen who sell fake goods, but let us understand and accept that the cultural wellspring that inspires the production of so much of our arts and crafts belongs to us, together.

(By: Farish A. Noor)