Shared culture, traditions and even linguistic roots, separated by state boundaries, has made loyalty to the country once again become the main point. Shared culture does not mean shared ownership. Sharing traditional dances or songs, or the names of traditional foods, does not mean that the ownership can be divided.
Between two countries, with nearly identical traditions but distinct passports and citizenship, which one is able to cite their cultural history to legally and legitimately claim say “it is mine”? This question points to the significance of shared cultural matters.
Nationality separates people when it comes to legal matters, regardless of ethnicity or DNA. It is far beyond a choice to which country you belong. “Neighbor” status with cultural similarities in addition to geographical proximity, Indonesia and Malaysia for example, makes cases of cultural claims sensitive. However, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed not to claim ownership over any items of shared cultural significance in order to respect public sensitivities
(The Jakarta Post, Aug. 19, 2009).
It was difficult at that time for foreign journalists to say that the situation between Indonesia and Malaysia was anything short of a cultural war. The neighboring nations were engaged in a tense struggle for superiority, and the rift was widening: “It’s cultural, it’s political and, recently, it’s gotten personal”, John M Glionna, an American journalist, wrote three years ago about Pendet dance and Reog Ponorogo case (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 21, 2009). That “war” has resumed with contesting claims over Tortor dance and Gondang Sambilan instrument.
A Malaysian journalist saw it from a different perspective. “There is no culture war and no tourism war between Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia’s biggest rival in attracting tourists is Singapore, and thus Malaysia’s promos offer similar things that Singapore offers — vibrant nightlife, glorious food, Formula One racing and great shopping experiences.
“Do our tourism promos cover those things? Malaysians count Singapore as their dreadful rival, and hardly think of Indonesia, which is in a different class,” said columnist Mario Rustan in “Malaysia and the Stolen Indonesian Culture”, The Star, Sept. 10, 2009.
But, new facts appear to the contrary. The situation between the two modern states has changed dramatically.
The complexity arises, basically, due to the fact that current political boundaries have served to distort the reality of a time before the existence of Southeast Asian nation-states, including Malaysia, with the tendency to see cultural forms from the perspective of national boundaries.
ASEAN, as a regional body, has developed a general solution. The ASEAN Declaration on Cultural Heritage, signed in Bangkok, Thailand, in July 2000, stated that cultural traditions were an integral part of ASEAN’s intangible heritage and an effective means of bringing together ASEAN peoples to recognize their regional identity. ASEAN also agreed to recognize that traditional knowledge systems and practices including designs, technology and oral literature are collectively owned by their local community of origin.
Traditional communities must have access, protection and rights of ownership over their own heritage and cooperate for the enactment of international laws to ensure these principles.
The Declaration on ASEAN Unity in Cultural Diversity, made at the 19th ASEAN Summit in Bali on Nov. 17, 2011, strongly stated that all member states should work to achieve the goal of a true ASEAN community by 2015.
ASEAN member states were obligated to promote “Think ASEAN” as the framework for designing and crafting regional cultural policies, programs, projects and promotional strategies to strengthen the ASEAN community in 2015.
Cultural diversity is ASEAN’s asset in accelerating progress toward the achievement of an ASEAN community 2015. ASEAN’s cultural unity in diversity is part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Unfortunately, shared culture, folklore and traditional performing arts are only for show, and not for shared ownership.
The identity of people within respective member states is still important and national boundaries appear to be the limit.
The writer is a political observer, and a graduate from the University of Indonesia, Jakarta.