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William Wongso, our culinary expert, provided an intelligent view when he said that Indonesians should not be apprehensive about rendang (slow-cooked beef in a rich lemongrass and coconut sauce) being claimed by other countries, especially Malaysia (The Jakarta Post, June 28).
He suggested that there is no need to patent rendang, and cited the Japanese foods of sushi and sashimi, as well as the Korean fare galbi (grilled short beef ribs), as foods that had not been patented.
According to Wongso, the Japanese and Korean governments have never registered the dishes for patents and are, instead, delighted that their dishes are recognized and eaten everywhere.
A few days ago, we heard that the “Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: The Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philosophy” has finally been accepted by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
According to the news, the Indonesian government had been negotiating to obtain such a title for 12 years. Apart from a feeling of pride as an Indonesian, I am not very sure who will actually benefit with this designation. Subak — as well as the repeated disputation between Indonesia and Malaysia over several cultural products, such as batik painting, song, dances and other performing arts — reminds us of the position of culture in Indonesia. How culture is perceived and what should we do about it? To put it simply, what are the politics of culture in this country?
Subak is an irrigation technique practiced by Balinese farmers for centuries. Subak can be found in several locations in Bali but the most remarkable is at Ubud, a popular tourist destination. This beautiful green landscape of terraced paddy is often depicted in postcards and tourist leaflets.
The Balinese are paddy farmers, as are the Javanese. The irrigation technique that is known as Subak constitutes a part of the agricultural practices embedded within the Balinese social system. Subak is the social structure of the paddy farmers and represent the living culture of the Balinese.
The existence of Subak shows the resilience of Balinese culture against increasing pressure from the tourist industry’s lust for space to construct yet more hotels, malls and related infrastructures.
In Bali and Java, the conversion of rice fields to industrial wastelands has grown at an alarming rate since the 1970s, resulting in the inevitable marginalization of farmers and their families. Recognition of Subak in Bali as a World Heritage Site reflects not only the acknowledgment of a particular living cultural tradition, but, one hopes, the acceptance by authorities of the need to maintain dwindling peasant society over the widespread commoditization of culture in Bali. The designation of Subak as a World Heritage Site, however, will likely attract even more tourists to Ubud and without government protection the lifestyle of the farmers will be put in jeopardy.
In my view, culture belongs to the people who support it. Culture provides its owners with a device for survival and way to move forward. Culture is woven into the social system and only felt through manifestations of both its tangible and intangible forms.
The commoditization of culture through tourism, while benefiting the tourist industries, often threatens people’s survival. Tourism cultivates the tangible aspects of culture into a mere commodity, eroding and ultimately destroying the intangible aspects of culture.
Rendang is Minangkabau’s living culture. Rendang shows that culture is not static, but moves as the people who own the culture move. Malaysia is a country of immigrant and migrant communities who settled in Malaysia brought with them their culture. It is no surprise that many cultural expressions which exist in Indonesia will also appear in Malaysia.
The tensions between Malaysia and Indonesia over cultural expressions belonging to one particular ethnic group, reveals an interesting angle on cultural and ethnic politics. The state regulates and manages society consisting of different cultural groups, differentiated by ethnicity, language, religion or racial groupings.
In Malaysia, politics is strongly based on the three major groups, namely the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians. In the Malaysian constitution, Malays are considered as the owner of the land, or the sons of the soil, the Bumiputera. The Chinese and the Indians are designated as immigrants. In this context of Malaysian politics, we should consider the number of ethnic groups originating in the archipelago — such as Javanese, Minangkabau, Batak and Bugis — who are considered by the Malaysian state as belonging to the Malay race.
The Malay political elites obviously needed the inclusion of migrant groups from Indonesia into the Malay population to maintain their majority position in relation to the Chinese and the Indian
As a nation-state, Indonesia is not based on any cultural identity. According to a historian, Anthony Reid, Indonesia is based on civic nationalism and not ethnic nationalism like in Malaysia. What Indonesia as a nation-state should pursue is therefore a civic culture rather than a narrow ethnic culture.
It is the duty of the state to maintain the heterogeneity of cultures through the politics that protects all citizens, regardless of their particular cultural identification. In order to maintain the value of rendang and subak as the world class of Indonesian cultural expressions, the state must first and ultimately be committed to the well-being of all Indonesian citizens.
The writer is a researcher at the Research Center for Society and Culture, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), and the author of Looking for Indonesia 2: The Limits of Social Engineering (LIPI Press, 2010).