Saturday, September 05, 2009

Can You Hear the Malaysia Sing? Noooooo!

The great Indonesia versus Malaysia spat, a popular political debate with all the subtlety of two sets of rival football supporters throwing beer cans full of urine at each other, has taken a new twist this week. Our new information technologies, proving as usual to be a double edged sword, have enabled Indonesian computer hackers to run riot over Malaysian websites during the country's Independence Day celebrations.

These cyber attacks were supposedly in retaliation for Malaysia's alleged theft of the Balinese Pendet dance, which the country's tourist board used in a promotion. Other recent bones of contention include the fugitive Malaysian terrorist Noordin Top, the alleged theft of the Sipadan and Ligitan islands and the abuse of migrant workers.

Apparently, even universities in Central Java have now joined the fray by refusing to allow Malaysian students to matriculate. One would perhaps expect a more enlightened attitude from the Academy. Meanwhile, over on Metro TV, a series of Ganyang Malaysia (Smash Malaysia) pseudo-documentaries seem wholly designed to inflame jingoistic tensions even further. Yes, it's back to the good old days of the early 60s when Sukarno's 'Konfrontasi' with Malaysia, ostensibly over the future of Borneo, brought the two nations to blows.

Sociobiologists talk of pseudo-kinship (the idea that everyone of your race are all your brothers and sisters) and its flipside, pseudo-speciation (the notion that, "They're just not like us over there, in fact they are barely human at all"). Humans can easily be manipulated by their cultures and political leaders into such 'us and them' attitudes. In fact, in a huge number of cultures on the planet, the word for people is exactly the same as the word for their own tribe.

In order to show some solidarity with this mindless strain of knee-jerk nationalism that festers in my adopted country though, I trotted down to the Jakarta Convention Centre last weekend in order to enjoy the Nusantara Batik Show. You can't get more Indonesian than batik and the good quality stuff is apparently in high demand around the world just at the moment (and is no doubt far superior to crappy Malaysian batik).

Indonesian bosoms were clearly swelling with nationalistic pride down at the JCC and some of the stuff on display was indeed genuinely magnificent. As I parked in the huge JCC car park, a nice casually dressed man asked me for some parking money. I explained to the chap that I had already paid at the barrier when I came in and he sloped off in a huff, clearly proud to be a part of this great nation's workforce.

As I strolled towards the conference centre, I came across a poster bearing the legend, "One Man, One Tree" under a nice photo of President SBY and a sturdy palm. Isn’t Indonesia great? Alas, this display of eco-nationalism didn't afford me the chance to win a new Blackberry if I could tell the two apart. Shame. I also wondered just where exactly 13 million Jakartans were supposed to plant these trees. You could demolish a few shopping malls to make a bit of space I reckon and give the poor kids somewhere to have a kickabout at the same time.

Inside the JCC, an unbelievable amount of batik and songket were on offer and ranged from the kind of cheap mass-produced sarongs that I like to cover my modesty with when I'm slopping around the house, to more expensive and quite beautiful items. You name it, it was there, batik shirts, dresses, T-shirt, bags and no doubt G-strings and condoms as well.

Having mislaid my one batik shirt that I used to wear to Indonesian weddings a while ago, I purchased a natty new blue and black model to stick in the wardrobe and get slowly eaten by moths. Even though I don't smoke, I made sure that my handsome new shirt sported the regulation Gudang Garam pockets in the front that I've always found handy for storing pieces of cake in at the aforementioned wedding buffets.

In the central auditorium area of the JCC, the stage was filled with children all banging drums and singing in Arabic. They weren't wearing batik shirts, unsurprisingly enough, and were instead kitted out in the full Arabic robes that seem to be increasingly de rigueur among the faithful here.

Indonesia may well accuse Malaysia of cultural infidelity however Indonesia's own increasing adoption of Middle Eastern dress, language and modes of cultural expression conjures up images of pots and kettles, to my mind anyway. The country's popular Pasantren (Islamic boarding schools) teach kids how to recite the Koran parrot fashion whilst the youngsters seemingly don't have much of a clue about what the words actually mean in a language they can understand. How many schools in this country teach their pupils how to play the gamelan?

What does cultural authenticity even mean any more in a postmodern, wired, Western hegemonised world? As Mr. Gandhi once said, "No culture can live if it aims to be exclusive." Back at the JCC, I picked up a pair of batik contact lenses to go with my shirt and headed out into the steaming Jakarta sun. How good it felt not to be in Malaysia.