A battle over what nation can lay claim to a traditional dance is the latest cultural clash between Indonesia and Malaysia. It's also a symbol of the growing political tension between the Southeast Asian nations.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — For decades, Uni Histayanti has performed the enigmatic movements of her nation’s traditional “pendet” dance. She learned the rhythms as a child and years ago opened a dinner theater in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, where, dressed in native costume, she performs nightly.
As she flutters her arms, darts her eyes and tilts her head at exotic angles, she invokes the welcoming spirit of the Hindu-majority Bali island where it originated centuries ago.
That’s why it floored her to hear that neighboring Malaysia had reportedly tried to seize the “pendet” as its own. It’s pure cultural piracy, Histayanti insists.
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And it makes her angry.
“It’s a symbol of our heritage, not theirs,” she said as she applied makeup in a theater dressing room. “If you have something and someone tries to steal it, you take it back.”
These two predominantly Muslim neighbors, which share ethnic and physical traits, are engaged in a tense struggle for superiority.
Nowadays, the rift is widening. It’s cultural. It’s political. And recently, it has gotten personal.
Many Malaysians dismiss the teeming Indonesian archipelago as a source for the low-class maids, parking-lot jockeys and waiters who work in Kuala Lumpur and other cities in Malaysia.
Indonesians icily counter that Malaysia is so desperate for a culture that it will resort to anything — even theft — to acquire one.
TV ad error ignites riff
The “pendet” dance tiff, the latest slugfest over so-called proprietary traditions, emerged this summer, when rumors spread that Malaysia was responsible for television ads claiming the invention of the “pendet” dance.
Within days, a private company producing a program for the Discovery Channel admitted it was behind the ads and had mistakenly picked the wrong dance to promote the upcoming program. The Malaysian government, company officials explained, had nothing to do with the foul-up.
But it was too late. Indonesia’s feathers had been ruffled. Indonesia’s tourism minister demanded a written apology, which he said was needed for the record.
Meanwhile, Indonesians waged a “Crush Malaysia” campaign reminiscent of a nationalistic tirade in the 1960s.
This time, mobs burned the Malaysian flag and threw rotten eggs at the embassy in Jakarta.
For days, protesters wielding sharpened bamboo sticks stopped traffic in search of Malaysians. Six Indonesians were arrested. No one was injured, but the Malaysian Embassy complained.
Internet hackers attacked Malaysian government Web sites. One nationalist youth group began collecting signatures on the Internet for volunteers willing to go to war with Malaysia.
Although the leaders of the youth group conceded such a faceoff is extremely unlikely, they say they have stockpiled food, medicine and weapons such as swords and throwing-stars.
Such high jinks baffle many Malaysians, not to mention Indonesians.
“These guys with pointed sticks, they’re from the loony left,” said Ong Hock Chuan, a Malaysian-born public-relations consultant who lives in Jakarta. “If it wasn’t Malaysia, they’d vent their anger at something else.”
Years of ill will
But many others in Indonesia say the resentment is widespread and runs deep.
Newspapers run stories about mistreatment of some of the 2 million Indonesians workers by their bosses in Malaysia. Last year, Jakarta temporarily stopped sending maids to Malaysia until better security was provided for the workers.
“Many who want to invade Malaysia are former migrant workers or people who know one,” said Aleksius Jemadu, a political scientist at Pelita Harapan University in Indonesia. “There is a sense that Malaysians look down on us. They insult us. And to tell you the truth, many Indonesians are secretly envious because they view most Malaysians as being better off than us.”
The two governments also remain at loggerheads.
“Each wants to be seen as the regional leader in Southeast Asia,” he said. “They both claim to be the leading Muslim nation.”
A fresh skirmish of the culture wars breaks out when Indonesians claim Malaysians have yet again plagiarized their indigenous art and music.
Malaysians have reportedly laid claim to the Indonesian reog: a mix of dance and magic, and the “angklung,” a bamboo musical instrument, activists say.
In 2007, Indonesia threatened legal action against Malaysia for allegedly co-opting Indonesian songs and dances in its national tourism campaign. That resulted in a high-profile panel being convened to settle the dispute.
Many in Indonesia claim that even Malaysia’s national anthem borrows from an Indonesian song. Experts solicited to settle the fight reported that both songs borrowed from a 19th-century French tune.
At home, many Indonesians say, Malaysians are protective of their own culture. When a wave of Indonesian pop music began receiving play on radio stations a year ago, officials sought to set a strict quota: 90 percent Malaysian songs and 10 percent Indonesian.
For now, Histayanti said she will continue to perform the “pendet” dance for all her customers, even Malaysians.
“I feel sorry for them,” she said. “They’re just jealous of us.”