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Constructing the Asean community

Enterprising businessmen, confident in their ability to compete in the international arena, are among the most ardent advocates of the integration of Asean into one economic community. But as the 2015 deadline approaches, impediments to the effective realization of the plan remain.

Business sectors nurtured on protective government policies seek continuing shelter against lower-priced goods or well-funded foreign investors looking to buy up control of national corporations. Businessmen understand these competitiveness issues. What often surprises them are social issues that turn political and threaten to complicate business relationships.

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The 11th-century Khmer temple of Preah Vihar on the Thai-Cambodian border is a potential tourist draw from which both countries can benefit. But the four-year controversy over the ownership of the temple and its surrounding grounds has led to armed clashes between the two countries, and exposed the weakness of Asean’s conflict-resolution mechanisms.

Perhaps even more baffling to hard-nosed businessmen is the recent cultural konfrontasi between Indonesia and Malaysia. It started with the announcement on June 15 by Rais Yatim, Malaysian minister of information, communications and culture, that the Tor Tor Dance and the Gordang Sambilan (nine drums) music of the Mandailing indigenous community would be registered under Malaysia’s National Heritage Act of 2005 as part of the national heritage.

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The report elicited a complaint from the deputy minister of education and culture, Windu Nuryanti, that Malaysia was appropriating cultural products actually belonging to Indonesia. Although settled in Malaysia for hundreds of years, the Mandailing indigenous community had originated from northern Sumatra. She also cited as similar examples of what we may describe as cultural piracy claims made in 2008 that the Ambon folk song “Rasa Sayang” and, in 2009, that the traditional batik textile craft, constituted part of Malaysian culture.

The issue led two weeks ago to a protest rally by members of the nongovernment organization Pancasila Youth, who burned the Malaysian flag and hurled stones and eggs at the Malaysian Embassy and the Malaysia Hall building in Jakarta. The incident appeared to have caught both countries by surprise. Trying to put a lid on the confrontation, the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur attributed the controversy to a misunderstanding.

It was the embassy’s minister-counselor in charge of information, social and cultural affairs who tried to interpret the Malaysian proclamation: “The deed on national heritage only records the origin (of the art forms) and does not claim that Mandailing culture comes from Malaysia.” Malaysia was simply recognizing the Tor Tor Dance and the Gordang Sambilan music as part of the cultural heritage of the Mandailing community.

According to the Jakarta Post (6/25/12, page 8), the Pancasila Youth demonstration gathered only some 50 members. But the issue drew some impassioned responses from readers. One comment noted that “Malaysia has been arrogant toward us for ages… If we just sit calm and let them do whatever they please so freely, I’m pretty sure very soon in the future they will crush our hearts.” Another considered the Indonesian protest justified and faulted the Malaysian government for failing to undertake “proper research” before making “scurrilous claims.”

Other readers took a more dispassionate view of the issue, one of them alluding to the cultural similarities among Malaysians, Indonesians and Filipinos: “when we get out of the house and look up, all three of us see langit (the sky). Why don’t we dig up our similarities and together cultivate them for unity and peace?”

The culture clash illustrates the problem Asean faces in constructing a regional community, whether for security or economic purposes. Colonial rule divided, by artificial national boundaries, communities bound together by blood, language, religion, and common cultural practices, including dance forms and music. The nation-states that emerged during the postwar, postcolonial period used these cultural markers to help build their respective national identities.

Asean now seeks to project an Asean identity that will help secure long-term regional goals over short-term national interests. But all Asean countries also seek to promote among their peoples an appreciation of what sets their country apart from the others. The Malaysian-Indonesian clash over cultural legacies testifies to the success of these efforts. In the context of the concerns over building the Asean economic community, however, the success is ironic.

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The quarrel over who “owns” the Tor Tor Dance or the song “Rasa Sayang” or batik has sparked nationalist sentiments in Malaysia and Indonesia that have raised tension between them. Seemingly inconsequential cultural squabbles can provoke antiforeign sentiments that retard regional collaboration.

The disputed art forms also demonstrate the cultural connections between Malaysia and Indonesia and the importance of Asean’s third pillar—constructing the Asean sociocultural community. An alternative narrative that projects these cultural treasures as common assets would be more helpful to the Asean community-building project.

Edilberto C. de Jesus is president of the Asian Institute of Management.

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TAGS: asean regional community, business relations, featured column, sociocultural issues
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