Monday, 31 August 2009

Culturally Challenged

'I kno you don’t hav a good culture as Indonesia, malay! but please, can you just stop stealing what Indonesia hav for once?” goes a Twitter message referring to the case of Malaysia’s ad on the Discovery Channel featuring the Balinese pendet dance.

“Pendet is Made in Bali, Indonesia okay?? Please Malaysia, Don’t STEAL again Indonesia Culture!!” goes another equally irate Twitter message.

The above examples are some of the more polite verbal thrusts in a deluge of attacks on Malaysia (also referred to as “Malingsia,” with “maling” meaning “thief”).

So much for peace and self-restraint during the fasting month. If any of those Twitterers were fasting in this holy month of Ramadan, the amount of unholy bad-mouthing and animosity would undoubtedly invalidate their fast!

Granted that most of these online messages are verbal nonsense coming from a bunch of unruly and most likely young mobile texters trying to outdo each other in online spitefulness. However, when a respected national university in Semarang, Central Java, decided to join the chorus of jingoism by no longer accepting Malaysian students in the name of the country’s pride, then there really is a thin line between nationalism and plain knee-jerk stupidity.

There are plenty of long-running issues and lots of deep-seated rancor between Indonesia and Malaysia, whether it’s about migrant workers, border issues, Manohara, stolen culture or some other sibling rivalry grievance, but some common human decencies should still be upheld. Name-calling and mudslinging might satisfy the ego but hardly elevate one’s standing or make us the better person.

On the contrary, it merely highlights our insecurity, ignorance and small-mindedness.

It is unfortunate that advances in technology have facilitated not only the rapid spread of information and the democratization of the media, but also the dissemination of pettiness, prejudices and stupidities with the speed of a viral infection. Suddenly everybody has an opinion on everything and every tiny slight is a national insult.

It’s great when this rallying cry can be put to positive use, such as in the incident in Canada where a boy was harassed by bullies for wearing pink on the first day at school. A couple of his male school friends who felt the need to do something about it went online to spread the word and very soon hundreds of schoolchildren went to school wearing pink.

Not only did it effectively put an end to the bullying but it showed the power that online activism can have and also, in this case, highlighted the fine sensibilities those young Canadians have.

They could have easily verbally abused the bullies or, most likely for people of their age, joined in the online harassment of the pink-wearing boy. Instead, they all embraced the cause and sported pink T-shirts to school. Their action inspired the whole country.

In the case of the pendet dance (to which everybody has suddenly become attached, pinning their identity on it as if their life and honor were at stake), instead of berating Malaysia for stealing our culture, we should thank our neighbor for reminding us to appreciate our cultural riches.

Rather than keeping Malaysian students out, we should be inviting them in droves to show them how batik clothes are made. Teach them how wayang puppets are played, and we should even teach them the pendet dance.

But we don’t. Because we ourselves don’t teach our children about our culture or show appreciation for it. I don’t know of any national school curriculum that teaches children about the myriad of different musical instruments this archipelago has, the different cultural dances, the folklore, the mythology, the variety of indigenous tribes, their local wisdom and the origins of our own language.

I have never seen schoolchildren take gamelan lessons, learn how to carve a leather puppet or be encouraged to appreciate the richness of their traditions and culture. I have read of a religion teacher who held a hot match against her pupil’s cheek to teach her how hot hell is, but I rarely hear of a teacher who inspires in her student a love for the gracefulness of the jaipong dance or the sound of angklung. Instead, we treat our culture and traditions as perfunctory symbols invoked on Independence Day or commodities to be dusted off, laid out and sold as souvenirs to entice tourists.

I’m sure most Indonesians still know very little about the pendet dance, let alone learning the moves. It is only when other people actually show an interest that we start making a song and dance out of it. (Desi Anwar: first published in the Jakarta Globe)

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