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Kebaya to Be Nominated as the ASEAN’s Cultural Heritage, Without Indonesia

Cultural Heritage
Kebaya to Be Nominated as the ASEAN’s Cultural Heritage, Without Indonesia. Source: Twitter

Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, and Thailand have announced they will nominate the kebaya as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage item.

On Wednesday, 23rd November 2022, Singapore’s National Heritage Council (NHB) said that the kebaya’s nomination will be Singapore’s first multinational nomination for the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and is scheduled for submission in March 2023.

According to suara.com, NHB said the kebaya represents and is a celebration of shared history in the region, promoting cross-cultural understanding and it continues to be present and actively produced and worn by many communities in Southeast Asia.

“The kebaya has been, and continues to be, a central aspect of the representation and display of the cultural heritage and identity of Malay, Peranakan, and other communities in Singapore, and is an integral part of our heritage,” said NHB CEO Chang Hwee Nee.

He added that the joint nomination with three other countries “affirms the multiculturalism and shared roots within the region”.

NHB said Malaysia previously proposed and coordinated the multinational nomination. This idea was then discussed as part of a series of working meetings among a number of countries in 2022.

Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Thailand are also said to be welcoming other countries to join the nomination. Between last August to October, NHB held six focus group discussions involving 48 participants to gather views on the nomination. This activity also involved cultural practitioners, representatives of cultural associations, and researchers who were involved in making and wearing the kebaya.

NHB representatives and the community attended a seminar organised by Malaysia in Port Dickson from 1st – 3rd November, where they discussed the nomination and what should be included in the submission to UNESCO. Then, from January to March next year, NHB will organise a public outreach initiative to increase public awareness of the nomination.

UNESCO will judge the nominations based on the definition of intangible cultural heritage and how well each country can ensure the promotion and transmission of kebaya-related practices. The nomination result is expected to be announced in late 2024.

The Head of the Indonesian Women’s Kebaya Activities Division, Atie Nitiasmoro revealed that kebaya is actually a culture shared between various countries in the ASEAN region.

“The countries in ASEAN are all allied, so what is called culture is also fluid, so it’s impossible for us to claim that kebaya belongs only to Indonesia,” she explained. According to her statement, the registration of the kebaya to UNESCO is not a national identity or national pride, but a matter of culture sharing so that the culture does not become extinct.

Personally, I have no problem if Indonesia joins other countries in nominating the kebaya because we cannot claim that kebayas belong only to Indonesia,” said Atie.

Even though its use is not as common or popular as in Indonesia, these four countries have proven to have kebaya. In fact, in Malaysia and Singapore, there are already kebaya museums that have more in-depth information than in Indonesia. “Malaysia has more complete literature and journals about kebaya than Indonesia does. In Indonesia, there are some, but most of them are written by foreigners,” she added.

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