Hey, that's mine!

“Hey, that’s mine!”
A discourse on cultural ownership

When we think of a country, several things ease to mind. We paint a picture of the people of that country on our mental canvas, imagining a vibrant landscape of sights and sounds. We tend to think of the symbols, language and meanings that we perceive to be as characteristic of that particular country. Essentially, we are constructing what we believe to be the culture of that country, whether we are aware of it or not. In many ways, such cultural markers – comprised of various myths, codes, symbols and sentiments – are appropriated as tools in unifying and creating an illusion of the collective’s homogeneity. Such cultural markers serve to bind the collective in engaging them in shared experiences of glory and those of trauma. In a way, national identity becomes fortified through means of those cultural markers.

Governments commonly use culture as a means to represent the country and to promote the country either for tourism or economic purposes. Other times, culture is realized as an object by which communities or societies differentiate themselves from the pool of cultures in the world. Cultural diversity has been largely celebrated and promulgated as a victory of modern societies that should be embraced and championed. Notwithstanding, is the term cultural tolerance so called coined to put forth the idea of a symphony of cultures existing in perfect harmony and the knowledge of equality among cultures. A symbiosis between the different cultures in the world, surviving and living with each other may seem almost utopian. However, because culture is knowledge that is learned and shared, defining the borders between one culture from the next tends to be fraught with difficulties. Globalisation, trade and other vehicles of information dissemination have also exponentially blurred the edges that delineate the cultures of the world by overcoming pysical barriers to dissemination.

The growing cultural spat between Indonesia and Malaysia best exemplify the issues over such ‘shared’ cultural heritage. Though Malaysia and Indonesia have been always been at loggerheads over various issues encompassing politics and economics, lately their spat took a more cultural form. The relationship between the two countries have gone increasingly tense due to disputes over cultural heritage with both countries staking their claim over each other’s culture. The tiff started back in 2009 over the promotional advertisement by Discovery Channel on a documentary entitled, “Enigmatic Malaysia” (see below). The advertisement had included a segment that portrayed the pendet as a Malaysian traditional dance. Though the Malaysian government had clarified that the advertisement was not produced by Malaysia but by a private company that was based in Singapore, online forums were ablaze with Indonesians criticising their neighbour over the content of the advertisement. The company involved, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, has since apologized for their blunder and expressed that the clip was in fact, sourced by an independent third party. These apologies, however, were not successful in pacifying the Indonesians nor remedying the issue. A heated exchange then ensued between Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesians claiming that the latter had ‘stolen’ Indonesian’s cultural heritage and claimed it as their own. Indonesians also coined the neologism “Malingsia” as a pejorative synonym for “Malaysia‟, stressing an extensive Indonesian antipathy against Malaysia for the perceived pendet affront (“maling‟ means thief in Bahasa Indonesia). At the height of the controversy, the Malaysian national flag was set ablaze by incensed Indonesian protestors and hundreds of official Malaysian government websites were hacked and vandalized with nationalistic pro-Indonesian slogans. Other issues that were also raised later on were over the ownership of batik, a traditional textile, and origins of rasa sayang, a folk song (see below).

The issues over cultural ownership all but expose the delicate fault lines when nations sought to stake a claim over what they perceive to be culture that is exclusively theirs. It should be noted that both countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, share similar cultural heritage owing to the fact that they shared common ancestry that predates the establishment of modern nation states. Aspects from a certain culture can be borrowed, inspired and appropriated into another such that it becomes almost similar to one another. Overlapping of ideas, symbols, meanings and icons between cultures makes identifying one culture from the next a tad perplexing especially, if communities were to stake a claim over the ownership of material heritage of their culture. If this makes headway, culture then becomes an object of contention, an object only exclusive to a certain collective. But in reality, because the nature of culture as a something that is inherently shared, is it even justified for countries to claim ownership of a certain culture?


Chong, J. W.(2012). "Mine, Yours or Ours?": The Indonesia-Malaysia Disputes over Shared Cultural Heritage. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 27(1), 1-53. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Retrieved September 30, 2012, from Project MUSE database.

Chang, Heewon.(1998). Re-examining the Rhetoric of the “Cultural Border”. Retrieved September 30, 2012, from http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/papers/heewon.html

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