Nusantara Cultural Comparisons

We have noticed something curious and interesting about Malaysian views about Indonesia and Indonesian views about Malaysia. What makes this interesting for us is that Malaysia and Indonesia together form something of a natural cultural unit that has been rather artificially sliced into two under colonialism.  While we don’t want to pull off the traditional anthropological fallacy of attempting to speak for everyone, there are themes that have emerged from our conversations with people both here and there.  Note that these conversations have almost entirely been with urbanites, so we can’t be speaking for everyone, but here it goes.

On numerous occasions in Indonesia, we heard descriptions of Malaysians (and this means Malay Malaysians mostly) as something akin to sell-outs.  Because their economy is so much stronger and their country so much more developed, the idea is that they have lost their particular "Malay" culture, something that Indonesians have "preserved" in their own culture.  Another common observation among our Indonesian friends who have visited Malaysia is that Malaysians are not as fashion-savvy as Indonesians.  One Indonesian woman told us that "they’re always a couple years behind in their clothes."

The general tenor that we’ve heard from some Malaysians, on the other hand, has involved describing Indonesia as dirty and unsafe, and Indonesians (especially in Malaysia) as criminals and thieves.  Another view we have heard from some Malays is that Indonesians do not practice "real" Islam, but rather are too much influenced by their pre-Islamic cultural traditions.  That means, for instance, that Javanese Muslims are have too much Hindu and animist holdovers in their daily lives, and their interpretation of Islam suffers as a consequence of it.

Now, of course, we do not agree with these views.  They are not only stereotypical, but unlike many stereotypes, these might not even have a basis in fact.  Furthermore, these views are not even representative of the whole group of people to whom we have attributed these statements (what Indonesians say, what Malaysians say).  But, we believe that among our readers familiar with Malaysia and Indonesia, these will ring a bell.

How to make sense of this?   Not sure.  But there’s a bit of symmetry, and it goes back to the general nusantara (archipelago) idea that Malaysia and Indonesia arose from the same "stuff".  It almost seems like the Indonesians’ condemnation of Malaysia invokes a kind of jealousness, and similarly that the Malaysian condemnation of Indonesia has a sense of loss.  Like, for an Indonesian watching Malaysia continually developing economically, making fun of fashion backwardness and calling Malays "sell-outs" is a defense mechanism.  Their dirty little secret is that they want Malaysian development for them, too. Turned around, for a Malay witnessing the wealth of Indonesian cultural traditions, disparaging their practice of Islam and invoking their country’s relative economic backwardness is a defense mechanism.  Their dirty little secret is that they want more Indonesian culture, too.  A post-modernist student of critical anthropology might have a field day reading these subaltern texts within the body of nusantara traditions, to use the current po-mo buzzwords.  That’s not so interesting to us.  It’s just another thought we’ve had as we see two countries who have developed so differently since the arrival of colonial administrations.

Comment 1

  1. fazu May 17, 2005

    i can’t agree more. it’s also interesting to hear arguments between malay malaysians and indonesians about the origins of the malay language. both parties of course insist that malay came from their respective soils. a reflection perhaps of the oft-mentioned struggle to claim ownership of Melayu culture.

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