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5 Southeast Asian countries unite to nominate kebaya for UNESCO Intangible Heritage List

Hundreds of women wearing Indonesian traditional dress 'Kebaya' participated in the Kebaya fashion show at the Sarinah Pavilion, Jakarta, Indonesia on Saturday
Photo by Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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    The kebaya, a traditional Southeast Asian garment, is being nominated by Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore for 2023’s UNESCO Intangible Heritage List.

    Singapore has been running a campaign on Facebook to get the kebaya included on UNESCO’s list since it first announced the effort in a press release on Nov. 23, 2022.

    While Singapore distributed the press release, the Southeast Asian city-state noted that Malaysia proposed and coordinated the plan.

    In a Q&A posted on Feb. 16, Singapore’s National Heritage Board explained that the countries would be sending their nomination to UNESCO by this month. As part of the submission process, each of them would need to “showcase their efforts in promoting and safeguarding the kebaya” and gather “community support and consent for the nomination.”

    Although Indonesia was not listed in the first official draft of the press release for the nomination in November 2022, the Southeast Asian country was eventually added to the list by Singapore’s National Heritage Board.

    “The five countries agreed to work together on this multinational nomination as the kebaya represents and celebrates the region’s rich shared history, promotes cross-cultural understanding and continues to be actively produced and worn by many communities across Southeast Asia,” the National Heritage Board wrote.

    The kebaya, which Indonesia has recognized as its national dress since 1945, may have Middle Eastern roots

    Javanese royals and society women were seen wearing the outfit when Portuguese explorers arrived in Java in 1512.

    The national outfit became a symbol of defiance and national solidarity when Javanese women refused to wear anything else at a Japanese incarceration camp during World War II.

    The kebaya also became the official uniform of the female crew members of Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Indonesia’s Garuda Airlines.

    The joint effort to nominate the kebaya reportedly did not take off smoothly, as Indonesia was seemingly undecided during the first few months following the announcement.

    Over a dozen cultural groups in Indonesia had urged the government to join Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei in their effort, with Lia Nathalia, head of Komunitas Perempuan Berkebaya (Community of Kebaya-Wearing Women), telling The Straits Times in late November 2022, “It’s better for us to bring the spirit of Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] as one community.”

    While Irini Dewi Wanti, the director for cultural protection at Malaysia’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology, confirmed that her agency and other officials were at the November 2022 meeting, she noted that they were only present as facilitators.

    One Indonesian official proclaimed that the country should nominate the kebaya to UNESCO alone.

    Kebaya belongs to Indonesia, and this is non-negotiable. That’s why we have to be firm in registering the kebaya to Unesco as a sole nominee,” House of Representatives member Agustina Wilujeng Pramestuti said in August 2022, as reportedly quoted by Kompas.

    Several Indonesian social media users were also against the plan to jointly nominate the dress, as reported in December 2022.

    “The big question here is, of these four countries, how many and how often do they wear the kebaya? None,” one Instagram user wrote.

    “Stop claiming Indonesian culture,” another user wrote, while another user said the kebaya “only belongs to Indonesia.”


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