A Traffic in Songket: Translocal Malay Identities in Sambas

By Mee, Wendy | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2010 | Go to article overview

A Traffic in Songket: Translocal Malay Identities in Sambas


Mee, Wendy, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Until recently, the intra-regional or translocal dimensions of contemporary Malay identity processes seem to have been relatively overlooked in discussions of Malay ethnicity. With the exception of studies linking Malay identity to a global resurgence in Islam, most studies of contemporary Malay identity tend to be framed by the boundaries of a single post-colonial state (most commonly Malaysia and Indonesia). The value of investigating Malay-ness within the horizon of a particular nation-state is, of course, not in question. Such studies have documented how the rather loosely and inconsistently applied definition melayu--based on language (Malay or Jawi), religion (Islam) and / or a political system (kerajaan)--was transformed into a racial and ethnic category as a result of colonial classificatory systems and post-colonial nation-state processes. (1) Of particular value is how such studies have thus contributed to comparative theories of colonialism, nationalism, ethnicity and race. Acknowledged in such studies is the extent to which understandings of Malay-ness in the pre-colonial and colonial past were indeed strongly translocal and transnational in nature, informed by intra-regional trafficking and Islamic motifs. (2) What is arguably less researched, however, is the extent to which intra-regional processes continue to inform contemporary understandings of Malay-ness. With this research question in mind, this paper considers how contemporary processes of cultural exchange in Sambas, a regency in the Indonesian Province of West Kalimantan, continue to draw upon and shape a supple Malay translocalism. As the paper further documents, this translocalism is an important factor in the processes constructing a 'Sambas Malay cultural heritage' in contemporary Sambas.

One of the features of contemporary Sambas is a revival of interest in Malay 'customs and traditions' (adat), 'culture' (budaya) and 'arts' (seni)--although this interest is far from uniform or shared by all strata of Malay society in Sambas. Language and the use of local Sambas Malay is part of this resurgence. For example, a number of recent collections of local fables and myths (dongeng), folktales (ceritte rakyat) and songs (lagu) have been published in Sambas Malay (in book and CD format), suggesting that language, and in particular oral traditions, are seen as a central component of Malay identity. (3) Formal instruction in Sambas Malay language at selected junior high schools was also trialled in 2008, in line with a National Education Ministerial Regulation on Local Content in school curricula. (4) One of the Sambas Malay language textbooks developed for this purpose is written entirely in Sambas Malay and has chapters on local fables, folktales and pantun (a form of Malay poetry referred to as pantaun in Sambas Malay), as well as on other aspects of Malay culture, such as crafts, arts and history. (5)

In this paper, however, I focus on the influence of regional, intra-Malay processes of cultural and commercial exchange in the revival of one particular local cultural product, songket, which is a locally produced textile commonly seen as an important component of Sambas Malay culture. These cultural and commercial exchanges draw on pre-existing notions of a shared translocal Malay identity (i.e. of a bangsa Melayu or rumpun Melayu), which is nevertheless internally differentiated and contested along lines of language, culture, historical origins and Malay-Islamic cultural prestige. As I argue in this paper, one of the effects of contemporary intra-Malay translocal cultural exchange is a reframing of adat and budaya in terms more closely aligned to that of cultural heritage. Cultural heritage is here used to refer to a process of abstracting and disembedding cultural practices from their more localised forms and meanings. When viewed from a translocal Malay perspective, however, this reframing is not something that happens to Malay culture, but rather something that occurs within cultural processes in response to particular mechanisms. …

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