Malaysians of the Mandailing ethnic group perform Gordang Sambilan or Nine Great Drums, near Kuala Lumpur, June 27, 2012.
Malaysians of the Mandailing ethnic group perform Gordang Sambilan or Nine Great Drums, near Kuala Lumpur, June 27, 2012.
JAKARTA — They may be close neighbors, but they are not always close allies. A long-standing cultural spat between Indonesia and Malaysia has re-ignited this week, sparking fierce debate over who owns culture.

Located on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the Mandailing region is better known for its rich highland coffee beans than gordang sambilan - a nine-drum ensemble sacred to the local Batak tribe.

But the traditional instrument has become embroiled in a fierce cultural debate after Malaysia announced it was adding the drums and the traditional tortor dance - both originally from Mandailing, Indonesia - to its national heritage list.

The Indonesian Education and Cultural Ministry has demanded a written explanation, while angry demonstrators have thrown eggs and stones at the Malaysian embassy.

One Indonesian legislator, a North Sumatran native, even said that every now and again Malaysia should be “bombed” to keep it in check.

But well-known Indonesian poet and art curator Sitok Srengenge says the dance and the drums pre-date territorial borders.

“Tortor and gordang sembilan already exist before Indonesia or Malaysia exist," he said. "[Malaysia] has a right to use the culture ... [of] Mandailing society, because, you know, there is no culture independent, no cultural original; every culture is influenced with other cultures."

Malaysia says it was only recording, not claiming, the heritage of Sumatra’s Mandailing people, some of whom have lived in Malaysia for more than a century.

But to outraged Indonesians, the claims are the latest addition to a long list of provocative acts of cultural piracy.

In 2009, a Malaysian tourism ad featuring the Indonesian pendet dance created an uproar, prompting Kuala Lumpur's tourism ministry to issue a formal apology claiming a mix up with the production company.

Claims over other cultural practices such as wayang kulit - traditional shadow puppets - batik and even satay, have fueled the ongoing cultural war.

An old story

According to Dr. Ross Tapsell, an expert on Indonesian media at the Australian National University, the sometimes-strained relations between the two countries is nothing new.

“I think [cultural warring] is a very popular topic - and media works on reinforcing topics which are sensational, but also topics that are already in the public mind - and one of the long-entrenched stories that gets a run in the Indonesian media is the kind of abusive Malaysia, or the dominating Malaysia, or Singapore, for that matter, taking things from Indonesia.”

But the historical record itself tells of a different tension that isn't merely cultural.

Territorial disputes and the frequent sexual and physical abuse of Indonesian migrant workers by their Malaysian employers have also soured the relationship.

But with such close links, including a common language, Srengenge says both governments should be better prepared to negotiate future conflicts.

“Both governments have to [have] more intensive ... dialogue, you know, have cultural and political diplomacy," he said. "We have to be clear in our minds and cool in our hearts ... to see the problem carefully and not too reactively.”

While any real quarrel is very unlikely, this latest cultural spat has necessitated some careful diplomatic posturing.