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Heritage-Lah! A Legacy of a Few Wor(l)ds in Peninsular Malaysia

Heritage-lah! Patrimoine de mots et de mondes dans la Malaisie péninsulaire
Pierpaolo De Giosa
p. 163-189


Depuis le début du xxe siècle, et plus précisément depuis l’établissement du système du patrimoine mondial de l’UNESCO, le vocabulaire du patrimoine s’est largement répandu. Aujourd’hui, le langage scientifique de la conservation atteint tous les recoins de la planète. Pourtant, il serait fallacieux de supposer que ce jargon du patrimoine est reçu partout de la même façon, sans modifications locales. En examinant le projet pour un patrimoine national malaisien, cet article explore l’interaction entre les terminologies locales et transnationales. Dans un premier temps il retrace les processus de traduction officielle et de vernacularisation à l’œuvre dans la formulation des lois sur la préservation du patrimoine. Il examine comment, au-delà du vocabulaire établi officiellement, il existe un réservoir bien plus large et varié de mots qui rendent compte du multiculturalisme de la société malaisienne. Dans un second temps, l’article aborde le vocabulaire du patrimoine tel que nous l’avons rencontré sur le terrain, ainsi que les discours apparaissant comme autant d’alternatives au projet pour un patrimoine national. Les façons dont le patrimoine est nommé et décrit dans des contextes différents mettent au jour la variété des mondes englobés dans le concept de patrimoine : parmi ceux-ci, la division conventionnelle entre patrimoine tangible et intangible, les conceptualisations intimes du patrimoine familial, ancestral et communautaire, ainsi que les relations divergentes établies avec l’héritage colonial.

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Texte intégral

Malaysian Heritage(s)

  • 1 In Malaysian English, the particle lah commonly adds emphasis at the end of a sentence.

1When one strolls with Mr Sham, as I used to do, along the streets of what is officially known as The Historic City of Melaka (Bandaraya Bersejarah), heritage appears at every step. As a retired trishaw driver, he knew many stories and had a word for everything. Passing the Stadthuys, the former Dutch City Hall, he would say it was one of the oldest buildings in town, a colonial legacy (peninggalan penjajah). At Bukit Cina (the location of one of the main Chinese cemeteries) during the Qing Ming celebrations, when people congregate to pray for their dead, he would say they were following their customs (adat). “We do that too, but on different days!” He had even stories for buildings that were long gone. He referred to the replica of the Sultanate Palace—the original having been destroyed during the Portuguese conquest—as the new building, not the old one: “It’s history come back to life” (Sejarah hidup kembali). If one pauses to share with him a plate of nasi lemak (a fragrant local rice dish), food becomes tradition (tradisi). His trishaw was heritage too: “Like pusaka, I inherited it from my father” he would say proudly. However, when asked what all these things mean to him, he would simply reply: “It’s heritage-lah!”1 For him, “heritage” was everywhere, and the English term covered all manifestations of it.

2His use of the term heritage was inherited, too, from the British when Malaysia gained independence in 1957. Encompassing two main territories, Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia in Borneo, the country is home to 30 million people (80% of whom live on the peninsula). Its multiethnic society is classified into Bumiputera (67.4%)—literally “sons of the soil”, constituted by a Malay majority together with other indigenous groups—and non-Bumiputera: ethnic Chinese (24.6%), Indians (7.3%), and others (0.7%) (Government of Malaysia 2010). It is a multireligious country with a Muslim majority (around 60%), followed by Buddhists (19.8%), Christians (9.2%), and Hindus (6.3%) (ibid.). With the slogan “Malaysia, Truly Asia”, the country presents to the world its diverse traditional repertoires and material heritage in the form of different places of worship and vernacular architecture as well as colonial legacies—in the case of downtown Melaka, not only British but also Portuguese and Dutch.

3This rich heritage may be subject to state and national legislation. At the federal level, the National Heritage Act (Akta Warisan Kebangsaan), a long-awaited new law, was passed in 2005. Focusing on cultural heritage in particular, this paper addresses two aims of the national heritage project related to this law. The first is of a nation-building nature. Although not directly articulated in these terms, the project essentially seeks, through the promotion of heritage, to foster nationhood and national identity in a multicultural country. Second, it strives to raise public heritage awareness and to introduce best practices in conservation in line with contemporary international standards. However, these two objectives go hand in hand with two challenges. The major dilemma with respect to the first goal is the existence of a parallel discourse based on a “race paradigm” (Milner, Abdul Rahman, & Tham 2014) and majority/minority dynamics which divide society into bounded macro-categories, themselves the legacy of racial censuses dating from the colonial period (e.g. Hirschman 1986). As suggested by Shamsul (1996: 327, 328), Malaysia seems to be “one state with several nations” and multiple “nations-of-intent”. A nation-of-intent entails “a more or less precisely defined idea of the form of a nation” (institutions, population, culture, or symbols) “shared by a number of people who perceive themselves as members of that nation, and who feel that it unites them” (ibid.: 328). The second challenge revolves around the dilemma of finding a balance between scientific standards of conservation and apparently unintelligible “languages” of heritage transmission, each based on different principles. It is in this area that the frictions between transnationally circulating standards and local understandings unfold most acutely. Here, I focus in particular on the idea of authenticity.

  • 2 There are thus two major limitations in this study. The first one is related to the specific focus (...)

4This article explores the interaction between international and local terminologies and examines the cultural heritage vocabulary in use—from the conventional tangible/intangible divide to more intimate conceptualisations of familial and communal heritage as well as divergent ways of engaging with the past—with a specific focus on Peninsular Malaysia.2 This article stems from a larger research project on the politics of heritage in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Melaka I started in 2011 (see De Giosa 2016). The reflections on the National Heritage project offered here are, thus, also based on a fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Melaka in 2012 and 2013, and subsequent visits. Although this article draws mostly upon earlier academic work, grey literature in the form of government documents, the news and other media, many insights come from interviews and conversations with key informants and officials at federal and local heritage-related bureaus, spokespersons from NGOs, and other interlocutors that are not officially included in the category of the so-called heritage experts.

  • 3 Apart from Malay and English terminology, this paper includes few words from Mandarin, Tamil, and l (...)

5In this article, I first follow the translation processes through which foreign jargon has been imported into local legislation. Second, going beyond the “official” vocabulary, I focus on the two major dilemmas faced by the national heritage project and the competing idioms of heritage. The literature on heritage terminology in Malaysia draws primarily on the analysis of official documents, with their normative formulations and categorisations (e.g. Ghafar 2012; Mahmud et al. 2011). By combining the analysis of official documents, secondary sources, conversations with interlocutors whose diversity mirrors that of the multicultural society, and selected case studies from Peninsular Malaysia, I aim to shed light on often neglected understandings. Common words as articulated in public discourses, like those used by Mr Sham, can reveal different shades of heritage-related meaning. Although the terms collected here are mostly from Malay (the national language), this article also serves as a provisional exploration of heritage-related words from other languages spoken locally.3 Besides words, sayings and proverbs may aid in the exploration of local conceptualisations of heritage. Following Alatas (1972: 43), I assume that not all aspects of the Malay worldview have yet been converted into words, but can be found in proverbial wisdom, revealing contrasting views in connection for example with notions of authenticity. Before exploring the two major dilemmas at the core of this article, I turn first to the evolution of Malaysian heritage legislation.

Translating Foreign Jargon into a National Heritage Idiom

6The translation and adoption of legal documents of foreign origin are not new in Malaysia, where English law has been imported together with influences from other British overseas territories. English continued to serve as the language of national legislation even after independence until the adoption of the National Language Act in the 1960s, which stated that all laws should be written in the national language as well as in English. But translation is not confined to language alone. It also entails the appropriation and adaptation of transnational concepts, a process described by Merry in her analysis of travelling global human rights packages as “vernacularization”. According to Merry (2006: 44), vernacularization unfolds along a continuum in between two extremes—“replication” and “hybridization”—depending on the degree of incorporation of foreign institutions and values into local ones. Processes of vernacularization capture the variability of such transnational translations. We can identify two main stages in the historical evolution and vernacularization of Malaysian heritage-related laws. The first of these periods was deeply influenced by colonial regulations on the control and preservation of material heritage, while the second developed a wider perspective on national heritage in line with contemporary international jargon and standards.

7Before the advent of the National Heritage Act, local heritage legislation was antiquarian, collectionist, material, and monumental in nature, influenced by the specific interests of Western archaeologists, colonial administrators, Christian priests, philanthropists, and local elites who began to engage with the past from the second half of the nineteenth century. They were interested in archaeological excavations of the material and monumental remains of former civilisations, and the discovery of treasures. During colonial rule, and towards the end of last century, regulations from other parts of the British Empire were appropriated, including the Indian Treasure-Trove Act of 1878 and the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904 from British India, as well as the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882 from Great Britain. These regulations were mainly concerned with the control and exporting of heritage items by treasure hunters and the protection of monuments and historical and archaeological sites. The growth in the number of excavations led to the formulation of treasure-trove ordinances in several states, starting in 1888 with Perak, followed by Johor and Kedah in the 1930s (e.g. Mahmud et al. 2011: 46).

8These regulations formed the backbone of the new federal laws passed after independence: the Antiquities and Treasure Trove Ordinance of 1957, which was partly repealed by the new Antiquities Act in 1976 (to be complemented by the Treasure Trove Act). These laws reflect the antiquarian spirit of this period, focusing on antiquities (benda purba) and treasure troves (harta karun). The definition of treasure trove, in particular, implies a passion for collecting valuable objects: money and coins, jewels and precious stones, or other ownerless objects. The material and monumental focus is also reiterated in the definition of antiquities:

any object movable or immovable or any part of the soil or of the bed of a river or lake or of the sea, which has been constructed, shaped, inscribed, erected, excavated or otherwise produced or modified by human agency at any date prior to or reasonably believed to be prior to January 1st, 1850. (Federation of Malaya 1957.)

9The list also included human, animal, and plant remains as well as ancient monuments. This gives rise to a strictly quantitative approach to the definition of antiquities, with the year 1850 demarcated as the cut-off point for the categorisation of an object as an antiquity.

10The Antiquities and Treasure Trove Ordinance was the first law to define a monument in the context of postcolonial Malaysia. It established a comprehensive category encompassing temples, churches, ports, earthworks, standing stones, tombs, shrines, excavations, and any other structure or immovable property (including the natural environment) of interest for historical, archaeological, traditional, or religious reasons. In doing so, the law confirmed the prevailing notion that only monumental and material items were officially of public interest and worth preserving. This definition of a monument bore little resemblance to country-specific conceptualisations, with the sole exception of the inclusion of keramat (the shrines or graves usually associated with hallowed Muslims). Furthermore, the law introduced a distinction between contemporary and ancient monuments. Like antiquities, ancient monuments were defined as such purely on the basis of their age: only those monuments built before 1850 were considered ancient.

11The Antiquities Act of 1976 did not notably alter the lexicon introduced by the previous ordinance; if anything, it perpetuated the same categories and definitions. There were, nevertheless, two significant innovations. First, although the quantitative approach to heritage persisted, the fixed cutoff date of 1850 was abandoned in favour of a more fluid categorisation of antiquities and ancient monuments as items believed to be at least 100 years old, which allowed the authorities to also include patrimonial properties dating from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards. Second, the new law diluted the focus on monuments by adding to its conception of historical objects (benda bersejarah), defined as “any artefact or other object to which religious, traditional, artistic or historic interest is attached” (ibid.). This introduced a broader view of material heritage as encompassing not only antiquarian grandeur but also ordinary items. Historical objects included “ethnographic material” from household and agricultural activities; personal ornaments and decorative items; all kind of arts, handicrafts, and textiles; architecture; and different types of objects, from coins and manuscripts to old vehicles, musical instruments, and even weapons (ibid.).

12Even as Malaysia ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1988, the Antiquities Act, which neglected contemporaneous international documents and debates, survived until the early 2000s. In 1988, the states of Melaka and Johor also passed their own heritage enactments. Notwithstanding the use of the term “heritage” (warisan) rather than the outdated term “antiquities”, they were clearly shaped in the mould of the Antiquities Act. Moreover, they did not yet recognise the category of intangible heritage. That natural sites were the only Malaysian inclusions on the World Heritage List—the Gunung Mulu National Park and the Kinabalu Park—is perhaps symptomatic of a lack of cultural heritage legislation in line with international standards. The 1990s saw several attempts to repeal the Antiquities Act with the so-called Cultural Properties Bills, but the emphasis on property still reflected a material focus rather than the “more dynamic appeal of the term “heritage” (Mahmud et al. 2011: 48).

13By repealing both the Antiquities Act and the Treasure Trove Act, the National Heritage Act of 2005 ushered in a new era of Malaysian heritage legislation. This law marks the shift from a focus on the material and monumental to an expanded understanding of heritage that includes the immaterial, living, and vernacular and is heavily influenced by a transnationally circulating vocabulary. It may be no coincidence that Malaysia received its first cultural World Heritage listing in 2008: Melaka and George Town, Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca. The cosmopolitan, English-speaking establishment of Malaysian conservation experts, professionals, and advocates played a pivotal role in the local translation of global notions of heritage and conservation. By then, besides individual conservation professionals and representatives of heritage-related NGOs, Malaysia also had an established class of heritage experts: mostly archaeologists, architects, urban planners, and historians, many of whom had earned advanced degrees abroad and held professorships at top universities or worked as high-ranking officials or consultants for federal and local agencies, including the newly established Department of National Heritage (Jabatan Warisan Negara).

  • 4 Although human, plant, or animal remains and underwater cultural heritage are still required to be (...)

14The National Heritage Act provides a faithful translation of recent heritage categorisations circulating at the global level under the aegis of UNESCO, such as underwater cultural heritage in line with the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage adopted in 2001 (e.g. Mahmud et al. 2011: 48). Most importantly, the new law introduced a distinction between cultural heritage (warisan kebudayaan) and natural heritage (warisan semula jadi). Second, it subdivided cultural heritage into the categories tangible (ketara) and intangible (tidak ketara). The new legislation abandoned strict cut-off dates as a criterion for conferring heritage status except in the case of the categories retained from the earlier laws: antiquities and treasure trove. In these cases, the previous threshold was revised; under the new law, moveable objects may be classed as antiquities if they are at least 50 years old (Government of Malaysia 2005).4

15The National Heritage Act also introduced the category of National Heritage (Warisan Kebangsaan); that is, heritage that fosters national identity and pride in multicultural Malaysia. It thus differentiates between two lists (senarai): nationally recognised heritage items (warisan) that can be important just to a single community, and National Heritage (with capital letters, Warisan Kebangsaan) that must be of significance to the whole Malaysian community. As key national symbols, heritage items falling under the latter category are designated as such by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, whereas the formal recognition of other heritage items is left to the Department of National Heritage.

Fig. 1. National Heritage plaque at Kampung Kling Mosque, Melaka

Fig. 1. National Heritage plaque at Kampung Kling Mosque, Melaka

Photo: Pierpaolo De Giosa, 2013.

Fig. 2. Devotees contemplating the certificate for the designation of the Wangkang ceremony as heritage (warisan) in 2013, Melaka

Fig. 2. Devotees contemplating the certificate for the designation of the Wangkang ceremony as heritage (warisan) in 2013, Melaka

In 2017 Wangkang has been recognized as National Heritage (Warisan Kebangsaan) and, in 2019, Malaysia has officially nominated the ceremony for inclusion on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Photo: Pierpaolo De Giosa, 2013.

16Undoubtedly, the major innovation in this new vocabulary is the adaptation to the anthropological turn, which expanded heritage vocabularies at the global level, resulting in the adoption of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. Although Malaysia did not ratify this convention until 2013, the National Heritage Act adheres closely to the contemporary transnational view of intangible heritage, which includes almost everything from music, languages, and oral traditions to performing arts and martial arts (ibid.). The national lists abound with intangible heritage in the form of food, games, and adat (customary practices and traditions) of different communities.

  • 5 See the Guidelines for the Establishment of National “Living Human Treasures” Systems, URL: https:/ (...)

17The vernacularization of this law has also incorporated ideas spreading from Asia to the UNESCO sphere, especially in the institution of living human treasures or WAKOH (Warisan Kebangsaan Orang Hidup: National Heritage Living Persons), in line with the ASEAN Declaration on Cultural Heritage signed by Malaysia in 2000. National lists of living human treasures were institutionalised by Japanese and South Korean authorities by the 1950s and 1960s, respectively (Aikawa-Faure 2014; Hafstein 2018). The UNESCO Intangible Heritage project itself is inspired by these models of living human treasures (see Hafstein 2018), “persons who possess to a very high degree the knowledge and skills required for performing or re‐creating specific elements of the intangible cultural heritage”.5 An international “Living Human Treasures” programme was first proposed to the UNESCO Executive Board by the Republic of Korea in 1993 (the programme was run until the adoption of the convention on intangible heritage). These models spread from Asia to other continents. In the Southeast Asian context, countries such as the Philippines and Thailand already established living human treasures’ lists in the 1980s (Hafstein 2018). Although late in comparison with these neighbours, since the adoption of the National Heritage Act Malaysian authorities have recognized several WAKOH on the basis of their exceptional knowledge and skills in a wide-range of traditions from music to dance, and from handcraft to storytelling (see, for example, sitar musician Kumaresan Karthigesu, weaver of aboriginal handcraft Maznah Anak Unyan, or awang batil storyteller Romli Mahamud, just to name a few).

18Another innovation concerns the introduction of a standardised, scientific vocabulary of conservation using words with which most people were probably unfamiliar. Ariffin (2013: 77) notes that conservation seems, at least in regard to traditional Malay building practices, to be a “foreign concept”, and that most of the newly introduced technical terms are modern. In the National Heritage Act, the concept of conservation (pemuliharaan) revolves around four main approaches. Restoration (pembaikpulihan) refers to “the process of accurately recovering the form and details of a structure or part of a structure and its setting, as it appeared at some period in time, by removing the latter work and replacing the missing original work” (Government of Malaysia 2005: 14). Reconstruction (pembinaan semula) refers to a new construction which accurately reproduces “the form and detail of a vanished structure, or part of it, as it appeared at some period in time” (ibid.: 14). Preservation (pemeliharaan) includes efforts to prevent the deterioration, decay, and dilapidation of a heritage item or maintenance and repairs that do not change the appearance of the item (ibid.: 15). Finally, rehabilitation (pemulihan) refers to works that restore “the state of utility” of a heritage property, preserving the historically significant elements while allowing for “an efficient contemporary use” (ibid.).

19In terms of Merry’s (2006) continuum, the Malaysian process of vernacularization can be viewed as a faithful replication of international approaches to heritage. If at one end of the spectrum, the previous legislation was deeply rooted in foreign laws installed in the days of the British Empire, at the other end the National Heritage Act takes its inspiration from contemporary international documents. However, this new, official heritage vocabulary coexists with competing understandings of and approaches to heritage.

Beyond the Official Vocabulary: Two Malaysian Dilemmas

20Warisan is the official Malaysian translation of “heritage” in the inclusive sense promoted by UNESCO. This word is, like its English counterpart, rooted in the concept of inheritance. A synonym, pusaka, is sometimes used to denote inheritance and legacy, but this is more common in relation to the vocabulary of inheritance laws following Islamic prescriptions (Ariffin 2013: 75). In the years leading up to Malaysia’s ratification of the World Heritage Convention, warisan budaya became popular as the direct translation for “cultural heritage”. Today it emerges, as confirmed in conversation with interlocutors, as the most frequent emic categorisation to denote community-based cultural heritage as opposed to personal and family inheritance (warisan or pusaka). This distinction, which may have parallels in other countries, also emerged in conversation with speakers of two other major languages taught in non-Malay-medium schools, Mandarin and Tamil. For example, one interlocutor used the Mandarin word yichan for family “inheritance” and wenhua yichan for “cultural heritage”. Similarly, a Tamil Malaysian interlocutor distinguished between parampariyam as “heredity” (literally “unbroken succession” and “hereditary line”) and kalaccaram for “culture”.

21Heritage clearly contributes to both personal and communal identity. Yet, while familial heritage is rarely a concern of state heritage-making processes, cultural heritage is deeply affected by the politics and policies of the moment. In Malaysia, ethnicity is a key aspect in definitions of cultural heritage, with ethnic heritage usually referred to as warisan bangsa (or, more mildly, warisan kaum). While cultural diversity and ethnic communal identities in theory enrich the national heritage project, the word bangsa with which heritage is associated represents a sort of double-edged sword. On the one hand, its use in the sense of nation, ethnic group, or people of common origin is fairly neutral—it is also the root word for warisan kebangsaan or national heritage—but in public discourse it also refers to “race” in the sense inherited from colonial censuses, along whose lines society is still officially divided today. As we shall see, by perpetuating rigid race-based divides that ignore both intra-ethnic diversity and inter-ethnic connections, this racialised understanding of cultural heritage can have the effect of hindering rather than fostering the national heritage project.

A Double-Edged [S]word: Between Ethnic and National Heritage

22The contemporary politics of Malaysian cultural heritage oscillates between the future-oriented project of warisan kebangsaan (national heritage) and its sources, warisan bangsa (ethnic heritage), with their respective images of cultural diversity. On the one hand, the National Heritage Act’s mission of fostering nationhood and national identity is based on an appreciation of cultural diversity and the rich heritage of diverse communities. Although this mission was articulated quite late compared to the original formulation, it seems to have been inspired by the idea of Bangsa Malaysia introduced by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1991. His Vision 2020 (Wawasan 2020) was fundamentally economic in nature, with the goal of achieving the status of a fully developed country by 2020, but it also introduced a “greater and critical” challenge (Shamsul 1996: 327), Bangsa Malaysia. While the term literally means “Malaysian Nation”, for Mahathir it denoted “a united Malaysian nation” (Shamsul 1996; Mohamed 2002). In later speeches Mahathir elaborated on this rather vague notion, clarifying that he did not mean one “race”, but rather “people who are able to identify themselves with the country, speak Bahasa Malaysia and accept the Constitution” (Mohamed 2002: 110) without renouncing their own customs, languages, and religions. For him, the concept denoted a united future towards which the divided country was headed.

  • 6 The term Peranakan comes from the word anak, which literally means “child”. It also encompasses the (...)

23The politics and vocabulary of ethnic heritage in fact conceal a potentially divisive and “racialised” logic informed by a competing but widespread contemporary discourse and the lingering residue of earlier policies. Malaysia was governed from independence until 2018 by Barisan Nasional, a coalition of parties reflecting the tripartite division of the major ethnic categories: the United Malays National Organisation, the Malaysian Chinese Association, and the Malaysian Indian Congress (hereafter UMNO, MCA, and MIC). Besides a racialised division of society, these macro-categories entail the homogenisation and essentialisation of ethnically, linguistically, and religiously variegated groups, neglecting not only intermarriages and inter-ethnic encounters but also hybrid communities such as the Baba Nyonya (or Peranakan Chinese), the Chetti (sometimes referred to as Peranakan Hindus or Indians), Jawi Peranakan (Muslims of mixed Indian and Malay ancestry), and Eurasians (descendants of former Portuguese and Dutch settlers).6

24In addition to this racialised representation of society (and therefore heritage), this vocabulary is informed by Malay nationalist narratives and the idea of the peninsula as tanah Melayu, a Malay Land par excellence. After independence, this conception of natio-cultural ownership was endorsed by Malay ultra-nationalists through the idea of ketuanan Melayu (Malay dominance), whereby non-Malays and non-Bumiputera were seen as mere immigrants (pendatang). The National Culture Policy of 1971 encapsulates this Malay-favouring hierarchy. It was based on three main principles: “the National Culture of Malaysia should be based on the indigenous culture of the people of this region”, “suitable and salient elements of other cultures may be accepted and made an element of national culture”, and “Islam is an important element in the formation of the said national culture” (Mandal 2008: 278). Although this policy was scrapped in the 1990s, the ideas on which it is predicated linger on and some groups continue to draw on it today (ibid.: 275). The “homeland/immigrant master narrative” is still apparent in schoolbooks (Ting 2009: 50) and is perpetuated at the university level with modules on Islamic and Asian civilisation. Mirroring the tripartite division of society, these modules basically divide Asian civilisation (tamadun Asia) into Malay civilisation with a strong Islamic influence (tamadun Melayu and tamadun Islam), Chinese civilisation (tamadun Cina), and Indian civilisation (tamadun India).

  • 7 The short-lived Pakatan Harapan-led government has not brought, to my knowledge, substantial change (...)

25The homeland/immigrant discourse dies hard, especially with regards to politics. The dominant party in Barisan Nasional, UMNO, has employed the concept of ketuanan Melayu as its armour throughout the years. In the elections of May 2018, for the first time in history, Barisan Nasional experienced a defeat at the hands of a brand-new coalition called Pakatan Harapan (the “Alliance of Hope”). Concepts employed by some of the major parties in this coalition, such as ketuanan rakyat (“people’s supremacy”) or “Malaysian Malaysia”, seemed to point to a departure from earlier divisive and racialized discourses. This new government, however, lasted less than two years until when, in the early 2020, a political crisis opened the way to a new parliamentary majority under a new coalition, Perikatan Nasional. Translated as the “National Alliance”, this coalition—which comprises an UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional, BERSATU (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party), and PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party)—revives the narrative of a Malay-Muslim and Bumiputera pre-eminence.7

26The residue of the homeland/immigrant discourse is reflected in the heritage politics of downtown Melaka, where a hybrid and cosmopolitan heritage district is filtered through the lens of a tripartite racialised cultural division. Melaka is officially recognised as Malaysia’s historic city par excellence, and its dissolved Malay kingdom stands at the epicentre of this national reimagining. As King (2016: 148) writes, this city “played a vital role as the source, ancestral anchor, geographical locus and legitimacy of the newly-created Malaysian state”. Nevertheless, the invisibility of this glorified past in a historic city centre dominated by colonial legacies constituted an obstacle. To rectify this, efforts have been made since the 1980s to reclaim the old colonial civic area as a Malay symbol: colonial buildings have been converted into museums celebrating Malayness and Islam, and powerful symbols of the past have been reconstructed, as epitomised by the replica of the Melaka Sultanate Palace (King 2016; Worden 2001). This Malay-centric heritage discourse speaks the language of classical Malay literary works like Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) and epics such as Hikayat Hang Tuah, which recount the glories of the Melaka kingdom and its legendary admirals (themes that hold a central position in the museums) and even the language of UMNO, which has its own museum in the old civic area. Local UMNO leaders have also been involved in transnational cultural activities through an organisation called Dunia Melayu Dunia Islam (Malay and Islamic World), which connects different Malay-Muslim communities around the world (and which also has its own museum in a former colonial building). Based on the concept of the Malay World (Alam Melayu), this organisation, paradoxically, fosters solidarity and cooperation between diverse Malay-Muslim communities even as it bypasses the country’s own national heritage project.

27During a seminar I attended in 2013, the Governor of Melaka Khalil Yakoob justified this Malay-centric approach in the old civic area by claiming that there was “a little bit from the Portuguese, a lot from the Dutch and the British, but nothing left of the legacy of the Malay kingdom”. In his view, Melaka’s World Heritage was dominated by colonial remains, and physically reconstructing the lost heritage of the sultanate era was an acceptable pursuit. Heritage, in this line of thinking, is conceptualised as history (sejarah) that is now gone. Its counterpart—that which is left—emerges as peninggalan (relics or legacies), which in local discourses often become a contested and undesirable legacy, especially in connection with colonialism. Ultra-Malay rhetoric would demonise the European conquerors, and in particular the Portuguese, who destroyed the Malay kingdom of Melaka and its Sultanate Palace (e.g. Worden 2001: 209-210). Echoes of Dutch rule remain in the proverb Bagai Belanda minta tanah (“Like the Dutch asking for land”), which refers to the Dutch acquisition of lands belonging to the Malays (compare the English saying “Give someone an inch and they’ll take a mile”).

28A similarly Malay-centric approach can be observed in other political and tourism packages that produce racialised cultural areas as spatial representations of the other major ethnic groups. In the 2000s, with the support of the UMNO-dominated Melaka State Government, MCA and the MIC selected two streets from a mixed heritage area as quintessentially “Chinese” and “Indian”. The most famous of these is the Jonker Walk night market in Jalan Hang Jebat (the official name of Jonker Street), singled out by local MCA leaders in 2000. They have since added to the street Chinatown-like arches, stages, and statues, obscuring the true diversity of the quarter, where Chinese temples stand together with Muslim, Hindu, or Christian places of worship. The founders of Jonker Walk conceptualise Jonker Street and its surroundings as a “cultural area”, wenhua fang. Although they named it Jichangjie Wenhuafang, after the local Chinese name of the street, the area is nowadays typically referred to for tourism purposes as Chinatown. A similar imported label is applied not far away in Jalan Bendahara, which is presented as Melaka’s Little India: the Tamil word-for-word translation, Ciriya Intiya, was even inscribed on its entrance arch. Despite its ethno-linguistic and religious diversity, the road is held up as a symbol of unproblematised Indianness, with a prescribed Tamil-cum-Hindu character (it is sponsored by the State and MIC as the main venue for the Hindu festival of lights, Deepavali), purportedly representing a loosely homogeneous community of Malaysians of South Asian descent.

Fig. 3. Arch at the entrance of Jonker Walk, Melaka

Fig. 3. Arch at the entrance of Jonker Walk, Melaka

Photo: Pierpaolo De Giosa, 2013.

29One of the paradoxes behind the deliberate creation of Chinatowns and Little Indias is that these projects end up legitimising the native/immigrant narrative and essentialising Chinese and Indians as foreigners in their own country. Far from being challenged by local MCA and MIC leaders, these labels are regarded as gifts from the (previously) UMNO-dominated Melaka State Government. The language of racialised cultural areas is a common feature of other Malaysian cities and heritage districts, too, but is not always accepted as it is in Melaka. As Loo (2012: 859) shows, many local Chinese perceived the Chinatown-like “packaging” of Petaling Street and its surrounding heritage zone in Kuala Lumpur as an act of “minoritisation” and “rejected ‘Chinatown’ as it solidified and naturalised the image of the Chinese as immigrants and their status as ethnic minority.”

30The notion of cultural enclaves is reflected in another common practice of Melaka’s heritage politics, too: the designation of kampung warisan (heritage villages). Although mired in an understanding of cultural heritage as existing in compartmentalised ethnic compounds, the increasing recognition of minority groups as heritage bearers comes closer to the underlying principles of the national heritage project. The identification of living heritage villages is not only tangible evidence of the shift from a monumental bias towards the appreciation of vernacular heritage, but also has implications for the position of minorities that are more difficult to categorise in a strict racialised constellation.

  • 8 In Kristang, adransa can refer to wealth and inheritance (a term deriving from the Portuguese heran (...)

31The Baba Nyonya Heritage Village along Heeren Street and Jonker Street for example, one of the first kampung warisan to be designated in the 1990s, was associated with the Chinese Peranakan community (Government of Malaysia 2008: 132). This area, now identified as “Chinatown”, was then linked to the Peranakan people, who are occasionally dubbed by other Chinese Orang Cina Bukan Cina (Chinese yet not Chinese) for their assimilation of Malay and British ways of life and inability to speak Mandarin. Other heritage areas linked by the Melaka State Government to specific communities include the Malay Kampung Morten, Kampung Chetti, and the Portuguese Settlement (Perkampungan Portugis). In the latter case, the designation has a liberating effect: rather than demonising a specific colonial past (cf. Worden 2001), it values a community that sees itself as intimately connected with Portuguese and Catholic heritage. Indeed, Padri sa Chang (Land of the Priests)—as the Portuguese Settlement is still referred to today in Kristang (literally “Christian language”)—acknowledges the important role played by two Catholic priests in the establishment of the settlement in the 1930s; for some, it remains adransa di Deus (heritage from God).8

32This departure from earlier heritage politics has played a crucial role in the inclusion of Melaka on the World Heritage List, where Malay-centric and racialised heritage discourses were key contributing factors in previous failures (e.g. King 2016: 159; Worden 2001: 216). Although the writers of the nomination dossier (and the Department of National Heritage more broadly) did not abandon the mainstream Malay-Chinese-Indian distinction altogether, they emphasised the contribution of Peranakan communities and other minorities to local heritage (see Government of Malaysia 2008). Furthermore, besides the appreciation and official recognition of this communal heritage which decouples the discourse of cultural heritage from a racialised vocabulary, the intimate understandings of heritage stemming from these communities have the potential to influence the national heritage project in at least two ways.

33The first is connected to cultural diversity, or a form of cultural diversity that does not merely value the heritage of each ethnic community, but rather transcends a classification along racialised lines. To those who ridicule her as an Orang Cina Bukan Cina, a Peranakan Chinese interlocutor of mine usually replied that her keturunan (a word that refers to both heredity in material terms and ancestry) is a source of pride precisely because of this diversity. She would, for instance, point out that for special events she wears baju kebaya and batik sarong (local traditional dress), but differently from the Malays, or that she celebrates Chinese New Year even though she does not speak Mandarin. The second way is related to an attachment to place, which resembles the ideal of Bangsa Malaysia in regard to the willingness of Malaysians to identify themselves with the country. Consider the following examples from the oral repertoires of two other communities:

O Melaka tera di San Fransisku
Nte otru tera ki yeo kereh.

  • 9 The song O Melaka was composed by the Tres Amigos in the 1950s. The English translation used here i (...)

O Melaka, land of Saint Francis Xavier
No place else where I want to be.9


Pergi ke Kampung Chetti naik beca.
Separuh jalan tayar pancit.
Adat dan tradisi tidak dilupa,
Menjadi warisan kepada cucu cicit.

  • 10 My translation of a pantun collected by a group from the Chetti community Facebook page, URL: https (...)

Heading by trishaw to Kampung Chetti,
Had flat tyre halfway there.
Customs and tradition are not forgotten,
They become heritage for future generations.10

35Place attachment is clearly evident in the first example, an excerpt from a song performed by a Portuguese-Eurasian band. In the second—a pantun (a Malay poetic form) composed by a young girl from the Chetti community—this kampung warisan is not presented as foreign, as in the lexicon of Chinatowns and Little Indias. The combination of terms such as adat, tradition, and heritage with Kampung Chetti bears similarities with the conceptualisation of this kampung as harta nenek-moyang (properties of the ancestors) that emerged in conversation with several other Chetti interlocutors. This wording locates their roots in places such as Melaka and Malaysia rather than an imagined Indian motherland. For them, no other place better embodies “home” than Kampung Chetti, Melaka and Malaysia.

The Good, the Bad, and the Authentic

36If, as we have seen, the national heritage project exists in parallel with a competing discourse imbued with a more or less defined vocabulary based on race paradigms and Malay nationalism, the second major dilemma deals with the adoption of an international conservationist package. By embracing a scientific conservation lexicon, the national heritage project clashes with the apparently mutually unintelligible idiom of heritage transmission. At play here is the friction between international conservation standards and local practices of heritage transmission which are themselves tied up with the multicultural Malaysian context. This dilemma is epitomised by the concept of authenticity embraced by the conservation vocabulary and the best practices promoted by the Department of National Heritage.

37Several studies based in Asia reveal perspectives that contrast sharply with conventional standards of conservation. Approaches rooted in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are discussed in the edited volume Asian Heritage Management: Contexts, Concerns, and Prospects (Silva & Chapagain 2013), whereby “inconsistencies emerge from the fact that Asian heritage is valued for its spiritual significance rather than historical and material significance” (Chapagain 2013: 12). In East Asia, a clear-cut dichotomy purportedly exists between Eastern “spiritual and naturalistic sensibilities” and Western “visual beauty through its material substance” (Chung 2005: 55).

38It should be noted that the National Heritage Act does not actually define the notion of authenticity. This task is left to the Department of National Heritage in its Guidelines for the Conservation of Heritage Buildings, in which “authenticity” is translated into Malay as keaslian. Derived from the word asli (original), the Kamus Dewan (Institute Vocabulary) defines keaslian as “genuineness”. The Guidelines identify it in terms of materials, design, workmanship, and setting, the objective being to restore a building to its original (asal) state rather than to imbue it with aesthetic beauty (Department of National Heritage 2012: 4). This perspective is exemplified in the Department’s motto Patah tak tumbuh, hilang tak berganti (Whatever is lost, will never be replaced), which, ironically, inverts the original proverb: Patah tumbuh, hilang berganti (What is lost, will always be replaced; literally “the broken will regrow, the lost will be replaced”). On paper at least, the national heritage project seems to give precedence to earlier Western-derived material obsessions (as exemplified in international documents such as the Venice Charter of 1964 and the test of authenticity of the abovementioned four material elements introduced in the 1970s by the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention), rather than later calls for a culture-specific understanding of authenticity influenced by Asian perspectives (as in the Nara Document of Authenticity, 1994). Although Malaysians are increasingly embracing transnational scientific conservation principles, this strict understanding of authenticity still comes up against competing practices of heritage transmission.

39A telling story concerns the recent controversy over the renovations at the Hindu temple complex of Batu Caves in the state of Selangor. The main cave was originally part of a limestone massif, but in the second half of the twentieth century local Tamils turned it into the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple, a shrine dedicated to the Hindu God Murugan. The complex is today the most important Hindu pilgrimage site in Malaysia, where thousands of devotees congregate every year for Thaipusam, a festival connected to Murugan (Belle 2017: 186-189). Over the years more temples and other structures have been built on the site, including the iconic 272 stairs leading to the main cave and the Murugan statue, at 42.7 metres high, which was unveiled in 2006. In fact, it is common for Tamil Hindu buildings to be renovated, extended, or even destroyed and reconstructed in a new form (followed by the cyclical ritual-bathing consecration, kumbabishekam) every twelve years if possible.

Fig. 4. Batu Caves complex, Selangor

Fig. 4. Batu Caves complex, Selangor

Photo: Pierpaolo De Giosa, 2013.

40In 2018 the Sri Mahamariamman Temple Devasthanam (the management committee in charge of Batu Caves) performed one such cyclical consecration for renovation works which included the construction of new gopuram entrance towers and sculptures as well as the repainting of the 272 stairs in rainbow colours, which went viral on social media. Although the colourful steps renewed interest in the site among Malaysians and foreigners alike, the renovations stirred up a bitter controversy between the temple management committee and the authorities. According to regulations, because the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple is designated as National Heritage (Warisan Kebangsaan), the committee should have first submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture and the Department of National Heritage. Deputy Minister Muhammad Bakhtiar voiced the department’s concern that the new painting works “disturbed the harmony, integrity and originality of Batu Caves”, and stressed that the owners of items on the national heritage registers must follow the rules if they wish to maintain their listing (Ruban 2018).

41The management committee’s reply was articulated in an idiom that was completely unintelligible to the scientific heritage jargon of the national authorities. Although it is unlikely that the members of the management committee were genuinely unaware of the meaning of terms of such as authenticity and originality in this context, they themselves nonetheless employed straightforward religious terms and meanings. R. Nadaraja, the chairman of the committee, claimed that they had followed Hindu practices and that the temples require cyclical renovations and subsequent kumbabishekam ceremonies, which are also intended to revitalise the power of the deities. They had commissioned experienced artisans from India to carry out the works, and asserted that the complex now looked more beautiful temples in India themselves (e.g. Bavani & Nair 2018). The rainbow-coloured steps, Nadaraja said, reminded him of a peacock, the symbol and vehicle of Murugan.11 Conversely, the reports of heritage-related agencies reiterated their authority in defining best practices and monitoring national heritage buildings. In this contest between two apparently mutually unintelligible idioms, need one approach vanquish the other for a solution to emerge? This question lies at the heart of the dilemma for both the holders of heritage sites and the heritage agencies. Following the criticism from the authorities, the temple committee itself voiced doubts about the benefits of being registered as heritage, suggesting that perhaps they “do not need heritage status” (Nair 2018).

42In this case, it may be tempting to view Asian values of heritage transmission as constituting one end of a spectrum, with a Western-derived “authorized heritage discourse” (Smith 2006) at the other. But confining debates on the meaning of authenticity and “good” or “bad” conservation practices to this dichotomy is both reductive and risks reifying the two poles as two separate monoliths. Debates surrounding the concept of authenticity reveal that there are also competing views within the realm of authorised heritage discourse. Similarly, reifying Asian approaches obscures internal disputes. Given that the repainting of the staircase also met with a mixed reception among Hindu devotees, this controversy is not simply a case of traditional values and scientific conservation principles coming into conflict with one another. Two of my interlocutors, who attend Thaipusam at Batu Caves every year, exemplify these internal disagreements. One saw the work of the temple committee as a necessary devotional act of beautification and cyclical sacralisation. “This is our religion, agama” he said, adding that the rainbow, in addition to resembling the colours of the peacock, epitomises multicultural Malaysia. The other saw the facelift as merely a manifestation of the pursuit of “tourist dollars”. In her view, the stairs should have been left red and white, in line with other Hindu beliefs.

43Turning to intangible heritage, a field in which the Department of National Heritage has not yet dared to formulate guidelines on authenticity, similar internal disagreements come to the fore, reflecting the coexistence of different visions of authenticity. Local proverbial wisdom in fact problematises the idea of keaslian. When it comes to the ways in which heritage should be handed down from generation to generation, especially with regard to adat, Malay proverbs seem to be ambivalent. Some highlight a strict conservationist approach, where everything else can be sacrificed in the name of continuity. One example is the saying Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat (literally “Let the children die, not the customs”), which is usually applied to people who adhere closely to traditions. Another is Kecil dikandung ibu, besar dikandung adat, mati dikandung tanah, meaning “When little, [one is] embraced by mother, when adult by custom, when dead by earth”. In contrast to this traditionalist and conservationist approach, other sayings reveal a more elastic understanding of heritage. Hilang adat tegal muafakat (“To lose customs through consensus”), for example, suggests that adat can be changed if so agreed by a broader group of people.

44The understanding of cultural and social practices as mutable is reinforced by proverbial wisdom dealing with the relationship between adat and Islam. Two examples that underscore the complex relationship between heritage and religion and the subordinate position of old practices that are regarded as conflicting with Islamic teachings and syarak (from the Arabic Shariah for religious precepts) are Adat bersendi syarak, syarak bersendi kitabullah (“Adat is based on Islam, Islam is based on the holy Quran”) and Adat memakai, syarak mengata (“Adat applies, religious law orders”). These sayings suggest that adat can be altered or discontinued if it conflicts with Islam, whereas Islamic precepts cannot.

45The role of Islamic institutions and organisations is crucial in the relationship between heritage and religion. The state of Kelantan is of particular interest in this regard. After winning the local elections in 1990, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), founded by Muslim clerics aiming to create an Islamic state, banned traditional performances and arts, such as Malay shadow theatre (wayang kulit) and the mak yong dance theatre. In the view of the PAS-led Kelantan State Government, women and men performing together went against Islamic teachings, and the strong pre-Islamic influence on these arts made them undesirable. Mak yong is particularly problematic, given its animist and Hindu-Buddhist roots, the prominent role it gives on stage to women, and its status as a form of “spiritual heritage” used for the purposes of ritual healing (Yousof 2017).

  • 12 Mak yong was recognised by UNESCO as early as 2005 under the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Or (...)

46The fate of mak yong in Malaysia reveals that views on the preservation of cultural heritage can also be influenced by religious beliefs. The Kelantan State Government has promoted a new, “Islamicized” version of mak yong (Hoffstaedter 2009: 531-532) (although in its traditional form it is still performed secretly for ritual healing). At the same time, the federal government has launched a series of initiatives to protect mak yong as a traditional form of performing art, resulting in its designation as national heritage and its inclusion since 2008 in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.12 The former Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage, Rais Yatim, played a crucial role in the promotion of mak yong, and in 2004 publicly criticised the attempts to “Arabize and de-traditionalize Malay culture” (ibid.: 533). A Malay and a Muslim himself, Yatim exemplifies the divergent intranational views on the relationship between traditional arts and religion. Outside Kelantan, the federal government continues to act as a patron of mak yong through institutions such as the National Arts and Heritage Academy. In addition, NGOs such as PUSAKA are actively involved in the preservation of mak yong and other banned performing arts (Hoffstaedter 2009; Yousof 2017). PUSAKA in particular was established as a response to the Kelantanese bans, and is committed to revitalising these performing art forms at the community level.

47In 2017 Karima Bennoune, the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, cited the Kelantanese bans as one of a number of challenges to human rights in Malaysia, on the grounds that they “disrupt the transmission of unique and meaningful Malaysian traditions to future generations”.13 Despite such criticism, PAS leaders have retained the prohibition on mak yong. Only in 2019, when Bennoune reiterated her concerns, did the Kelantan State Government announce its intention to lift the ban after almost three decades, but without substantially altering its approach (e.g. Sharifah 2019). Performances will be monitored and approved on a case-by-case basis only if they are in line with Shariah requirements, especially in relation to the PAS leaders’ two main concerns: no pre-Islamic icons of worship may be displayed, and men and women are to perform separately on stage, the latter covering their aurat (the parts of the body that according to religious guidelines ought to be covered). The Kelantan Deputy Chief Minister Mohd Amar Abdullah invited the artists to be more “creative” in ensuring that mak yong complies with Islam and with the government’s rules (Mohd Zulkifli 2019).

48“Which version of mak yong does one preserve?” asks Yousof (2017), an influential researcher of mak yong who personally prepared the candidature file for UNESCO. He himself contrasts the supposedly genuine form of mak yong with the entertainment-based version sponsored by the National Arts and Heritage Academy (“a modernized student version, a pale shadow of a precious theatre form reaching back over a thousand years”, ibid.), thereby underlining the point that alternative, subjective authenticities exist side by side. Mak yong is kept afloat in many different forms: “unofficial” performances either for entertainment purposes or for ritual healing, shows and troupes “revitalized” by NGOs, the contemporary versions promoted by national institutions and arts academies, and the “purified” renditions endorsed by PAS leaders and Islamic legal experts.

An Unfinished Malaysian Crossword?

49Just as languages and vocabularies constantly grow with new words and meanings, understandings of heritage and approaches to conservation as set out in national and transnational documents are continually expanding. Malay and Mandarin words such as warisan and yichan, closely associated with familial and ancestral heritage, shift to the realm of culture and communal identity. And, as we have seen, the National Heritage Act translates faithfully the latest ideas formulated at the global level under the aegis of UNESCO. As a final reflection on the national heritage project, it is worth noting that approaches to heritage in Malaysia are not unfolding along the lines of the prevailing racialised division of society. Rather, the basic linguistic understanding of heritage as personal and familiar, as shared by speakers of three major languages—Malay, Chinese, and Tamil—points to something common to humanity. The appreciation of multicultural heritage embraced by the national heritage project can be seen as the heritage counterpart of the “transethnic solidarities” emerging in the arts, as observed by Mandal (2004: 50): “a variety of efforts whereby Malaysians actively participate in society without respect to ethnic background and by rejecting primordial notions of ethnicity”. At the local level, however, where politicians and bureaucrats may have more provincial, chauvinistic views than their more cosmopolitan counterparts at federal agencies such as the Department of National Heritage, a competing, more widespread discourse persists and Malay-centric heritage politics coexists with other racialised representations of heritage. Malaysia is thus a land of polyglots not only in the strict sense of multilingualism, but also because its inhabitants speak different idioms of heritage. This oscillation between national heritage and ethnic heritage encapsulates a division in Malaysian society that goes beyond racialised boundaries: at these two extremes, people tend to either value their own ethnic heritage or view cultural diversity as national heritage. The national heritage project itself does not do away with the racialised discourses that permeate Malaysian society but, like the loosely defined idea of Bangsa Malaysia, suggests that Malaysians share a common heritage that can be at once national and ethnically diverse.

50The lists of the National Heritage Act reflect this significant departure from earlier cultural policies in two main ways. First, they reveal a shift from a Malay-centric focus to multicultural representativeness. One example of this is the Chinese southern lion dance, which was previously banned except during Chinese New Year celebrations (DeBernardi 2009: 255). While the Chinese Malaysian community pushed for recognition of the lion dance as an integral part of national culture, Malay leaders considered it an alien custom. For instance, in 1979 the Minister of Home Affairs Ghazali Shafie asserted that because the lion dance originated in China, it could not form part of Malaysian culture; he even suggested swapping the lion for a tiger (the national symbol of Malaysia) and setting the dance to Malay music (DeBernardi 2009: 127). The Chinese lion dance on poles has been recognised as an intangible heritage object since 2007, which serves to reassure “non-Malays that their cultural traditions are of National value and reflects inclusion rather than exclusion” (Jenkins 2008: 87).

51The second way in which the lists of the National Heritage Act reflect this new direction is in their challenge to heritage approaches compartmentalised along ethnic lines, possibly inspired by understandings of heritage (such as those of the Peranakan and other minorities) that transcend racialised boundaries. An example is the designation as WAKOH of Oye Hock Seng, a Chinese Kelantanese wayang kulit master believed to be the only non-Malay dalang (puppeteer). Drawing on Hindu epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, wayang kulit in Malaysia is a testimony of the country’s rich history, which also transcends national boundaries—the Malay version in the peninsula is believed to have influences from Thailand and Indonesia. Recognising an ethnic Chinese as a bearer of Malay heritage has a liberating effect in a country that is too often trapped in racialised discourses. While the federal government has made clear its wish to save this heritage by supporting efforts to have it included on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage, the issue of authenticity with respect to wayang kulit and other traditional arts remains contested.

52In this area, the national heritage project has arguably been less creative, adopting scientific understandings of conservation and authenticity. East/West distinctions in heritage conservation philosophies are still drawn even in best-practice projects, such as the project concerned with the conservation of Melaka’s Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (the country’s oldest functioning Chinese place of worship), which was honoured during the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2002. The guiding principles of the temple’s board of trustees were “to ensure authenticity, to retain its original function and spatial arrangement, and to use original materials and traditional methodology wherever possible” (UNESCO 2007: 212). However, as the commissioned architect Laurence Loh recalls, the congregation insisted on repainting the deteriorated frescoes of the temple, a practice of rejuvenation carried out periodically to honour the deities. He writes that “renewal in the conservation of traditional Asian architecture raises the question of authenticity” (ibid.: 7):

To Western eyes, accustomed to the preservation of frescoes in their found fragmentary form, not only would the new painting look too bright, fresh and intact, but also it would be deemed poor conservation practice, resulting in the loss of material authenticity. From the Chinese viewpoint, however, renewal of the frescoes conforms to traditional religious beliefs and promotes continuity through artisanship and apprenticeship. (Ibid.: 9.)

53While this project is championed as an example of conservation best practice, suggesting a compromise between supposedly divergent Eastern and Western values, the examples of Batu Caves and mak yong reveal irreconcilable conflicts between two worlds. In this context, too, Malaysian society is not divided according to ethnicity, but oscillates between two poles on a continuum of polyglot heritage idiom: those who embrace scientific conservation principles and those with other heritage transmission principles. Here, the language of national heritage encounters not a racialised discourse but a mutually unintelligible vocabulary rooted in religious notions such as kumbabishekam and Shariah. There can be no easy solutions in reconciling divergent understandings of heritage transmission when the question of human rights is involved too, as in the case of mak yong. But can these apparently unintelligible vocabularies of heritage conservation and transmission be combined into a unified “Malaysian way”? The challenge of doing justice to these diverse cultural understandings of authenticity is perhaps the most complex dilemma faced by the national heritage project today.

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Note de fin

1 In Malaysian English, the particle lah commonly adds emphasis at the end of a sentence.

2 There are thus two major limitations in this study. The first one is related to the specific focus on cultural heritage, and the consequent neglect of the category of natural heritage. This focus, however, is not meant to perpetuate the artificial culture/nature dichotomisation of heritage established in earlier international and national conservation frameworks (for more recent concepts that highlight the interaction between people and environment such as the “cultural landscapes” see Esposito, this issue). A detailed analysis of the management of natural heritage in Malaysia would require the analysis of environmental law and its related institutions, which goes beyond the scope of this article. The second limitation of this study concerns the exclusion of East Malaysia. There are few reasons behind this omission. First, the states of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo have special autonomous powers, and their local governments have a higher degree of autonomy than the other states in the peninsula also with regards to heritage matters. A focused analysis of their own heritage legislation would be of great interest (e.g. Mahmud et al. 2011: 47), but there is no space here for this exercise. In addition, the ethnic and religious composition of the population is more complex in East Malaysia, where other Bumiputera communities enter the picture such as, for example, the Iban who constitute the 30.3% of the population in Sarawak or the Kadazandusun who account for 24.5% in Sabah (see Government of Malaysia 2010). Finally, because the only two natural World Heritage sites of the country are located in Sabah and Sarawak (the Kinabalu Park and the Gunung Mulu National Park respectively), a focus on the conservation framework at work in East Malaysia may require special attention to national and local regulations with regard to natural heritage.

3 Apart from Malay and English terminology, this paper includes few words from Mandarin, Tamil, and local creoles such as Baba Malay, Chetti Malay, and Portuguese-based Kristang. In this provisional exploration I am, unfortunately, omitting many more languages spoken in the peninsula, from the Aslian languages of the Orang Asli (literally “aboriginal people”) to other Chinese and Indian languages. Also beyond the scope of this paper is the rich heritage word stock from East Malaysia.

4 Although human, plant, or animal remains and underwater cultural heritage are still required to be at least a century old to be classed as antiquities.

5 See the Guidelines for the Establishment of National “Living Human Treasures” Systems, URL:, accessed 17 June 2020.

6 The term Peranakan comes from the word anak, which literally means “child”. It also encompasses the meanings local-born, descendant, and mixed blood, harking back to the intermarriages between people from the region and former settlers from elsewhere.

7 The short-lived Pakatan Harapan-led government has not brought, to my knowledge, substantial changes to the official management of heritage. This may not be surprising because there were more urgent issues than heritage matters in the agenda. Moreover, Pakatan Harapan has governed the country only for a short period and its administration had to deal with a system and bureaucratic machinery developed throughout six decades of Barisan Nasional control.

8 In Kristang, adransa can refer to wealth and inheritance (a term deriving from the Portuguese herança, which refers to both family inheritance and cultural heritage).

9 The song O Melaka was composed by the Tres Amigos in the 1950s. The English translation used here is by Patrick de Silva (2006: 381).

10 My translation of a pantun collected by a group from the Chetti community Facebook page, URL:, accessed 9 August 2019.

11 See URL:, accessed 27 August 2019.

12 Mak yong was recognised by UNESCO as early as 2005 under the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This proclamation was superseded in 2008 by the newly established list of intangible heritage.

13 See, accessed 2 September 2019.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. National Heritage plaque at Kampung Kling Mosque, Melaka
Crédits Photo: Pierpaolo De Giosa, 2013.
Fichier image/jpeg, 293k
Titre Fig. 2. Devotees contemplating the certificate for the designation of the Wangkang ceremony as heritage (warisan) in 2013, Melaka
Légende In 2017 Wangkang has been recognized as National Heritage (Warisan Kebangsaan) and, in 2019, Malaysia has officially nominated the ceremony for inclusion on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Crédits Photo: Pierpaolo De Giosa, 2013.
Fichier image/jpeg, 309k
Titre Fig. 3. Arch at the entrance of Jonker Walk, Melaka
Crédits Photo: Pierpaolo De Giosa, 2013.
Fichier image/jpeg, 420k
Titre Fig. 4. Batu Caves complex, Selangor
Crédits Photo: Pierpaolo De Giosa, 2013.
Fichier image/jpeg, 745k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Pierpaolo De Giosa, « Heritage-Lah! A Legacy of a Few Wor(l)ds in Peninsular Malaysia »Moussons, 36 | 2020, 163-189.

Référence électronique

Pierpaolo De Giosa, « Heritage-Lah! A Legacy of a Few Wor(l)ds in Peninsular Malaysia »Moussons [En ligne], 36 | 2020, mis en ligne le 19 novembre 2020, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Pierpaolo De Giosa

Pierpaolo De Giosa is trained as a social anthropologist. He has carried out long-term field research in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Timor-Leste. Situated at the intersection of urban anthropology and critical heritage studies, his exploration of the politics of heritage in Melaka is part of a larger doctoral project developed as member of the group of research “The Global Political Economy of Cultural Heritage” between 2011 and 2016. The project was funded by the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. De Giosa’s book World Heritage and Urban Politics in Malaysia. A Cityscape Below the Winds is currently contracted to the Asian Heritages series of Amsterdam University Press.

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