Martial art silat claimed by Indonesia, Malaysia added to Unesco's intangible cultural heritage list

In a photo taken on Dec 3, 2019, Indonesia's Puspa Arum Sari performs during the women's seni tunggal competition of the pencak silat events at the SEA Games in Subic freeport, the Philippines. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JAKARTA - Unesco has recognised South-east Asia's popular martial art of silat, claimed by both Indonesia and Malaysia, in its intangible cultural heritage list.

Indonesia's pencak silat and Malaysia's silat were among 15 cultural practices inscribed by the Unesco's Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage into its "Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" on Thursday (Dec 12) in Bogota, Colombia.

Unesco acknowledged that apart from being a sport, pencak silat contains "mental-spiritual, self-defence and artistic aspects".

The UN organisation also recognised the richness marked by not only its terms in different parts of Indonesia, such as "pencak" in Java and "silat" in West Sumatra, but also "moves, styles, accompaniments, music, and supporting equipment, which includes costumes, musical instruments, and traditional weapons".

Meanwhile, it noted that silat, "the combative art of self-defence and survival", has roots in the Malay Archipelago.

Many of Indonesia and Malaysia's shared cultural traditions from batik clothing to song and dance have often sparked disputes.

In 2007, the Malaysian government used a folk song titled Rasa Sayange or Feeling of Love in its "Truly Asia" overseas tourism campaign, and this triggered protests by Indonesians who claimed the song as their own.

And in 2009, Malaysia's promotion for a documentary series on the Discovery Channel that featured a dance sparked another round of protests from Indonesians who claimed the popular Pendet dance originate from the country's tourism hot spot Bali Island. A crowd threw eggs and rocks at the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta, while in another place, the Malaysian flag was burnt.

Other disputes involved wayang (puppet) and batik, which Unesco put into its list of cultural heritage in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

But the problem is not unique to both countries, which share numerous cultural similarities. Last year, Malaysia and Singapore were also involved in a "food war" over cendol.

On pencak silat, Indonesia's Foreign Ministry's director for socio-cultural affairs and international organisations of developing countries, Kamapradipta Isnomo, said the martial art was viewed as "strengthening comradeship and maintaining social order" not only in one region, but also nationwide and internationally.

"Indonesia is strongly committed to preserve pencak silat by way of its training not only as a sport and martial art, but also as an art and culture," Mr Kamapradipta said in a statement on Thursday.

The term "pencak" is famous on Java island, while the term "silat" is more popular in West Sumatra.

In recent years, pencak silat has gained more popularity overseas as its practitioners, such as Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman, have performed in international movies. Mr Iko, for instance, appeared on The Raid, while Mr Yayan and Mr Cecep played in John Wick along with prominent American movie star Keanu Reeves.

President Joko Widodo has also expressed his hope to see pencak silat enter the Olympic Games, after it was included in the Asian Games and SEA Games.

Historian JJ Rizal told The Straits Times that the inclusion of pencak silat as the Unesco intangible cultural heritage should serve as a stepping stone into something bigger in the future, such as to drive its domestic creative industry, and the government's role is vital to help build the necessary infrastructure.

In Malaysia, its Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Mohamaddin Ketapi said in a statement on Friday: "It is a world-class recognition for silat to be enlisted by Unesco as it is one of the country's most enduring cultural heritage treasures.

"The recognition will also reflect Malaysia's commitment to protect the world's heritage."

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