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The poetry of Malay multiculturalism

The poetry of Malay multiculturalism
Published: Oct 04, 2010

Nick Long

   Young Riau Islander poets celebrate a successful performance
   Nick Long

Rizal is not the average Indonesian teenager. While most of his friends spend their spare time chatting by the seaside, watching TV or listening to music, Rizal has a very different hobby. It's one that has made him famous in his home town of Tanjung Pinang - the capital of Riau Islands province. Whenever he has an afternoon free, Rizal likes to dress up in traditional Malay clothes and wander through the town's streets, serenading passers-by with poetry. His genre of choice is the pantun - a traditional Malay verse made of two rhyming couplets, which are put together with comic, evocative or even romantic effect.

'I really love writing and reciting pantun,' he told me. 'They're great for telling to people on the street. They don't take long to listen to and they always make the listener very happy. And it's promoting my culture - Malay culture. Did you know it's the original culture of these islands? But so many people have forgotten it because they spend all their time watching VCDs or soap operas. By telling people poems I can show them all the important Malay cultural values that can help them find peace and happiness in their lives. And hopefully they'll become interested and join in with Malay culture themselves.'

However, Rizal is not Malay. Rather, he exemplifies what could be termed 'multicultural Malayness' - a concept the provincial government is trying hard to cultivate among school and university students. This controversial approach has attracted opposition from Malays and non-Malays alike. But in the hands of performers like Rizal, multicultural Malayness is taking on a life of its own, fostering new and compelling ways in which Riau Islanders might learn whether and how they belong.

Malayness or multiculturalism?

Although the Riau Islands were the seat of an important Malay sultanate in the pre-colonial period, they have always been marked by a very high degree of ethnic and cultural diversity. In recent decades, they have attracted hundreds of thousands of migrants who have travelled from across Indonesia to take advantage of the islands' proximity to Singapore. Some are hoping to cross the international border and get lucrative work overseas. Others are hoping to work in the exclusive Singapore-sponsored industrial parks on the islands of Bintan and Batam. Others have simply heard that the economy is strong, supported by casual trade and tourism from the nearby 'Asian Tiger', and have chosen to move in the hope of making a better living than they could back home.

But with this diversity comes the danger of conflict. In 2001, violent skirmishes broke out between migrants from Flores and West Sumatra living on Batam - leading Riau Islanders to fear that their province might be a tinder box of interethnic violence of the kind that swept West Kalimantan, Ambon and Central Sulawesi shortly after President Suharto stepped down. Sensing an urgent need to offset this risk, the local government made it their priority to cultivate a robust multicultural ethic of tolerance and mutual respect.

These imperatives sat uneasily alongside other political priorities at the time, as politicians sought to establish the Riau Islands as an independent province, separate from the province of 'Riau' on Mainland Sumatra, to which it had formerly been attached. Provincial autonomy was championed as a chance for Riau Island Malays to reassert themselves and once again become the rulers of the archipelago, as they had been in pre-colonial times. The promotion and proliferation of Malay cultural forms - poetry, dance, clothing - was a cornerstone of this vision. It also underpinned administrators' efforts to defuse ethnic tensions. The Deputy Governor explained how, for him, 'Tanjung Pinang is distinguished by its pluralism. But I am always reminded how that pluralism can become a symbol of our unity, especially Malay culture, which has the power to unify us.'

Sharing in the pleasures of Malay culture should lead to young people having a shared common ground, and also see them being inspired by the values of tolerance, peacefulness and religiosity that are said to characterise the Malay soul. The result has been an intense program of teaching Malay culture. Much of this is done within schools, where Jawi script, pantun poetry and a variety of traditional dances are incorporated into the curriculum.

Pupils are expected to learn how to read and write Jawi - the script used to write Malay during much of the classical and colonial period - from primary school through to junior high school, while forms of 'Malay' song and dance are taught from kindergarten. Although some children enjoy these lessons, there are widespread complaints that the material is boring, difficult and overly prescriptive. These concerns are offset by the plethora of contests, clubs, fashion shows and seminars that take place outside of school. These introduce young people to Malay culture in a format that is more dynamic and creative than a formal school curriculum - whilst the thrill of seeing who will win the contests and fashion shows adds an extra level of excitement.

   More than 1000 primary school children dancing the zapin dance in an attempt to break a national record
   Image courtesy of Matanews

The importance of making Malay culture 'fun' has not been lost on school teachers, and it is now common to find Malay poetry, dance and song competitions within and between schools. In 2008, primary schools from across the town collaborated to bring 1026 of their students together to break the national record for the most children performing a zapin dance. This kind of activity, which earns participants a certificate and considerable coverage in the media, stops Malay culture feeling esoteric and instead makes it a prominent part of children's lives.

The policy almost sounds assimilationist - but nobody believes that children learning Malay culture can or should become Malay. These activities lie alongside citizenship lessons that stress the importance of respecting different religious beliefs, the value of forming friends of different ethnic backgrounds, and a resolute commitment to being Indonesian - an identity which is, by its nature, highly cosmopolitan. However, Riau Islands educators are well aware that Javanese and Balinese cultural forms are usually taken as the epitome of artistic refinement. By promoting the distinctive pleasures of Malay culture, they hope children will learn to cherish and respect the region in which they live, thereby neutralising the dangers of their own cultural diversity.

Making Malay culture count

The multicultural education program has been an incredible success. Large numbers of youngsters proudly declare Malay culture their lifelong passion, and interestingly it is often non-Malays who are the most ardently enthusiastic. The largest and most active troupes of Malay dance and theatre count only a handful of Malays amongst their members.

Notably, though, young people are not only attracted to the artistry and aesthetics of Malay cultural forms. They also perceive themselves as young social engineers, building a more integrated and peaceful province through the dissemination of Malay song, dance and poetry. Oktavia, a Javanese student who particularly enjoyed taking part in mak yong (masked theatre), explained that 'in the era of globalisation, it's important that young people don't forget traditional values. They can use them to build a society that is peaceful and unified. Besides, this area is so rich in cultural values, especially Malay cultural values. It is my desire, and my mission in life, to do everything I can to preserve them for future generations.'

Young people are not only attracted to the artistry and aesthetics of Malay cultural forms - they perceive themselves as young social engineers

Nevertheless, the province's emphasis on Malayness has its fair share of detractors. Fadli, a Minangkabau school teacher, conceded that the government did need to pay attention to Malay culture, but wished that more prominence was given to other cultural forms. 'Malays here are in the minority, and yet it is always their dancing, always their songs. Never anything from the Minangkabau, or the Bataks, or the Javanese - even though Javanese culture is very beautiful.' For him, multiculturalism should be about celebrating multiplicity, rather than subordinating it to one overarching 'provincial culture'.

Conversely, many Malays express their concern that an overly formalised notion of 'Malay culture' will only serve to hold Riau Islanders back. Arief, the head of a Malay Cultural Centre in Pekanbaru, was unrestrained in his criticism of the program. 'It's an invented tradition! People now use pantun all the time, in political speeches and public events. They say it's traditional. But nobody ever used to do this.' Many Malays also express concern about the values of restraint and placidity that are associated with being a 'good Malay'. Yusuf, a Malay businessman, worried that it would make the 'young generation lazy. They should not be restrained if they want a job. They should be pushing themselves forward. Otherwise all the jobs will go to other ethnic groups.'

To an impartial observer, the critiques offered by Fadli, Arief and Yusuf may sound compelling. But they fail to take notice of the innovative and creative ways that youngsters are seeking to reconcile their commitment to Malay culture with an appreciation of the ethnic and religious diversity that surrounds them, and of which they are a part. One of the most notable and most prominent examples of this is Rizal, the wandering poet, and his pantun troupe, 'The Four Rajas'.

On the surface, The Four Rajas seem to exemplify Malayness. They speak with hammed-up Malay accents, wear traditional Malay clothes and take an evident delight in the art of pantun. But they are reluctant to dissociate themselves from their Javanese, Floresian and Bugis ancestry. Instead they exploit the ambiguities and paradoxes of their identities in order to entertain.

At a public pantun competition in 2007, Johan, one of the rajas and the son of a Floresian and a Javanese migrant, introduced himself with the following poem, much to the delight and amusement of the crowd:

Ramat sungguh si anak monyet,
Sekalian mekik suara bertempa.
Saya bergelar Hang Penyet,
Bisa disingkat dengan 'HP'.

The baby monkeys are truly thronging,
When they all scream their voices roar.
My title is 'Hang Penyet',
It can be shortened to 'HP'.

HP is the Indonesian term for a mobile phone, a specimen of which was then whisked out of Johan's costume amidst much laughter and applause. But the name has other connotations. 'Hang' is the prefix given to heroes in Malay epics (most famously that of Hang Tuah), whilst 'Penyet' means flattened and is widely associated with the hawker dish of fried chicken. As a stage name, Hang Penyet is both thoroughly Malay and thoroughly playful. Johan heightened this sense by following his first pantun with a second, which ditched Malay language for a mixture of Javanese and Indonesian. In this he revealed that 'Hang Penyet' was just a nickname, and that his real name was 'Raden Johan', Raden being the title of Javanese aristocracy. Once again, the audience found it hilarious. This was partly because Johan is a consummate performer, but it also stemmed from how he satirically poked fun at the need to self-present as 'Malay'. Audience members commented that it was great that Johan could be both 'Malay' and 'Javanese'. In self-consciously playing with his persona, Johan makes Malay culture inclusive and fun. The persona of Hang Penyet still allows him to treat Malayness seriously. But it gives a knowing nod to the fact that this is a Malay who is thoroughly Javanese, and who is on the stage to give himself and his audience a fun time.

In this world of playful poetic subterfuge, no aspect of Malayness is safe. Even the long-held adage that 'Malayness is identical with Islam' can be put on the line and opened to debate via poetic virtuosity. This was shown most clearly in an encounter between a team of poets from Indragiri Hulu, in mainland Sumatra, and three young women from Batam, the largest city in Kepri. Whilst all three of the Batam speakers were wearing headscarves, the woman representing Indragiri Hulu sported an elaborate and very beautiful topknot, arranged in traditional Malay style. The women from Batam were swift to take advantage of her choice in order to entertain the crowd, offering her the following riddle:

Dayung perahu ke Pulau Asam
Perhau kecil tidak beratap
Katanyapun Melayu itu identik dengan Islam.
Kenapa Cik itu tak pakai jilbab?

Paddle a boat to Asam Island
The boat is small, without a roof.
They say that Malayness is identical with Islam.
Why aren't you wearing a headscarf?

Batam's pantun met with appreciative hoots from the audience. The woman from Indragiri looked at her team in desperation and, after a minute of trying out ideas in her notebook, prefixed her response with an apology that this was 'the best she could come up with':

Jalan-jalan ke Indragiri Hulu
Dapat oleh-oleh ikan sepat
Kami memang orang Melayu…
Tadi lupa memakai jilbab.

Go travelling to Indragiri Hulu,
Get a gurami fish as a souvenir.
We are indeed Malay people…
I forgot to put on my headscarf earlier.

This answer was met with unenthusiastic applause from the crowd, and a couple of jeers. Yet as the Indragiri Hulu team commented afterwards, there was little else that they could say. To point out that the contestant's topknot was itself a symbol of 'Malay tradition' would have created problems, suggesting that it was not necessary to wear the headscarf and contravening an important aspect of reformist doctrine. To suggest that Islam was a relatively late incursion into 'Malay' culture would have been incredibly controversial. Trapped between competing templates of what it means to be a Malay, the woman with the topknot could do nothing other than offer a feeble excuse for her choice. Of course, the Batam team had been very conscious that they were exploiting the ambiguities surrounding the appropriate conduct for a modern Malay woman, and it was this aspect of their poems that the audience appreciated the most. When people in Kepri have to negotiate so many different competing templates of identity, it is both refreshing and entertaining to find young people handling Malayness in a way that is not programmatic but playful.

Building culture

More serious-minded performers are finding it difficult to hold an audience in the face of this new and vibrant youth-led phenomenon. In September 2006, Tanjung Pinang hosted afficianados of Malay culture from across Indonesia. The festivities included a public pantun display, with poets from across the Malay world gathering to entertain the audience. The Four Rajas offered their trademark brand of slapstick poetry, while the all female troupe from Batam dryly satirised everything from age-gap relationships to fashion. But older poets from Kalimantan and the Sumatran mainland struggled to hold the crowd. As they offered 'educational pantun' which explained the meaning of obsolete Malay vocabulary, or heartfelt pleas to keep 'traditional Malay culture alive', the audience responded with grumbles and eventually jeers. 'Look at that old man, trying to sell a pantun. He doesn't even know how to be funny,' shouted out one middle-aged lady. A schoolboy, summarising the feelings of the crowd, asked 'Where are the Four Rajas?' When they came back on stage they were met with a tremendous cheer.

'Malay culture' was managing to draw together the people of the province, but not because it was a model of 'traditional values'. It appealed because it was bold, witty, able to poke fun at people who took Malayness too seriously, and accessible and entertaining for anyone, regardless of ethnicity. This kind of 'multicultural Malayness' - inspired by the cultural outreach programs taught in high schools and beyond - at once offers a satirical insight into the challenges of belonging in Tanjung Pinang, and, paradoxically, a means by which people can feel that they belong, because they are all in on the joke. As Rizal put it in one of his best-received pantun:

Pergi berjalan ke rumah Cik Aini,
Cik Aini duduk, nasi dimakan buaya!
Pemerintah memang membangun sana-sini,
Kami gak sini membangun budaya.

Go on foot to Aini's house,
Aini is sitting; a crocodile has eaten the rice!
The government is building things here and there,
We right here are building culture.

This poem received a standing ovation. Watching the audience cheering him, it was hard to disagree with his contention that culture - sassy and self-aware, Malay and multicultural - was indeed being built that night. Riau Islanders were learning that they belonged.

Nick Long ( is a Junior Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. His research concerns cultural and political transformations in the Riau Archipelago.

This article is part of the Learning to Belong feature edition.

Inside Indonesia 102: Oct-Dec 2010

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