Malaysia – Where is the love? – a saga in copyright!

Malaysia’s neighbor Indonesia; with whom it shares close cultural links has accused Malaysia of stealing its cultural heritage.

The events came about following an advertisement in Malaysia’s overseas tourism campaign by the Malaysian Tourism Board featuring the traditional folk song “Rasa Sayang” loosely translated as the “feeling of love”, as its theme song.

Indonesia claims that the song is a folk song from its island of Muluku and is an Indonesian work. It is contemplating suing Malaysia for possible copyright infringement over the catchy Malay folk song and is getting experts to gather evidence that the song belongs to Indonesia.

Malaysia however has rejected the allegations of breach of copyright saying that the song has origins in both countries. Its tourism minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said

“Indonesia cannot claim ownership of the song. Rasa Sayang is a folk song for Nusantara (the Malay Archipelago), so Indonesia cannot claim that the song is theirs”.

In fact, Indonesia’s copyright council pointed out that Indonesia cannot sue Malaysia if nobody knows who wrote the song.

“Rasa Sayang” is a song that is known to almost every Malaysian. Its catchy tune and simple chorus make it easy to remember, and is often sung by Malaysian’s when called to sing a malay song. It is in fact evergreen not only in Malaysia but also in Singapore.

Rasa Sayang is not the only thing common to both Malaysia and Indonesia. Being part of the Malay Archipelago and having common ancestors, Malaysians and Indonesians share numerous other folk song, dances, cultural performances, handicrafts etc.

Recently Indonesia lawmakers also accused Malaysia of claiming ownership of traditional Indonesia handicrafts like batik and Wayang Kulit, the shadow puppet theater. Earlier this month, activists protested outside the Malaysia Embassy in Jakarta for promoting Indonesian traditional Barongan Masked dance as part of Malaysia Culture in its tourism campaign.

It is indeed difficult to determine the ownership of such traditional folk songs, as they are common to the cultures of the Malay Archipelago. Likewise it is difficult to claim ownership of cultural heritage that adapts and moulds itself according to its surrounding circumstances.

The Malaysia Newspaper, The Star, in response to Indonesia accusation of Malaysia stealing its culture questioned, “would it be fair to argue that many aspects of Indonesia’s heritage-like its ever present symbol of the Garuda, the status of Ganesha or Bhima which stand outside buildings, or the majestic sculpture of horses pulling Arjuna’s chariot in the middle of Jakarta – belong to Hinduism and India?

This is by far the only situation where such questions arise. With the blending of cultures and traditions all over the world, how do we determine the ownership of folk songs, dances, handicrafts and the like? Would it be fair to say that should Indonesia find evidence of who wrote the folk song “Rasa Sayang”, that Malaysians and perhaps Singaporeans who have been singing it and using it all these many years, who have adapted it as part of their culture and heritage, now be made to deal with copyright issues?

Nonetheless, following protest by the Indonesians and in the interest of preserving diplomatic relations, Malaysia’s Tourism Ministry officials confirmed that Malaysia has agreed to drop the Barongan dance from its tourism campaign. The tourism board has also removed “Rasa Sayang” from its website.

Indonesia has stated that it is taking steps to protect its cultural heritage, but as to how they determine who wrote traditional folk songs and choreographed traditional dances remains to be seen.