Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and Brunei are nominating the kebaya for Unesco’s heritage recognition in a joint effort due to the shared cultural and historical legacy.
The Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture (Motac) will be leading an initiative to nominate ‘Kebaya: Knowledge, Skills, Traditions and Practices” under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisations’s (Unesco) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for 2023.
According to Malay Mail, the nomination effort is to ensure the kebaya remains protected through the delivery of knowledge, promotional efforts, and documentation or research efforts with the support of the other countries involved in the nomination.
Malaysia will be doing this alongside Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand since the kebaya represents and celebrates a shared historical legacy and it’s still worn across Southeast Asia.
The kebaya is an item of clothing that symbolises a cultural legacy and the identification of the Malays, Peranakan (Chinese, Baba Nyonya, Chetti, Siamese, Kristang) and other communities in Malaysia as well as countries in Southeast Asia.The Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture (Motac)
Motac said the kebaya also fulfils the definition of intangible cultural heritage elements as it includes traditional weaving skills such as embroidery and sewing techniques to create this traditional women’s clothing.
Unesco’s decision regarding the nomination will be finalized in the 19th Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage next year.
Initially, Indonesia wanted to pursue the nomination on its own. According to CNN Indonesia, the Daily Chairperson of the Indonesian National Commission for UNESCO (KNIU), Dr. Itje Chodidjah, said Indonesia would have to wait until the 2030s if they wanted to go at it alone.
She said nominating the kebaya together with the other countries is a form of soft diplomacy.
Joint effort to promote the kebaya
Malaysia hosted the first physical workshop in Port Dickson in November last year while the second workshop was held in Jakarta in February 2023. During this time, the nomination form was updated in line with a new format Unesco had introduced.
Singapore then held an online workshop last month to finalise the contents of the nomination form.
The kebaya’s cultural heritage
The kebaya is easily recognizable by its intricately embroidered blouse that’s usually long-sleeved. The material used to make kebaya can be semi-transparent and can be either loose-fitting or figure-hugging.
The kebaya’s silhouette is what lends an elegant and classy look to the wearer, making it a beautiful attire for formal and special events.
The kebaya has a shared heritage in Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and Thailand.
It’s beloved by many women in this region, so much so that they will even wear it abroad. Airlines such as Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines have adapted the design for their flight attendant uniforms too.