Old Nusantara in New Singapore

One of the reasons many Indonesians love to come to Singapore is to enjoy newer, better, often more advanced things. Things like underground subway, fully-automated system of whatnots, or tropical gardens hanging up in the sky.

I do, too, in addition to things that may seem less technically profound to most Indonesians seeking first world experiences in Singapore—walking around until my back almost breaks, and pay visits to museums.

Museums in Singapore are far more engaging and enjoyable than Jakarta’s best ones. They’re not dusty, let alone dowdy. When they display past treasures, they find a way to present them through modern eyes, to make a narrative relevant to the urban population and, often, even the millennial generation.

Much to my delight last week, some of the treasures highlighted bore traces to the old Nusantara—one lot dating back to 1,200 years ago.

Let’s talk about the Nyonya Needlework in the Peranakan Museum. Opened several years ago in a colonial building to honor Singapore’s multi-heritage, the permanent collection does a good job in casting light on Chinese, Indian, and Malay ethnics, proportionately more on Chinese that make up most of its citizens. Occasionally they hold temporary exhibitions such as the Nyonya Needlework that by the time it ends this June will have been almost a year.

The term “Nyonya” was first used to describe ladies of Peranakan, the subculture formed by Chinese diaspora mixing with the Malays around the Malacca Straits for centuries. Nusantara, then called Dutch East Indies, was already a large home for the Peranakan. Almost half of the dozens of showcased embroideries originated in various parts of Nusantara, some dated back to the 19th century.

There were household fineries such as bedpost draperies, wall hangings, dish covers and partitions. I also saw plenty of personal items such as slippers, money purses or vanity kit. One item stood out in particular; a women’s belt embroidered with the name Kweeng Soen, two Dutch flags and the year 1912. If we consulted the history books, that was the year after two major events—the fall of 4000-year Imperial China, and the Dutch colonial government stipulating that Chinese descendants born in Dutch East Indies were granted colonial citizenships. 34 years before a country named Indonesia rose from the colony and proclaimed independence, the Chinese diaspora born in its islands was recognized as a citizen. Kweeng Soen, rest her soul, had chosen to be a part of Nusantara.

History books also taught us that just because the Dutch stipulated so it didn’t mean it went along smoothly with the intended subjects. Even a decade into independence many Chinese diaspora still wrestled with the ancestral ties that in 1955 the Indonesian government asked them to choose. To their credit many of them did choose Indonesia then, and to our infantile foolishness 62 years later many Melayu Indonesians still view the grandkids of the Chinese diaspora who chose to stay as foreigners.

Maybe, if more Indonesians, Melayu and Chinese alike, venture out of Orchard shopping arcades or Universal Studios to visit Singapore museums we’ll come to appreciate our shared history and heritage better. It’s sad to note that both times I went to the Peranakan Museum for special exhibitions (there was one on antique Nyonya jewelry a few years ago), while many pieces originated in Nusantara they are now owned by foreign museums or private collectors. Where is the participation of Chinese Indonesian communities in these?

The same sentiments I couldn’t help feeling with the shipwreck exhibition in Asian Civilisation Museum. In 9th century a trading ship hailing from Abbasid Caliphate (now Iraq), on its way home after trading with the Tang Dynasty in China, sank near Belitung island. The fully-loaded shipwreck wasn’t discovered until 1998 by local Belitung divers, and in 2005 the Singapore government acquired it through the generous donation of the Estate of Khoo Teck Puat. Both the Singaporean government and people managing estate of wealthy people such as the late Mr Khoo quickly understood the importance of that ship to show how in 9th century Singapore was already a recognizable international port. Out of nearly 70,000 ceramics discovered almost intact in its cargo a handful bore Arabic letters, while 57,000 of them were kilns recognizably made at Changsa in Hunan Province.

Indonesia could’ve made the same claim. Looking from the detour it took from China to Middle East, the ship could’ve well been on its way for stopovers at Sriwijaya Kingdom in Palembang or even some northern ports of Java. A panel explained that in that time long-distanced trade ships only employed minimum native seamen, relying much on foreign crew working between ports in exchange for a passage. It was highly possible that many of the shipmates by the time of sinking were Chinese laborers catching a ride to Nusantara. The Changsa potteries alone have been discovered at archaeological sites in Java, and I bet there are still numerous ancient ships lying on Indonesian seabed. Now, I ask, where are the Indonesian government and Chinese Indonesian tycoons in excavating these treasures and put them as historical museum exhibitions for all Indonesians to learn from?

Perhaps one day we’ll grow up and learn. Perhaps one day we’ll be a better nation. Singapore museums to the rescue, until then. Sigh.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/05/06/urban-chat-old-nusantara-new-singapore.html



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