KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia’s national dress was under intense spotlight recently, after comments made by an expat Dutch pattern maker about the baju kurung in the media were pounced on by many Malaysians as being an affront to their heritage.
In an article published in the South China Morning Post Magazine on Jan 15, Lisette Scheers, the founder of Nala Designs, a lifestyle brand that specialises in patterns inspired by Asian culture and heritage, appeared to suggest the baju kurung’s long run had ended in Malaysia, and that it needed a daring foreigner to step in to save the garment from oblivion.
Just as bad, it suggested that Malays were guilty of dressing shabbily and also required outside help.
“My dream is to see the baju kurung return, to see Malays dressing beautifully again. I want people here to feel proud of their heritage. Growing up this country was full of beautiful fabrics and colour. I’m on a crusade to make sure that doesn’t disappear,” the article stated.
Irate reactions have ranged from accusations of the Dutchwoman having “white saviour complex” to Scheers “appropriating traditional clothing for her own profit”.
Scheers's comments even provoked the Malaysian queen to wade in.
SCHEERS: COMMENTS TAKEN OUT OF CONTEXT
Scheers, who was born in Singapore and has lived in Malaysia for many years, has fought to distance herself from her purported comments, which she claims were taken out of context to such a degree that she “didn’t recognise the person who was saying these things”.
The outcry sparked by the article has damaged Scheers’s business and served to vilify her in her home country, she claims.
The baju kurung has been worn in one shape or another by women since the Malay Sultanate in Malacca in the fifteenth century, according to Rosida Abdullah, curator of the National Textile Museum in Kuala Lumpur.
With a square-shaped bodice and sarong at the waist, it is notable for being long and loose and covering the body from neck to ankle—the Malay words baju kurung describe clothing that locks in the wearer.
“It is a sign of our customs from the old days until now. This attire has been evolving in design and can be worn at any time: when we are small and by adults, at weddings and formal events, we will wear baju kurung,” Rosida told Salaam Gateway.
Its value is in its modesty, she said, to “protect the image of Malay women. They should not be tight in common use, though some modern designers do come up with versions that flaunt the body. However, the typical style is very loose.”
Like the Indian sari, there is no single use for the baju kurung; it can just as easily be worn for work or at the supermarket as it could for a society event. Now women across Malaysia’s racial spectrum are all just as likely to wear the garment, though it is most commonly seen adorning Malays. Baju kurung is also worn by Malays in the region, including in Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore.
What Scheers had set out to do in the article, she maintains, was highlight the gulf between the baju kurung worn every day by workers and those that are ornate and worn for special occasions.
She told Salaam Gateway that she had intended to convey that there is a shortage of hard-wearing, elegant and inexpensive designs that are widely available at stores—a “Uniqlo version of the Malay national dress,” as she puts it.
“I love cotton used as a fabric and bright colours. Obviously, cotton is always going to be more expensive than man-made fabrics, and it is perfectly fine for women to wear polyester baju kurung to work, but all I wanted to do was outline how, as a pattern designer, I wanted to capture all these colours and textures in a beautiful, reasonably priced range.”
Put this way, Scheers’s sentiments are far less controversial and hold water, Salaam Gateway found after canvassing several Malay designers. Three of these declined to be named, fearing that being drawn into what has become a toxic row could harm their business. However, they welcomed the idea of having more inexpensive natural fibre baju kurung available with better styling.
“A 90 ringgit ($13) polyester baju will usually look good but a 120 ringgit cotton one will always be better,” said a Kuala Lumpur designer. “I would advise anyone to save up for a good quality and colourful one because it will look good forever,” said another.
Oniatta Effendi, a Singaporean designer who specialises in batik garments, said: “In Malaysia, there have been changes in what is on the market. It’s worn every day, in government offices, in schools and banks. For me, that is the baju kurung being celebrated on a day-to-day basis, which can make us blind to it.
“We are now looking at designers ourselves evolving the baju kurung through style and fabric. A lot has been done by designers in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. We need to see this as an attempt to continue to sustain culture, albeit with a modern twist,” she added.
‘AGREED PRIOR TO PUBLICATION’
Scheers maintains that her published opinions were far removed from both the substance and the content of her interview with the SCMP journalist. When she spoke to Salaam Gateway, she said she had demanded an apology from the newspaper and the freelancer who interviewed her, Thomas Bird, and was considering whether to take legal action against the Hong Kong-based paper.
“Some of the words are not mine, huge chunks are missing and I need them to apologise,” Scheers told Salaam Gateway.
“I’ve lost a lot of clients and it’s driven me out of collaborations. I need a statement from them to say that what was published is not actually what I said,” she added.
She posted an apology on Nala Designs’ Instagram page on Jan 16 that was followed by a video apology on Facebook on Jan 26.
However, SCMP's website has since published a clarification admitting that quotes used had been paraphrased from her interview.
Elgen Kua, corporate communications director at South China Morning Post Publishers, elaborated further.
He told Salaam Gateway: “When a long interview is conducted, there follows a process of editing, which can involve the paraphrasing of comments for clarity and economy. In such cases, the interviewee is not always quoted verbatim in full.
“To avoid misrepresentation, in this case, the subject was allowed to review her direct quotes and she agreed to them prior to publication.
“Furthermore, the editors have reviewed the transcript of the interview and find the article to be an accurate reflection of the interview that was given.
We understand there has been negative commentary following the story and we find this regrettable,” Kua added.
Dr. Hanisa Hassan, dean of the Faculty of Creative Arts and Heritage at Universiti Malaysia Kelantan and a lecturer in fashion design, said she had been “quite surprised” by the reaction to Sheers’s comments.
“Some things in Malay heritage can be very sensitive, and maybe baju kurung is one of them. I like to see different views being put out, but sometimes these can turn into an issue of identity. People are very sensitive when you talk about heritage,” she told Salaam Gateway.
“In Indonesia, when I was studying there, they were very sensitive about batik. You couldn’t even say you had Malaysian batik there. If somebody local criticised the baju kurung, it wouldn’t be taken as seriously as this has. But when it comes to foreigners, it is a huge issue.”
(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim [email protected])
*Correction: The South China Morning Post's corporate communications director's name was corrected from Elgen Tua to Elgen Kua throughout.
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