Singapore and 3 other nations to nominate kebaya for Unesco intangible cultural heritage list

SINGAPORE – Singapore will be nominating the kebaya for Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list, in a multinational effort with Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand.

The National Heritage Board (NHB) on Wednesday said this will be Singapore’s first multinational nomination to the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and it is slated for submission in March 2023.

The kebaya is a traditional woman’s garment that is popular in the region, said NHB, and it “represents and celebrates the region’s shared history, promotes cross-cultural understanding and continues to be present and actively produced and worn by many communities across the South-east Asia”.

NHB chief executive Chang Hwee Nee said: “The kebaya has been, and continues to be, a central aspect in the representation and display of cultural heritage and identity for Malay, Peranakan and other communities in Singapore, and is an integral part of our heritage as a multicultural port city, with links across Southeast Asia and the world.”

She added that the joint nomination “underscores this multiculturalism and our common roots with the region”.

NHB said Malaysia had proposed and coordinated the multinational nomination and that the idea was discussed as part of a series of working meetings among a number of countries in 2022.

Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand agreed to work on the nomination together, said the board, adding that the four countries welcome other countries to join the nomination.

Between August and October, NHB held six focus group discussions with 48 participants to seek views on the nomination. These included cultural practitioners, cultural association representatives and researchers involved in kebaya production and wearing.

From Nov 1 to 3, representatives from NHB and the community attended a workshop organized by Malaysia in Port Dickson, where they discussed the nomination, including what to include in the submission.

NHB will organize public outreach initiatives from January to March 2023 to raise awareness of the nomination. More details will be provided on NHB’s website and its social media channels.

Unesco will assess the nomination based on its definition of intangible cultural heritage, and how well each of the four countries will ensure the promotion and transmission of kebaya-related practices, NHB added.

The result of the nomination is expected to be announced at the end of 2024.

Kebaya-related crafts and practices were added to NHB’s intangible cultural heritage inventory in October 2022, joining other elements such as orchid cultivation and soy sauce making on the 102-strong local list.

Kebaya craftsman Ratianah Tahir, who owns Kebaya By Ratianah in Kampong Glam, said the garment has been a staple in her wardrobe since she was young, and she recalls wearing it especially during festivals and weddings.

The 52-year-old, who has been selling and making kebayas for 18 years, said she hopes the nomination will help raise awareness and increase appreciation for the kebaya and kebaya-wearing among the next generation.

Her daughter, Putri Nadirah, who is 29 and helps run the shop, said she has seen more young customers in recent years.

“Previously there were not as many young people, but I think recently there have been a lot more people trying to find out more about their culture and heritage, and because of that there is more appreciation for and adoption of the cultural practice,” said Ms. Putri, who added that there are many young people who bring their parents to the shop during festive periods.

Madam Ratianah said the production of kebayas is a multinational effort, with many of her pieces sent overseas during production, such as to embroidery craftsmen in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Another kebaya craftsman, Mr Heath Yeo, 51, said the kebaya is a garment that unifies people across races in Singapore. While it is predominantly worn by the Malays and Peranakans, the Chinese and Eurasians also wear it and have adapted it to their cultures through various embroidered motifs, he added.

The upcoming nomination follows the successful inscription of hawker culture – Singapore’s first element on the Unesco intangible cultural heritage list – on Dec 16, 2020, after the country officially submitted its bid in March 2019.

Mr. Yeo Kirk Siang, director of the NHB’s heritage and research division, said the joint nomination is a separate project from Singapore’s second national nomination for an intangible cultural heritage element on Unesco’s list.

The Government had in March announced a 10-element shortlist for the second nomination. Mr. Yeo said NHB is still consulting the public and various communities on the shortlist, and will provide updates in the near future on its plans.

As at 2021, 61 multinational elements have been added to the Unesco list. They include craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics – a joint nomination by Switzerland and France, as well as Arabic coffee, practiced in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar.

Separately, the Singapore Botanic Gardens was inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage List in 2015.

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