From Thailand’s silk weaving to Malaysian songket weaving, Vietnam’s rattan woven baskets to Filipino pottery ware, Indonesia’s wood carving to Bruneian silversmithing; ASEAN truly has a vibrant range of traditional handicrafts passed down from generation to generation. We pride ourselves on being a diverse community that is rich in culture, and these traditional handicrafts are not only key components of the culture of a nation or ethnic group, but they also serve as reflections of our cultural heritage. However, rapid globalisation, changes in social conditions, including the role of women, and environmental pressures have given rise to significant challenges to the survival of our handicrafts. With intensive cultural changes, the demise of many traditional handicrafts and subsequent erosion of culture may not be a distant reality.
Knowledge on craftsmanship techniques is slowly disappearing, as sharing it with strangers outside their communities violates tradition. As more and more of the younger population stray away from this lifestyle, who will then inherit these ‘trade secrets’? The kris (traditional Malay dagger; also keris), for example, has lost much of its social and spiritual meaning over the past few decades. Permanent wearing of the kris, which was customary in Malay tradition, progressively perished following the Dutch colonisation in Indonesia and the British in Malaysia. Although it is still worn by attendants of the Sultan’s palace and occasionally in traditional cultural events, the number of craftsmen who are able to produce high-quality krises have dramatically decreased. Nowadays, the kris-making process involves 3 different craftsmen. Many festivals and celebrations today no longer require intricate craft production, resulting in fewer occasions for artisans to showcase their creativity and skills. Boasting one of the fastest growing consumer markets in the world, ASEAN consumers typically have an expanding appetite for modern retail formats, representing a shift away from traditional crafts. Craftsmen therefore further suffer from the change in social and cultural tastes across the region.
Collectively, ASEAN is an economic powerhouse with the 7th largest economy in the world, with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion. Productivity gains in the manufacturing and trade sectors have accounted for nearly 60% of the region’s total growth. The region aims to further deepen its ties with major trading partners to capture a greater share of global trade, and is predicted to become the 4th largest economy by 2050. Consequently, craftsmen who essentially work on one craft at a time find themselves unable to compete with the mass production of manufactured goods. With the decreasing demand, many are forced to charge lower prices and survive on the bare minimum. Further, environmental and climatic pressures owing to deforestation and land clearing reduce the availability of key natural resources often used in the making of traditional crafts, such as bamboo and wood. The inevitable repercussions of economic development, industrialisation and international trade have since led to the disintegration of many cultural villages and emergence of ‘tourist-shams’ across the ASEAN region. This has resulted in the loss of many of our beautiful handicrafts steeped in history and tradition.
At the same time, the role of women in ASEAN has been rapidly changing. With the third largest labour force in the world, more women are reaping the benefits of economic development and gains in education. Expansion of opportunities beyond the family environment incentivises a shift from making certain traditional crafts at home to entering the workforce. An increasing number of women, compared to earlier generations, now take up high-level positions in the workplace. Formerly, not only did women not have the opportunity to acquire the appropriate set of skills, but there was also the added complexity of cultural norms, where they were assigned to gender specific roles that involved staying at home.
Despite this, on a more positive front, traditional crafts can be integrated into the globalised world, whilst retaining its cultural core. The key to its survival is ultimately adaptation. Many people today still appreciate handmade objects that represent not only the cultural values of the craftsmen, but also their personal touch. Local traditional markets can be reinforced by increasing stakeholder participation, while simultaneously creating new ones. Increased tourism, brought about from globalisation, can provide a platform for countries to display and educate tourists on one’s culture and handicrafts. The emergence of cultural villages, such as Yogyakarta, have managed to successfully capitalise on the globalisation trend to preserve their culture. Countries could also work towards the promotion of trade exhibitions, such as the Manila FAME, Jakarta International Handicraft Trade Fair, and the International Innovative Craft Fair in Bangkok, with a focus on showcasing craftsmanship, design innovation and artisanship, especially to the younger generations. Other examples of incentives include the Maybank Foundation’s Economic Empowerment initiative, where some 400 women weavers in Indonesia received financial literacy and weaving training, which increases participation in the economy whilst simultaneously promoting their cultural heritage.
There has also been an increasing emphasis on the importance of developing and preserving a country’s traditional handicrafts as part of a country’s local identity. Singapore, for instance, is a relatively young country made up of immigrants from the Malay Peninsula, China and the Indian sub-continent. As a country, it has achieved significant economic growth over the past four decades with its rapid industrialisation, which was largely influenced by the West. Singapore is currently taking progressive steps to invest in cultural capital, including the development of its local arts and culture scene in an attempt to encourage a new, creative, and connected Singapore. For example, the Singapore Tourism Board recently introduced a CRAFT Singapore exhibition, which featured the evolution of both the various crafts and craftsmen, for visitors to further appreciate Singapore’s cultural heritage through crafts and craftsmen.
More importantly, the preservation of traditional culture and heritage boils down to the role of the next generation. It is not merely about the preservation of traditional handicrafts, but also the transfer of skills and knowledge necessary to continue its production into the future. Thus, raising awareness of cultural values and promoting cultural heritage, creativity and industries should be emphasised to younger generations. Local traditions and culture could be integrated into the educational curriculum development, such as the Isaan Bright Child Programme that has been extended to many provinces in Thailand. Similarly, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology organised craft and employment-oriented training workshops to school art teachers, which then is relayed to students. In this case, the project served as an opportunity for artisans to pass on practical knowledge to the younger generation, safeguarding the lasting development of their trade, as well as providing them with a sense of relevancy in society.
In conclusion, we, as the younger generation should take pride in our unique cultures and continue to pass it down. In this fast-paced world where change is the only constant, cultural change is inevitable, and both the adaptation and integration of traditional crafts are necessary to ensure its survival. Niche-selling craftwork may not be as endangered, since consumers may be willing to pay for this luxury as an investment. However, cheap, bulk-selling craftwork of lower quality made to cater to tourists may not be sustainable for craftsmen trying to survive today. If we continue down this path and fail to preserve, as well as enrich our cultural heritage, the Southeast Asian community may lose its sense of unity and identity.
Katrina is a 2nd year Economics student studying at the University of Warwick. She also enjoys playing Netball in inter-university games. Her writing interests include Arts and Culture. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
*This article was first published by Warwick ASEAN Conference on 27th October 2016 at: http://warwickaseanconference.com/cultural-dilution-in-asean-a-fight-for-the-survival-of-traditional-handicrafts/
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.