NCP 1971 vs. DAKEN 2021: Ethnoculturalism or Cultural Diversity?

By Adil Johan

March 2023 FEATURE
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Left: Tun Abdul Razak, Right: Dato’ Sri Ismail Sabri Yaakob

FIFTY YEARS SINCE implementing the National Cultural Policy (NCP) 1971, the newly dubbed Dasar Kebudayaan Negara (DAKEN) 2021, translated as “Cultural Policy of the Country”, was launched by Malaysia’s ninth Prime Minister, Dato’ Sri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, on 26 October 2021. His speech, upon launching the policy, noted it as a “holistic reference and guide” for “planning the entire development of art, culture and national heritage” in the country. The policy is reinforced with a comprehensive strategy and action plan based on seven cores, namely: 1) High Value Culture; 2) Harmonious Society; 3) Preservation and Conservation of Cultural Heritage; 4) Cultural Development and Expansion; 5) Cultural Empowerment; 6) Generation of Cultural Economy; and 7) Cultural Excellence. The policy was developed by the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC) led by its Minister at the time, Dato' Sri Hajah Nancy Shukri.

According to the policy document, “DAKEN will be a guide and reference to empower and improve the understanding, appreciation, love and practice of culture in all aspects of life. This policy needs to be owned, appreciated and supported by all parties so that aspects of art, culture and national heritage continue to be preserved, praised and sustainable." Of course, any policy that has considered the long-term impact of previous policies and is geared toward greater inclusivity and sustainability for the arts must be welcomed.  

However, one must look at the country’s political currents, during which the policy was formed, to clearly grasp the genesis of DAKEN. There is often a political agenda that drives the formulation of a policy led by a ruling party or coalition.

Since the historical change of government in 2018, Malaysians have seen the transition of four Prime Ministers in a period of five years – all while facing the Covid-19 pandemic, various social and economic challenges and natural disasters (floods and whatnot) until the end of 2022. The political situation has been tense and fraught with controversy, especially in the context of increasingly fragmented ethnic Malay politics. All that considered, DAKEN 2021 must also be understood in historical consideration of its predecessor, the NCP 1971.

Why was the NCP 1971 implemented?

The racial-political conflict of May 1969 highlighted the differences in political ideology and socio-economic class amongst a multi-ethnic and multi-religious citizenry. Then Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, was determined to overcome the causes of this conflict through the New Economic Policy (NEP), which aimed to reduce the socio-economic gap between the bumiputera - the majority of whom were poor and lived in rural areas – with non-bumiputera – the majority of whom were living in urban areas.

Apart from the NEP, another policy was needed to inculcate a sense of unity and social cohesion amongst Malaysians of diverse cultures. This includes architecture, painting, performing arts and even language and literature. The National Cultural Congress in 1971 saw cultural experts from varying artistic fields present papers on developing policies that would encourage a unified Malaysian culture. Among them was the film and music icon of Malaya, the late P. Ramlee, who presented a paper on music and listed some suggestions on how to foster national values ​​through the emphasis on indigenous and traditional Malaysian music in public spaces, performances and education.

DAKEN 2021

What is interesting in DAKEN's policy paper is the section "Overview of the National Cultural Policy"[1]. In this section, they reviewed the background of NCP 1971, explained the process of acculturation in Malaysian society and addressed the controversies that resulted from the NCP 1971, highlighting these issues as a semantic misunderstanding of the terms. For example, it is claimed that some terms, like “Islam”, are misunderstood as being “exclusive”, that is, something that “rejects others”. Coincidentally, the third principle of NCP 1971, where “Islam becomes an important element in the formation of National Culture” is often disputed in academic studies on art and culture. In line with this, Tan Sooi Beng, in her book on Malaysian musical theatre, questions the development of Malaysian Bangsawan in institutions of higher education that have obscured or erased non-Malay and non-Islamic elements. Pre-independence, Bangsawan performances in Malaya had various cultural elements, including stories and music from the West and India.

The DAKEN 2021 paper appears to respond directly to the criticism of academic studies from NCP 1971. However, this latest policy does not aim to “create a homogeneous Malaysian nation” but intends to “encourage the process of adaptation and acculturation toward the construction of Malaysian identity without eliminating ethnic cultural characteristics”. Nevertheless, the weakness of NCP 1971 cannot be disputed; it does not clarify the terms that cause concern for non-Malays in Malaysia.

We now need to question if the new inclusive Malaysian culture, modelled by DAKEN 2021, can be implemented successfully.

Looking Forward: Challenges and Hopes for DAKEN 2021

The newly stated openness to non-Malay Islamic cultural practices and arts in the new policy presents both a challenge and an opportunity for DAKEN 2021’s future implementation.

One challenge is the likelihood of ruling politicians, government officials and art institutions to prioritise art, heritage and practitioners who are inclined toward Malay and Islamic culture. Another is the possible marginalisation of certain cultural arts practised by Malaysian citizens. After all, the power to disburse funds and sponsorships to any art and culture programme falls on the interests of decision-makers.

However, it also holds the potential to sustain the unity and harmony of Malaysia’s diverse social fabric. The arts and cultures of citizens who have long been neglected and marginalised by the government can be given the opportunity and space to flourish.

For instance, did you know that Malaysia has the top Chinese lion dance associations in the world? In fact, it was the local lion dance associations that organised the world’s first international competition in 1983. Since then, Malaysia has won many lion dance competitions on the international stage. This cultural art involves a highly skilled and physically complex dance performance, which also involves the artisanal craft of making intricate lion dance heads.

Malaysia is also famous in the field of South Indian dance, the Bharatanatyam; and one of the international icons of this dance is Malaysia’s very own Dato’ Ramli Ibrahim. He has raised Malaysia's profile as a country with sustainable artistic and cultural talent, and the government's support through DAKEN 2021 has the potential to continue preserving this achievement.

In the music arena, there are many internationally successful “independent” artists who are not tied to major music labels. We have hip-hop musicians who have released music in South India such as Yogi B, Sasi the Don, CJL and Roshan Jamrock. Singer-songwriter, artist and entrepreneur, Yuna, has found success in the American music industry with her English songs. But according to the principles of NCP 1971, most of the works of these artists described above cannot be accepted as Malaysian culture.

My hope is that DAKEN 2021, whose goals show considerable progress in principle and content since 1971, will provide opportunities to art practitioners and activists who have yet to receive government support. As emphasised by the DAKEN 2021 policy paper, misconceptions will indeed occur, and I also admit that the “rejection” of non-Malay-Islamic culture does not outrightly exist. However, we as Malaysians in the post-2020 era must acknowledge that the marginalisation of specific cultures and citizens still occur. There is a sense of reliance on DAKEN 2021 to instil the spirit of a unified nation so Malaysia’s cultural diversity can be preserved, sustained and enjoyed by future generations.

So, will we see the Chinese lion dance, South Indian dance, Tamil-language hip-hop and English-language music produced by institutions and artists in the country accepted as “proudly Malaysian” in the near future? I certainly hope so.


[1] Salah Tanggap Konsep, “Dasar Kebudayaan Negara” pg.6

Adil Johan

is a researcher and educator on Southeast Asian and Malaysian popular music and culture. He also performs and records for Nadir, Azmyl Yunor & Orkes Padu and the Adil Johan Quintet.