M'sians Are Angry At A Dutch Designer For Her Remarks About Baju Kurung & Local Culture

They accused the Dutch designer, who runs Nala Designs, of cultural appropriation and being out of touch with the reality of Malaysia.

Cover image via Thomas Bird/SCMP (Edited by SAYS)

A feature about a Dutch designer, who is based here in Malaysia, and her "crusade" to make sure the Baju Kurung, a traditional Malay attire, "doesn't disappear" from the local culture went viral over the week

The feature was done by an East Asia-based writer Thomas Bird for the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Friday, 15 January. In it, he interviewed Lisette Scheers, who is the founder of Nala Designs.

In the feature, Lisette, while reminiscing about Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s, said the city was "more like a big kampong" as "there were no malls" and "everyone knew each other. And it was safe, too".

She went on a nostalgic field trip about her and her family's life in the capital city.

"It was also a time before the Internet. My father would finish work every day at five and go and play polo. In those days it was just different. That kind of lifestyle isn't possible any more."

Lisette, who returned to KL as an adult, then went on to state that she hopes "to educate people to start respecting what they have" and that her "dream is to see the baju kurung return".

According to her, she wants to "see Malays dressing beautifully again", and "people here to feel proud of their heritage", for which, she's "on a crusade to make sure that doesn't disappear".

At the time the feature was published, it was titled, 'Shocked by Kuala Lumpur's commercialisation, a designer set about creating products that celebrate Malaysian heritage'. However, it has since been edited to a less sensational one, 'How Malaysian culture inspires a Dutch designer'.

Her remarks, however, received swift condemnation from Malaysians

They accused the Dutch designer of cultural appropriation and being out of touch with reality.

While replying under the SCMP writer's tweet, Sarah Ahmad, a content creator and designer, stated that Lisetter seems to be living in the "expat bubble" of Bangsar or Mont Kiara.

"If she even attended a Raya open house, Malay wedding, visited a government school, went to an office, or even went to a morning market outside of the expat bubble of Bangsar or Mont Kiara, she could easily witness the baju kurung being used both for functionality and celebration," Sarah said in one of her tweets.

"But instead, she has the audacity to act as a saviour of Malaysian traditions? By appropriating Malaysian traditional clothing for her own profit? Does she also not realise that she is a big part of the "commercialisation" of Malaysia that she so complained about???" she added.

Sarah shared with this SAYS writer that she also posted a video on her YouTube channel, where she went into detail about the problematic aspects of Lisette positioning herself as the "saviour" of the baju kurung.

One of the most scathing criticism came from Malay Mail assistant news editor and columnist Zurairi, calling the feature "condescending"

Zurairi's tweet, in which he said that the feature was "as bad and cringe" as he thought, since being posted Saturday morning, 16 January, has gone viral with close to 2,000 retweets and quote-tweets.

A quick search mentioning "baju kurung" on social media showed that hundreds and thousands of Malaysians are angry with Lisette

SAYS is embedding the tweets for which it received permission for this story.

Nandini Balakrishnan also took to her Twitter account to share her thoughts on Lisette, rebuking her for acting like "our spokesperson"

"Everything you sell is ridiculously overpriced," Nandini said in her tweets, adding, "And your designs look like you not only culturally-appropriated from Malaysians but also Africans".

Several others also took the opportunity to highlight just how common the baju kurung is and how often they wear the attire here

Using Lisette's words that it was her "dream" to see the baju kurung return, Malaysians displayed that Malays have been dressing beautifully here regardless of the occasion.

One such person includes Raja Permaisuri Agong Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah.

However, not everyone was angry

Twitter user Colin Charles, in his lengthy thread, urged people to "focus less on being angry", and more on "the hidden meanings" behind what the Dutch designer said about the local culture.

"Is it cultural appropriation that she grew up in Malaysia and loves the country probably more than many Malaysians?," Colin asked while drawing parallels with Clare Rewcastle Brown of the Sarawak Report.

"Let's not forget, another such foreigner with an affinity for Malaysia started The Sarawak Report and arguably was one of the first to bring you the story of 1MDB. Why did she do it? Because she shares a love for the nation where she grew up in. She romances a Malaysia that we have long forgotten. Is there anything wrong with that? I often pine for a more tolerant Malaysia," Colin said in his thread.

Meanwhile, amidst criticism for her remarks, Lisette posted a statement on Nala Designs' Instagram, calling it a "misunderstanding"

"I'd like to apologise for the misunderstanding and for giving the wrong impression," she said.

"I have always considered Malaysia as my home and I love this country like no other. Malaysia to me, is a source of inspiration and what makes it special are its people and I’m learning every day."

However, the statement has further angered Malaysians, who said it was a "non-apology".

In the comments section under the Instagram post, hundreds of them have lambasted her.

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