The kebaya to receive joint UNESCO nomination by Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand

The kebaya is a traditional form of women’s clothing which became highly fashionable in the region at the turn of the 20th century.

Nnurul Shakinah

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Published: 24 November 2022, 2:27 PM

The traditional kebaya will be jointly nominated for inscription onto the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity by four ASEAN countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand. 

According to the National Heritage Board (NHB), this would mark Singapore’s first multinational nomination, and the first multinational nomination involving the four countries.

The kebaya is a traditional long-sleeved open-fronted upper garment that is made from a variety of fabrics. This traditional form of women’s clothing became highly fashionable in the region at the turn of the 20th century and is still being worn today. 

According to NHB, there is an active community of makers and wearers of kebaya in Singapore who continue to share and pass on the knowledge to the next generation. 

One such example is Mdm Ratianah Tahir, a local craftsperson of kebaya and sulam (embroidery) and a designer-tailor at the boutique store Kebaya By Ratianah. 

She believes that the nomination would encourage her and “(her) efforts in cultivating appreciation and preservation of (this) shared heritage.” 


Mdm Ratianah Tahir (right) with her daughter Putri Nadirah (left). PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD


The idea of the multinational nomination of the kebaya was first proposed and coordinated by Malaysia. 

NHB shared that Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand then came together to work on this multinational nomination as the kebaya represents and celebrates the region’s rich shared history, promotes cross-cultural understanding, and continues to be actively in use by many communities across Southeast Asia.

UNESCO will evaluate the nomination file collectively submitted by all participating countries, and focus on three main aspects.

They include, how the nominated element is aligned with UNESCO’s definition of intangible cultural heritage, how the existing and future safeguarding measures in each of the participating countries ensure the promotion and transmission of the practice, and how the nomination effort has involved the participation of the community (or communities) in each of the participating countries.

Specific to Singapore, NHB has held six focus group discussions in August and October 2022 to seek views and information on the significance of the kebaya to relevant communities, as well as on the multinational nomination. 

All 48 participants comprising of cultural practitioners, representatives from cultural associations and researchers involved in the making and wearing of kebaya, had expressed their support for the multinational nomination.

NHB has also begun discussions with stakeholders on possible future safeguarding measures. 

One of these efforts included a workshop, organised by Malaysia in Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan. The workshop was attended by NHB and several community representatives from Singapore from Nov 1 to 3. 

Participants of the workshop discussed the cultural significance of the kebaya and the information that will be included in the multinational nomination file.

Apart from the preparation of the nomination file, NHB will also organise public outreach initiatives in January to March 2023 that will feature the kebaya

The four participating countries also welcome other countries to join this multinational nomination. They aim to submit the nomination file to UNESCO in March 2023.

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

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