We all enjoy nasi lemak, why argue about it?

Of course we can trace inventions to specific locations or people, but is that the most important thing? Sometimes we overlook the fact that both Malaysians and Singaporeans eat nasi lemak. That’s something we have in common, and I think that’s more important.
I’m Kamal Dollah and I’m an artist specialising in batik and caricatures. I’m the founder of Kamal Arts, a social enterprise training artists so they can spread the art of batik to more people. We also offer classes for members of the public interested to learn more about batik.
Just like nasi lemak, batik is a part of our shared regional culture. It’s a product of Javanese, Malay, Indian, and Chinese influences. Just like nasi lemak, batik is worth preserving and celebrating together as a region. Just take a look at the batik-inspired uniforms from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore’s national airlines.
When I was in art school, a few Malay boys and I were interested in learning more about our cultural identity through batik. But since my school didn’t offer any related courses, we started our own batik club. It wasn’t easy, we had to convince the school by promising to put on an exhibition six months after we started the club.
Even though we managed to get a practising artist, Mr. Sadali Musbah, to help us, we had to do a lot of learning ourselves. There was a lot of trial and error. But the obstacles made me even more determined to learn about batik. In fact, I ended up writing a thesis on batik in university and even got to speak on the topic around the world.
From my 20 years of batik experience, I learned that creating and continuing our cultural identity has to be a grassroots effort—it should come organically from the ground up. It’s about taking something that’s uniquely ours and celebrating it. Too many things around the world are same-same and mass produced these days. People from other parts of the world are interested in what sets our culture apart.
Unfortunately, I noticed that many people in our region are ashamed of their own culture, maybe thinking of it as “too melayu”, or seeing Asian culture as somehow inferior. Like I mentioned, our own culture is the thing that sets us apart from the rest of the world, and we should try our best to preserve it and continue expanding on it.
Another thing I noticed is that people discover themselves when creating batik art. It’s a slow and deliberate process, very different from the kind of media we’re regularly exposed to these days. Many of my students see creating batik as some kind of “me time” and they really enjoy spending the time on themselves. People may create very simple artwork, but they end up cherishing it because they’re essentially telling their own stories through their creations.
Other than trying their hand at creating art, I wish for more Singaporeans to own art pieces. Contrary to what some believe, art appreciation and collection is for everyone and not just the rich. We have to start celebrating our own art. If there’s no local support for local artists, there’ll be a lower ceiling on how much better they can get. Our artists survive another day as an artist when people buy their art.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to practise my craft for decades. For now, I want to tell stories that capture the joy of the present. We mustn’t let ourselves get carried away by negativity because there’s still a lot to be thankful for. Part of what we should be thankful for is, like nasi lemak and batik, what we have in common. I hope you can also find and appreciate your joy of the moment, be it through batik or any other kinds of self-expression.
Kamal Dollah