Malaysia Batik

The term ‘Batik’ is an Indonesian-Malay word (Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia are the official languages of Indonesia and Malaysia and are linguistically similar) and means ‘drops’. Batik has come to be used as a generic term which refers to the process of dyeing fabric by making use of a resist technique- covering areas of cloth with a dye-resistant substance, wax, to prevent them absorbing colours.  The technique is thought to be well over a thousand years old and historical evidence demonstrates that cloth decorated with this resist technique was in use in the early centuries AD in Africa, the Middle East and in several places in Asia.  Although there is no sure explanation as to where batik was first ’invented’, many observers believe that it was brought to Asia by travelers from the Indian subcontinent.

Despite the fact that batik may have originated elsewhere, most observers believe that batik reached its highest artistic expression in Indonesia, particularly in Java.  The art of Batik was later spread to the rest of the Indonesian archipelago and to the Malay Peninsula where the popularity of the cloth led to the establishment of many other production centers.  Batik has become a very central means of artistic expression for many of the areas of Asia and a deeply integrated facet of Asian culture.

Much of the popularity of Batik can be tied to the fact that the batik technique offers immense possibilities for artistic freedom as patterns are applied by actual drawing rather than by weaving with thread.  Another factor in its popularity is the fact that it is so durable.  The colors in Batik are much more resistant to wear than those of painted or printed fabrics because the cloth is completely immersed in dye and the areas not protected by resist are allowed to absorb hues to the extent that the colours will not easily fade.

Modern designers in Indonesia, Malaysia and to a lesser extent Thailand, the Philippines and elsewhere now often use batik design elements and often actual batik clothes in their clothing and accessories.  Although most batik fabric is now decorated and tailored by machine, there still remains a considerable market for high-quality, hand-made batik.

A short history and great creativity can serve as catchwords for the commercial production of batik in Malaysia. Covering scarcely 100 years, this history has been full of life and movement. We know that Malays on the East Coast of the peninsula experimented with textile prints without wax in the early 1900s. In the 1920s people in the same area started using a technique with screen prints for fast and cheap production of decorated textiles. Around 1930 the ‘real’ batik production started, stamping with wax directly on the fabric. Long before this production got started, Batik, especially from Java, was known and used in the area that is now Malaysia. The Malays learned the techniques and adopted the patterns from the Javanese. Even today, elements of patterns from the Javanese textiles are continued and developed in many of the textiles that are produced by block printing as well as screen printing. Although the Javanese heritage is still visible, Malaysian producers have partly liberated themselves from it and developed their craft in new directions. This can be seen in technique and design as well as in the development of new types of products. The most popular motifs are leaves and flowers. Malaysian batiks depicting animals are rare because Islam norms forbid animal images as decoration. However, the butterfly theme is a common exception. Malaysian batik is also famous for its geometrical designs, such as spirals.

Malaysian batik fabrics do have an international edge because they have brighter hues and more versatile patterns than the illustrations of animals and humans which are common in the more mystic-influenced Indonesian batik. Malaysian batik design has its own identity due perhaps to the multi-cultural and ethnic diversity of the country, to its wide artistic perspective and its pool of very talented people in the fashion industry. In line with the “1Malaysia” concept, the Malaysian government is now endorsing Malaysian batik as a national dress to every level of the general population, by having local designers to create new batik designs which reflect the 1Malaysia idea.

Malaysia Country map

Malaysia Country map

In particular, the hand-painted batik from the late twentieth century represents an innovation, not least because it differs technically from the Javanese tradition of hand-drawn batik. First, it is a simplification of the production process. Second, it allows more individual freedom and creativity; an entirely new design tradition has sprung up, one that is dominated by large motifs drawn freely on a plain-coloured background. A few textile artists emerged as remarkable innovators, and these were soon followed and copied by many others. 
 Two circumstances are vitally important in order to understand many aspects of the batik business in Malaysia. First, there is the dominance of the northeast, and second, the simple technology.

In the Northeastern States of Kelantan and Terengganu, industrial alternatives have been developed; production and sale of batik have thus meant valuable opportunities for employment. The batik factories are particularly numerous around the major cities of Kota Bharu and Kuala Terengganu. The Malays make up more than 90 % of the population in these States, and production, as well as trade in batik, has been a Malay niche in the multiethnic Malaysian society. We see here a unique outlet for Malay enterprise in a society where other groups have tended to dominate trade and industry. 
 As far as Kelantan is concerned, the proximity to Thailand has been important economically as well as culturally. There has always been a brisk border trade. And in folklore as well as in handicraft traditions, there are easily discernible connections. Batik has been exported from the East Coast States to the rest of Malaysia, where a considerable production has also sprung up on the West Coast. It remains to be said that the Malay dominance of batik is now about to dwindle in the West Coast States.

Another feature to be noted in the Malaysian Batik industry is the relatively simple and inexpensive production systems as well as the organisation of the production process. Flexibility is the underlying strength of any low technology and this is a feature of the Malay batik industry. It is relatively easy to get started and easy to decrease production in slack periods without having to close down completely.

The factories, or workshops, are usually small family establishments, and part of the batik processing is often performed by women in the neighbourhood. In this way both loss and gain are spread. Moreover, a reservoir of skills is developed: a great number of people in the factory’s vicinity have a basic knowledge of batik production. The workshops can draw on this reservoir, and many skilled individuals can also make small amounts of hand-drawn batik independently as a part time occupation particularly in the tourist market. In the past decade or so, there has been a revival and rejuvenation of the arts and crafts of Malaysia. Under the patronage of the late Y.A.B Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood, for instance, the nyonya kebaya and batik gained international recognition. Her passion for Malaysia’s cultural heritage and arts and crafts are reflected in many undertakings and projects.

By and large, the batik business has been driven forward by free enterprise and a free market. After Independence, the authorities were eager to strengthen economic development, particularly in the Malay population, and these efforts were boosted when the New Economic Policy was launched in 1971. This has also affected the batik sector in several ways. The huge development programme, MARA, grants support to Malay entrepreneurship, and runs training institutions on nearly every conceivable occupational area.

Many batik artists have been educated at the MARA Institute of Technology. Kraftangan, another important Federal agency, which co-ordinates and supports activities within arts and crafts. Kraftangan’s sales organisation is KARYANEKA, with departments and shops in most States. KARYANEKA partly seeks products actively from crafts producers, and partly accepts offers from producers if these pass certain criteria of quality.

But many batik producers and traders operate outside these State institutions, and there are also a number of private schools that train batik artists. Furthermore, a great deal of training still takes place through direct, practical participation in batik production, particularly within the smaller family concerns