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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands

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Sarah Moser Alyssa Wilbur

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ABE Journal
Architecture beyond Europe
11 | 2017
Paradoxical Southeast Asia

Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture

in Indonesia’s Riau Islands

Sarah Moser and Alyssa Shamsa Wilbur

Institut national d'histoire de l'art

Electronic version
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ISSN: 2275-6639 d'Histoire de l'Art

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 1

Constructing Heritage Through

State Architecture in Indonesia’s
Riau Islands
Sarah Moser and Alyssa Shamsa Wilbur

The authors would like to thank the reviewers, the journal editor, and Caroline Herbelin
for their thoughtful and constructive feedback, which have strengthened the paper.
Research for this paper was funded over the years by several sources: a National
University of Singapore graduate fellowship, a post-doctoral fellowship at the Aga Khan
Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT, a post-doctoral fellowship at the Center for
Urban and Global Studies at Trinity College, a SSHRC grant (Fund #241686), and a McGill
University Graduate Research Enhancement and Travel award. We would also like to
thank the many people in the Riau Islands who generously gave their time and shared
their knowledge and insights.

1 Asia’s unprecedented urban growth and accelerated globalization over the past several
decades have had a significant impact on architecture in the region. While a great deal of
recent architecture adopts a generic global corporate style that produces ostentatious
spectacles of capitalism,1 architecture in many parts of Asia is increasingly used to
express cultural identity as a political, populist, or marketing strategy. Recent
architecture that is intended to communicate cultural identity often looks to other
cultures for inspiration. In China, many new urban projects directly copy iconic historical
western architecture, even recreating European town centers (Venice, Paris, Amsterdam,
and so on) in new themed developments that engage in architectural mimicry. 2 Similarly,
the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia have adopted architectural idioms from what are

ABE Journal, 11 | 2017

Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 2

widely considered the great historical Islamic civilizations, located far away and bearing
no relation to Emirati or Malaysian history or culture except for a shared religion. 3
2 The conscious architectural borrowing from past and distant civilizations in other parts
of Asia contrasts sharply with the current investment in heritage revival architecture in
Indonesia’s recently formed Riau Islands Province, where a selective version of local
history is being revived strategically. Since the formation of Indonesia’s Riau Islands
Province in 2004, there has been a surge of interest among the ruling elite to explore,
define, revive, and project Malay identity. The development of the petroleum industry in
the Riau Islands and the sense that residents were not benefiting from it sparked a
separatist movement in the archipelago during the 1980s and 1990s. 4 After the fall of
President Suharto and the subsequent introduction of national decentralization policies,
several new provinces were formed, including Riau Islands Province (Propinsi Kepulauan
Riau, or Kepri), in an attempt to satisfy widespread calls to decentralize power. Motivated
in part by economically fueled ethno-nationalism,5 the formation of the new province has
served as an opportunity for local elites to reinvent and reassert the Riau Islands’ cultural
polity while consolidating power. Recent assertions of Malay identity can be seen in
school curricula, which now provide expanded lessons on local history and instructions
on village games, crafts, and songs.6
3 The formation of Kepri has stoked key tensions between the dominant populist ethno-
nationalist Malay politics and the diverse reality of the province’s residents. The
archipelagic province consists of over 3,000 islands and was previously part of Riau
Province, the bulk of which was located on Sumatra. Today, the self-governing Riau
Islands Province has approximately two million residents, comprising eight main ethnic
groups: Malay (35.6%), Javanese (18.2%), Chinese (14.3%), Minangkabau (9.3%), Batak
(8.1%), Buginese (2.2%), and Banjarese (0.7%).7 8 While local Malays consider the Riau
Archipelago as a sort of ancestral homeland for Malay culture, the region has a history of
ethnic diversity, intermarriage between ethnic groups, and cultural syncretism. Over the
centuries, the provincial capital of Tanjung Pinang, founded by Chinese migrants9 and
subsequently developed by the Dutch, attracted various minority communities including
Arabs, Indians, and various groups from across Indonesia. Tanjung Pinang continues to be
a multi-religious and multi-ethnic city, which is reflected in the eclectic architecture and
variety of urban fabrics. Dutch colonial neighborhoods that use the modernist Indische
style, raised wood Malay houses, Chinese shophouses (rowhouses with shops on the
ground level and residences above), various styles of Chinese and Malay housing on stilts
over the sea, and more, can all be seen just walking around the city. The main period of
growth has been over the past two decades; many new homes, offices, malls, and hotels
have been built in a variety of syncretic forms and outnumber the pre-Independence
buildings in many districts of the city.
4 Despite the many significant social, political, and economic changes brought about by
decentralization policies, the recent surge of architectural regionalism and the built
manifestation of ethno-nationalism in Indonesia have received relatively little critical
attention.10 In particular, the power relations and cultural politics of state architecture in
provinces that were formed as a result of decentralization have not been the subject of
any scholarly investigations to date. Our examination of recent state architecture in and
around Tanjung Pinang, the previous capital of Riau Islands Province, provides insight
into current political, racial, and religious dynamics, as it demonstrates how and why
various interpretations of Malay identity are appropriated by the state, often with the

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 3

consequence of excluding others. Our essay emphasizes that ethno-nationalist state

architecture in Riau Islands Province is not merely a revival or simple transfer of
architectural types, but is a syncretic reinterpretation of many circulating architectural
forms and ornamentation, past and present, from South Asia, the Middle East, Europe,
and other parts of Indonesia. While the state seeks to deploy an “authentic” and “pure”
Malay architecture that masks syncretism for political reasons, this paper demonstrates
that, despite recent attempts at ethno-nationalistic architecture and the policing of
boundaries between Malays/Muslims and non-Malays/non-Muslims, a variety of
changing local, regional, and global elements continue to shape these efforts.
5 This paper begins with a brief overview of the history and geography of the Riau Islands,
from its position as a cultural crossroads and commercial hub, to its slide into a neglected
backwater after Indonesian independence, and its re-emergence as a strategic national
economic region in recent decades. We focus on the metropolitan area of Tanjung Pinang,
a major city in the Riau Islands, which served as a colonial administrative base, regional
trade hub, and the provincial capital since the formation of the province. We then
examine how state architectural projects, from modest individual buildings to a new
master-planned capital city for the province, manifest a variety of elite interpretations of
Malay heritage. Finally, by critically analyzing whose history and culture is projected in
state architecture, we examine how various projects serve to challenge and maintain
particular configurations of power, often exacerbating patterns of social exclusion based
on socio-economic status, race, and religion.

Riau Islands: From cultural crossroads to neglected

backwater, and back again
6 In order to understand the significance of recent appropriations of Malay identity in state
architecture in Kepri, some background about the geography and history of the region is
necessary. The Riau Islands are located in the South China Sea, between the east coast of
Sumatra and the tip of the Malay Peninsula in a narrow strait through which all shipping
between China and India/the Arab world must pass (fig. 1). The nearby port of Melaka,
located across the strait from Sumatra on the southwest coast of the Malay Peninsula,
emerged as the most vibrant trade center in Southeast Asia in the 1400s, particularly for
the spice trade,11 and was the base for the powerful Melaka sultanate. While Europeans
knew about the existence of the great trade entrepôt of Melaka, and some spices and
other goods found their way to European markets through Arab merchants, the route to
Southeast Asia was unknown to them until the sixteenth century. The Portuguese were
the first to reach Melaka in 1511 and promptly burned it down and took control of the
city. As a result, the Melaka Sultanate split into a number of smaller sultanates that
spread out around the Malay Peninsula and the Riau Islands, including the Tanjung
Pinang area. The Riau-Lingga Sultanate (1824–1911) controlled the Riau Islands and part
of Sumatra, and the sultan’s palace and royal tombs were located on Pulau Penyengat
[Penyengat Island], a small island off the west coast of Bintan Island that today forms part
of metropolitan Tanjung Pingang.

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 4

Figure 1: Map of the Riau Islands and surrounding region.

Source: Authors’ picture.

7 By the early 1800s, the Dutch and British divided most of Southeast Asia between them in
a power-sharing arrangement, with the British taking the Malay Peninsula and Borneo,
and the Dutch taking the archipelago that is now Indonesia. Both the British and the
Dutch played significant roles in establishing urban administrative centers around their
colonies,12 which evolved into major cities across the region. Over the nineteenth
century, Tanjung Pinang served as the Dutch military base and administrative center for
the Riau Islands, while the Riau sultanate on nearby Pulau Penyengat continued to grow
in importance as a Malay cultural, religious, and administrative center. While Tanjung
Pinang today has about 200,000 residents and Pulau Penyengat has 2,000, in the
mid-1800s the population of Pulau Penyengat was 9,000 with just 4,000 in Tanjung Pinang.

8 In the days of the sultanate, the royal mosque of Pulau Penyenget became a center for
Islamic education where Arab scholars and local elites came to learn, and it functioned as
a base from which to disseminate Islamic teachings in the region. 14 Today, it is the only
royal structure still in use and is a source of pride as well as an iconic symbol for the
province. The island was home to several political and cultural figures that have been
awarded “national hero” status and are locally considered akin to founding fathers of
Malay culture in Indonesia. Raja Haji Fisabilillah, from Pulau Penyengat, led a victorious
battle against a Dutch invasion in 1784 and was later killed while attacking Dutch
fortifications in Melaka. Raja Ali Haji, a was a Bugis-Malay poet who wrote the first Malay
dictionary, started a Malay language printing press, published the Gurindam Dua Belas (one
of the most famous literary works in the Malay language) in 1847, and is widely viewed as
a luminary of high Malay literary culture. He was only officially declared a national hero
in 2004 after the formation of the province. The era of Kepri functioning as a hub of
Malay power and culture came to an end in 1911, when the sultan was forced to abdicate
to the Dutch. He refused, and chose instead to flee to Singapore with his retinue. Most of
the grand royal buildings on Pulau Penyengat were destroyed to prevent them from

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 5

falling into the hands of the Dutch, although half a dozen remain, as well as the royal
9 The Riau Islands, like other regions of Indonesia that were considered peripheral in the
early- to mid-twentieth century by the colonial and nationalist elite, experienced
independence rather differently than Jakarta and other more central areas. Many in the
Riau Islands supported the restoration of the Riau sultanate over being part of an
independent Indonesia, an ambition that many Malays nurtured since the sultan’s
departure.16 In the decades following independence, the region was relatively neglected
by Jakarta and was relegated to the third and most remote geographical designation in
the hierarchy of Indonesian territory (Outer Island Category 2), reflecting its minimal
importance to the national economy.
10 In the 1970s, President Suharto’s economic policy shifted towards a tacit accommodation
of American global activities, eliciting support from regional elites for the extraction of
Indonesia’s resources.17 In particular, the Suharto Administration began to invest in the
offshore petroleum industry, causing the Riau Islands region to become increasingly
profitable to Jakarta. The gains from this investment mainly benefited the central state
and thus fostered resentment at the local and regional level.18
11 At the same time, Singapore was emerging as the strongest economy in Southeast Asia in
the 1970s and 1980s. Consequently, as the Indonesian territory located closest to
Singapore, the Riau Islands, and Batam Island in particular, grew in importance in the
late 1980s under the Suharto Administration’s national economic strategy. In 1989, the
Riau Islands became part of the “SIJORI Growth Triangle”19 with Singapore and Johor
Bahru in Malaysia, a partnership that sought to leverage the assets of the three regions:
land, natural resources, and labor in Johor and the Riau Islands and the capital and
expertise of Singapore.20 Soon after, by 2006, Batam Island, located just 30 minutes by
boat from Singapore, was designated as a “free trade zone” and transformed into an
industrial area to serve as a base for offshore drilling and manufacturing, further
attracting foreign investors as well as migrant workers from across Indonesia to the
region.21 In the past 20 years, the population of the Riau Islands has doubled. It is now the
second-fastest-growing province in Indonesia, and has thus regained its position as a
region of strategic importance.
12 The economic “Growth Triangle” consolidated the central government’s power by
“remapping the region at will without consulting local populations or recognizing the
region’s historical and cultural heritages,” and made Riau Malays feel “dispossessed and
marginalized”22 while depriving them of “economic opportunities and their rights to
their land and culture.”23 Furthermore, the actions of the state during Suharto’s regime
(1967-1998) created a shared aversion to Javanese dominance and a wide sense of
disenfranchisement throughout Indonesia, including the Riau Islands.24 The growing
national economic importance of the Riau Islands, the increasingly close ties to
Singapore, and the sense that economic benefits were flowing to distant Jakarta fostered
resentment and stoked calls for independence that eventually led to the creation of the
13 Javanese dominance during the Suharto regime was manifested in the built environment
in a number of ways. On a national level, state architecture became infused with a style
drawn from Javanese nobility, in keeping with Suharto’s blatant attempt to fashion
himself as a Javanese sultan with all the associated symbolic power. 25 In the Tanjung
Pinang area and elsewhere in Indonesia, the highly recognizable pendopo, a form of

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 6

architecture used in elite Javanese homes, was adopted in some state buildings, including
health centers, post offices, and other structures.

The Rise and Appropriation of Malay Identities

14 In the years leading up to the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, the longing to express
“Malayness” was important to activists in the Riau Islands, who argued that a “new
province must above all be a Malay province.”26 Soon after the fall of Suharto, various
national decentralization policies were introduced, including the Regional Autonomy Law
(Otonomi Dareah), passed in 1999, which resulted in the formation of several new
provinces, including Kepri in 2004. The Regional Autonomy Law has given provincial
elites an opportunity to distance themselves economically, politically, and culturally from
Jakarta, and take greater control over their affairs.27 In Kepri, the law has empowered
local elites to assert versions of Malay identity in various aspects of daily life.
15 In addition to local calls for Kepri to take on a distinctly Malay character, there were also
expectations from the central government that newly formed provinces were to find
ways to fit into the unique and rather rigid Indonesian pantheon of ethnic groups. The
Indonesian state’s conceptualization of ethnic and cultural diversity is based on Dutch
colonial administrative boundaries left largely intact after independence. While the
Dutch sought to group their colonial subjects into “natural” units based on cultural and
linguistic similarities, the provincial boundaries that resulted are artificial geopolitical
designations that group highly diverse people into one administrative unit. In
independent Indonesia, Dutch boundaries and their associated ethnic connotations were
maintained and further articulated in Taman Mini Indonesia Raya (Beautiful Indonesia in a
Miniature Park), an ethnographic theme park that came to President Suharto’s wife in a
dream after a trip to Disneyland.28
16 In Taman Mini, each province is represented by a suite of “authentic” cultural heritage
items: a “traditional” house, weapon, a bride and groom wedding costume, and a dance.
These are often not reproductions of specific cultural forms but are amalgamations of
architecture found among the indigenous people of the province.29 Notably, Indonesia’s
ethnic Chinese population, despite having contributed to the cultural and economic life of
many parts of Indonesia for centuries, are excluded from official province-based
conceptualizations of ethnic and cultural diversity, and are not featured in each
province’s display. In the early 2000s, spaces in Taman Mini were allocated to
accommodate new sections for each recently added province. The challenge was then for
each new province to come up with a housing type, weapon, wedding costume, and dance
that showcased their culture and was sufficiently distinct from the provinces of which
they were formerly a part.
17 Both at Taman Mini and at home, the Kepri state has sought to revive the “essence” of
Malay cultural heritage and identity in the Riau Islands over the past fifteen years. This
has been attempted through various conferences, forums, and publications related to
Malay culture,30 through the creation of various programs for the performing arts, 31
tourism efforts,32 education, 33 and, as this paper examines, architecture and the built
environment. This quest for “essential” Malayness is marked by a desire for authenticity
and for parsing out impurities that serve to contaminate Malayness, an approach that
fails to acknowledge or appreciate the inherent syncretism of Malay identity and the rich
multicultural history of the region. The search for “authentic” Malayness resonates with

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 7

broad ethno-nationalist movements emerging around the world that seek to assert local
identity and autonomy in the face of globalization.
18 The Kepri state strategy of resurrecting and appropriating Malayness in provincial
identity poses a number of challenges. First, “Malayness” is a flexible identity based not
on ethnicity but on three attributes: following Islam, speaking Malay, and adhering to
adat or Malay cultural traditions. 34 Malays are a diverse and hybrid group that were
traditionally highly mobile seafaring people.35 As a result, people who self-identify as
“Malay” are found throughout the region in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, and
Indonesia, particularly in Sumatra, Borneo, and the Riau Islands. Within Kepri, those who
identify as Malays have varied cultural practices and material culture. Second, there are
many symbols that convey “Malayness” but, like, any social identity, Malayness is
intersectional, with a variety of hierarchies and signifiers. Therefore, resurrecting a sense
of “Malayness” is never neutral; it is inherently a political statement that inevitably
favors some, while marginalizing other segments of the population.
19 The notion of “heritage” describes a selective and qualitative determination of historical
achievements considered valuable enough to be kept and maintained.36 In Indonesia,
cultural heritage, including Malay heritage, is defined almost exclusively by ruling elites.
A study of what is selected as “heritage” and by whom provides insight into what is
determined as worthwhile and by whom. The top-down national designation of cultural
groups and the determination of what constitutes cultural heritage has been controlled
and promoted by the state for over 40 years through a variety of platforms, including
school textbooks, monuments, national day activities, televised national programming,
architecture, and more. As a result, this process of determining and way of
conceptualizing cultural heritage has been normalized for many Indonesians.
20 What is unique about Kepri is that the province is now in the position of having to
develop a series of official symbols, architectural idioms, dances, and so on to gain
legibility on the national stage in Taman Mini and other venues. This process is described
as “the invention of tradition” in Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger’s classic text, 37
which refers to a set of practices that constructs heritage by invoking a sense of
“pastness,” with a tendency to occur during times of rapid social transformation. The
current struggle to determine Kepri identity is highly dynamic and draws on a number of
sources, as will be explored in the following section.
21 The Riau Islands’ adoption of Malay heritage in state architecture serves a variety of
purposes. First, it is a way for local Malays to reassert local power over the Riau Islands
that were long seen as dominated by outsiders. Second, it is a way to showcase local
culture according to the Indonesian state’s official province-based categories as
conceptualized in Taman Mini in order to achieve national legibility. Third, creating ties
with the past is a way for provincial elites to construct an “imagined community”38 in
order to consolidate power and legitimize their rule. Finally, as we demonstrate in this
paper through the lens of architectural projects in the Riau Islands, the appropriation of
“pure Malay” aesthetics creates and exacerbates social exclusions, wherein Malay elites
are given precedence over non-elites and non-Malays.

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 8

Reviving “Malayness” Through Architecture

22 In the context of Kepri’s significant political, economic, and social transition, examining
state architecture provides insights into the variety of official ideologies and
conceptualizations of Malayness. In this section, we group recent state architecture that
aims to project a sense of authentic Malayness into three main themes: Malay cultural
revival, royal heritage, and Arab revival-meets-global Islam. The problems of conveying
the identity of a highly diverse and complex group become evident through the
construction of these three themes, as expressed in state architecture, and demonstrates
the intersectionality of Malay identity.

Malay Cultural Revival

23 A variety of factors have contributed to the urge to revive Malay culture in and around
Tanjung Pinang. As mentioned, the impulse to have more autonomy from Jakarta has
fueled Malay ethno-nationalism. Also, increased globalization and exposure to
neighboring Batam Island’s massive growth and many social problems as a frontier
border zone have prompted many residents of Tanjung Pinang to look to local traditions
for guidance and stability during this time of rapid change. Furthermore, there is an
emerging sense of pan-Malay identity in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, and a
widespread understanding among Malays that colonial and national boundaries have
arbitrarily split up a once united group.39 All of these forces have mobilized members of
the ruling elite to adopt various interpretations of “Malayness” in architecture both in
Malaysia40 and other parts of the Malay world.
24 While aspects of Malay material culture have been expressed in architecture in the Riau
Islands for several decades, usually as modern office buildings topped with a recognizably
Malay roof,41 there has been a recent increase of predominantly state 42 buildings
constructed in Tanjung Pinang with an overt and recognizable Malay idiom. Such
buildings feature design elements that are widely understood to be shorthand for Malay
culture and include Malay floral motifs derived from wood carving or fabric, design
elements that draw from what is widely viewed as “traditional” architecture, or the use of
“traditional” materials such as bamboo or wood, or even concrete or plaster imitations of
bamboo or wood. State buildings that adopt a Malay idiom have a variety of purposes
including government offices and state transportation infrastructure, as well as venues to
foster and promote Malay performing arts.43 Several performance stages have been
constructed in and around Tanjung Pinang to encourage Malay dance and music with the
intention of creating a strong Kepri identity through the performing arts, particularly to
represent the province at national televised extravaganzas and at Taman Mini (personal
communication with provincial government official, 2014) and are designed in a
recognizably Malay idiom. These performance stages do not replace or replicate past
structures; they are entirely new structures that use modern materials to create
decorative elements and rooflines to signify their Malayness (fig. 2).

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 9

Figure 2: Performance stage for Malay arts, Pulau Penyengat constructed in 2007.

Source: Authors’ picture.

25 In recent years, the Kepri state has prioritized the preservation and particularly the
creation of “traditional” Malay structures and villages in key locations. A rumah adat, or
traditional community house, was constructed in the late 1980s on Pulau Penyengat in an
attempt to revive a sense of community spirit and tradition (fig. 3). While the structure
was broadly intended as a venue for “traditional cultural practices” and weddings, locals
prefer to have weddings next to their houses for the sake of convenience, and social
activities tend to be centered around the island’s mosque. The structure stands empty
and neglected, and serves primarily as a brief stop for tourists exploring the history of
the island.

Figure 3: A rumah adat (traditional community house), Pulau Penyengat.

Source: Authors’ picture.

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 10

26 Similarly, in 2006 a kampong air, or a cluster of homes on stilts over the sea, was created
by the Tanjung Pinang government on Pulau Penyengat as part of a general push to
enhance the island’s Malay features in order to fulfill its role as the Malay cultural
heartland44. While many Malays throughout the region built wood homes, mosques, and
other buildings on stilts over the sea for centuries, this practice has waned as it has
become associated with poverty and backwardness, and concrete houses built on land,
associated with modernity and progress, have gradually become the norm. The kampong
air project carries symbolic weight as an attempt to revive and update a vernacular
building form (fig. 4). Inspired by a visit to Brunei’s famous water village, the kampong air
is the pet project of a city official who secured the funds to create what he viewed as a
project of “Malay pride”45. Other sea-based housing projects have not been attempted in
the Tanjung Pinang region since then, and current government housing is all land-based,
including all housing built in Kepri’s new capital of Dompak. This project highlights the
idiosyncrasy of state projects and their dependency on a single person who has his or her
own priorities and who may champion certain projects over others and have his or her
own interpretations of what architecture constitutes Malayness.

Figure 4: Kampung Air, Penyengat Island.

Source: Authors’ picture.

Royal Heritage

27 In addition to the common ties of language and religion, a key aspect of Kepri residents’
sense of “Malayness” is their relation to the former sultanate and the archipelago’s role
as a historic center of royal power.46 There is a widespread sense among residents in the
Tanjung Pinang region, particularly as regional tourism has grown in recent years, that
the royal history makes the area unique and is a source of pride and authenticity.
Enhancing the visibility of royal heritage is now a key part of current provincial tourism
strategies, and architecture is an important medium through which the sultanate is being
branded and revived.
28 As the center of the Riau-Lingga sultanate, Pulau Penyengat was home to various royal
figures, administrative buildings of the sultan, mosques, royal residents, and a printing
press.47 Given the island’s status by government officials and many residents as the
“heartland of Malay culture” and a “living museum,” particular care has been taken to
preserve, enhance, and promote the royal heritage. This has been accomplished mainly
through modifying existing architecture and adopting particular features in new

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 11

architecture to convey a sense of royalty. Bright yellow and gold, once the signature of
the sultanate, has been adopted to broadly signify royal heritage, and Malay high culture
in general. On Pulau Penyengat, all structures that were built for the sultanate have been
painted bright yellow, although none of the buildings were in fact yellow during the
sultan’s time. For example, old photos from the early 1900s of the sultan and his retinue
in front of the island’s Grand Mosque48 demonstrate clearly that the mosque was
whitewashed. Despite archival evidence and the memories of old-timers on the island,
most local residents and government officials are convinced that yellow carries special
significance and a sense of cultural authenticity (fig. 5).

Figure 5: The mosque on Pulau Penyengat.

The mosque (Masjid Raya Sultan Riau Penyengat) was white since its construction in 1844 but was
recently painted the royal yellow for the first time to brand it as being associated with the Riau
Source: Authors’ picture.

29 Design that conveys a sense of Malay royal heritage is frequently deployed by the Kepri
state for temporary events in central and highly visible parts of Tanjung Pinang. While
these events have no relation to the sultanate once based in the region, the ruling elite
adopt royal heritage to project a sense of authenticity and heritage, and to reference a
glorious past, while legitimizing their own power. A temporary performance stage is
often constructed in the heart of Tanjung Pinang for Malay cultural events near the
jetties, City Hall, the colonial governor’s office, and the city’s Chinese district (fig. 6). The
stage integrates a variety of elements all recognizable to Kepri residents as Malay and
taken from a variety of architectural sources. The lattice that trims the stage and the roof
reproduces the decorative trim widely used in Malay wood homes, while the staircase at
the front of the stage references concrete staircases used in many raised wood Malay
houses. The Malay floral patterns are drawn from intricate wood carving found in
vernacular mosques and fabric. The minarets on either side of the stage replicate those of
the royal mosque on Pulau Penyengat. The colors chosen also convey a syncretic royal/
Malay/Muslim identity: the green is widely used in the Muslim world to represent Islam,
while the yellow is the signature color of the local sultanate. The structure embodies the
syncretism both of the past and the ongoing syncretism found in recent ethno-nationalist
architecture in Tanjung Pinang.

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 12

Figure 6: Temporary performance stage for a Malay cultural festival in the heart of Tanjung Pinang.

Source: Authors’ picture.

Arab Revival Meets Global Islam

30 The era widely perceived to be the Malay world’s golden age is inextricably tied to the
emergence of Islam in the fifteenth century, which marks the beginning of Malay history
as it is remembered in recent centuries.49 Those who spread Islam are considered heroes,
and Arabs in the Malay world are held in particularly high esteem. 50 In the Riau Islands, it
is prestigious for Malays to be able to trace their family lineage back to an Arab ancestor.
Reviving a glorious past, therefore, means looking to a time when Malays had adopted
Islam, were at the peak of their economic power and influence, had not yet been
colonized, and when the Malay world was a destination for Arab immigrants. The
promotion of Islam and Arab culture as authentically Malay overlaps with the
strengthening influence of global Islam and the increasing connectedness (and the sense
of a revived pre-colonial connection) among Muslims in Southeast Asia and the Middle
31 These factors have contributed to a broad turn to the Middle East and Arab culture
among Southeast Asian Muslims, affecting popular culture,53 education, 54 politics, 55
banking,56 and the built environment.57 Since Malays are Muslims, the expression of Islam
(even an imported Arab version of it) is seen by many Malays as authentic Malay culture.
32 In the context of Malaysia, Islam serves to unify a diverse group of people without
favoring any one subgroup. It relates to a golden age of Malay history but also alludes to
the great Islamic civilizations that preceded the colonial era and the influx of Chinese and
Indian immigrants. Islam is seen as an “authentic” and pure way to connect with a
defining aspect of Malay identity, and overt Islamic idioms have been employed
increasingly in architecture in Kepri and the Malay world more broadly. 58
33 The surge of interest in promoting Islam as a proxy for Malay identity has influenced
state architecture in the Riau Islands, particularly state-built mosques, but also some

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 13

government buildings, which have increasingly adopted a generic Arab idiom in the past
5-10 years. The Grand Dompak Mosque is a state project designed to be the main place of
worship for Dompak, the new master-planned capital city of Kepri (fig. 7), features of
which are borrowed from the Nabawi Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia. There are, for
example, drawings and photos of the Nabawi Mosque displayed inside the Grand Dompak
Mosque as well as texts that create a connection between the two buildings. While the
Grand Dompak Mosque is clearly not an exact replica and the quality of materials and
craftsmanship are more modest, the photos and drawings establish a distinct connection
to the Saudi mosque, and provide a sense of legitimacy and authenticity to a brand-new
mosque in a new city seeking to broadcast its Malayness, particularly in contrast to
Tanjung Pinang’s diversity and large Chinese population.

Figure 7: The Grand Dompak Mosque (Masjid Raya Dompak).

Source: Authors’ picture.

34 Similarly, recent city government buildings have been constructed near Senggarang, the
Chinese village on the outskirts of Tanjung Pinang, in a syncretic Arab-inspired style
characterized by Islamic domes, arches, and other Islamic design motifs (fig. 8). Such
buildings represent a new attempt to encroach on land designated by the state for the
Chinese community, particularly as they are built along a ridge that is highly visible from
a great distance. The domed buildings along the ridge above Senggarang create an Islamic
silhouette and mark the territory as Malay.

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 14

Figure 8: Arab-inspired government architecture in Senggarang, near Tanjung Pinang.

Source: Authors’ picture.

(Re)creating Malayness: Emerging Social Exclusions

35 Expressions of Malayness in recent state architecture in and around Tanjung Pinang
illustrate currents of Malay chauvinism and classism that serve to exclude a large portion
of the province’s residents, both symbolically and materially. The quest for reviving a
pure “authentic” Malay culture that predates colonialism overlooks the region’s rich
syncretism and the overlap between ethnic and cultural groups. Instead, the quest for
Malayness invents tradition59 and mobilizes specific narratives that serve present
political purposes. Examples of Malay revival in state architecture in the previous section
illustrate the politicization of race and religion and how the syncretism of the past is
glossed over. State architecture treats Malayness and the province’s many cultures in a
simplified, homogenizing Taman Mini way, not as an endless series of hybrids.
36 Malayness is presented as something timeless, unchanging, and representable through
architecture. According to state conceptualizations, Malayness is something historical
rather than contemporary, that has been eroded or lost and is in need of reviving and
commemorating. In Malay revival architecture, Malay culture is stripped of its politics, its
diversity, and its internal tensions and reduced to a harmless building type. Similar to
Disney’s Main Street, USA,60 an idealized recreation of a small town main street in a
theme park that is supposed to represent “American culture,” recent state architecture
iconizes and mythologizes Malay culture, while presenting a simplified version of that
culture that lacks any allusion to its complexity and rich history. Recent state
architecture in Tanjung Pinang also demonstrates that official conceptualizations of
ethnicity and culture, at least in Kepri, have not evolved since the 1970s when Taman
Mini was created.

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 15

37 In these examples of revived Malayness, no differentiation is made between Bugis and

Malays, two groups that were historically distinct. Over time, these distinctions have lost
meaning, as divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims have grown sharper in recent
years. Similarly, ethnic groups from other parts of Indonesia are rendered invisible in
state architecture, despite a strong presence of Javanese and others living in Tanjung
Pinang. Malays are positioned as having a unique symbolic and material claim to the land
in Kepri that non-Malays can never have. Other groups indigenous to the region,
particularly the Orang Laut, or nomadic sea people, who have lived in the Riau Islands for
over a millennium, are also excluded from recent Malay revivalism.61
38 The revival of Kepri’s role as a royal seat of power is expressed through recent state
architecture and is driven by local elites who benefit from their association to the
sultanate. Malay elites, many of whom are descendants of the local sultan or who are
connected to other important historical figures, use the built environment as a way to
assert and legitimize their claim to power in top government positions. Reinforcing ties
between the government and the royal past is similar to General Suharto’s adoption of
many symbols of a Javanese sultan62 and serves to construct a lineage of power that
excludes those from lower socio-economic brackets, who have no path to leadership
within this system.
39 While the relationship between ethnic Chinese and Malays in the Riau Islands has
traditionally been peaceful compared to the tension and violence in other regions, there
are troubling signs of creeping Malay chauvinism similar to what is currently emerging in
Malaysia. The belief that Malays (and Muslims more broadly) have a unique claim to the
land63 is reinforced and normalized through architecture and planning. While the Malay
idiom adopted in some state projects pays homage to vernacular culture and creates a
sense of place that is recognizably Malay, it also ignores and renders invisible the large
ethnic Chinese communities in the region. Soon after the creation of Riau Islands
Province, the provincial government determined that Pulau Penyengat would be a sort of
“living museum” for “pure” Malay culture in the hopes of attracting tourists from dunia
Melayu, or the broader Malay world, namely Malaysia, Singapore, and other parts of
Indonesia. While tombs and remaining buildings of the Riau sultanate were renovated
and preserved, the presence of Chinese families on the island and a Kampung Cina
(Chinese village) on the island was deemed inappropriate by the Riau Islands government
. As a result, in the 2000s, all but one long-term ethnic Chinese family residing on Pulau
Penyengat were relocated to Senggarang, a designated ethnic Chinese village a fifteen-
minute boat ride away. As the island has been purged of ethnic minorities, the
Malayization of Pulau Penyengat’s built environment has increased dramatically in
recent years, and “Malay”-style welcome gates have been constructed on the jetties
(figs. 9–10).

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 16

Figure 9: Jetty on Pulau Penyengat facing the open sea projects a royal Malay identity.

Source: Authors’ picture.

Figure 10: Jetty on Pulau Penyengat facing Tanjung Pinang projects a Malay identity through
reproducing a recognizable Malay architectural form in concrete.

Source: Authors’ picture.

40 The exclusion of ethnic Chinese can further be seen in the absence of physical and
symbolic space for them in the new capital. As discussed, the Arab-inspired Grand
Dompak Mosque is a main feature of the new provincial capital, yet no facilities have
been built or are planned for worshipers of other religions, leaving the Chinese
community to practice only in private or household temples. The lack of accommodation

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 17

of non-Malays sends a clear message that Malays/Muslims have a unique claim to the
land and to power that no other race has. As is manifested in state architecture, a Malay/
Muslim–Chinese dichotomy has been recently sharpened and reified in the built
environment. For example, the Malay performance stages are meant to foster only Malay
culture and are not intended to celebrate the diversity and syncretism of Kepri’s
population. Moreover, separate performance stages that use recognizably Chinese motifs
and colors (i.e. dragon symbols in bright red) have been created by the state in recent
years, a move that generates new material and symbolic divisions.
41 The political motivations behind this heritage revival echo similar dynamics in Malaysia,
in which ethno-nationalism is expressed through state architecture.65 While Malay
culture and history are presented as a depoliticized set of aesthetic components, state
architecture in and around Tanjung Pinang presents a highly politicized and race-based
nationalism that excludes portions of the population from representation. The ongoing
exclusion of ethnic Chinese Indonesians from the long and prestigious list of national
heroes indicates a reluctance to acknowledge their contributions. The current populist
movement against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (locally known as Ahok), the ethnic Chinese
former governor of Jakarta, illustrates ongoing tensions and the widespread belief that
ethnic Chinese, as non-Muslims, should be lesser citizens than Muslims.
42 In Kepri, these top-down efforts have been met with a great deal of support from many
Malays and little open resistance, due in part to the various ways in which protestors can
be punished by a strong and corrupt state. However, some residents—both Malays and
Chinese—have expressed criticism of recent Malayization. The sole remaining ethnic
Chinese family on Pulau Penyengat claims that while they were asked to move, they will
never leave. They feel that it is typical of the current political climate that ethnic
segregation is being practiced on the island, and, while they are not surprised, they are
disappointed in the government and frustrated that the other Chinese families did not
have the will to resist the state’s relocation of them to Senggarang and fight harder to
remain on Pulau Penyengat. Other ethnic Chinese in Senggarang echo the state when
they say that Senggarang “has always been Chinese” and that it is somehow their natural
43 Some Malays are frustrated that the state’s attempt to revive Malay heritage is superficial
and historically inaccurate and they are critical of the lack of local input in decision-
making. One resident of Pulau Penyengat felt that, if the island is a “living museum,” the
state should not add new “heritage” structures, but rather should properly maintain
existing historical buildings and perhaps rebuild some of the sultan’s buildings that he
ordered to be destroyed before his departure. While Malays generally feel the new Malay
structures are a positive development, some feel that the architecture is inauthentic and
feels somewhat like a theme park.

44 Over the past decade, the interest in reviving Malay culture has been manifested in a
variety of policies and programs, the most visible of which is through public architecture.
As our paper demonstrates, state architecture is a highly public tool for the state to
communicate ideology. A critical examination of this architecture reveals the variety of
ways in which a sense of “authentic” Malayness has been revived and how government

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 18

agencies and individuals are able to shape projects according to their own views of what
constitutes Malay heritage.
45 While architecture in the Riau Islands continues to be syncretic, albeit with different
reference points and a more self-conscious referencing of particular aspects of the past,
there is more careful policing of boundaries between Malays/Muslims and non-Malays/
non-Muslims. This is evident through the conscious effort to imbue state architecture
with a sense of history and culture, albeit a highly selective revival of the past that
excludes non-Malays. While the Riau Islands have a diverse and eclectic history as a
crossroads for many cultures, recent and centrally located state architecture in Tanjung
Pinang serves to silence and gloss over complexity and syncretism in favor of a narrative
in which there is one set of heroes to celebrate: Malays/Muslims and, in particular, those
associated with the Riau sultanate. As such, the formation of Riau Islands Province has
provided an opportunity for the Riau Islands elite to consolidate power and use the elite
Malay past to legitimize their own sphere of influence.
46 The manifestation of Malay chauvinism in Tanjung Pinang’s state architecture parallels
similar trends elsewhere in the Malay world.66 As citizen groups supporting political
Islam grow stronger in the Malay world, debates about Malay culture and identity and the
identification of “impure,” non-halal, or un-Islamic elements may continue to lead to a
more overt adoption of Arab idioms in public buildings. However, recent criticism of
Malays’ tendency to ape Arab culture has resulted in a small resurgence of architecture
that seeks to revive syncretic and vernacular forms. No matter what the direction of state
architecture, discussions about how to revive and represent culture in public buildings
continue to exclude ethnic Chinese, indigenous people such as the Orang Laut, and other
non-Malays, rendering them invisible in the state-produced urban landscape.

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 19

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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 20

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provincial style of dance and teach locals who would then represent Kepri at national events. The
choreographer drew on Balinese dance and a hybrid of local Malay dance for the Kepri dance
style. The construction of Kepri’s provincial dance form is explored in depth in a forthcoming
paper (author, forthcoming).
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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 21

51. Sarah MOSER, “Circulating Visions of ‘High Islam’”, op. cit. (note 3).
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Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 22

65. Sarah MOSER, “Circulating Visions of ‘High Islam,’” Urban Studies, vol. 49, no. 13, 2012, p. 2913–
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Since the implementation of decentralization policies following the fall of Suharto in 1998,
Indonesia’s provinces have far greater autonomy, which they have leveraged to enhance aspects
of their cultural identity. In the context of Riau Islands Province, a new province created in 2004,
the pivot away from a centralized national focus has prompted policies that prioritize the revival
of Malay culture in various spheres of life including education, the arts, and the built
environment. This paper examines the cultural politics of recent state architectural projects
created in the past fifteen years in and around the provincial capital of Tanjung Pinang, all of
which are intended to evoke a sense of Malay cultural and religious identity. Recent state
architecture seeks to channel and project an “authentic” past, often through a selective
amalgamation of various recognizable historical references. In the context of current local
political, racial, and religious dynamics, we analyze how versions of Malay identity are
appropriated by the state in a variety of ways and manifested in recent state architecture in Riau
Islands Province, and examine how this contributes to a variety of social exclusions.

Depuis la mise en place d’une politique de décentralisation à la suite de la chute de Suharto en

1998, les provinces indonésiennes ont joui d’une autonomie accrue, qu’elles ont su employer
pour mettre davantage en lumière certains aspects de leur identité culturelle. Dans le contexte
de cet affaiblissement d’une volonté centraliste nationale, la Province des îles Riau, nouvellement
créée en 2004, a encouragé la création d’une politique privilégiant le regain de la culture malaise
dans différentes sphères de la vie, don’t l’éducation, les arts et l’environnement bâti. Cet article
examine la politique culturelle de projets architecturaux publics réalisés depuis une quinzaine
d’années dans la capitale provinciale de Tanjungpinang et aux alentours, tous conçus pour
éveiller un sens d’appartenance à l’identité culturelle et religieuse malaise. L’architecture
étatique récente cherche à incarner et à exprimer un passé « authentique », souvent à travers un
amalgame savant de diverses références historiques reconnaissables. Dans le contexte actuel de
dynamiques politiques, ethniques et religieuses, nous analysons la manière dont l’État
s’approprie certaines versions de l’identité malaise, comment celle-ci se manifeste dans
l’architecture publique récente dans la Province des îles Riau, et les exclusions sociales variées
auxquelles cette politique contribue.

ABE Journal, 11 | 2017

Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 23

Seit der Implementierung der Dezentralisierungspolitik nach dem Fall Suhartos 1998 besitzen die
Provinzen Indonesiens eine weitaus größere Autonomie, die sie dafür eingesetzt haben,
Merkmale ihrer kulturellen Identität stärker zu betonen. Im Kontext der Riau-Inseln, einer
neuen, 2004 gegründeten Provinz, hat die Abwendung von einem zentralisierten nationalen
Fokus zu einer Politik geführt, bei der das Wiederbeleben der malaiischen Kultur in
verschiedenen Lebensbereichen – wie Bildung, Kunst und gebauter Umwelt – vorrangig ist.
Dieser Artikel untersucht die Kulturpolitik jüngster staatlicher Architekturprojekte, die in den
letzten 15 Jahren in und um die Provinzhauptstadt Tanjung Pinang entstanden sind und sämtlich
einen Eindruck von malaiischer kultureller und religiöser Identität vermitteln sollen. Diese
neuen öffentlichen Bauten sollen eine „authentische“ Vergangenheit verdichten und vorführen,
wobei sie häufig unterschiedliche wiedererkennbare historische Referenzen miteinander
verquicken. Im Kontext der aktuellen politischen, ethnischen und religiösen Dynamik vor Ort
untersuchen wir, wie der Staat sich auf unterschiedliche Art und Weise verschiedene Versionen
malaiischer Identität aneignet, sie an neuen öffentlichen Architekturen in der Provinz der Riau-
Inseln demonstrativ zur Schau stellt und wie dies diverse Formen sozialer Exklusion schürt.

Desde la aplicación de una política de descentralización tras la caída de Suharto en 1998, las
provincias indonesias han disfrutado de una mayor autonomía que ha puesto de relieve algunos
aspectos de su identidad cultural. En el contexto de este debilitamiento de la voluntad centralista
nacional, la Provincia de las islas Riau, creada en 2004, ha facilitado una política que privilegia la
revitalización de la cultura malaya en diferentes esferas de la vida, incluida la educación, las
artes y el medio construido. Este artículo examina la política cultural de proyectos
arquitectónicos públicos realizados desde hace una quincena de años en la capital provincial de
Tanjung Pinang y en los alrededores, concebidos todos ellos para suscitar un sentido de
pertenencia a la identidad cultural y religiosa malaya. La arquitectura estatal reciente busca
encarnar y expresar un pasado “auténtico”, a menudo a través de una amalgama culta de
diversas referencias históricas reconocibles. En el contexto actual de dinámicas políticas, étnicas
y religiosas, analizamos la forma en la que el Estado se apropia ciertas versiones de la identidad
malaya, cómo ésta se manifiesta en la arquitectura oficial reciente en la Provincia de las islas
Riau, y las diversas exclusiones sociales a las que contribuye tal política.

Le politiche di decentralizzazione che hanno seguito la caduta di Suharto nel 1998, hanno
conferito alle province indonesiane molta più autonomia, il che ha permesso loro di promuovere
la loro identità culturale. Nella Provincia delle Isole Riau, una nuova provincia creata nel 2004, la
decentralizzazione ha provocato politiche che provilegiano la riscoperta della cultura malese in
diversi ambiti, quali l’educazione, le arti e l’ambiente costruito. Questo articolo esamina le
politiche culturali all’origine dei recenti progetti architettonici di stato negli ultimi quindici anni,
all’interno e intorno alla capitale della provincia Tanjung Pinang, che fanno tutte riferimento
all’identità culturale e religiosa malese. L’architettura recente si propone di incarnare e creare
un passato “autentico”, spesso operando una fusione selettiva di riferimenti storici diversi e
identificabili. Nel contesto delle attuali dinamiche politiche, razziali e religiose locali, si
analizzano i vai modi in cui i diversi aspetti dell’identità malese sono fatti propri dallo stato e si
esprimono nell’architettura recente nella Provincia delle Isole Riau, osservando come ciò
contribuisca a moltiplicare le forme di emarginazione.

ABE Journal, 11 | 2017

Constructing Heritage Through State Architecture in Indonesia’s Riau Islands 24

Keywords: heritage, Malay identity, Malay heritage, Muslim architecture, ethno-nationalism,
Parole chiave: Parole chiave: patrimonio, identità malese, patrimonio malese, architettura
musulmana, etno-nazionalismo, emarginazione
Schlüsselwörter: Erbe, Malaiische Identität, Malaiisches Kulturerbe, Muslimische Architektur,
Ethno-Nationalismus, Ausschluss
Palabras claves: patrimonio, identidad malaya, patrimonio malayo, Provincia de las islas Riau,
arquitectura musulmana, etnonacionalismo, exclusión
Chronological index: XXe siècle
Geographical index: Asie, Asie du Sud-Est, Indonésie, îles Riau (province), Tanjungpinang
Mots-clés: patrimoine, identité malaise, patrimoine malais, architecture musulmane, ethno-
nationalisme, exclusion

Assistant Professor, McGill University, Montreal, Canada


Graduate Student, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

ABE Journal, 11 | 2017

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