'My dream is to see Malays dressing beautifully again': Dutch designer's remarks on baju kurung infuriate Malaysians

Lisette Scheers, founder of Nala Designs, in Malaysia.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

A Dutch designer recently drew the ire of Malaysians after her remarks on baju kurung, a traditional Malay attire, went viral on social media. 

In an interview with South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Jan 15, Lisette Scheer, 50, reminisced about her multicultural experiences growing up in several cities including Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. 

Scheer shared that she decided to return to Kuala Lumpur in her early 30s after feeling "homesick for Malaysia".

However, the city that she came back to, was different from the "safe, big kampung" where she had grown up in. She was also shocked to see the quick commercialisation of Malaysia.

"Everything was about making a quick buck, there was no pride, no quality", Scheer told SCMP. 

This motivated her to open Nala Designs in 2008, where her products include handmade pillow covers to women's dresses and men's shirts. Many of her designs are influenced by the Chinese and Malay cultures, she added. 

"My dream is to see the baju kurung return, to see Malays dressing beautifully again," the designer said. And she hoped to do so by going on a "crusade" to prevent the disappearance of the traditional Malay attire.

She also wanted Malaysians to "feel proud of their heritage".

Malaysians furious over 'tone-deaf' comment

This particular remark resulted in a social media frenzy among Malaysians, who took issue with her comments about the traditional attire, calling them tone-deaf.

A quick search of the keyword 'baju kurung' on Twitter showed mostly negative responses by Malaysians to Scheer's remark. 

Many pointed out that the baju kurung is already a staple outfit among Malays in the country, and some even wear the traditional attire beyond Hari Raya festivals, such as to work or to school. 

Some also said that Scheer's comment is an example of cultural appropriation. 

Dissatisfied with 'non-apology'

Scheer responded to the backlash on Jan 17, posting a public apology on Nala Designs' Instagram page. 

"I’d like to apologise for the misunderstanding and for giving the wrong impression," she wrote, adding how she sees Malaysia as her home.

"Malaysia to me, is a source of inspiration and what makes it special are its people and I'm learning every day."

But it backfired as many netizens called it a non-apology.

A screenshot of a comment on Scheer's apology post. PHOTO: Instagram/naladesigns

Others hoped that the designer would "do better" after this incident.

A screenshot of a comment on Scheer's apology post. PHOTO: Instagram/naladesigns

qistina@asiaone.com