Searching for Malay Identity: Understanding the dynamics of becoming Malay in contemporary East Malaysia

This paper illustrates the issue in defining Malay identity in the context of cultural relation between Indonesia and Malaysia. As ethnical category, Malay-ness is shared by numerous groups across Malaysia, Singapore, Borneo and Sumatra as well as Eastern Indonesia, referring to language and religion attributes which is Malay for language and Islam for religion. However, since Malay culture has been ‘selected’ as a part for promoting the hegemony of Malaysian national identity, the term Malay has consequently shifted from cultural to political identity. If nation is portrayed as a collective imagined community which represents unity and fixity, what Indonesian possibly imagines about Malaysia and Malaysian is referred to its single-face identity as Muslim-Malay state, which is obviously constructed through over generalisation and stereotyping. As prove, the Ambalat dispute and repatriation policy has provoked bitter reaction in which Malaysia is portrayed as arrogant and intolerant, narrow, puritan, closed and exclusive. Not many Indonesian knows that Eastern Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah) has close cultural and historical ties to Indonesia due to the same geographical location (Borneo), demographic and ethnic composition. This research investigates that Malay identity for Malaysia is still in the process of becoming and contesting, particularly in the context of Eastern Malaysia with not ‘very Malay’ in nature. This research is done to promote a bridge of understanding between two neighbouring states, rather than to intensify the state of ‘conflict’ between Indonesia and Malaysia. Data was mainly gathered through intensive interviews in Sabah and Sarawak, March-April 2005.

Keywords: identity construction, narrative, nationalism

Globalisation, migration
The discourse of globalization and localization has been widely explored since the early 1990s. Globalization stands for the emergence a world economy, a world polity, and perhaps a world culture, in short, for the emergence of a world society in the widest sense of them (Giddens, 1991). Localization stands for the rise of localized, culturally defined identities, sometimes within, sometime transcending, the boundaries of a state (Kloos, 1991). In the dialectical nature of globalization and localization, the problems of identities emerge as an important theme. How do social, political and economic relations in certain countries influence the identity formation amongst migrant communities? In other words, how do the dynamic relations between state, society and market construct and deconstruct migrant identities? It is important to formulate discourses on migration theories in the context of globalization’s divergent effects. The Southeast Asian context, where cultural and nation-state boundaries have not always intersected in a neatly fashion and globalization’s divergent effects are dynamically at work, is a significant starting point in characterizing migration dynamics and migrant identities and finding new discourses for migration theories. Many scientists believe that international and internal migration are part of the same process, they should be analysed together. Many cases show that international migration may be over short distances and between culturally similar people such as between the Southern Philippines and Sabah in Malaysia, while internal migration can span great distances and bring together very different people (e.g. movements of Ulgar ‘national minority’ people from the western provinces of China to cities in the East) (Castells, 2000: 270).
Migration is not a new phenomenon in the annals of human history, particularly in the Southeast Asian context. In the context of contemporary Southeast Asia, issues of human migrations have increasingly gained attention. The post-colonial creation of nation-states and the impact of free-flow capital driven by global economic movement (liberalization) had led to various economic disparities and inequality relations between various nation-states. However, as most Southeast Asian nation-state boundaries are basically colonial creations, the national, cultural, political and economic boundaries never really intersect in a neatly fashion. This is complicating the analysis of human migration, as current transnational mobility is not always purely driven by economic factors alone. Some movements are culturally driven, others might be related to the ambivalent partition of communities into different nation-states creating ‘transnational’ homelands, some are driven by repression on minorities falling victim to nation-state projects. In the discourse of International Relations, international migration is categorized as transnational activity, which is defined by Keohane and Nye (1972) as the movement of information, money, physical objects, people or other tangible or intangible items across state boundaries, when at least one of the actors involved in this movement is non-governmental (see also Basch, Schiller, and Szanton, 1994, and Bali 2001).

Culture, Place, Space and Identity
As noted by Kalb and Van Der Land (2000), culture is deeply and thoroughly implicated in the social shifts associated with international migrations, and it is so in multiples and manifold ways. In the heart of the cultural body, the problem of identity is of central importance to understand deeply the nature of migrant communities in several parts of the world. Place and space are, of course, constituted by sedimented social structures and cultural practices. Sensing and moving are not presocial; the lived body is the result of habitual cultural and social processes. This means recognizing that place, body, and environment integrate with each other; that places gather things, thoughts, and memories in particular configurations; and that place, more an event than a thing, is characterized by openness rather than by a unitary self-identity. Space and cultural identity are intertwined and the ‘disruption’ of the space configuration will disturb the embedded configuration of existing cultural identity. (Escobar, 2001: 142).Parallel with the migrant cultural identities, migration simultaneously affects migrant’s configuration of identity since the ties between culture and space are put into question. Anthropologically, the sense of location, place and belonging of migrants are always in the process of reconceptualization following their recurrent mobility. Here the focus is on the relation between identity, place and power-between “placemaking” and “peoplemaking” where locality and community cease to be obvious, and certainly not inhabited by rooted or natural identities but very much produced by complex relations of culture and power that go well beyond local bounds. (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997). The task of anthropology becomes to recover the bodily, place-based, and practical aspects of social life (Escobar, 2001: 150) and to certain extent requestioning what Ferguson and Gupta called as “isomorphism” of place, culture, and space which has already taken for granted (Gupta & Ferguson, 1999: 66). Here we deal with “sensing the place”, perception, and experience of place and the local constructions of particular localities as something which are continously constructed, contested and given multiple meanings. We learnt that it has become axiomatic today, owing to Fredrik Barth’s seminal social constructionist framework in examining identity formation, to view the process of identity construction as being contingent, dynamic, responsive, permutable, and constantly reconstructed or reinvented. (e.g. Barth 1969; Clifford 1988; Gupta and Ferguson 2002; Jenkins 1997), as well as being constructed in webs of subjectivities and narrative processes where it is assumed that, “social action can only be intelligible if we recognize that people are guided to act by the relationships in which they are embedded.” (Somers and Gibson 1994).

Lastly, there are two kinds of identity, identity as being (which offers a sense of unity and commonality) and identity as becoming (or a process of identification, which shows the discontinuity in our identity formation.). The first position defines cultural identity as something fixed, shared among members with an essential past as a point of reference. Within this term, cultural identities not only reflect common historical experiences and shared cultural codes, but also assume that culture and identity are stable, pre-given and unchanging (Hall, 1994: 393). The second position characterizes identity as something fluid and emerging. The historical past is not regarded as an absolute reference, and needs to be rediscovered and is waiting to be found, but rather as a source of retelling to produce identity in the context of present . Moreover, a constant transformation of cultural identities brings two significant consequences. First, cultural identities are actively constructed not only through a set of relations between powers, but also through its relation to the Other. Not only, in Said’s ‘Orientalist’ sense, were we constructed as different and other within the categories of knowledge of the West by those regimes, but also they had the power to make us see and experience ourselves as the Other. Secondly, cultural identities are seen as unstable points of identification which are made within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning which is unifying us through difference.

Identity is realised through language as a process that we do rather than something that we are, and however it needs to be articulated (and represented). Gramsci described this articulation as ‘the starting point of critical elaboration’: it is the consciousness of what one really is, and in ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory’. Identity marks the conjuncture of our past with the social, cultural and economic relations we live within. ‘Each invididual is the synthesis not only of existing relations but of the history of these relations. Individual as a historical subject is a precis of the past (Rutherford, 1990: 19). Since it articulates or speaks through language, the construction of identity takes form of narrativity, or mode of telling. It is, either, processual and relational which time, place, and space are embedded within. In other words, we can, first, understand that the actual event of telling experience through stories cannot be separated from time and spatial relationships. Secondly, the articulation of identities through narrative is a kind of action which performed in specific diachronic context where either speakers or storytellers (performers) are temporarily beginning his/her presencing as well setting their social positions. It is within these temporal and multi-layered narratives that identities are formed; hence narrative identity is processual and relational (Somers and Gibson 1994: 58-67). Since the nature of time is narratively structured through language, the analysis of time as a linear series of “nows” hides the true constitution of time, or in other words, he makes a distinction between linear time (historical) and the way time is experienced (human time) in what he calls as “within-time-ness” (Ricoeur, 1981:166). Historical time becomes human time “to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full significance when it becomes a condition of temporal existence (Ricoeur, 1984:52). History (in terms of scientific and objective study) is different from story. Ricoeur opposes this anti-narrative approach and proposes the way to understand history and time by stressing the importance of re-telling history, rather than historical accuracy. In this sense, history can be fictional using various forms of expression like oral history. Narratives combine fact and fiction. Narrative identity occupies a central position between historical narratives and narratives of literary fiction. Moreover, the cross interplay of these two types of narratives is the mode of how narratives are articulated (Ricoeur 1987, 244-9, Johnson, 2003:120).

Addressing Issues
The issue of migrant workers has long been a key for Indonesia-Malaysia diplomatic relations and in the last three years, this problem had caused a tension between both states. The intensity of the issue itself had drastically increased during the financial crisis of 1997. In the mid December 1997, over 6,000 illegal migrant workers were detained by the Malaysian immigration authority. Throughout 1997, the Malaysian government had deported over 38,500 Indonesian illegal migrant workers, followed by another trend in 1998, whereas the number held another increase. From January to April, the figure was around 30,000, and followed by a greater number in August, reaching around 200,000 workers. In the year 2001 Malaysian authorities continued to deport over 1,600 illegal workers, followed with the handling issue of Nunukan a year later. At this period, over 450.000 Indonesian illegal migrant workers were put in Nunukan, East Kalimantan in their massive deportation process.
In the Malaysian context, many studies on migrant workers have been conducted with political economic approaches, by highlighting the attractiveness of Malaysian economy and some push factors from the countries of origin (See, for instance, Hj. Johari and Goddos, 2001; Hollifield, 2000; Pillai, 1999). However, the reality of Sabah & Sarawak is often forgotten in the context of international migration studies even though it has the largest number of foreign migrants especially from Phillipines and Indonesia.

During first week of our field working, the relation between Indonesia and Malaysia is worsening by Ambalat dispute. Malaysia claims the sea, which according to Indonesian nautical border law is part of its sovereignty. Since Malaysia has not ratified United Nations Conference on Law of Sea (UNCLOS) they started to drill for oil in this region, which very near to Sabah. Interesting to see how most Indonesian is psychologically affected by this incident by rallying political protest against Malaysia and even some of protestors burnt Malaysian flag in front of its embassy in Jakarta; while Sabahan and Sarawakian (Eastern Malaysian) are not easily get provoked. Why? There is a different perspective to see this problem for both Malaysia and Indonesia. For Indonesian, the sovereignty is mostly understood in terms of national dignity, a psychological and ideological so it seems. While for Malaysian, they see this as mainly diplomatic disagreement between two governments.

I feel ashamed to admit that most Indonesian including me shares the popular belief that every Malaysian citizens (by omitting China and India) are “culturally Malay” and this is surely misguiding. When Indonesian think of the word “Malaysia” we refer to a whole group of Malay people which 100 per cent Muslim as we thought equally the same as the ethnic Malay (orang Melayu) in Riau, Sumatera Island. The only difference is that they are Malay people who run their own country. As a “postscript” we tend to believe that the Malay culture predominates the West and and East Malaysia as we jump into conclusion that Brunei Kingdom is also very Malay and Muslim. In contrast, when Indonesian hears the word “dayak”, they refer to Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) with combination of pagan attributes and Christianity. In short we are misguided by stereotypical vision that Kalimantan and Borneo are so ideologically different as a result of different nationalities and history. What we know about ourselves and others is “isolated” by lack of information, stereotyping, and racism. Most of anthropological research that has been conducted in Indonesia for more than fifty years was basically framed by assuming that, by definition, indigenous people are equally the same in meaning with ‘isolated communities’. They are seen as asymmetrical with the modern progress, and imagined as an anti-thesis of modernity, as Koentjaraningrat, the founding father of Indonesian anthropology, a Javanese notable scholar exemplifies (Koentjaraningrat, 1993: 28):

“…[isolated communities are] communities that are isolated with limited capacities of communication with other communities that are more developed, the nature of which is that they are getting behind and staying behind in the process of developing life economically, politically, psychologically, culturally, religiously and ideologically…”

However, the isolation that is spoken of in Koentjaraningrat’s definition should therefore not be understood only as geographical isolation, but also the isolation from the Indonesian cultural main narrative, although isolated groups do not experience this as such. I believe this is the root of the problem which can be solved by promoting more critical way of thinking about social identities, identity politics and local history to create a bridge of understanding. In fact, for the case of Sarawak and Sabah, who joined later in Malaysia in 1963, a historical and cultural connection to Indonesia is inevitable. Sarawakian with more or less 30 percent population of Iban and Kenyah (sub-categories of Dayak ) people has been upholding family or kinship with Indonesian (Kalimantan Borneo) Iban and Kenyah long before the presence of modern nation: Indonesia-Malaysia.

The complexity of Sabah and Sarawak can be “summarised” by showing these figures as a wide picture :

  • Sarawak has 42.6 per cent of Christian population adherenced by Dayak and Chinese, while Islam as the religion of Malay is 31.3 per cent. This portrays a sheer difference of political and cultural aspiration comparing to all districts in Malaysia peninsula where Muslim average percentage is 65.36 per cent for each district and undoubtedly Malay race).
  • Sabah has 23.6 per cent non-Malaysian citizen and half of it is Bugis migrants from Indonesia.

The ‘ragged’ relationship between East and West Malaysia is often articulated in daily conversation with them. Malay ethnic is portrait as ‘different’ since they are historically control the rest of Malaysia ‘from a far’. Malay ethnic is also self-evidently Muslim which does not fit with present-day Sarawak and Sabah realities. The Ambalat incident is not significant enough to boost the national sentiments for Sabahans and Sarawakians to go against Indonesian protesting who were broadcasted in national television.

A sense of belonging to Indonesia is a matter of horizontal comradeship which works beyond politics and ethnicity. We often heard that Sarawakian Kenyah are familiar to the illegal migrants from Bugis, Jawa, Tator (Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi) and Sambas (Indonesian) which regularly ask for protection each time they are raided by Malaysian immigration police. Again this is identity that matters. But how this operates? On the journey to upriver Baram to find Indonesian irregular migrants, we settled at Long Mekaba village, one of the most remote Kenyah settlements in Sarawak. This is an entry point to Jerenai (Camp E) logging camp where many undocumented Indonesian working as timber worker, found on the bank of Silat’s river. Many of Kenyah elder in Long Mekaba originally came from Long Nawang (Indonesia) and they are helpful for illegal workers (including ‘non-Dayak’) from Indonesia. Tracing back to their oral histories, evidently migration plays a significant part in their historical identities. Long Mekaba has long historical and cultural relationship with Long Nawang (Apo Kayan region in East Kalimantan, Indonesia) and both shared common geographical origin that is Usun Apau area, now is part of Sarawak, Malaysia . At the early of 19th century, they originally lived there as single community until they moved and split into two directions. One migrated to Apo Kayan basin at East Kalimantan and became the origin of Long Nawang, the other moved to upriver Baram river at Sarawak and founded Long Mekaba. The reason beyond migration and splitting was mainly caused by avoiding conflict between Kenyah and Iban .

Borneo was once a fluid space even when Dutch and British government agreed to mark the land which at present becomes international border between Malaysia and Indonesia. Long journeys to Sarawak, Brunei, and Dutch Borneo (Kalimantan) back forth are carried out by Iban and Dayak as part of their rites of passage and economic activities to seek either social or economic advantages. For Kenyah, peselai is performed by males as they followed their destiny. Literally means ‘to walk’, peselai metaphorically can be seen as ‘opening the door’ which take months and years of voyage of experience in achieving identity. Crossing over borders, cruising numerous rivers, living in the camps, facing different cultures, upholding allies and confronting enemies, continuous living and get killed were matter of fates. However once the door was open the horizon gets wider. Kenyah in Sarawak was historically maintained relationship with official government and developed mutual relationship as trader and this experience provide much chance to learn about outside world. The historical transition from colonial era to a new nation state however had a greater impact. This is the first event when nation-state as a political community ruled by the state was imposed to them. International border became a recent reality and experience and it promoted the ‘the much larger community’ which extend their understanding of geographical space, ethnic composition, and of course, identity formation. Many of elder Kenyah were recruited to join the Indonesian army during Confrontation Era (1963-1965).

Our informants G:

I was at Indonesian’s side back to 1963 because I was born in Nawang Baru, Indonesia and I was recruited as sukarelawan (volunteer) to defend Long Jawe from the enemy as commanded by Jauhari and President Sukarno. Those who joined the army, probably 4,500 of Kenyahs had no rifle. We were so proud and I still could remember the song: “Pasukan TNKU (Tentara Nasional Kalimantan Utara) samber nyawa, sampai Sabah-Sarawak telah bersatu, pasukan TNKU samber nyawa” [roughly translated: National Army of North Kalimantan will sudden takes one’s life up to Sabah-Sarawak unite].

Interested to hear how informant bluntly saying that he, by today Indonesian standard, was politically stigmatized as a communist supporter: “I was a PKI because I helped, or get involved with Sukarno and Jauhari [probably Syekh Azhari] from Brunei and 4,500 fellow Kenyah recruitments.” But put his confession on early 60s context, communist or not, that statement points to his thick sentiment towards Indonesia as he vaguely remember the lines joyful and pride:

“…Negara Indonesia berjaya, bersatu pertahankan Indonesia melambangkan Negara (sic!)…Kami dari Indonesia, bukan Indonesia punya tentara, tapi TNKU…” [ great Indonesia, be united and defend your state.]

His destiny to become Malaysian Kenyah somehow scares him to think back that he was-by historical accident-positioned as Indonesian enemy. But his 1970s ‘ peselai from Long Nawang (Indonesia) to Long Mekaba (Sarawak, Malaysia) created his new shelter which serving as a place of safety if not a sanctuary. His deep horizontal comradeship with fellow Indonesian is proven by his service and treatment to every illegal worker from Indonesia (mostly Javanese, Tator, and Bugis). Common troubles for Indon workers are difficulties to get insurance, pay the doctors, outdated documents and paperless. Nationality (or should we say nationhood) takes form as emotional sentiments rather than officially inscribed on papers. Here the ‘nationhood’ is not only defined by formal status and citizenship (suchlike every Malaysian is Malaysian passport holding) and a sense of common historical and geographical origin (Indonesian Kenyah and Sarawakian Kenyah), but also encompassed by the imposition of national identity through historic moments. This explains why as remotest villager in Sarawak with limited access to Indonesia can be so familiar and helpful to their new friends: Indonesian illegal workers.

The connection to Indonesia is also maintained through language which shares a similar dialect and vocabularies with present-day Indonesian language . While the way of using Malay language in peninsula has been continually changing and becoming different from Indonesian Malay (Bahasa Indonesia) today, Long Mekaba people speaks entirely the same as Indonesian. This is obviously noticeable by me, as native Indonesian speaker who surely would find Malay peninsular way of speaking as simply hard to be understood. The S.I.B. protestant church in Long Mekaba uses “a very Indonesian” in both grammar and vocabularies since they use the same translated bible.

Specific Notes on Sabah Case
In the context of Sabah, the official ‘Malay-ization’ of migrant workers defies the commonly practiced ‘foreign-ization’ of migrants in other parts of Malaysia or other recipient countries of foreign labour. The presence of Bugis migrants presents a unique and rare situation where migrants play a vital part in to consolidate the national identity. As mentioned before, this is partly caused by their adherence to Islam as the religion of the Malay majority represented by UMNO which for a long-time has dominated Malaysian national politics notably in West Malaysia or ‘peninsular Malaysia’. In contrast, East Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah located in Borneo) provides a more fluid picture. The relationship between the migrant and native populations is more liquid, and the distinctions among them often blurred because of geographical nearness, common historic experiences, and ethnic compositions. According Pelras (1996: 319-320), the rational motive behind the Bugis migration cannot be understood through a simply economic ‘push and pulling’ factors. The resolution of personal conflicts, political insecurity or the wish to escape either unsatisfactory social conditions or undesirable repercussions of an act of violence committed at home were playing a major causal for migration. This is however related to Bugis ‘cultural values’ locally called as siri, equally means to ‘dignity’ for male and his family as a matter of life and death. One is socially obliged to defend his self and family’ siri especially in case of land, women and local struggling for political achievement which lose or win are part of the social risk. Loss sometimes can only be redress by moving away to different place for years. Migration then can be seen as permanently moving away and developing new strategies of living at the new homelands. Generally Bugis migrants will choose a new homeland by four characteristics: low dense population, located at coastal area to make them easier to “domineers” the coastal line, wet or swamp area so it possible for rice cultivation, and has easy access to seaports. These abovementioned criterions signify the basic character of trader as expansive trader (Pelras, 1996, Acciaioli, 1998). But also, Bugis migrants are well-known as adaptive Muslim hard workers who share the Malay culture. Sabah has been seen as the new land of opportunities for Bugis long before the creation of Malaysia in 1963. It was stated on a book published by PERKISA (Indonesian Bugis organization in Sabah), that according to Islamic values of Khafillah, means ‘leader’, it is an obligatory for Bugis to go on journey and opening new lands as it is inscribed in Al-Qur’an that every Muslim should be a leader on Earth (Perkisa, 1995: ? )
The demographic composition in Sabah has to be explained by focusing on the dynamics of transnational migration between neighbouring countries since the British colonization era. If we look back to Sabah political economic history, the large wave of migration from Indonesia marked the colour of this state’s history. During the early development of Sabah under the British North Borneo Company (BNBC), most of the Javanese were forcefully recruited and placed to open the land and work in the rubber plantations as well as constructions (Kaur, 2004: 89). Nowadays, we can still find communities in Sabah who apparently Javanese descendants in some part of Sabah.

The mass recruitment of Javanese labour migrant into Sabah by the company was on the year of 1907. Although according to 1891 population census in Sabah, there were already 962 Javanese people living in Sabah. Between 1907 until 1931 (when the recruitment process were stopped) the total population of the Javanese in Sabah was around 10.000 worker, which account 42 percent of total 33,4 percent population of migrant worker that had been employed in the plantation sector (Haba et. al, 2002: 30). The migrant worker that had not gone back to their ‘homeland’ after finishing the 3 years contracts stay would automatically be a Sabahan.

After the World War II, between 1950s, Sabah again becomes the destination of migrant worker to get a better life. Indonesian migrant worker (mostly Bugis), Javanese and Timorese again entering Sabah using the traditional sea route via the harbour city of Tawau. What makes this era different from the previous era is most of the migrant worker went Sabah on their own initiative to see Sabah as a land of opportunities. Most of them work in the logging and plantation sectors. Most of this migrant succeeded in gaining their Malaysian citizenship (Haba, 2002). This then made Sabah to be called the land of migrant workers, where identity and citizenship as only a matter to gain a better life. Although they were historically came to Malaysia peninsula and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the largest wave of migration happened during the 1970s when the Malaysian government supporting the migrant worker from around the region (mostly from Indonesia, specifically Bugis) to be the backbone of early development in Sabah. At that time many Malaysian peninsular workers (Malay people) who were firstly recruited to work in Sabah as rubber planter and plantation worker refused to continue their job due to harsh environment of Sabah. Government had no choice except to open new recruitment to neighbouring country, anybody who fit the character of Malay people (Ongkili, 1972). The plausible preference is Bugis and Javanese who are Muslim and compatible with Malaysian politics to create Muslim “buffer state” at the final frontier of its Malay Kingdom.

This policy of ‘importing’ a migrant worker into Sabah from the neighbouring country was more stressed during the early rise of Mahathir as Prime Minister. In Mahathir plan, Sabah will support the Malaysian industrialization plan by providing their raw material to the peninsular. To do so, realizing the shortage of labour in Sabah, importation of ‘low class migrant’ is the short cut. This large wave of migration is also used by the Malaysian government to add their Malay constituency in Sabah, by giving an easy process of becoming a Malaysian citizenship for the migrant communities. According to the early research, based on the population census in Sabah in the early 1990s, one third of Sabah’s population is based on migrant workers (Uesugi, 1998 cf Haba, 2002).
What matters today is the changing context of Malaysian political view on migrant policies. Migrants are seen as problematic due to the increasing criminal rate. Malaysian (mostly peninsular) media point their finger at Indonesian migrants and labelling them as “indon” worker, a disturbing predicate for every Indonesian live in their homeland. However, in Sabah and Sarawak, on the local level, the term “indon” does not degrading Indonesian migrant’s dignity as for them “indon” is commonly used as shortcuts for Indonesian people (orang Indonesia). Interesting to see how Kadazan people who claiming themselves as the native people of Sabah portrays Indonesian migrant as their good partner since they work harder than any Malay from peninsula. As stated by my informant ( I):
If I am being asked about my impression towards orang Indon, I would say that they speak better (halus) than Kadazan or Sabahan. Indon speaks so polite and poetic, not like us. Often we use the term “Kau” while Indon prefer “kamu”. Also Indon works harder than peninsular Malay who only works for money. We have three cooks here from Java and as you see they are good at cooking.

This is also true for Muslim Kadazan (or Dusun people) who still refuse to be called Malay, feel their existence as “The Other” of Malay peninsular and disagree with repatriation policy for illegal Indonesian migrants since they knew the first developer of Sabah was Indonesian who had been working very hard over generations.
Finally, the most puzzling question is to define Malay identity itself which is ambivalent. On the one hand, the Malay identity purely refers to Islam since all of Malay people embrace Islam. In speaking of the meaning of Malay, a Muslim Kadazan once said:
If I am being asked Am I Malay? My response will be like this: You cannot Malay-nised (Memelayukan) me only because we speak the same Malay and we both Muslim. For me, there is nothing important in Malay culture and I always have no interest in their culture. I am a Kadazan and I am worried that soon Kadazan children speak the language through dictionary. I want the children to be modern and scientific, but they must not forget where they come from.
This is the dominant discourse of politics-religion on the eyes of Peninsular Malay. On the other hand, in Sabah, especially for Kadazan Muslim (Dusun), their being-ness as Muslim does not correspond with their “Malay-ness” since for Kadazan Muslim, Malay also refers to an orthodoxy and aristocracy, a ruler capacity which they do not have . Consequently, instead of being “othered” they prefer to exclude Malay category as the Other for them. Malay is just an outsider Muslim who ideally lives in peninsula. However, further investigation indicates that their identification with Malay is inevitably or even ambiguous. If they are being asked about the history of Sabah and its people, they can only explain it through peninsular perspective of becoming Malaysian, which is very Malay and parallel with Mahathir concept of “ideal Malay” and Malay nationalism. My informant explained:
Have you ever heard Hang Tuah? He was our famous hero, once he sworn that no Malay ever perish from this earth. He was true, we should not be perished and let ourselves drifted away, becoming a too western minded. That I would call as charismatic spirit, a sort of identity… we should not talk about this, but Sabahan had been living in a very difficult way for 15 years when PBS ruled, because [lowering his voice] there were no development until UMNO came here.
The presence of Malay-based peninsular party (UMNO) since 1994 signifies the continuing effort of Kuala Lumpur to embrace the non-Malay bumiputera as as new political partner. However, for Muslim Kadazan, being a Malaysian does not automatically fit them as the member of Malay culture and politics . If we imagine that identity is constructed in sediment layers, it seems that the essence of Malay-ness lies on wobble ground and make them ceaselessly inconsistent. It negates as well embraces, reformulates in their narrative articulations. Example, The peninsular project of endorsing national sentiments slowly penetrates and be accepted hegemonically as illustrates here when he was asked about Ambalat case: “we have border, but I know that oil does not spread along the tiny lines, so why Indonesia has to drill in our territory?” Hegemony works through media, of course, interesting to see how informant represents Malaysian phobia towards political freedom in Indonesia: “…I can not understand your people, who speaks so poetic, can be so barbaric, why you forced Bapak Suharto down and treat him with no respect?..”
Or, when he was asked about illegal migrants from Indonesia:
I think we don’t want to throw out people (kami tidak buang orang), as long as Indon has a legal documents, they are welcome to work here, we never shutdown the gate. [But] Don’t use our backdoor, and I think it is also same in your country [Indonesia] that you don’t accept people without papers. Sorry, I don’t mean to be harsh but I feel like there is not much air to breathe here.
For Bugis migrant however we captured inconsistency in their narrative expression in referring their identity as “ideal Malay”, Sabahan, Malaysian, and Indonesian. It portrays a multilayered identities or intersection between many realms, let say ethnicity, nationality, and citizenship as part of their identity formation. On the one hand, in relating to the concept of “Ideal Malay” they wholeheartedly embrace it as it has been historically proved that their migration history is written by golden ink due the relation with Bugis aristocracy (Pelras, 1996) in peninsular which make them feel secure as part of Malay who has the same right in claiming Malaysia as their homeland as their fellow indigenous race, namely Kadazan. D who left Indonesia in 1980 illustrates his hesitation as he told me his view as Malaysian Bugis:
Bugis is Malay, as for me, I feel belong to this soil, no matter where I step in this land, this is my country. But, I still do not understand why the government let Indian and Chinese to be their cabinet member. To this point, I feel that Indonesia is more Malay than Malaysia.. I am worried.

Or M (60 years old), migrated to Sabah in 1971:

Bugis is not foreigner here in Malaysia, because there are three provinces who have Bugis origin Kings [Sultans] in Johor, Selangor, and Trengganu. They still speak Bugis for daily conversations…. But look, since three years ago, the number of Bugis everywhere in Sabah has become lesser, because Malaysian government now so fuss about us “

On the other hand, when it comes to present realities of how they maintain their cultural ties with ‘authentic’ homeland (Indonesia), “becoming part of the Malay world” is not sufficient enough due to Malaysian immigrant policies which become stricter to Indonesian migrants in the last ten year. Even successful Bugis who already has citizenship feel psychologically marginalized. Insecurity is expressed through their narrative which often vague and inconsistent. Indonesia is portrayed as better, civilized and tolerant but very weak in diplomacy. Malaysia in contrast is too strict, too discipline but a good place for seeking fortune. To conclude, Indonesian identity is inscribed deeply rooted in their blood and Malaysian identity is a matter of high achievement. They cannot be a ‘true’ Malaysian using their citizenship, and bitterly speaking their “ideal Malay” is ironically illusive. Ambivalence is part of their formation of identity.

Closing Remark
The formation of cultural identity is actively constructed through its relation to the Other and act of mobility. For Eastern Malaysian Malay identity is not exactly appears as point of reference. For Dayak (either Iban or Kenyah) what can be taken as source of identity construction is merely language and common historical experience of Konfrontasi. Islamic attributes which is culturally integrated in Malay culture do not fit with their realities. As a Malaysian citizen they prefer to maintain close cultural proximity with their Indonesian counterparts (most of them still practicing cross-border journey as significant cultural value). International border cannot be seen as a thin red line which divides but rather an open space, a specific zone which simultaneously affects migrant’s configuration of identity since the ties between culture and space are put into question. Anthropologically, the sense of location, place and belonging of migrants are always in the process of reconceptualization following their recurrent mobility.

The changing power affects the meaning of becoming Malay. It is proven that a set of relations of power constellations as the points of identification appears as fluid, unstable and constantly change in accordance with the relationship of centre and periphery. As Malaysian, Kadazan and Bugis ambiguously define themselves as a part of Malay culture. Although Bugis and some of Kadazan are Muslim, they are unsure about their sense of belonging to Malay realm. As the immigration policy becomes stricter for Bugis people, they feel ‘politically’ marginalized. For Kadazan who historically owns Sabah, they slowly embrace the Malay culture specifically in terms of becoming a modern and scientific Malaysian. But if they asked to put themselves in Malay historical narrative (such as Hang Tuah), inconsistencies occurs since they wholeheartedly endorse the Malay charismatic figure, but reluctant to be called Malay. This might be related to the semenanjung politics which positions Sabah as the Malay bumper in “non-Malay Borneo” where language teaching has been used as power agency for Malay-nization. The Kadazan Dusun language (then Kadazan) ceased to be taught in schools, to favour the adoption of Malay, or Bahasa Malaysia. The Kadazan Dusun had effectively become a rather powerless group in the state, lacking leaders and organization

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