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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Sabahans and Sarawakians renegotiating identities


COMMENT There existed a time before race selection in government forms defined who we were ethnically. The Chinese for example, have different dialect groups; among the larger ones are Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew.
In earlier versions of the five-year Malaysia Plans, these sub-groups were individually specified - different from today’s aggregate Chinese category. Such tabulation was done before the 1970s, before the fateful May 13, 1969 riots acted as a precursor to the New Economic Policy. The policy’s objective of restructuring society necessitated clearer delineation of each race, which eventually promoted the emergence of a new racial identity - the bumiputeras.
By definition, the bumiputeras, which means ‘sons of the soil’, constituted the Malays and the indigenous people of Malaysia. However, the identity of bumiputeras were associated with being a Malay-Muslim - at least in peninsular Malaysia.
In East Malaysia, however, the indigenous bumiputeras are the majority. Fifty-six percent of people belong to indigenous groups in Sabah, while Sarawak has 50 percent. Many indigenous groups in East Malaysia are Christians, such as the Ibans in Sarawak and Kadazandusun in Sabah, which distinguishes them as separate from the Malay-Muslim Bumiputera majority.
With the institutionalisation of affirmative action policies through the New Economic Policy, we would expect bumiputeras in East Malaysia to benefit, and eventually escape poverty. However, the benefits received by indigenous groups in Sabah and Sarawak are limited. This has created dissatisfaction in East Malaysia residents, who have been left out of the economic growth Malaysia has experienced in the past 50 years.
The lack of advancement politically and economically in East Malaysia has led the aforementioned ethnicities to be dissatisfied with the bumiputera classification, and seek to be known as a larger category of ‘the indigenous people of the land’. This has spurred Sabahans and Sarawakians to renegotiate their ethnic identities, as the indigenous groups seek to be identified separately from the Malay-bumiputeras in peninsular Malaysia.
To be clear, ethnic boundaries in societies have always shifted, depending on external events that motivate the shift. Malaysia has seen the gradual reduction in heterogeneity in ethnic group classification since its early maritime trading days. The Arabs, Buginese, Javanese have been absorbed into the Malay race; the Thais and Eurasians have been absorbed into the ‘Others’ category.
Furthermore, the conflation of race (phenotype), ethnicity (association with a culture), religion (in this case, Islam) with the bumiputera term and its links with Umno’s political dominance has led to some non-Malays and non-indigenous people to be classified as bumiputera and receive state benefits.
As peninsular Malaysia advances its bumiputera agenda with people receiving benefits, Sabah and Sarawak’s indigenous group felt that they were sidelined from economic advancement and political power in Malaysia, further fuelling dissatisfaction among them.
Indigenous groups standing up for themselves
Given the complications of the bumiputera term, Sabah and Sarawak indigenous groups are standing up for themselves. However, the process of renegotiating identities is never simple. Historically in Sabah, the Kadazan and Dusun people merged the ethnic groups to be identified as Kadazandusun in 1989, in an attempt to solve the identity conflict they had (and still have).
To add complexity to the issue, the Kadazandusun people and the Murut and Pasokmomogun ethnic groups form the United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Upko), a component party of Barisan Nasional in Sabah. The technical merging of identities helps them fight as one and allow their voices to be heard on a national level. However, the merger does not equate to unity between the ethnic groups.
The situation in Sarawak is different. Although Sarawak does not have a complex identity crisis, it has been ruled for 33 years by Abdul Taib Mahmud - an ethnic-Melanau who is known for being Umno’s close ally and for alleged corruption.
Similar to Sabah, Sarawak has not progressed economically as fast as compared to peninsular Malaysia, despite its vast timbre and oil exports. With the lack of progress in the state, civil society has united and urged Sarawak’s cessation from Malaysia.
Thus, urgings to be recognised separately from Malay bumiputeras come as no surprise. Instead of being known as ‘the people of the land’, indigenous people are cornered to identify themselves as ‘others’ in government forms, given the limited selection of ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Others’.
The long-standing urgings to be identified separately came into fruition in October 2015, as a new ‘Dayak’ category will be introduced in government forms. This was met with cheers from the Sabah and Sarawak indigenous people.
Notwithstanding the complexity of the issue, how should indigenous groups in Sabah and Sarawak move forward? I believe that they first have to be comfortable with their Kadazan, Dusun or Iban identity. The steady steps indigenous people take towards progress are more important than fighting for the rights of individual ethnic groups.
They should recognise that although differences exist in ethnic and religion among the indigenous people, they are all fighting for the same cause - to be well-represented at the state and federal level, to seek ways to bring economic progress to its people and to seek what is rightfully theirs as people of the land. These issues should be considered, in light of the impending Sarawak state elections next month.

EVELYN PEIQI OOI is a research associate at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. She researches on various aspects of the Malaysian economy. -Mkini

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