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Have the Iban of Sarawak really become Malaysian?

April 29, 2009

In a recent review* of my book Media and Nation Building: How the Iban Became Malaysian (Berghahn, 2006), the Iban studies specialist Soda Ryoji (Hokkaido University) asks whether the Iban ‘have really become Malaysian’, as I claim in the book, given that they are often regarded as second-class natives (Bumiputera), or even non-natives as they are not Muslims.

My response is as follows. In the concluding chapter I actually discuss this deep religious divide as a virtually insurmountable hurdle for those who seek to use Islam for nation building. The Iban, along with many other indigenous groups in East Malaysia, are in no hurry to embrace Islam, and 1970s attempts by the Muslim-dominated government to force people to convert to Islam were successfully resisted by the Iban and others. Mass conversion to Islam seems highly unlikely at this point in time.

That said, being predominantly Christian or Hindu or pagan does not mean that a group stands ‘outside’ the culture area in which it is embedded. My argument is that states (Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Mexico, etc.) are the prime culture areas of our time – whether or not certain segments of the population wish to secede and create their own nation-state. In their schooling, transport, fashion, language, media, cuisine, politics, worldview, etc., born and bred Sarawakians, I would argue, are unmistakably (East) Malaysian and not, say, Indonesian or Singaporean. Most Malaysians on both sides of the South China Sea are keen to stress the Eastness of this ‘East Malaysian’ formula, i.e. the distinctiveness of East Malaysians with regard to West Malaysians. Yet decades of political, economic and cultural union have brought the two halves increasingly closer, with a busy yet uneven traffic of people, artefacts, images, etc. binding them together. Even those few East Malaysians who actively resist the strong gravitational pull of Kuala Lumpur do so with Malaysian – not Indonesian – tools, i.e. with rhetorical and practical resources acquired within the Malaysian culture area, such as Malaysian English, Malaysian acronyms, Malaysian popular culture, and so on. After all, they are the products of a common cultural project launched in 1963 within an interstate world system built on the ideal of nation-statism — a system that has remained strongly averse to secessionism.

 *  Asian Journal of Social Science 37 (2009), 169-170

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