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Positioning of Murut and Bajau identities in state forest reserves and marine parks in Sabah, East Malaysia

  • Fadzilah Majid Cooke and Sofia Johari

This article, which looks at Indigenous communities in the multiethnic, multicultural region of Sabah, East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, argues that indigeneity is not primordial, but exists in relation to dominant identities as well as other non-dominant, Indigenous groups. Moreover, Indigenous Peoples are not passive recipients of colonial or even postcolonial Othering: their identity is contextualised and contested within majority–minority relations. The article begins with a brief history of the dominant Kadazandusun nationalism in Sabah, in the context of the overarching Bumiputra policy of Malaysia, which privileges constructed Malayness, as background to the discourses and practices of smaller groups of land-based Murut and the sea-oriented ‘Bajau’, where identity switching is taking place in tandem with environmental justice claims. The land-based communities (Murut) have found leverage in making identity and livelihood claims attached to place (here, state-declared forest reserves that seek to exclude them) in line with the recent global environmental justice focus on participatory conservation rather than the older ‘fortress conservation’ model still dominant in state conservation thinking. However, the sea-oriented peoples (Bajau) require other social symbols than land for making their identity claims, in this instance, via claims to ‘modern’ livelihoods and as managers of marine resources with reference to the newly established Tun Mustapha Park. In Sabah, participatory conservation is being reappropriated by Indigenous Peoples to assert claims about place and /or livelihoods; if bureaucratised, however, this form of conservation might turn out to be less than participatory.

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1 Baharuddin, Shamsul Amri, ‘Bureaucratic management of identity in a modern state: “Malayness” in postwar Malaysia’, in Making majorities: Constituting the nation in Japan, Korea, China, Malaysia, Fiji, Turkey and the United States, ed. Gladney, Dru C. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), pp. 135–50; Anthony Milner, ‘Ideological work in constructing the Malay majority’, in ibid., pp. 151–69; Ahmad, Zakaria Hj and Kadir, Suzaina, ‘Ethnic conflict, prevention and management: The Malaysian case’, in Ethnic conflicts in Southeast Asia, ed. Snitwongse, Kusuma and Scott, W. Thompson (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005), pp. 4264.

2 Couillard, Marie-Andrée, ‘The Malays and the “Sakai”: Some comments on their social relations in the Malay Peninsula’, Kajian Malaysia 2, 1 (1984): 8194.

3 Sather, Clifford, ‘Keeping the peace in an island world of violence: Sama Dilaut ways of managing conflict’, in Leadership, justice and politics at the grassroots, ed. Walker, Anthony R. (Colombus: Dept. of Anthropology, Ohio State University, 2004), pp. 127–58; Couillard, ‘The Malays and the “Sakai”’, p. 82; Nah, Alice M., ‘(Re)mapping Indigenous “race”/place in post-colonial peninsular Malaysia’, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 88, 3 (2006): 285–97.

4 Baird, Ian G., ‘Should ethnic Lao people be considered indigenous to Cambodia? Ethnicity, classification and the politics of indigeneity’, Asian Ethnicity 17, 4 (2016): 121.

5 Benjamin, Geoffrey, ‘On being tribal in the Malay world’, in Tribal communities in the Malay world, ed. Benjamin, Geoffrey and Chou, Cynthia (Leiden: IIAS; Singapore: ISEAS, 2003), pp. 776.

6 Li, Tania Murray, ‘Masyarakat adat, difference, and the limits of recognition in Indonesia's forest zone’, Modern Asian Studies 35, 3 (2001): 645–76.

7 Li, ‘Masyarakat adat, difference’, p. 667.

8 Dove, Michael, ‘Indigenous People and environmental politics’, Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (2006): 191208.

9 Baird, ‘Should ethnic Lao people be considered indigenous to Cambodia?’, p. 15.

10 Cooke, Fadzilah Majid, ‘Constructing rights: Indigenous Peoples at the public hearings of the national inquiry into customary rights to land in Sabah, Malaysia’, Sojourn 28, 3 (2013): 240–63.

11 Cooke, Fadzilah Majid, The challenge of sustainable forests: Forest resource policy in Malaysia 1970 to 1995 (St. Leonards: Asian Studies Association of Australia; Allen & Unwin, 1998); Doolittle, Amity, ‘Native land tenure, conservation and development in a pseudo-democracy’, Journal of Peasant Studies 34, 3 (2007): 474–97; See also Noah Theriault, ‘Unravelling the strings attached: Philippine indigeneity in law and practice’, this vol.

12 For discussions on the fluidity of ‘Malayness’ see Andaya, Leonard, Leaves of the same tree: Trade and ethnicity in the Straits of Melaka (Singapore: NUS Press, 2010). By contrast, the difficulties resulting from the bureaucratisation of ‘Malayness’ have been felt by primarily multicultural societies such as those found in the Riau Islands of Indonesia. See Long, Nicholas J., Being Malay in Indonesia: Histories, hopes and citizenship in the Riau Archipelago (Singapore: ASAA; NUS Press, 2013).

13 See further Ferguson, James, The anti-politics machine: “Development”, depoliticization and bureaucratic power in Lesotho (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

14 Schlosberg, David, ‘Theorising environmental justice: The expanding sphere of a discourse’, Environmental Politics 22, 1 (2013): 3755.

15 For discussions of the productive power of national and Sarawak-based NGOs, respectively, see Cooke, Fadzilah Majid and Adnan, Hezri, ‘Malaysia: Structure and agency of the environmental movement’, in The Routledge Handbook of the environment in Southeast Asia, ed. Hirsch, Philip (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 399414; and Cooke, Fadzilah Majid, ‘NGOs in Sarawak’, in Social movements in Malaysia: From moral communities to NGOs, ed. Weiss, Meredith and Hassan, Saliha (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), pp. 1744.

16 Cooke and Adnan, ‘Malaysia’; also Cooke, ‘Constructing rights’.

17 See Grumbine, Edward, ‘What is ecosystem management?’, Conservation Biology 8, 1 (1994): 2738.

18 Baird, ‘Should ethnic Lao people be considered indigenous to Cambodia?’.

19 Fadzilah Majid Cooke and Toh Su Mei, ‘Indigenous Peoples and access to customary lands: A question of rights in contemporary Sabah’, Report submitted in November 2012 to the National Commission for Human Rights of Malaysia (SUHAKAM). Research was funded by SUHAKAM under its National Inquiry into the Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples of Malaysia.

20 For enabling the continued monitoring of active Indigenous agency in the Tun Mustapha Park, we are grateful for the University-wide research grant from the Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia on ecological aquaculture, the socioeconomic component (NRGS 0007), which was led by the first author from 2013–16; see Johari, Sofia and Cooke, Fadzilah Majid, ‘Community participation in the planning stage of the Tun Mustapha Park Establishment’, in Aquaculture production in northern and eastern Sabah: Implications for society, culture and ecology, ed. Cooke, Fadzilah Majid, Salleh, Ejria and Ann, Lee Hock (Kota Kinabalu: Universiti Malaysia Sabah, 2017), pp. 85106.

21 We thank Universiti Malaysia Sabah for a Universiti small grant awarded in 2011, that enabled these interviews to be undertaken, some of the findings of which have been included in Cooke and Adnan, ‘Malaysia’.

22 Schlosberg, ‘Theorising environmental justice’, p. 39. Using the concept of praxis, Schlosberg insists that environmental justice should take account of issues on the ground in order to advance beyond the injustice of environmental racism against people of colour where theorising began. In developing countries, critique by Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martinez Alier has prompted a broadening of the lens of injustice to include Third World landscapes, and the globalisation of poverty. See Guha, Ramachandra and Martinez-Alier, Joan, Varieties of environmentalism: Essays North and South (London: Earthscan, 1997).

23 Schlosberg, ‘Theorising environmental justice’, p. 47.

24 Hall, Derek, Hirsch, Philip and Li, Tania Murray, Powers of exclusion: Land dilemmas in Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011), p. 171.

25 Chiro, Giovanna Di, ‘Beyond ecoliberal “commons futures”: Environmental justice, toxic touring, and a transcommunal politics of place’, in Race, nature and the politics of difference, ed. Moore, Donald, Kosek, Jake and Pandian, Anand (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), pp. 205–32.

26 Sharom, Azmi, ‘A critical study of the laws relating to the Indigenous Peoples of Malaysia in the context of Article 8 (j) of the Biodiversity Convention’, International Journal on Minority and Group Rights 13 (2006): 5367.

27 Kitingan, Jacqueline Pugh, ‘Book review. Fausto Barlocco, Identity and state in Malaysia’, Borneo Research Bulletin 46 (2015): 336–7.

28 Fieldwork observation, Pulau Banggi, Kudat district, Sept. 2006 and Oct. 2007; also see Kazufumi Nagatsu, ‘Pirates, sea nomads or protectors of Islam? A note on “Bajau” identifications in the Malaysian context’ (Kyoto: Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University, 2001), p. 223.

29 Joeyimin Min, ‘Local entitlements and commercial shrimp farming in Sabah’, in Cooke et al., Aquaculture production in northern and eastern Sabah, pp. 123–40.

30 Barlocco, Fausto, ‘Media, state and bangsa: A brief history of the creation of ethnic and national identities in Sabah (1953–2007)’, Sabah Society Journal 24 (2007): 3762; Barlocco, Fausto, Identity and state in Sabah (London: Routledge, 2014).

31 Fausto Barlocco, ‘Media, state and bangsa’, p. 41.

32 Interview, a Lower Kinabatangan villager, June 2006.

33 Interview, a Lower Kinabatangan villager, Dec. 2006.

34 Barlocco, ‘Consuming ethnic identities’, p. 478.

35 Reid, Anthony, ‘Endangered identity: Kadazan or Dusun in Sabah (East Malaysia)’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 28, 1 (1997): 120–36.

36 Ibid., p. 127.

37 Barlocco, ‘Media, state and bangsa’, p. 48.

38 Free Malaysia Today, ‘Muslims in Sabah not same as in Malaya’, 12 Mar. 2014. The reference to peninsular Malaysia as ‘Malaya’ can be derogatory in some circles, especially when it is used as a short form to represent the arrogance, insensitivity and pushiness they think is common among Peninsular Malays. See also Barlocco, Fausto, ‘The village as a community of practice: The constitution of village belonging through leisure sociality’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 166, 4 (2010): 404–25;

39 Interview, Kota Kinabalu, Aug. 2017.

40 Malaysian Insight, ‘Sabah leaders insist on local leading UMS’, 1 June 2017, (accessed 25 Sept. 2017); Borneo Post, ‘D. Kamarudin's appointment as UMS vice-chancellor proves Sabahans are recognised — Musa’, ums-vice-chancellor- proves-sabahans-are- recognised-musa/ (accessed 25 Sept. 2017).

41 A.B., Shamsul, ‘The economic dimension of Malay nationalism: The socio-historical roots of the New Economic Policy and its contemporary implications’, The Developing Economies 35, 3 (1997): 240–61; Watson, C.W., ‘The construction of the post-colonial subject in Malaysia’, in Asian forms of the nation, ed. Tønnesson, Stein and Antlöv, Hans (Richmond: Curzon, 1996), pp. 297322; Milner, ‘Ideological work in constructing the Malay majority’.

42 See the articles in the special issue of Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 32, 3 (2001), especially James T. Collins, ‘Contesting Straits Malayness: The fact of Borneo’: 385–96; and Jan van der Putten, ‘A Malay of Bugis ancestry: Haji Ibrahim's strategies of survival’: 343–54. Also see Milner, ‘Ideological work in constructing the Malay majority’; and Long, Being Malay in Indonesia, pp. 5–15.

43 Abaza, Mona, ‘Intellectuals, power and Islam in Malaysia: S.N. al-Attas or the beacon on the crest of a hill’, Archipel 58, 3 (1999): 192, 196; Shamsul A.B.,‘Bureaucratic management of identity’, p. 146.

44 Abaza, ‘Intellectuals, power and Islam’, p. 195.

45 Nicholas, Colin, The Orang Asli and the contest for resources: Indigenous politics, development, and identity in Peninsular Malaysia (Copenhagen: IWGIA; Subang Jaya: Center for Orang Asli Concerns, 2000).

46 Fieldwork notes, Kota Kinabalu, Dec. 2012. Similarly, Hiroyuki Yamamoto has commented on Islamic leadership in Sabah which preferred a Muslim who had well-established links to Peninsular Malaysia over a Muslim from east coast Sabah as recently as 1960. See Hiroyuki Yamamoto, ‘Malay periodicals in North Borneo as the ideological background to the emergence of Bajau identity’, paper presented at the International conference on Bajau/Sama communities, 21–23 July 2004, Kota Kinabalu, pp. 1–16.

47 Mohammad, Mahathir, The Malay dilemma (Singapore: Donald Moore, 1970).

48 For a subaltern account of Murut resistance see Fernandez, Callistus, ‘Rewriting Murut history of resistance in British North Borneo 1881–1915’, Akademika 54 (1999): 81103.

49 Reid, ‘Endangered identity’, p. 121.

50 Williams, Thomas Rhys, ‘The form of a Borneo nativistic behaviour’, American Anthropologist 65 (1963): 543–51.

51 Cooke and Toh, ‘Indigenous Peoples and access to customary lands’, pp. 111–27.

52 Doolittle, Amity, ‘Powerful persuasions: The language of property and politics in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo)’, Modern Asian Studies 38, 4 (2004): 821–50; Cooke, The challenge of sustainable forests.

53 Cooke and Toh, ‘Indigenous Peoples and access to customary lands’,

54 Cooke and Adnan, ‘Malaysia’.

55 Village interview, Kuala Tomani Forest Reserve, Nov. 2011.

56 Interview, Aloysius, village within the Kuala Tomani Forest Reserve, Nov. 2011. All names are pseudonyms as per anthropological ethics.

57 For more detail on the use of mapping technology in court cases by Indigenous peoples in land disputes against the state and private corporations, see Cooke, Fadzilah Majid, ‘Maps and countermaps: Globalised imaginings and localised realities of Sarawak's plantation agriculture’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34, 2 (2003): 265–84.

58 Six farmers from Imahit were convicted on 12 Nov. 2010 by the Magistrate's Court in Tenom for ‘illegally’ entering and cultivating in the Kuala Tomani Forest Reserve. The magistrate ruled that a native had no customary right to land gazetted as forest reserve, which is also the Sabah Forestry Department's public stance. The farmers appealed, and the High Court judge David Wong, on 4 Mar. 2011, overturned the Magistrate's ruling, questioning the Magistrate for not addressing whether the farmers could have authority to have rights on the land by virtue of their native customary rights, and for failing to determine whether they possessed any such rights on the land. The High Court allowed the appeal based on evidence of NCR, i.e. burial grounds that existed before the gazetting of the Kuala Tomani Forest Reserve in 1984, and of trees and crops cultivated by the farmers’ ancestors, which the farmers’ are continuing to cultivate, showing that there had been continued use and occupation of the land pioneered by their ancestors. This High Court decision argues that gazetting of a forest reserve does not extinguish existing native customary rights, and that such rights can be established within forest reserves. See Cooke and Toh, ‘Indigenous Peoples and access to customary lands’. Upon appeal filed by the SFD, the High Court decision was overturned in 2013.

59 See Aiken, Robert and Leigh, Colin, ‘Seeking redress in the courts: Indigenous land rights and judicial decisions in Malaysia’, Modern Asian Studies 45, 4 (2011): 825–7.

60 Azmi Sharom, ‘Case study of the laws relating to Indigenous Peoples’, p. 56.

61 Cooke, Fadzilah Majid, Adnan, Hezri, Azmi, Reza, Mukit, Ryan, Jensen, Paul and Deutz, Pauline, ‘Oil palm cultivation as a development vehicle: Exploring the trade-offs for smallholders in East Malaysia’, in Routledge Handbook of Southeast Asian development, ed. McGregor, Andrew, Law, Lisa and Miller, Fiona (London: Routledge, 2017); interviews, Wild Asia, Kota Kinabalu, Nov. 2015.

62 Cooke and Toh, ‘Indigenous Peoples and access to customary lands’.

63 Aiken and Leigh, ‘Seeking redress in the courts’, pp. 825–7.

64 Cooke, Fadzilah Majid, ed., Living at the top end: Communities and natural resource use in the Kudat Banggi region of North Sabah, WWF Malaysia Project Report MYS 486/03 (Kota Kinabalu: WWF Malaysia, 2003).

65 Nagatsu, ‘Pirates, sea nomads or protectors of Islam?’.

66 Yamamoto, ‘Malay periodicals in North Borneo’.

67 Nagatsu, ‘Pirates, sea nomads or protectors of Islam?’.

68 Ibid., p. 222.

69 Field notes, Pulau Malawali in the Bangi island chain in northern Sabah, Feb. 2003.

70 Interview, Mapan fisherman, 17 Dec. 2016.

71 Pers. comm., former WWF-Malaysia staff, 2016.

72 Ibid.

73 Agrawal, Arun and Gibson, Clark, ‘Enchantment and disenchantment: The role of community and natural resource conservation’, World Development 27, 4 (1999): 629–49.

74 Interview, Jamili, fisherman at Berungus, 10 Aug. 2012.

75 Marschke, Melissa, Szabowski, David and Vandergeest, Peter, ‘Engaging indigeneity in development policy’, Development Policy Review 26, 4 (2008): 483500.

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