Representation, Identity and Multiculturalism in Sarawak edited by Zawawi Ibrahim
Article first published online: 9 FEB 2010
© 2010 by the American Anthropological Association
Volume 25, Issue 1, pages 169–173, February 2010
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How to Cite
GABRIEL, S. P. (2010), Representation, Identity and Multiculturalism in Sarawak edited by Zawawi Ibrahim. Cultural Anthropology, 25: 169–173. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2009.01055_2.x
- Issue published online: 9 FEB 2010
- Article first published online: 9 FEB 2010
Representation, Identity and Multiculturalism in Sarawak . ZawawiIbrahim ( ed .). Kuala Lumpur : Dayak Cultural Foundation/Persatuan Sains Sosial Malaysia , 2008 . 311 pages .
There is perhaps no other concept from the social sciences that is as equally reviled or revered as multiculturalism. When used from the perspective of the (conservative) state, the inclusive tendencies of multiculturalism are interpreted as a one-way cultural transfer, where it is minority communities that are called on and expected to assimilate into the dominant culture. Furthermore, although the media and nationalist or dominant cultural entities simplify the term “multiculturalism” to an unvarying concept, its everyday use is more multifarious.
Zawawi Ibrahim's book enters these debates by way of engaging with multiculturalism, both as discourse and practice, on two levels—one necessitating a grappling with questions of epistemology such as representation and knowledge production and the other involving the lived, concrete experiences of the people. Indeed, one of the first points that editor Zawawi makes in his introduction is that his book is concerned with deploying the tangibility of everyday experience as well as the creative imaginings of those in the nation's margins to give the lie to the essentializing state rhetoric on multiculturalism. Indeed, it is this constantly pluralizing and decentring impetus that binds together the various chapters of this book. By unfixing the hegemonic discourse of multiculturalism from the perspective of the lived realities as well as daily cultural practices and experiences of the different ethnic communities in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, the book's principal aim is to disrupt notions of fixity and homogeneity in narratives forged at the center. In so doing, Zawawi's book manifestly seeks to bring anthropological and cultural studies perspectives into closer dialogue.
In the endeavor to both foreground and celebrate Sarawak's plural realities, Zawawi has harnessed the perspectives and approaches of established as well as younger scholars, both Malaysian (many of whom themselves are from Sarawak's indigenous communities) and from abroad (the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, and Korea), in the disciplines of anthropology, political science, law, and social work. All chapters, with the exception of one, are first-time publications, bringing a fresh edge to a decade-or-two-old, nevertheless still vital and ongoing, debate.
The chapters in the book are organized around three central precepts, the first of which places under scrutiny colonial anthropological representations of Sarawak's indigenous cultures. As an anthropologist, Zawawi is aware of the privilege with which anthropology, from the moment of its inception as a discipline, has employed the concept of culture in the service of imperialist ideology. The fixing of cultures through anthropological assertions of the impermeability of the boundaries between “complex” and “native” races or cultures was what, in the colonial era, permitted (Western) anthropologists to write about “other” cultures without the others reading, writing, or talking back. The book's postcolonial critique of the anthropological concept of culture, already long familiar to a wider anthropological readership, nevertheless breaks new ground in the field of Sarawak studies.
Fittingly, then, Part 1 of the book seeks to interrogate the conceptual underpinnings of early anthropological texts on Sarawak and their knowledge production about its communities. To this end, the opening chapter by Robert Winzeler reveals not only the heterogeneity of the different selves (as ethnographer, ornithologist, conservationist, turtle scientist, curator of the Sarawak Museum) that shaped the perspectives to the Kelabit and the Malays of British anthropologist Tom Harrison, but also uncovers the fissures and contestations in early colonialist representations of Sarawak's indigenous communities. The endeavor to undermine the colonial epistemological conception of cultures as self-contained wholes is evidenced in the inclusion of the article by Pamela Lindell that interrogates interpretations of Sarawak's “authentic” Bidayuh community through the works of William Geddes, another colonial-era anthropologist. The belief that the “remoteness” of the Bidayuh community was a sign of its cultural “authenticity” has in recent years been the focus of interrogation by contemporary anthropologists who have argued that what have long been considered “traditional” or “valid” communities have at some point in their history also experienced change and mobility. The underlying premise here is that cultures, however “closed” or remote, are fundamentally in motion. In incorporating the essay by Fiona Harris, Zawawi aims to address the much-neglected area of the anthropology of gender in the field of Sarawak ethnographic studies. Casting women as primary agents of change in their communities, Harris also rejects the notion of monolithic representation by demonstrating how gender is constantly fractured by class, age, race or ethnicity, and other variables. She further reveals the strategies formulated by women to circumvent patriarchal colonialist structures as well as the patriarchy within indigenous structures to inscribe their presence into modernity.
In his reconsideration of the agency of the subject, Zawawi, in his own contribution to the volume, focuses on the deterritorialization experienced by the Penan. In showing how indigenous communities have created their own body of knowledge and discourse on development, he appeals to a form of “decolonizing” anthropology that will accommodate not only the deterritorialized but also reterritorialized cultural realities of Penan modernity.
If Zawawi opens the book by unsettling the ideological bases of colonial representations and dismantling conventional assumptions about the homogeneity of colonialist representations, he continues this critical trajectory in the sections that follow to lead us into the belly of that beast—“multiculturalism.” It is here that we encounter what is both especially significant and innovative about this book. The book's attempts to link the anthropological conception of culture with a cultural studies’ use of culture opens up important theoretical and practical possibilities for understanding Sarawak society. In trying to create this two-way dialogue between anthropology and cultural studies, the editor and several of his contributors seek to ground the anthropological concept of culture with the idea of power and the production of meanings so as to uncover the dynamics of oppression and injustice at play in society. It is around the basic tenet of cultural studies that foregrounds marginalized sectors in society as “sites of struggle” that several of the chapters in the book's latter two sections cohere.
The chapters in Part 2—“Problematising Multiculturalism”—draw significantly on ethnographic approaches to critique some of the common assumptions made about multiculturalism in Sarawak. They show how the various groups in contemporary Sarawak resist or reappropriate dominant forms of identity and culture acting on them not only within the policies and politics of identity in Sarawak, but also within the context of the more rigid and divisive Malay–non-Malay, Muslim–non-Muslim, and Bumiputera–non-Bumiputera dichotomies that prevail in the wider Malaysian nation-state, of which Sarawak is part and to whose political, economic, and social margins it has long been relegated.
Welyne Jehom examines the role played by colonial history, via the policies put in place during the Brooke regime, in shaping ethnic relations, particularly through the Bumiputera–non-Bumiputera (in this case, Chinese) trope of contestation, in contemporary Sarawak. Voon Jan Cham extends the lens to the post-Brooke era to highlight the Chinese community's changing discourse on “homeland,” identity, and belonging. Drawing attention to another fluid yet marginal space of representation, Poline Bala examines the Kelabit place and experience in Malaysia's national narrative, arguing that the heterogeneity that characterizes this “Bumiputera-yet-non-Muslim” minority offers an important intervention in fixed notions of “nation,”“national culture,” and “national identity.” The piece by Ramy Bulan further demonstrates the adaptability inherent in this indigenous Christian community by foregrounding the elasticity of adat (customary law) in its ability to function as the basis of community identity and continuity in the face of flux and social change. Moving the focus to the public domain of identity representation through the state-endorsed “tourist” project of the Sarawak Cultural Village, Yongjin Kim shows that the “lived” experiences and practices of Sarawak's plural cultures and ethnicities can exist in tension and mediation with hegemonic interpretations of multiculturalism. The chapter by Ling How Kee appropriately brings this section to a close, by calling for a dialogic politics of the “borderland” in which indigenous–non-indigenous and Western–non-Western cultures, theories, and practices come together and interact out of a genuine respect for difference and “otherness.”
The concluding section of the book—“Identity and Ethnicity”—further accentuates the volume's cultural studies’ orientation by grounding its analyses of culture in Sarawak in specific socioeconomic, historical, and political contexts. John Postill opens this section by linking the burgeoning of Iban ethnic identification and nationalism with the emergence of media production in colonial-era Sarawak. He argues that the incorporation of Sarawak into the newly created entity of “Malaysia” in 1963 together with the advent of the new national language of Bahasa Malaysia was what worked to supplant the native Iban tongue, leading to a gradual denudation of Iban “nationalism” and its oral traditions. The piece by Clare Boulanger extends the frame of reference for the changing identities of the Iban and other Dayaks (Bidayuh, Orang Ulu, and Melanau) to the “postmodern” urban setting of Kuching, Sarawak's capital city. Boulanger focuses on the predicament of this community as it attempts to negotiate the “sins” of a “primitive” rural past with the competing demands made by urban contemporaneity. In his contribution, Kelvin Egay convincingly argues that the shifting identity of the Penan Belagan was largely predicated on their nomadic lifestyle and interactions with the Kayan. Malay ethnicity is the locus of examination of Noburu Ishikawa who uncovers the exclusions and omissions of Sarawak multiculturalism by exploring the narrative of the “othered,” non-Perabangan, community in Sarawak Malay ethnicity. In contrast to the cultural prominence of the urban-based, aristocratic Perabangan Malay, who were looked on favorably by the Brooke colonial administration, the non-Perabangan were largely peasants who subsisted mainly on fishing and agricultural activities. Faisal Hazis addresses the gap identified by Ishikawa by exploring ideas of Malayness, this time from the multiperspectival levels of authority-defined and everyday-defined meanings as well as colonialist interpretations of “Malay” identity.
All three parts of the book, with their own internal dynamic, come together nicely to subvert entrenched multiculturalism and open it up to a more fluid identity. Importantly, by situating issues of ethnicity within the rubric of multiculturalism, the editor pries open both the concept of multiculturalism and its attendant ideas of identity (re)formation and representation. For surely, the reason for all the controversy surrounding multiculturalism is that it provides an ideological lens for approaching and understanding culture and identity.
The value of this book is that by treating multiculturalism not only as a pattern of social management, but also as a way of understanding identity, it offers us a way of interpreting the particular nature of the conflicts about race–ethnicity, gender, and class in Sarawak and—because this Eastern Borneo state is arguably the most fluid and plural of Malaysia's 14 states—in Malaysian society as a whole.
Given its unprecedented yoking of anthropological and cultural studies perspectives in Malaysian studies and its treatment of multiculturalism as political discourse and cultural practice as well as its corollary focus on the interplay of representations and ideologies of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and national identity, it is easy to understand why the editor proudly declares in his preface that this is a “first-time venture on Sarawak multiculturalism, and its attendant issues of representation and identity.” Therein lies the book's singular value.