Endangered Identity: Kadazan or Dusun in Sabah (East Malaysia)

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Language and Identity

At the end of 1995 the Malaysian Government agreed that a fifth language could be taught in its schools, after Malay, Chinese and Tamil (long conceded to the three major communities in West Malaysia), and Iban (the largest of the Dayak languages of Sarawak, conceded only recently). This language was called Kadazandusun, the latest mouthful to try to gain consensus among the indigenous peoples of Sabah (the northern comer of Borneo). At the last (1991) census those who spoke this language, or group of related dialects, were registered as two peoples, "Kadazan" (104,924) and "Dusun" (216,910). Going back through three previous censuses, all were called Pribumis (indigenous people) in 1980, all were called Kadazans in 1970, and all were called Dusuns in 1960 and all previous censuses. Who, we might ask, do they think they are?

For most people (multi-country English, Spanish and Arabic speakers to some extent excepted), language is the key ingredient of identity. Who we want to identify with has quite a lot to do with who we feel comfortable talking to, people who literally "speak our language". But for much of the world that language has changed substantially over the last century. Nation-states typically seek to redefine identities by ensuring through a compulsory education system that every citizen speaks one standard "national" language. In the vast Indonesian (or Malay) Archipelago this has meant in the past half-century a process of imposing Malay, particularly in the two standardized forms now adopted as the national languages of Indonesia and Malaysia respectively. Of the hundreds of indigenous languages of this area, the great majority part of the large Austronesian family, most are now endangered. Javanese and Sundanese are in best shape with many millions of speakers and long established traditions of writing in a standardized form for printing presses. At the other extreme are most of the languages of Borneo, Sulawesi (Bugis and Makassarese being relatively populous exceptions), and the eastern islands, which still typically represent a continuum of differing dialects in each local community, with either no written tradition or a very recent one, and no modem printed or electronic media to perform a standardizing and popularizing role. Now being educated in Indonesian or Malaysian, these peoples increasingly speak even to each other in the national language.

Sabah's Peoples

This is broadly the situation of Sabah. In the early years of this century its only languages which had been written down were the "exotic" ones - English, Malay and Chinese - and the only education available was in these languages. The dilemma of the KD (as I will now call the people in question in a studied attempt to avoid taking sides) throughout this century is whether they would join the modern urban educated world of competing nationalisms as a single people with a single written language, as two such peoples, or many, or as an assimilated part of the broader "Malay" identity which often (though with plenty of ambivalence) presents itself as the proper label for "indigenous" peoples within Malaysia.

Modern researchers have battled with "the unreliability of the nomenclature traditionally applied to the people of the area",(1) but have had difficulty agreeing on satisfactory language-based labels, especially for the larger categories. All agree that the overwhelming majority of indigenous languages of the Sabah region and some neighbouring parts of Borneo form a distinct family, whose closest relatives are in the northern Philippines. D.J. Prentice, following a suggestion by G.N. Appell,(2) used the term Ida'an to refer to this family, subdivided into Dusunic (much the most populous), Murutic and Paitanic (in the northwest corner and Banggi Archipelago). Since Ida'an was already the label of a more specific language group in eastern Sabah this has been discarded as the inclusive term, but the most recent survey has substituted no better term than "Borneo stock". …