Review: Property and Politics in Sabah: Native Struggles over Land Rights

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Review: Property and Politics in Sabah: Native Struggles over Land Rights By Amity Doolittle Reviewed by Elery Hamilton-Smith Charles Sturt University, Australia Amity A. Doolittle. Property and Politics in Sabah, Malaysia: Native Struggles over Land Rights. University of Washington Press, Seattle and Washington, 2005. 232pp. ISBN 0 295 98539 9; $US50.00.

This is indeed a powerful book. The author is daughter of George Appell, one of the most important authors on the anthropology of Malaysia Borneo and so grew up immersed in an understanding of that society. In this work, she has examined the politics of control over land tenure, drawing upon both a detailed historical record and a thorough analysis utilizing a state-of-the-art political ecology framework. Her documentation is comprehensive, detailed and absolutely meticulous.

In summary, she shows the extent to which both British colonialism and Malaysian neo-colonialism have consistently demonstrated both a lack of respect for, and understanding of, the indigenous people. Certainly, the story is a very complex one and continuing high-sounding rhetoric has often disguised the oppression and associated denial of human rights that has resulted. Even though the policy and programs of government have been subject to continuing change and even absolute reversal, the underlying problems have remained remarkably unchanged.

The view from the outside world is informed largely by the rhetoric which, of course, is the perception offered by the formal media. Accordingly, Sabah is often seen as a successful society and no doubt it is for the affluent and powerful Malayan politicians and administrators. At the same time, an inquiring visitor to Malaysia needs relatively little social sensitivity to realize the immense injustice done to the traditional inhabitants. Perhaps, the only positive thing that can be said is that this occurs less in Sabah than elsewhere in Malaysia. …