The Politics and Aesthetics of Place-Names in Sarawak

By Yong, Kee Howe | Anthropological Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Politics and Aesthetics of Place-Names in Sarawak


Yong, Kee Howe, Anthropological Quarterly


Abstract

As elements of the political landscape, place-names can express not only the ideological themes of the state but also the political atmosphere and processes by which nation-states make their impression on the landscape. This essay, based on fieldwork conducted in Sarawak, Malaysia, in 1999 and 2000, addresses the nature of place-names in Sarawak and focuses on how certain communities react to the place-names of their villages and townships in their everyday lives, that is, how place-names are derived, who speaks them, how they are used, and in what context. An exploration into subjects' reactions to place-names can be read not only as the antithesis to state impressions on the national landscape over time but also, to a varying extent, as traces of the original baptismal event in the present circumstances. In short, place-names are active, context-generating as well as context-reflecting.

[Keywords: Place-names, utterances, indexicality, context-generating, context-reflecting, communism, Hakkas, Cold War, Malaysia, Borneo, Sarawak.]

On the significance of place-names among the Western Apache, Keith Basso (1983; 1996) has pointed out how the usage of place-names can serve as important indicators towards certain historical events and their geographical locations, and point towards the system of rules and values that organize and regulate the lives of individuals within the communities. But what if the names of places do not sit well with individuals within the communities? Like flags, national anthems, public monuments, and other emblems of nationalism, the policy of widespread changes in place-names is one of the common practices nation-states use to solidify their political and territorial sovereignty. With respect to Sarawak during the 1960s and 1970s, the Malaysian government expressed its ideological impressions through a strategy of installing new villages and renaming existing ones. In as much as the so-called democracy versus communism conflicts is reflected in the process of naming places in Sarawak throughout this period, this essay explores the ways in which certain communities relate to and negotiate with these place-names in their everyday lives, that is, how they were derived, who speaks them, how they are used, and in what context. I illustrate this by looking at three former "communist-influenced areas": three new villages along the Kuching to Serian road, the township of Simanggang, and the coastal areas north of Kuching.

Betsy Rymes (1996) noted out that despite the reference-fixing function of a baptismal event the identity of a place is not indelibly determined by its name. This is especially true when the peoples who reside in it deploy placenames in unofficial ways that call into question the institutional and social conditions that legitimize such an event. Indeed, how does a refusal to adopt-or hyperbolic insistence upon adopting-these official place-names constitute a form of resistance to the system of rules that regulate their lives, at once recalling the politically laden "baptismal event" that is inscribed in a label and refusing the official vision of reality implied in the meaning of the name?1 In taking such a question as a central matter of concern, this essay adopts Bakhtin's (1981) dialogical approach towards language (or social utterances) in which "meanings" are constructed in interactional processes, processes that pay close attention to a temporal and spatial orientation of social utterances. These interactional processes connect historical moments to each other in social life as they circulate through society and through time (Besnier 1990; Agha 2005). As Richard Bauman (2005) illustrates, such a dialogical concept of utterances brings into analysis a subject's biographical history which shapes his/her ability to use and construe utterances to index identities and historical events. It also alerts us to the fact that all utterances are, to a certain extent, ideologically informed, giving us ways of thinking about authority and power in speech and identity.

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