Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Contesting Straits-Malayness: The Fact of Borneo

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Contesting Straits-Malayness: The Fact of Borneo

Article excerpt

James T. Collins (*)

Through a discussion of language use in Kalimantan Barat (Western Borneo) a better understanding of cultural and sociolinguistic phenomena that are relevant to any discussion of Malay identity can be achieved. In this complex setting, the colonial nomenclature of Malay and Dayak, though widely adopted by the people of Kalimantan, does not adequately represent the intricacy and the fluidity of social relationships and identities, colonial knowledge matches neither the results of linguistic research nor what the Malays and Dayaks know about themselves, their languages and their identities.

Although Borneo looms large at the geographic centre of the Malay world, and although most specialists agree that Borneo is the prehistoric homeland of the Malay language community, (1) this vast land mass -- the world's third largest island -- lies at the periphery of Malay studies, as if it were a low-lying coral reef barely visible on the distant horizon. The slight importance ascribed to Borneo in colonial epistemologies may be related to the island's infertile soil, relatively sparse population, transportation obstacles and the comparatively docile ethnic groups. Beyond such economic, demographic and political factors, however, there has been an aesthetic obstacle: the romantic construct of Borneo. Joseph Conrad's frank studies in human frailty and desperation should have taught the world something about the realities of Borneo, but the White Ranee, queen of the head hunters, and Oxford as well as Camel overland expeditions yet hold a stronger grip on imaginings of Borneo than Lord Jim or Almayer's Folly .

Surely, the time has come to discard Orientalistic geographies of the Malay world. Borneo is not a distant, exotic atoll; rather, it is the central island of the Malay Archipelago and should be a focal point in Malay studies. It is also time to reject Orientalistic views of Malays and Malayness. The Malay world is not a simple dichotomy of Sumatra and the Peninsula -- a noetic dualism not coincidentally marked by a colonial boundary line. (2) Borneo and the Malays of Borneo merit attention not simply because of the large number of the latter, nor because of the antiquity of the homeland in Borneo. Borneo offers vantage points from which to view the process of creating and recreating Malayness. To cross over 'the perpetually drawn and perpetually blurred boundaries that British imperialism has left behind', (3) it is necessary to reconnoitre beyond the Melaka Straits.

In this preliminary essay, I can only present a few glimpses of the linkages of language and identity in Borneo. Identity, according to Aamer Hussein, is dynamic, multidimensional, composite and continually defining itself. (4) Linguistics can only contribute some insights and pose some questions. In the space allotted here, then, I will limit my discussion first, to a short overview of language and society in western Borneo (Kalimantan Barat, Indonesia) and second, to a linguist's views of three Malay-speaking areas in that region. The conclusion will take up the issue of academic and indigenous classification, and consider the implications of the phenomena studied in Borneo.

Language and society in Kalimantan Barat

Kalimantan Barat, Indonesia's westernmost province on Borneo, is characterised by a large number of languages and dialects. In addition to the indigenous languages under discussion here, the province has a large Chinese immigrant population, especially centred around the cities of Singkawang and Pontianak. Indeed, province-wide estimates of ethnic Chinese -- many of whom still speak Chinese languages as their home language -- range between 11 and 12 per cent of the total population of 3.5 million people. (5) Much smaller communities include speakers of Madurese (2 per cent), Javanese (3 per cent) and Bugis (5 per cent); these groups are largely clustered around urban areas.

Still, about 80 per cent of the total population of Kalimantan Barat is 'Malay' or 'Dayak'. …

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