Academic journal article Asian Perspective

When Being "Native" Is Not Enough: Citizens as Foreigners in Malaysia*

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

When Being "Native" Is Not Enough: Citizens as Foreigners in Malaysia*

Article excerpt

Why do the natives of Sabah oppose the internal migration of natives from the rest of Malaysia? Why is being "native" not enough? The hostility is in direct contrast to what most scholars know about Malaysia: a multiethnic country with successful preferential policies for its natives-the "sons of the soil." In a plural state like Malaysia, there are competing native claims on citizenship. Here, regional natives (Kadazandusun from Sabah) contest claims by federal natives (Malays). The conflicts over culture, economy, and political power fracture a national citizenship into its regional and federal parts, pitting native against native. In particular, regional natives empower the notion of a regional citizenship by supporting restrictions on the internal migration of fellow citizens. As a consequence, Malaysia's goal of a "national" citizenry fashioned on native Malay norms is undermined. Malaysia offers important insight into the enduring dilemma of modern plural states: how to create a common national citizenship.

Key words: Malaysia, nationalism, democracy - East Asia

Introduction: Citizenship in a Multiethnic Society

"[I]n a plural society the basic problem of political science . . . is the integration of society."

J. S. Furnivall, 19441

In 1999, I was standing in a queue at the immigration office in the Malaysian state of Sabah (East Malaysia) when I noticed Malaysian students from Peninsular Malaysia (West Malaysia) filling out immigration forms.2 We were providing the same biographical details, such as our name, sex, age, address, race, and residential status, and were going through the same immigration procedures, yet I was an international visitor to Sabah and they were Malaysian citizens. The experience seemed counterintuitive to the common view of Malaysia as an integrated multiethnic union, and led me to reflect on the broader implications of migration in Malaysia, especially in regard to the rights of "outsiders." Freedom of movement, according to the literature on plural democratic societies, is a fundamental right for all citizens, yet Sabah was treating citizens and foreigners on an equal footing when it came to internal movement within the country.3 Why were West Malaysians excluded from this citizenship right in their own country? If democratic societies provide for the equal movement of all citizens regardless of race or ethnicity, why is Malaysia different? What can the Malaysian case tell us about the scope and limitations of citizenship in pluralistic societies, and the justification of specific regions to control migrations (both internal and external)?

At a time when most states facilitate domestic freedom of movement as a fundamental right, and large regional organizations such as the European Union call for the removal of internal barriers to mobility, Malaysia continues to restrict internal migration to Sabah (and Sarawak). These practices contradict conventional wisdom about immigration, which focuses overwhelmingly on the regulation of international migration.4 Restricting the internal movement of citizens to a region within a country challenges traditional accounts of membership in which citizenship is thought of as a nationally unifying force, and reveals potentially dangerous fissures between federal authority and state rights. The contest between federal-state regulatory measures uncovers a regional citizenship doggedly regulating both internal and international migrants.

What we see in Sabah, Malaysia is the formation and perpetuation of a regional citizenship, founded on historical claims to territory and sovereignty, and the preservation of a native cultural identity. Immigration restrictions on fellow citizens from Peninsular Malaysia undermine the formation of a federally- defined national citizenship. Analyzing the competing visions of citizenship in Malaysia is essential to tracing the future trajectory of federations like Malaysia.

Opposition to international immigration is a rising global phenomenon. …

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