Skip to content

Panel 14. Understanding Borneo-Kalimantan Through Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Chairs: Awang Azman Awang Pawi (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak); Tom Hoogervorst (International Institute of Asian Studies)

Situated at the centre of island Southeast Asia, Borneo is divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam, bordering in the north to the Philippines. While the world’s third largest island continues to capture people’s imagination, it has lagged behind other regions in terms of thorough and continuous academic interest. Besides its renowned tropical rainforest and rich cultural diversity, the island boasts Gua Niah, one of Southeast Asia’s best excavated and multilayered archaeological sites, and Kutai, the first documented Southeast Asian kingdom outside of the mainland. Nevertheless, the island has always remained somewhat peripheral to the cores of Sriwijaya, Melaka, and Majapahit of the past and Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila of the present. The present panel is formed to bring together scholars from different academic backgrounds working on Borneo and to promote more research on this island, providing opportunities to discover and share new insights in its rich human and natural landscapes. Interdisciplinary approaches are hoped to enrich and stimulate research on Borneo’s history and ethnohistory, languages and literature, the politics of environment and development, democracy, biodiversity, cultural rights, international collaboration and conflicts, and the fluid identities of its indigenous populations.

Keynote Address

Professor Datuk. Dr. Khairuddin Ab Hamid (Vice-Chancellor, UNIMAS)

Session 1

Paper 1: Identities in Borneo: Constructions and Transformations

Victor T. King (Universiti Brunei Darussalam & University of Leeds)

This paper focuses on a rapidly expanding field of research in the social sciences in Borneo. There has been a noticeable focus on the multidisciplinary, multidimensional study of identities and ethnicities in Borneo in the last two decades, even though the identification of units for analysis and the labelling of ethnic groups or categories have enjoyed a long history in Borneo Studies. An important stimulus for the more recent increase in scholarly interest was the major conference held in Sarawak in 1988 which explored issues of ethnicity and then the publication by the Sarawak Museum of four volumes of papers in 1989, organised primarily in terms of the major ethnic groups identified in the state (Chin and Kedit, 1989). Other key moments in this developing interest was the publication of Jérôme Rousseau’s Central Borneo: Ethnic Identity and Social Life in a Stratified Society(1990), Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond QueenMarginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place (1993) and Bernard Sellato’s Nomads of the Borneo Rainforest (1994). A more recent manifestation of this expanding interest is the edited book by Zawawi Ibrahim Representation, Identity and Multiculturalism in Sarawak (2008), and Peter Metcalf’s The Life of the Longhouse: an Archaeology of Ethnicity (2010). This paper, which attempts an overview and analysis of the field, arranges the contributions (by no means exhaustively) into seven categories: (1) the nation-state, majorities and minorities; (2) religious conversion and identities; (3) the media, identities and nation-building; (4) borderlands, margins, migrations and identities; (5) inter-ethnic relations and violence; (6) arenas for identity construction in tourism and museums; and finally (7) emerging middle classes, lifestyles and identities in urban settings.

Paper 2: Syair Tarsilah Cetera Abang Gudam Dangan Temenggong Kadir Negeri  Saribas:  A Lost Manuscript and  A Lost Kingdom in northern Borneo

Datu Sanib Said (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak)

A rediscovery of a Malay-Jawi manuscript, Syair Tarsilah Cetera Abang Gudam Dangan Temenggong Kadir Negeri Saribas may add a new kingdom to the early history of the Malay Archipelago.  Anthony Richards first discovered the manuscript in 1961 and Robert Reece rediscovered it in 2002.  By mean of a reflective process, it dawned upon this writer that the syair is about the lost kingdom of Saribas that he has been searching for the past thirty years.  It is mentioned in passing in several versions of Silsilah Raja-Raja Berunai and in a report by Valentyn in 1609.  The manuscript narrates the founding of the negeri by Temenggong Kadir who ran from the sultanate of Brunei and his son-in-law to be, Abang Gudam who also ran away from the kingdom of Pagaruyung in Sumatra. This paper will firstly describe the manuscript and secondly, will attempt a preliminary discussion on the founding of the kingdom in the context of time and space of the Malay Archipelago.

Paper 3: Missing Links in the Evolution of Sarawak Social Research


Abdul Halim Ali (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak)

This paper looks at the development of research in the social sciences in Sarawak in the last six decades, starting with the 1950 publication by Edmund R. Leach of a report on the possibility of a social-economic survey of Sarawak, submitted to the British Colonial Social Sciences Research Council. It takes stock of the existing corpus of social science knowledge and identifies past trends in and future challenges to Borneo/Kalimantan studies. The problems of contextualization are discussed and it is proposed that research should situate itself not only in the Malaysian context but also in the larger context of Borneo/Kalimantan subculture zone. This paper also underlines two equally important other concerns: 1) the need for a discussion on capital and the specific character of capitalist relations that bear upon the people and society of Sarawak, and counsels that scholars must bring capital back into, otherwise the study misses the big picture, 2) the importance of theory and an integrated approach, as opposed to working in an insular disciplinary fashion encapsulated spatially by the 1824 Demarcation.

Session 2

Paper 1: Kaul as a Ritual and Political Domination in Borneo: the Melanau Experience

Jeniri Amir (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak)

The objective of this paper is to discuss Kaul, a ritual and socio-political event among the Melanau community in Mukah, Sarawak. In the past, the festival was celebrated at the end of the monsoon season as a religious ceremony to appease the spirits of the sea, lands and forests at a time when most of the Melanau were still traditional believers. It is a ritual purification, thanksgiving and blessing to secure peace, good luck and bountiful harvest, as most people in the community are fishermen and farmers. After most of the Melanau had converted to either Islam or Christianity, Kaul became a cultural gathering for this coastal community. It is the most important festival in their calendar and has since 1980s been used by political leaders as a socio-political platform to unite the Melanau.

Paper 2: Expansion, diversity and Malayness: the relevance of Borneo’s linguascapes

Tom Hoogervorst (International Institute of Asian Studies)

The relative paucity of pre-modern sources on Borneo has rendered most parts of the island terra incognita until well into the 20th century. As a result, scholarship on Borneo’s diverse ethno-linguistic settings is shaped by a modicum of large-scale hypotheses, none of which free of controversy. This presentation aims to demonstrate how interdisciplinary scholarship and the use of linguistic data can help to fine-tune and fill up several gaps in our understanding of the diverse inhabitants of Southeast Asia’s geographical centre, focusing in particular on partly unexplored Kalimantan. At present, all languages indigenous to the region belong to the Austronesian language family. The rather arbitrary distinction between “Malays” vis-à-vis “Dayaks”, which at best underlies contemporary political realities, does not do justice to the complex cultural mosaic that is Borneo. In fact, it is largely unknown how the communities inhabiting the island are related internally and externally, what they spoke prior to the so-called “Austronesian expansion”, and by what sociolinguistic process they started to adopt Austronesian languages. Closely related scholarly lacunae include the introduction of agriculture and metallurgy in this part of the world. I argue that several clues can be found in the island’s over 150 languages, many of which are poorly described and endangered.

Paper 3: A Late Quaternary Environmental History from the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo: a Record of Climate, Vegetation and Land-use

Samantha Jones (Queen’s University Belfast)

The island of Borneo is today one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. The floristic richness can be attributed to a number of factors, including the location of Borneo within the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), tectonic restructuring, sea-level change, climate change, and later human activity. In 2007 and 2008, as part of the ‘Cultured Rainforest Project’, a number of cores were taken from in and around the vicinity of Pa’Dalih, Pa ‘Buda and Bario in the Kelabit Highlands. Pollen and phytolith analyses were then subsequently carried out at Queens University, Belfast and at the University of Leicester. The primary purpose of the pollen and phytolith analyses was to investigate past interactions between people and the rainforest, but also to build an environmental reconstruction of the highland rainforests within the Borneo interior. This paper will discuss the results of this investigation, which has produced evidence of climatic and environmental variability over a period of 50,000 years; potential human related disturbance 6,000-7,000 years ago, at Pa’Buda; likely human related disturbance within the last 2,800 years at Pa’Dalih; the appearance of the sago palm Eugeissonia (ca. 2,300 cal BP at Pa’Dalih and 1,300 cal BP at Bario); and the appearance of domesticated rice ca. 2000 cal BP at Pa’Dalih. Domesticated rice may have become more important within the last 460-300 years at Pa’Dalih, although more work would be needed to confirm this.

Session 3

Paper 1: Stakeholder Participation for Environmental Management

Helen Brunt (University of Sussex)

Situated on the north eastern coast of Borneo, the town of Semporna sits at the tip of a peninsula, the gateway to the Malaysian state of Sabah and close to the meeting point of three national borders. The Tun Sakaran Marine Park, situated offshore from Semporna, was gazetted in 2004 to protect the area’s outstanding natural features and high biodiversity. It was also designed to partner Park users with managers, with stakeholder participation being seen as central to the success of compliance with conservation measures. This paper will examine the fact that not all stakeholders may be recognized by the state, reflecting issues including citizenship, ethnicity and other simple prejudicial beliefs relating to minority groups. It will examine what justifications are used to devise methods of participation and implementation of management strategies for conservation areas such as the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, along with the key role of NGOs as ‘brokers’ in the liminal position between government and community.

Paper 2: An investigation into the resilience and sustainable management of tropical peat swamp forests.

Lydia Cole (Department of Zoology & School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford)

As the final frontier for agricultural development in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, the coastal peat swamp forests are undergoing rapid conversion, predominantly into oil palm plantations. However, little is known about the ecological resilience of this ecosystem and whether it can recover from such disturbance. This study aims to shed light on peat swamp forest dynamics, focusing on responses to past environmental disturbance, both natural and anthropogenic, and the relevance of this information for contemporary management. Fossil pollen and charcoal analysis were performed on peat cores extracted from three locations in Sarawak. Results demonstrate that these ecosystems have experienced limited disturbance since their development over 2000 years ago, with peat swamp forest taxa dominating the vegetation profile. Wildfires have occurred throughout, but there is evidence for significant human disturbance only in the last several hundred years. In terms of management, there is a mis-match between local stakeholders and the international community in the ways they value this ecosystem which needs to be addressed if these areas are to be conserved into the future.

Paper 3: Brunei Malays in Sabah and their Material Culture: Between Collective Memory and Politics of Culture

Awang Azman Awang Pawi (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak)

The Brunei Malays in Sabah have been separated by political boundaries created by the colonial establishment, through various agreements signed by the governments of Brunei and British North Borneo more than a century ago. However, these political boundaries could not separate the influence of the Brunei Malay culture and the Brunei Malays in Sabah still practice the traditions of their ancestors. This study demonstrates that aspects of material culture, practices and customs are often seen as a way to maintain their identity as Brunei Malays, even though they are residing in the state of Sabah. Among the material culture of the Brunei Malays in Sabah examined here are cultural tools, music and food, especially the ‘celapa betel’ and incisors (kacip), gambus and ambuyat. It is shown that the cultural history is still fresh in the collective memory of the community. However, in the context of the 21st century, this collective memory became closely associated with the current political climate of the state. This study will delve into the collective memory of the Brunei Malays and the role and manifestation of their culture in Sabah’s politics, which involves a process of construction of identity and history of this community.