Kadazandusun Identity in Sabah, Malaysia


A review of Being Kadazandusun in Sabah, Malaysia, by Flory Mansor Gingging.

Being Kadazandusun in Sabah, Malaysia discusses various aspects of the Kadazandusun identity in the present day state of Sabah within the larger Malaysian context. Chapter 1 gives the reader background information into the distinct Kadazandusun identity, the politics behind the name and various meanings of Kadazan and Dusun which make up the composite term. The author links the discussion Malaysian politics since the 1950s. A short history of British colonization of Sabah, as well as summaries of language, religious beliefs and economic activities such as rice planting and tamu are discussed.

Before moving on to other substantial parts of the thesis, a version of the Kadazandusun founding story is given in a short chapter that will set the stage for further discussion of this story in subsequent chapters. A brief account of the Legend of Huminodun is offered, which is the founding story popular among Kadazandusun people today and the concept on which the beauty pageant Unduk Ngadau Kaamatan is based on.

This leads directly into Chapter 2 which is an interesting chapter on the intersection of beauty pageants in Sabah and the construction of Kadazandusun identity. The author investigates several aspects of this beauty pageant, amassing an impressive amount of sources including interviews with past and present participants, judges, and organisers. Kaamatan is the Kadazandusun festival that commemorates the rice harvest. The beauty pageant, and the judging of the winner of the beauty pageant at the state-level, is considered the penultimate crowning event of the festival. The contest changed names through the years since the festival was gazetted as a public holiday in the 1960s. Initially it was called the Miss Kadazan Contest, then Miss Harvest Festival followed by Kaamatan Queen and then finally since 1991 Unduk Ngadau Kaamatan. The author details the various aspects of the competition and the aspects on which contestants have to be trained in and are judged on. Many of these criteria are linked with beliefs about the ideal of womanhood as exemplified by the legend its historical interpretation in the present. The beauty pageant also performs the nation, in this case the Kadazandusun nation and what it hopes to be understood as in the past and in the present Malaysian state. The chapter ends with a consideration of how the pageant relates to ideas of “woman,” “nation” and “state” as exemplified by the scholarship of Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias. The author argues that the festival is “a forum for Kadazandusun to respond to government encroachment on their indigeneity” (p. 82) with the pageant as a “public manifestation of Kadazandusun identity” and idealise femininity linked to this Kadazandusun nationalist project.

Chapter 3 moves on to discussing another emblematic cultural trait in Sabah which is headhunting. In this chapter the author relates headhunting as historical practice to headhunting as a symbol of Sabah and an identity marker that distinguishes Kadazandusun not only in general from people around the world, but also specifically from the West Malaysians. The author begins with a personal anecdote of how rumours of headhunting circulated in her childhood growing up in Sabah. She uses Michael Herzfeld’s term “cultural intimacy” in describing the value of headhunting as a marker of shared indigeneity (p. 94). The author takes us through how the image of Borneo as wild was formed since the 18th century and how these images were recirculated in the present through a commodification of cultural traits used to attract tourists and to foster a common identity among indigenous people from Sabah. Headhunting proved to be as she said one of “the most marketable forms of cultural distinctiveness” (p. 107). She illustrates the point by delving into the rationale and marketing strategy of a tourist attraction in Sabah called the Monsopiad cultural village which is a theme park centred on a headhunting theme that opened in 1996 (p. 111). Here, the park uses the trope of headhunting in order to attract visitors, thus perpetuating an image of a wild Borneo for the benefit of tourists. At the same time, the author argues that such stereotypical images were also perpetuated in order to state a difference to West Malaysia and its cultural background. She uses the ideas of Janet Hoskins on headhunting and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett on heritage and cultural production.

Chapter 4 continues the analysis into Sabahan’s engagement with tourism in looking at the Sabah Homestay Program. The writer makes a comparison between similar homestay programs on West Malaysia and what homestay operators on Sabah believe is their unique offering to tourists. As an operator in Sabah stated, “homestay sells culture, not the bed” (p. 140). Thus certain aspects of Kadazandusun culture are chosen to represent that culture to tourists with a degree of self-awareness on the part of operators that they are packaging culture to sell to tourists. The author engages with the work of Millie Creighton on Japan’s domestic tourism industry and draws parallels to the Sabah Homestay program which similarly offers ideas of “family,” “community” and “belonging” to tourists wishing for what could be called as experience of “traditional” Sabah (p. 154). While the process of “touristifying” themselves leads to characterizations of the packaged culture as “inauthentic,” the author argues that this is a process of “traditionalization” which encourages and showcases people’s own understandings of their past and identity.

The last chapter shifts focus from personal aspects of identity meaning-making to a greater consideration of the state apparatuses and geo-political events that shape Kadazandusun identity. The most salient factors that impact Kadazandusun identity are migration from neighbouring Indonesia and the Philippines and the ways in which migrants or locals can become Malaysian citizens and/or obtain native status through legal or illegal means. This chapter offers important contextualization of the forces that contribute to immigration into Sabah and the ways in which the Federal government uses citizenship to gain political power in Sabah. The epilogue continues this contemplation of identity, belonging and citizenship by considering the marginalized status of undocumented street children of Filipino decent and attempting to reconcile the legitimate identity-building actions of Kadazandusun in Sabah with the marginalization of non-Kadazandusun people in Sabah of il/legal status.

The thesis is an interesting addition to studies on other populations in Malaysia and Southeast Asia which also deal with the subject of crafting present-day identities and inventing traditions. Studies on Malay identity, and the aspects which make up a Malay ethnic, economic and legal group, have been the subject of some interest, as have studies on Orang Asli and other minority groups in Malaysia. Analyzing the current aspects of Kadazandusun identity, and tracing its history within Sabah specifically, is a valuable addition to the scholarship.

Sandra Khor Manickam
History Programme, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Primary Sources
Interviews with beauty pageant contestants and judges
Interviews with Sabah homestay operators
Interviews with key political and social leaders within Sabah such as Benedict Topin and Jeffrey Kitingan
Ivor H.N. Evans
Herman Luping

Dissertation Information
Indiana University. 2013. 233 pp. Primary Advisor: Jason Baird Jackson.

Image: Finalists in the 2008 state-level Unduk Ngadau Kaamatan competition in Penampang, Sabah, Malaysia. This native beauty contest is held in conjunction with Kaamatan, the Kadazandusun harvest festival. Photo by Flory Gingging.

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