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“Are They Making Fun of Us?” The Politics of Development in Sabah, Malaysia

«Est-ce qu’on se moque de nous ?» La politique de développement à Sabah (Malaysia)
Amity A. Doolittle
p. 75-95


Fondé sur des données ethnographiques sur les pratiques et les discours de l’État et sur les réactions locales à sa politique, cet article explore le contexte idéologique du développement rural à Sabah (Malaysia) et examine les événements survenus au cours d’un projet de développement rural. Il conclut que le développement à Sabah sert au gouvernement fédéral d’accès principal à la politique villageoise et donc que, s’il ne conduit pas nécessairement à une améliorer de la qualité de la vie locale, il facilite l’expansion et le renforcement de l’élite dominante, l’UMNO (Organisation Nationale Malaisienne Unie). En effet, le développement sert à consolider l’emprise de l’élite malaise musulmane sur la population indigène de Sabah et à promouvoir l’engagement idéologique du gouvernement pour une nation unie par « une langue, une culture et une religion ». Partant de la critique radicale du développement émise par Ferguson, les instruments-effets du développement survenant derrière la rhétorique du soulagement de la pauvreté sont examinés. Mais au contraire de Ferguson, l’article maintient que, dans le contexte du développement en Malaysia, ces instruments-effets ne sont pas involontaires et qu’en fait le développement est sciemment mis en place par les représentants de l’État pour accroître son pouvoir bureaucratique. De plus, les villageois sont capables de démystifier la rhétorique du développement et conscients du fait que l’accès aux fonds du développement est conditionné par leur soutien aux candidats de l’UMNO.

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Notes de l’auteur

This paper is part of my Ph.D. dissertation (Doolittle 1999). The research upon which it is based was made possible by the financial support of Fulbright-Hays, Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Award; National Science Foundation, Law and Social Science Program, Dissertation Improvement Award (#SBR 9511470); and the Social Science Research Council/American Council of Learned Societies, Southeast Asia Program, International Doctoral Dissertation Award. I would like to thank Arun Agrawal, George and Laura Appell, Michael Doolittle, Michael Dove, Emily Harwell, Celia Lowe, Nancy Peluso, Hugh Raffles, James Scott, Janet Sturgeon, and two anonymous reviewers, who helped me refine this analysis. The map was created by Heather Salome at MetaGlyfix. Any errors in analysis remain my own.

Texte intégral


  • 1 According to Wah (1992: 228 n. 4), “[t]here is no cultural group that identifies itself as ‘Malay-M (...)

1This paper explores the relationship between two interconnected trends in Malaysia: an ideological commitment to Malay-Muslim1 domination in all aspects of the political economy, and an increasing emphasis on federally funded economic development projects in the state of Sabah. The central argument of this paper is that development plans in Sabah are employed as a tool to increase the political, economic, and cultural dominance of the Malay-Muslims, despite the fact that this group is the minority population in Sabah. While poverty alleviation is taken as a point of entry for development interventions, in reality development schemes are more effective at increasing and consolidating federal power at the state level than at changing the standard of living for rural people. Development, therefore, plays a legitimizing role in Malaysia; a central strategy for building a modern nation in which federal ideologies are integrated into local life.

2One of my aims is to understand the political consequences of development programs through an investigation of the discursive practices of their principal advocates and recipients. In the first part of this analysis I begin with an examination of the wider ideological and political context of development in Malaysia. In the second part, I use a case study to demonstrate the ways in which the development political machinery works at the local level, how state authorities construct and justify development interventions, the ways in which connections are formed between state and society through the implementation of development programs, and how local people variously reject or embrace state-sponsored images of modernity. This type of analysis requires a close look at micro-level politics. Yet at the same time, an understanding of the influence of regional political economics on the local level must be considered.

3In the first two sections, therefore, I demonstrate that, despite the rhetoric, poverty alleviation is not always the primary goal of development programs in Sabah. Instead, the development initiatives that I witnessed were more concerned with extending the state’s ideological and bureaucratic control over the peripheries. In the third section, then, I raise the question as to whether development programs are in fact successful at fulfilling the objectives that are hidden behind the rhetoric of poverty alleviation, that is, the penetration of federal control into the state-level politics. I conclude that development programs in Sabah are actually only partially successful at legitimizing state authority at the local level. While extension of the federal government’s bureaucratic reach does occur as a result of development programs, local people are also able to demystify the prevailing ideology and manipulate the political machinery to their own advantage.


Fig. 1. Map of Sabah, Malaysia

Fig. 1. Map of Sabah, Malaysia

The Ideological Context of Wawasan 2020 and Gerakan Desa Wawasan

5Wawasan 2020, or “Vision 2020” is the master development plan for all of Malaysia, conceived by its prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. The primary stated goal of Wawasan 2020 is to make Malaysia a fully industrialized country with a standard of living similar to European nations by the year 2020 (Dentan et al. 1997: 89). Thus, Wawasan 2020 is driven by an ideological commitment to fast-paced economic growth based on commercialization and industrialization. In fact, Mahathir has called for an annual economic growth rate of seven percent for the thirty-year period that started in 1990 (Jayasankaran & Heibert 1997: 19).

6The rural development initiative within the master plan of Wawasan 2020 is called Gerakan Desa Wawasan (“Village Movement toward Vision”, henceforth GDW). The goal of GDW is to transform rural agriculture from subsistence agriculture to commercial, “productive,” “orderly” agriculture in which an emphasis is placed on improved harvests, increased markets, and a growing reliance on new technologies (Anonymous 1996: 14). Under GDW village structure must conform to “modern activities and industries” (ibid.: 14) and rural people must learn “highly disciplined work habits” so that they can become involved in the global marketplace (ibid.: 2, 9).

7The literature on GDW follows a blueprint of what modern rural development initiatives should look like. The authors pay homage to all the appropriate terms used in the formulation of the contemporary development problematic: human resources are emphasized over technological solutions (Anonymous 1996: 10), bottom-up versus top-down problem identification is stressed (ibid.: 1, 10) and, citing Robert Chambers, planners are warned not to over-exploit natural resources through “growth mania” (ibid.: 11).

8As shown by the detailed ethnographies of agricultural social organization in Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo, rural agriculture in the region is already “orderly,” “productive,” “disciplined” and has been connected with the global market place for centuries (see, e.g., Appell 1965, Dove 1983, 1986, 1993, 1994, 1999, Harrison 1971, Hefner 1990, Li 1999, Padoch & Peluso 1996, Peluso 1983, Tsing 1993). Since the very characteristics that GDW is supposed to implement in rural agricultural life are already present, what other intentions underlie this rhetoric of rural development?

9In his book aimed at uncovering the larger social processes that are influenced by development, Ferguson suggests that such blueprints for development identify a dominant problematic through which the under-developed regions of the world are identified. This problematic presupposes a central, unquestioned value or worldview that, in turn, shapes the nature of development interventions (Ferguson 1994: xiii). But Ferguson argues that development initiatives are more than programs that construct the definitions of rural poverty and then aim to alleviate poverty through technical interventions; they are also ideological screens for other, concealed intentions – mere rhetoric (ibid.: 17). According to Ferguson (1994: 256):

“[…] by making the intentional blue-print for ‘development’ so highly visible, a ‘development’ project can end up performing extremely sensitive political operations involving the entrenchment and expansion of institutional state power almost invisibly, under the cover of a neutral, technical mission to which no one can object. The ‘instrument-effect’ then is two-fold: alongside the institutional effect of expanding bureaucratic state power is the conceptual or ideological effect of depoliticizing both poverty and the state.”

10Ferguson explicitly argues that the “instrument-effects” of development are unintended by the planners and, further, that unintended outcomes result in powerful forms of “anonymous” control – they are “authorless strategies” (Ferguson 1994: 20). In his exploration of the development industry, he centers his analysis on the “intelligibility of a series of events and transformations not in the intentions guiding the actions of one or more animating subjects” (ibid.: 18). This move to deflect analysis away from the intentions of the “State” is analytically sound – it is tortuously difficult to locate intention within state agencies and then draw broader conclusions about state policies. But in their critique of Ferguson’s “radical critique of development,” Sivaramakrishnan and Agrawal (2002: 34 n. 101) direct our attention back to this point, arguing that since “state agencies and officials are political creatures, one must be careful before seeing the entrenchment of state power and the extension of the capacity of state agencies as an unintended effect of development.”

11In the context of development initiatives in Malaysia, Sivaramakrishnan and Agrawal’s statement warrants further exploration. In the following sections, I argue that, in Malaysia, state bureaucrats at times are aware of the ways in which development initiatives can be used to extend state power. For some members of the Malaysian government, development is intended to be as much about strengthening the Malay-Muslim elite as it is about raising the standard of living for the disenfranchised. Evidence of this is seen in the literature on GDW that not only outlines the government’s policy on industrialization and economic growth, but also includes references to the government’s ideological commitment to Malayization and Islamization.

  • 2 During the ethnic riots of May 13, 1969, 196 people were killed in Kuala Lumpur, of whom only 25 we (...)

12One of Mahathir’s goals for Wawasan 2020 calls for the development of a “Malaysian race working in full and equal partnership” (Jayasankaran & Heibert 1997: 19). This goal implies the subsuming of ethnic identity within a national, Malaysian identity or “race.” In short, Mahathir is urging Malaysian citizens to be Malaysian first, and only then Indian, Dusun, Iban, Murut, Penan, or Semai (to name only a few of the diverse ethnic groups in Malaysia). In this way, the government led by the United Malaysia National Organization (UMNO) continues to seek political legitimacy by stressing the importance of a Malaysian identity and a national unity – a trend that intensified after the 1969 Race Riots that shook Peninsular Malaysia2 (Case 1995: 73). As a result, Wawasan 2020 continues the processes of Malayization of all Malaysian ethnic minorities into a unified class of Malaysian citizens under the guise that these values are part of a “normal” or “natural” developmental path to modernization.

  • 3 Kemas is an acronym for Kemajuan Masyarakat or Community Progress (or Development). Kemas is also a (...)
  • 4 Shamsul has alleged that Kemas goes so far as to gather community-level intelligence for UMNO (1986 (...)
  • 5 See Ferguson (1994), especially Ch. 9, for an explanation of how development depoliticizes politica (...)

13Furthermore, development in Malaysia has an Islamic coloring (Dentan et al. 1997: 92). This Islamic emphasis in development is reiterated throughout the GDW literature, which repeatedly calls for “spiritual awareness” and for “spiritually uniting people with Allah” (Anonymous 1996: 3). Once this emphasis on conversion to Islam under the pretence of rural development is brought to light, it is not surprising that the Kemas3 organization is instrumental in rural development initiatives. Kemas is a political arm of UMNO, with an agenda to encourage the conversion of people to both Islam and UMNO (Crouch 1992: 29; Shamsul 1986).4 But its political agenda is depoliticized through its agents’ role in development, which includes teaching adult education classes in cooking, sewing, nutrition, and hygiene.5 Out of the 642 villages included throughout Malaysia in GDW between 1991 and 1996, over 75 percent (482) had their programs initiated under Kemas’ authority. In the remaining 160 villages, programs were under the authority of institutions more traditionally associated with rural development, such as the Institute of Land Development and the Institute of Regional Development (Anonymous 1996: 4).

Federal and State Politics: Fragmented Visions of Malaysian Identity

  • 6 For a full elaboration of this and other objectives of NEP, see The Second Malaysia Plan 1971-1975 (...)

14It is important to situate the development initiative of Wawasan 2020 within Malaysia’s past development efforts, the most prominent of which has been the New Economic Plan (NEP), launched in 1971. One of the main objectives of the NEP was to “accelerat[e] the process of restructuring Malaysian society to correct economic imbalance, so as to reduce and eventually eliminate the identification of race or ethnicity with economic function.”6 “Restructuring Malay society” translated into policies that would facilitate the expansion of the Malay educated middle class, which would in turn create a Malay entrepreneurial and shareholding class, and thereby correct the dominance of this sector by the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Indians. The implementation of the NEP involved measures that strongly discriminated in favor of Malays and against non-Malays. Thus the NEP ushered in a new period in Malaysian politics in which the Bumiputra (lit., the “Sons of the Soil”) were given preference over non-Bumiputra (e.g., the Chinese and Indians). Governmental agencies were expanded to help Malays go into business, and preference was given to Malays in the distribution of manufacturing licenses, government contracts, and concessions to land (Crouch 1996: 26). It was not uncommon for state and federal representatives from UMNO to “compete” for government contracts, and UMNO politicians had special access to land grants from the government (Crouch 1996: 39). This blurring of state and UMNO business interests resulted in the increasing dominance of UMNO in the Malaysian economy and gave rise to what is called, in the Malaysian context, “money politics”, which primarily benefits the Malay Bumiputra community (Shamsul 1989: 8).

15The Bumiputra community in Peninsular Malaysia and that in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) have very different views of the Bumiputra policy, based on the cultural and economic differences between the two regions. Malay-Muslims dominate the Bumiputra community in Peninsular Malaysia (with the exception of the small and marginalized group of non-Muslims, the Orang Asli). Conversely, in East Malaysia, the majority of the Bumiputra community is non-Muslim. Furthermore, the majority of the Malays in Peninsular Malaysia were peasants at the time of independence from Britain. But the Bumiputra of East Malaysia are highly heterogeneous, some urbanized, some peasants, and many, like the marginalized Orang Asli of the Peninsula, are shifting cultivators and hunter-gatherers (Shamsul 1998: 31). As a result, East Malaysia’s Bumiputra community often feels in opposition to the Malay Bumiputra community.

  • 7 The use of Kadazan as a name for the largest ethnic group in Sabah is a controversial topic in regi (...)

16In more recent years, the Bumiputra policy has been challenged on several fronts within Malaysia. In Sabah, the most significant challenge has occurred as a result of the political movements of non-Muslim Bumiputra who feel that Christianity and native animist religions are not accorded equal status to that of Islam (Shamsul 1998: 25). The Kadazans,7 the ethnic majority in Sabah, began to resent the Malay-Muslim domination over Sabahans and the apparent treatment of Kadazans as second-class citizens (Wah 1992: 223). As one Kadazan leader said:

  • 8 This statement draws attention to the fact that religion and ethnic lines were blurred under polici (...)

“The Kadazans consider themselves the true natives of Sabah and claim that they are the definitive people… [Yet] in reality, the Kadazans have found themselves to be subordinated to the Malays and discriminated against in favour of Muslim natives who also claim to be Malays by virtue of their religion” (Kitingan 1984: 236-237, cited in Wah 1992: 245).8

  • 9 PBS successfully challenged Malay-Muslim domination in Sabah between 1985 and 1994.

17This political conflict over the national identity of Bumiputra sparked the rise of “Kadazan nationalism” and the formation of the PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah, or United Sabah Party),9 a Kadazan-controlled party that ruled Sabah for nearly a decade between 1985 and 1994. The period in which the following case study of rural development is situated is the era in which UMNO managed to politically “win back” Sabah from PBS control. Yet, despite UMNO rule in Sabah, the fire of Kadazan nationalism is still burning. This is evident in the case study, and in the ability of PBS to win a large number of parliamentary seats in the 1995 elections (Shamsul 1998: 32).

A Question of Intentionality: Hidden Meanings behind Rural Development

18My argument that state officials are aware of the ways in which development initiatives facilitate the extension of state power embraces the difficult issue of intentionality, which is complicated if we look closely at the differences between latent (implicit) and manifest (explicit) intentionality. Some political leaders in Malaysia may believe that the principles of a Malay-Muslim nation and poverty alleviation are in fact linked. This image is certainly the one brought to front stage in the state discourse, which emphasizes that modernity in Malaysia must be achieved without sacrificing Islamic values (Mauzy & Milne 1986: 90). Yet, on another level, some officials recognize that development plans are inherently political and that the attention paid to the perceived link between development and the moral code of Islam is an ideological screen, obfuscating a political agenda of Malay-Muslim dominance over other ethnic and religious groups. Viewed from this perspective, the underlying or implied intentions of linking development to Islamic conversion becomes the expansion of state bureaucratic power. A recognition that there are various levels of intentionality suggests that some state agents may be more aware than others of the politicizing of effects of development.

  • 10 In order to protect my informants’ anonymity, all personal names used in this paper have been chang (...)

19An interview with a federal official in the Ministry of Rural Development (whom I call Datuk Yakub)10 indirectly sheds light on the question of whether state officials are aware that development programs have multiple outcomes, not all of which are related to poverty alleviation. Discussing the causes of and solutions to rural poverty, Datuk Yakub said that such problems in Sabah were complex. “Sometimes,” he said, “the lack of electricity in interior villages should not be considered a problem. The people do not really need it and in fact the lack of electricity has tourism potential.” While tourism in Sabah is on the rise, the number of people willing to visit rural villages and experience the local lifestyle, complete with no running water and no electricity, is extremely low. In interviews with local people, I failed to find anyone who could see the “tourism potential” of no electricity. Datuk Yakub turned the government’s failure to bring electricity to its citizens (a failure of development) into a potential success if the lack of electricity is apprehended as part of a different strategy – the development of the tourism industry. Rather than focusing explicitly on the local experience of poverty, Datuk Yakub saw the success and failure of development in terms of broader issues of state economic growth, especially for the political and economic elites, who might benefit from increased tourism.

20While I could never discuss the links between the expansion of federal power and development initiatives openly with state officials, other intellectual leaders in Sabah acknowledged the connection. One Sabahan scholar told me: “Kemas and the Ministry of Rural Development use development as an entry point into local villages for politicians. It is all about getting votes.”

  • 11 Tempulong is a pseudonym for a small village in Ranau District in Sabah. According to my own census (...)

21In the following section, the effects of GDW in a village that I call Tempulong in Ranau District are explored.11 Drawing on evidence from Tempulong, I show how GDW is much more than a development project aimed at alleviating rural poverty. Using modernity and development as an obfuscating cloak, GDW worked in Tempulong to promote the federal government’s goal of uniting Malaysian citizens under the umbrella of Islam and Malay leadership.

The Arrival of “Modernity:” Gerakan Desa Wawasan in Tempulong

22Early in April 1996, the head of the regional UMNO office, Datuk Sukarti, arrived in the rural village of Tempulong. A dozen women wearing colorful, silk baju kurung (a long Muslim blouse and skirt) and kerudung (loose Muslim head covering) accompanied Datuk Sukarti. These women lived at the district center of Ranau (see Map), about twelve kilometers from Tempulong. Since most of the Tempulong residents are farmers and follow the religion of the Borneo Evangelical Mission (Sidang Injil Borneo), these women in their Muslim dress stood out as exotic and cosmopolitan. They belonged to Kemas, an arm of UMNO concerned with converting people to Islam and promoting loyalty to Malay nationalism.

  • 12 The JKKK was initiated in Sabah in 1968 as a way to institutionalize a system of community developm (...)

23Datuk Sukarti and the Kemas group had come to Tempulong at the invitation of Sindeh, the chairman of the Authority for Village Development and Protection (Jawatankuasa Kemajuan dan Keselamatan Kampung, or JKKK).12 In his capacity as chairman, Sindeh was often seen pacing the village with a legal pad in hand, ready to take notes on local concerns and issues that he felt should be brought to the attention of regional politicians.

24Local gossip accused Sindeh of using his political appointment for personal aggrandizement and material gain. And village gossip about Sindeh can be grounded in political realities. In local-level politics, the chairman of the JKKK is a political appointment, and therefore individuals associated with the UMNO party control the office of the JKKK. Government aid is directly channeled to the village as a whole, or to the very poor, through the chairman of the JKKK. In reality, the chairman often appropriates a healthy amount of this money for personal use (for a discussion of this trend elsewhere in Malaysia, see Crouch 1992: 28; Shamsul 1989; Scott 1985: 220-231). For instance, Sindeh received money from UMNO, which he was supposed to allocate to four families to help them improve their homes. He used two of these four allotments for his own home, which included building himself a new office. Therefore, he benefited not only materially from Datuk Sukarti’s visit to Tempulong, but also symbolically, since his association with a regional UMNO official and his access to development funds would increase his prestige and authority in Tempulong. This demonstration of political strength was important to Sindeh since the headman in Tempulong, Gani, was constantly challenging his local authority.

25Datuk Sukarti, the regional head of UMNO, launched GDW in Tempulong with an inspirational speech. He described another village, supported by GDW, deep in the interior of Sabah:

  • 13 Excerpt from my field notes from April 15, 1996.

“People in the village were encouraged to clean up their litter and to plant ornamental flowers around their houses. The goal was to beautify the village. The Kemas group taught women how to cook spicy, flavorful food. When the men came home from the fields, they would find the children quietly doing their schoolwork. The smell of blossoming flowers would mix with the smell of good food. The beautiful and calming images would pacify any domestic problems. Even if the wives had no sugar for the coffee, the husbands would not be mad because the home was so beautiful. In this village everyone was so inspired that they would meet at dawn before going to the fields and sing the national anthem.”13

26With the help of money from GDW, he concluded, Tempulong could be as beautiful, peaceful, and modern as the village he had just described.

  • 14 Scott suggests that certain aspects of development have a powerful aesthetic dimension. In such cas (...)
  • 15 For a similar analysis of how development projects in Malaysia avoid confronting the real problems (...)

27Datuk Sukarti’s speech suggested that Tempulong was the reverse of that modern village, and that Tempulong and its residents were noisy, smelly, ugly, dirty, conflict-ridden, and uninspired in their cooking as well as in village organization. By placing the emphasis on the aesthetic nature of village life and promoting the idea that a priority in village development is beautiful, well-kept landscaping,14 Datuk Sukarti, and by extension the state’s development initiative, obfuscated the political realities of life in Tempulong – a severe shortage of both arable land and wage labor, and insecure property rights to existing agricultural lands. By focusing on more neutral, technical or, in this case, aesthetic problems, it becomes easier to overlook more complex social and political problems. The notion that a basic restructuring of regional political-economic inequities might be warranted was never raised.15

28Later, when I talked with Tempulong residents about their impressions of Datuk Sukarti’s talk, they were confused. They imagined that he had described a very modern and, therefore, desirable way of life. They assumed that this was the way that the rest of the world lived. The lure of modernity was clear. Yet, it was incomprehensible to these villagers that any group of adults would gather to sing the national anthem before work. “Who would feed the children and get them ready for school?” Rumihin, a young mother, asked. Another woman queried: “Are they making fun of us?”

Conflicting Forms of Local Authority

  • 16 See Letter 1995. During the course of my fieldwork, it was not at all clear who – Sindeh or Gani – (...)

29Roughly thirty people, or about twenty-five percent of the adult village population, attended Datuk Sukarti’s speech. At least one of those, Rineh, was paid to be there. Rineh is JKKK chairman Sindeh’s sister-in-law and a single mother with five children. Unable to plant a swidden field without help from an adult male, she tries to find casual wage labor nearly every day in order to earn cash. On this particular day, she was scheduled to work for M$10 cleaning out debris from the Montokuon River. Since this work was funded by UMNO, Sindeh was responsible for paying her (and others) for a day of work. Rineh told me that she needed the M$10, but that Sindeh wanted her at the meeting, so they agreed she would be paid the money, even though she was not doing the work. Apparently, Sindeh was willing to pay people to attend the meeting in order to create the illusion that he had village support of his leadership. In fact, Sindeh did have reason to worry that people might not show up. In the past, the headman of Tempulong, Gani, had been accused of encouraging villagers not to attend village meetings that were sponsored by either Sindeh or UMNO.16

30Notably absent from the meeting were Gani, the headman, and Tarajun, the former chairman of the JKKK. For various reasons, these men objected to the presence of Datuk Sukarti and the GDW project. Gani – an elderly man who staunchly believed in the importance of traditional adat (customs) and the value of their historically proven land use strategies – saw no need for rural development. Lacking political savvy, Gani quickly offended many of the regional politicians by refusing to pay them sufficient respect. He signalled his objections to Datuk Sukarti’s visit (as well as his peripheral role in development projects) by arriving late, sitting at the edge of the meeting, and refusing to participate in the discussions. His entire stance was one of a distanced and skeptical critic. Through Datuk Sukarti’s visit and the promise of money for the development of Tempulong, Sindeh became a stronger local leader in terms of what he could materially bring to the village. Conversely, Gani’s authority and prestige in Tempulong were diminished by his inability and refusal to participate in the development project.

  • 17 This is a pseudonym.
  • 18 Tarajun’s concern that Sindeh was involved in “money politics” was a constant undercurrent in all v (...)

31Tarajun, who served as the chairman of the JKKK in Tempulong when Sabah was governed by PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah), the Kadazan-led opposition party to UMNO, also objected to GDW. But Tarajun’s reasons for opposing the development project contrasted sharply with Gani’s. A manager at the Winekek Copper Mine,17 Tarajun was careful and studied in his comments about politics and development. He felt that Sindeh was deeply involved in “money politics”18 and was not a scrupulous leader. Tarajun said that he did not attend the meeting because he did not want to “be involved with political people” (campur tangan dengan orang politik). “There is a time for campaigning and a time for development,” he said, “but you should not mix the two. It only confuses people.” Although Tarajun is no longer the JKKK chairman, he still holds significant influence in the village. By not attending the meeting, he was sending a clear message to the rest of Tempulong that he disagreed with Sindeh’s political motives.

32But there were deeper undercurrents to the failure of Gani and Tarajun to attend the meeting. By inviting Datuk Sukarti and GDW, Sindeh was creating an opening for the “Malayization” and “Islamization” (though the involvement of Kemas and UMNO) of Tempulong. Both Gani and Tarajun objected to this process, although perhaps for different reasons. Gani was not only the headman of Tempulong, he was also the bobohizan or priest for the traditional animist religion. He objected to the increasing power of the Muslims in Sabah, on the grounds that it diminished his influence over village matters. As headman, it was his responsibility to resolve village disputes following local customary practices, or adat. But the tenets of both the Muslim religion and the Borneo Evangelical Mission often conflicted with the principles of local adat. The more villagers turned to the Muslim and Christian faiths and their leaders for advice, the less they followed Gani’s leadership.

  • 19 It is not unusual for national identity to be associated with the government sponsorship of a singl (...)

33Tarajun, who no longer followed the animist religion of Tempulong, was more concerned with Malay domination over Sabah’s ethnic minorities. In the eyes of many Sabahans, an allegiance to UMNO represents a betrayal of Kadazan (or Dusun) ethnic identity, since UMNO stresses a unified vision of Malaysia through the ideology of “one language, one culture and one religion” (satu bahasa, satu kebudayaan dan satu agama;19 see Wah 1992: 230). Evidence that loyalty to UMNO represents a betrayal of local ethnic identity can be found elsewhere in Sabah’s rural villages. For example, in a neighboring village, the chairman of the JKKK, Masiri, stepped down from his position when the PBS party lost the state elections in 1994. By refusing to keep his position of chairman under the UMNO government, Masiri was in effect refusing to form an alliance with that government. The price of this action was the loss of government subsidies for his village and of a salary for himself. He commented that this was a dark time (zaman gelap) in Sabah where politics and religion were too closely tied. Fiercely proud of his Kadazan/Dusun identity and his leader (the ex-chief minister and head of PBS, Datuk Pairin Kitingan), he felt that it was only a matter of time before PBS would regain power in Sabah. Until that time, Masiri counselled villagers to refuse money and development projects from UMNO politicians.

Building Shrines to Modernity

34During the months of April and May, some Tempulong residents began to work together to fulfil the goals of GDW and prepare their village for the arrival of the federal Minister of Rural Development in June. Several times each week, co-operative work groups, called gotong royong, gathered to clean up the litter and cow manure in the village and plant ornamental flowers around the houses (the supplies were paid for by UMNO, but the labor was not reimbursed). Most people in Tempulong did not engage in this work willingly. Some, notably the people loyal to Gani, who rejected these plans for modernizing Tempulong, refused to show up for any of the work. Others complained that there was too much work to be done in their gardens to waste time on planting flowers. In the end, Sindeh’s extended family and the young adults in the village, who did not have to worry about feeding their own children, completed most of the work.

  • 20 Inspirational phrases such as “Yakin Kami Boleh Kami” are common in the recent history of postcolon (...)
  • 21 Such short-term objectives of the development process have been referred to elsewhere as “developme (...)

35The most noticeable part of the work was the construction of a cement sign welcoming people to the village of Tempulong. Beneath the welcoming sign, an inspirational slogan was made out of river rocks painted white, reading “Yakin Kami Boleh Kami” (“If we believe [in ourselves] we can [achieve our goals]”).20 Next to the village meeting house (balai raya), a small rock fountain was erected. There is a certain irony in these shrines to modern development. Women must carry water and food into the balai raya every day for the kindergarten school lunch, since there is no running water or cooking facilities in the balai raya. Yet, it is through these acts that the state and its development money were made concretely visible not only in the eyes of the villagers, but also in those of outsiders passing through the village. The signs symbolically asserted that Tempulong was no longer a “backward” village; rather, it had been taken into the fold of modernization under the influence of UMNO. It is hard to miss the exact replicas of state authority elsewhere in small villages in Sabah. The welcoming signpost, the fountain, and white river rocks have become the ubiquitous symbols of GDW.21

The Theatre of Development: The Federal Minister of Rural Development’s Tour

36At the end of June, the federal Minister of Rural Development came to tour the village of Tempulong and inspect its progress as part of GDW. Muslim women from Kemas spent the entire day preparing food and decorations. The minister and his escort of dignitaries, including Datuk Sukarti and other regional officials, arrived in a fleet of Toyota four-wheel-drive vehicles and filed into the balai raya, followed by the Kemas women. The women, who greeted the minister and then filled up the audience during his speech, “acted” as the local population. Through this performance, the unsavory characteristics of Tempulong that Datuk Sukarti indirectly referred to months earlier in his speech were sanitized by the extra-local Muslim women, who prepared the balai raya and then represented the “local” people for the minister. The entire event appeared a staged act, in which the officials and supporters of the federal government played out the roles of both the state and the local, for the benefit of Tempulong villagers. The “play,” therefore, not only asserted the legitimacy of the state officials in their capacity as national leaders; it also modeled for the local population the way in which modern Malaysian citizens should appear and the ways in which local people should relate to their leaders.

37The speeches made inside the balai raya were unimportant to the villagers in Tempulong. Most of them watched the speeches from outside the balai raya, others simply stayed at home. Perhaps local people recognized the inherent theatrical nature of the minister’s speeches. Perhaps they knew that they had little say in the future course of events and, therefore, had more important things to do.

38Sitting on the hillside watching the speeches going on inside the balai raya, the elder Tempulong residents laughed at the costumes and officious attitudes of the Kemas women. Later, young village men and women put on a “traditional” dance performance for the visitors, and the elders criticized even this supposedly local participation in the celebration of GDW, since the youths performed Iban dances and not the traditional dances of Tempulong. Perhaps the younger people chose Iban dances because they represent the quintessential Borneo native. This desire to represent local life as “indigenous” or “traditional” as possible to the federal officials suggests that the national hierarchies of local versus state, and indigenous versus modern, have been internalized at the local level. These contradictory responses of mockery and contempt by some residents and the attempts of some of the younger generation to appear as “native” as possible (and therefore worthy of development), illustrates that the local view of development and modernity is complicated.

  • 22 A regional agricultural extension officer made a similar remark to me. Commenting on the number of (...)

39While the activities surrounding the visit of the federal minister were theatrical entertainment to some people in Tempulong, it also had a darker side. One young woman said to me with utter disdain in her voice: “There are more Muslims from Ranau here today than people from Tempulong. I do not think much of what is happening. It seems as if the Semenanjung [Peninsula] is taking over Tempulong and making it their village. They are telling us what things should be done, but no one is asking us what we need or want.” Underlying this statement is a deep local animosity toward the federal government (which is located on the Peninsula), its commitment to Malay-Muslim domination, and the fact that it appears to be taking over the Sabah state government.22

Who Benefits from Gerakan Desa Wawasan?

40The events unfolding during GDW in Tempulong dramatically illustrate several points about the relationship between the state and society in Sabah. First, despite the rhetoric of a “new” paradigm of development that strives for “bottom-up development” and the “active engagement of local people in the planning process” of development (Anonymous 1996: 2), poverty alleviation, and the empowerment of local people, development projects in Malaysia are a means of ensuring loyalty to the UMNO-led government. This point has wide-ranging implications. It shows that the liberal development rhetoric emphasizing “people first” is susceptible to incorporation or co-optation by the state for political purposes. Most notably, this occurs through the allocation of government development funds to villages that have demonstrated electoral support for the UMNO representatives. Embedded in support for the UMNO-led government is the acceptance of a government ideologically committed to Malay-Muslim domination. Thus, this development program facilitates the generation of a narrower concept of “national identity” and political participation. Second, by focusing on the aesthetics of village life, GDW places a specific value on what a modern village should look like. The political realities of poverty are overlooked by this type of depoliticized development that fails to significantly change the standard of living for rural people or recognize political-economic inequities. Questions of political and economic reform go ignored.

41However, since poverty alleviation is not the only goal of development initiatives, the “failure” of programs to raise the standard of living is not necessarily a concern of development planners in Malaysia. Instead, other goals become emphasized, such as how development initiatives can be used to build up a modern citizenry supporting the state’s ideological platform. Thus, the more important question to explore is whether GDW successfully fulfilled its objective, that is: Did it successfully extend state bureaucratic power and increase loyalty to the UMNO-led government in Tempulong?

42Villagers in Tempulong did not unconditionally welcome GDW. Many people questioned and even rejected the value of the program and the level of federal involvement in local issues. Furthermore, only a small percentage of the villagers willingly helped Sindeh prepare Tempulong for the federal minister’s visit. This suggests that local people were not entirely convinced that their participation in the project would result in material benefits either for the village as a whole or for themselves individually. Recognizing the blatant political message that is insufficiently hidden behind the rhetoric of rural development, Tempulong residents did not fully embrace the UMNO ideology, the Islamic religion, or Malaysian nationalism as a result of GDW. In fact, in some instances, it even succeeded in fuelling anti-federalist (or anti-Malay Bumiputra) sentiments.

  • 23 In his work on resistance in Malaysia, James Scott emphasizes the ability of “most subordinate clas (...)

43Furthermore, even when people appeared willing to accept the government’s political agenda, they, too, had ulterior motives. Kimin, a village elder, told me that he had taken UMNO money (bribes) to vote for the UMNO-supported political candidate in the last election. But, he said, “Deep in my heart I will always be a PBS supporter. When I go to vote on election day, who knows which way I vote?” Apparently, then, the government machinery failed to fully extend its ideological base to all Tempulong residents.23 Villagers were aware that the dispersal of development funds was contingent on support for UMNO political parties. But villagers were not only skeptical of the value of government development funds, they also knew how to manipulate the political machinery by accepting government money without providing continued electoral support.

44Although GDW may not have fully succeeded in promoting the state’s ideological platform, legitimizing the state, or delegitimizing the status quo, it did succeed in extending its bureaucratic control to the village level. The federal minister ended his visit with the promise of federal housing funds for several families in Tempulong. By procuring these development funds for the village, Sindeh strengthened his political base at the local level. Importantly, UMNO leaders did secure the loyalty of Sindeh. By placing him in charge of dispensing development funds locally, a position that Sindeh had abused in the past for his personal gain, they made sure that Sindeh would continue to promote the UMNO-led government’s political agenda. Thus, while federal control over Tempulong was by no means complete nor secure as a result of the activities surrounding GDW, it was extended. In this way the development initiative did destabilize the regional trend to support PBS, the Kadazan-dominated opposition party.


45There are four central arguments worth summarizing and elaborating on their connections. First, a discourse of Malay-Muslim domination is embedded within the discourse of rural development and economic growth throughout Malaysia. This domination by the Malay Bumiputra community in Sabah, where the majority of the population in non-Malay Bumiputra, is particularly problematic. Second, adopting a critical stance toward development, and following Ferguson, among others (see, e.g., Escobar 1984, 1988, Esteva 1992), I have argued that development initiatives in Malaysia are used as a tool for the expansion of state bureaucratic power.

46The third finding of this paper speaks directly to post-structural critiques of the modern development apparatus. Contrary to Ferguson’s (1994) argument that the expansion of state bureaucratic power is an unintended side effect of development, which goes on “behind the backs of planners,” I have demonstrated that, in the Malaysian context, development projects are at times knowingly constructed as ideological screens for the entrenchment of the ruling UMNO-led government and the promotion of Malay-Muslim dominance. Furthermore, the political nature of development is widely recognized at many levels, within both the state bureaucracy and local society. The case of Gerakan Desa Wawasan shows how control over discourse has an effective obfuscating power. More than mere rhetoric, state-sponsored discourses of development have material impacts on the lives of the supposed subjects of development.

47The importance of this conclusion comes more sharply into focus when we look into the history of British colonial rule in Malaysia. I have argued elsewhere that the British used a rhetoric of “progress” and Western values of making natural resources available for the economic growth of the metropole to justify their interventions in the indigenous peoples’ land use strategies, property regimes, and village organization (Doolittle 1999). Looking at the experience of GDW in Tempulong, we see a continuity, not a cleavage, between the colonial and postcolonial periods in terms of forms of state authority and rule over the marginalized population. In the same way that the colonial state constructed images of native people, their customary laws, and their land use regimes as unproductive and backward in order to justify British colonial control over land settlement, the postcolonial state constructs knowledge about the rural people in Sabah. Through an analysis of the literature on GDW, I have shown that this knowledge includes references to which types of agriculture are acceptable (e.g., commercial, “productive,” “orderly” agriculture that produces improved harvests, increased markets, and a growing reliance on new technologies; see Anonymous 1996: 14) and how rural people must look and act in order to be more modern (e.g., to have “highly disciplined work habits” and to be committed to Malay-Muslim values). By constructing rural people in Sabah as failing to meet these objects, a need for state intervention is created. Moreover, despite the fact that there are significant differences between the colonial and postcolonial state projects in terms of the desired outcome (revenue production, on one hand, and industrialization and modernity, on the other), the influence of those projects on the rural people in Sabah and their natural resources is the same. In many ways, the forms of domination and rule initiated by the British colonial government in Malaysia in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century persist in postcolonial Malaysia. Now, the dominated ones are the non-Malay Bumiputra and the dominant ones are the Malay Bumiputra.

  • 24 Of course, if we look at the other side of development and “money politics” in Malaysia, there are (...)

48There are several implications of this continuity in rule between the colonial and postcolonial periods for marginal people in Sabah. First, despite independence, the postcolonial government, like the colonial government that preceded it, emphasizes practices surrounding resource commoditization and commercialization that ultimately privilege elite concerns over local concerns and subsistence uses. Second, the postcolonial government continues to invent discourses and ideologies that justify centralized rule while obfuscating the realities of those who live on the margins and whose lives depend directly on natural resources, a trend that was present during colonial rule. Third, both the colonial and postcolonial states blame rural people, who live in close proximity to the forest, for resource degradation, while overlooking legal, political, and economic structures influencing the ways in which rural people use resources. And most importantly, both the colonial and postcolonial states make it difficult for marginal people to define their own interests in their own terms. Therefore, certain present-day development programs (like the one described here, and like the British interventions over rural society that preceded them) are more about domination and control than about significantly changing the standard of living for the subjects of development.24 In the end, development schemes like Gerekan Desa Wawasan in Tempulong limit local autonomy over land use strategies and village social organization, while the federal government’s control at the local level is increased through the rhetoric, policies, and practices of the ruling elite. If, indeed, we can suggest that there is a level of intentionality in state agents’ misuse of development initiatives for political or personal gain, even when they have embraced the rhetoric of “people first” and “bottom-up development,” then it would be valuable to search for ways to radically rethink the value and deployment of rural development schemes. It would be interesting and fruitful to extend this analysis to other development initiatives involving various ethnic groups in other states in Malaysia. Such a broader analysis of development trends would reveal whether the experience of Tempulong is repeated widely across Malaysia and which communities are most effected, both positively and negatively, by Malay-Muslim political and economic control.

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1 According to Wah (1992: 228 n. 4), “[t]here is no cultural group that identifies itself as ‘Malay-Muslim.’ However, such a category is used increasingly in official, media and academic discourse to refer to the non-Kadazan, non-Murut indigenous ethnic groups [in Sabah] who are Muslim and who closely identity themselves with Peninsular Malays, who are usually Muslim as well. These include the Suluk, Bajau, Illanun, Orang Sungai, Bisaya, Kedayan, and Brunei Malay among other groups.”

2 During the ethnic riots of May 13, 1969, 196 people were killed in Kuala Lumpur, of whom only 25 were Malays, while 143 were Chinese. Unofficial reports suggest that the number of Chinese who were killed was much higher (Crouch 1996: 24).

3 Kemas is an acronym for Kemajuan Masyarakat or Community Progress (or Development). Kemas is also a Malay word meaning “orderly, well kept (as in a house).” Thus the use of Kemas as an acronym for community progress has an interesting double meaning.

4 Shamsul has alleged that Kemas goes so far as to gather community-level intelligence for UMNO (1986: 187 n. 36; 1989: 13).

5 See Ferguson (1994), especially Ch. 9, for an explanation of how development depoliticizes political and social realities by reducing the solutions to poverty to technical solutions, ignoring the needs for social and political reform.

6 For a full elaboration of this and other objectives of NEP, see The Second Malaysia Plan 1971-1975 (Government of Malaysia n.d.), pp.1-10.

7 The use of Kadazan as a name for the largest ethnic group in Sabah is a controversial topic in regional politics and identity. Kadazan came to replace the term Dusun in 1961, when the United National Kadazan Association (UNKO) was formed. Donald Stephens, a timber magnate, owner of the local newspaper The Sabah Times, and president of UNKO, argued that the ethnic name “Dusun” was a Malay word (meaning “orchard”) and had been used by the British, but had never been the name that local people used for themselves. Arguing that the term Dusun was used in a pejorative manner, Stephens claimed that Kadazan was more appropriate. But Kadazan was actually the name that only the people from the Penampang area called themselves. As a result, other Dusunic speaking people openly criticized the term Kadazan, arguing that, while it might be used in the Penampang region, Dusunic speakers in the interior and on the Kudat Peninsula considered themselves as Dusun (Luping 1994: 103-104).

8 This statement draws attention to the fact that religion and ethnic lines were blurred under policies aimed at facilitating Malay-Muslim domination. While some natives in Sabah have converted to Islam, they are not necessarily of Malay heritage. But the conflation of Islam with Malay ethnicity is common throughout Malaysia.

9 PBS successfully challenged Malay-Muslim domination in Sabah between 1985 and 1994.

10 In order to protect my informants’ anonymity, all personal names used in this paper have been changed to pseudonyms.

11 Tempulong is a pseudonym for a small village in Ranau District in Sabah. According to my own census taken in June 1996, Tempulong has 46 households and a population of 409.

12 The JKKK was initiated in Sabah in 1968 as a way to institutionalize a system of community development. The role of the JKKK at the village level is supposedly to give local people a voice in deciding which development projects they feel are necessary (Kitingan 1990: 54).

13 Excerpt from my field notes from April 15, 1996.

14 Scott suggests that certain aspects of development have a powerful aesthetic dimension. In such cases, visual representations of modernity travel from one location to another, detached from their original mooring (Scott 1998, especially pp.224-225). In the case presented above, an image of the ornamental home gardens that one finds in Bali was transplanted to Borneo.

15 For a similar analysis of how development projects in Malaysia avoid confronting the real problems of rural and marginalized people, such as that of securing land ownership and access to natural resources for communities, see Ibrahim’s (1995) work among the Orang Asli.

16 See Letter 1995. During the course of my fieldwork, it was not at all clear who – Sindeh or Gani – garnered more support within Tempulong. Gani clearly had a following of roughly five families, who were willing to side with him over a highly contentious land dispute. But other people described Gani as stupid (bodoh) and as making too much noise (bising) over small issues. Sindeh also had a following of five or so families, mostly the families of his wife’s siblings. Other people criticized him for being money hungry (lapar uang) and untrustworthy (tidak benar). The remaining thirty families did not side with either Gani or Sindeh. As one woman told me, “[t]he people in this village are not at peace. No one is willing to follow any leaders; everyone wants to follow their own path.”

17 This is a pseudonym.

18 Tarajun’s concern that Sindeh was involved in “money politics” was a constant undercurrent in all village dealings that Sindeh was associated with. I heard from many other people, on many different occasions, that Sindeh took for himself a percentage of all money earmarked for the village, that his extended family benefited from government subsidies before needier people did, and that he took bribes.

19 It is not unusual for national identity to be associated with the government sponsorship of a single national language, religion, and culture (e.g., Anderson 1991, Vandergeest 1996).

20 Inspirational phrases such as “Yakin Kami Boleh Kami” are common in the recent history of postcolonial Malaysia. Shamsul (1989: 6) points out that the government introduced a series of “sloganeering and change-awareness campaigns” in the 1970s in what was considered an essential “preconditioning process to achieve modernization…”

21 Such short-term objectives of the development process have been referred to elsewhere as “development covercrop” projects (Shamsul 1989: 5), which create visible signs of progress.

22 A regional agricultural extension officer made a similar remark to me. Commenting on the number of Muslim schoolgirls in Ranau, he said: “It seems as if the Semenanjung [Peninsula] is taking over Sabah. But do not worry – this will always be Datuk Pairin’s [the ex-chief minister of the opposition party] state.”

23 In his work on resistance in Malaysia, James Scott emphasizes the ability of “most subordinate classes […], on the basis of their daily material experiences, to penetrate and demystify the prevailing ideology” (Scott 1985: 317).

24 Of course, if we look at the other side of development and “money politics” in Malaysia, there are indeed many communities, namely Malay Bumiputra communities, whose lives and standard of living have been changed positively by development projects.

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Amity A. Doolittle

The author holds a B.A. in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University, a Masters in Tropical Ecology from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and a Ph.D. from Yale University. Her publications include “From Village Land to ‘Native Reserve:’ Changes in Property Rights in Sabah, 1950-1996” (Human Ecology, 2001). Now a Program Director at the Yale Tropical Resources Institute, she is preparing a book, “Powerful Persuasions: The Language Of Property And Politics in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo) 1881-1996.”

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