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Noboru Ishikawa, 2010, Between Frontiers. Nation and Identity in a Southeast Asian Borderland.

Noboru Ishikawa, 2010, Between Frontiers. Nation and Identity in a Southeast Asian Borderland. Singapore: NUS Press; Copenhagen: NIAS Press. Maps, photographs, tables. Pp xvi, 268. ISBN 978-9971-69-335-8; and 978-87-7694-050-8.

This is a book of very special qualities, by an author who is at home as much in nineteenth century Sarawak as in the modem political and economic structures which have evolved from early Brooke rule--or, as is often the case, have been rudely substituted for what the Brookes established. Past and present are portrayed, and bridged, most convincingly by the many pages of archival research, sensitive ethnography and oral history from the notebooks of a husband-and-wife team, in the field, 1993-94, 2002, 2006 and 2007. And the spatial focus of this dedicated endeavor was a cross-section of the peninsula known as Tanjung Dato, i.e. the northwestern tip of Borneo: an area having the dubious distinction of being cut into two halves by an international boundary which reflects ultimately a demarcation between two European empires (at the Treaty of London, 1824) and is devoid of any cultural logic. The sheer doggedness of one jungle-bashing Dutch demarcation report (Illus. 3, p. 48) somehow symbolizes it. It is this illogicality that forms the conceptual starting point of the study, although one is immediately surprised by the book's title. Would not "Astride Frontiers" have expressed more pertinently the idea of a cultural community with feet in two modem states?

Perhaps the author wishes to point us subtly in the direction of the multiplicity of different demarcations, requiring choice and decision on a daily basis, sometimes in contradiction, by people inhabiting such a frontier zone. Certainly, as the book and its chronological progression advance, new complexities become so much the norm that the would-be starting point in a Malay society placidly allegiant to (thus not yet, in nation-state style, "tom between") the distant Sultanates of Sambas or Brunei fades from our view. Even at the outset we find that the people whose swidden agriculture ranged traditionally over the putative domains of two Sultans were not Malays anyway, but Dayaks. Malays were attracted from Sambas to the east coast of the peninsula by the Brooke regime, keen to add copra to Sarawak's export repertoire. Similarly immigrant, if from further afield, were the Chinese, whose "destiny" under the Brookes was as taukays from Singapore to open up pepper and coffee gardens, or as indentured and opium-addicted coolies from Dutch Borneo to labor on them. Meanwhile, the Dayaks were deprived of their customary land rights and pressured to become settled, and indeed a number of them did as well as the Chinese in the plantation role. Even more defiant of ethnic stereotypes was the way the Malay immigrants--bereft, after a couple of generations, of the leadership of the one-time nakoda (ships' captains) who had led the transition from trade in logs to coconut planting--themselves gravitated to hillrice planting as logging dried up and copra proved unprofitable. Nor did coastal Malay communities take advantage of the rubber boom in the late 1920s, as their counterparts in the Malay States did--albeit they were partly discouraged by government adherence to the International Rubber Regulation Agreement.

What steadily emerges about this comer of Sarawak (where the fieldwork was mainly carded out, rather to the exclusion of Indonesian Borneo) is a picture of one variant of a classic plural society, so much cut off from the past of the area that this history is no longer a helpful reference point for twentieth-century analysis. One could correspondingly query the relevance of the term "nation-building," which, as commonly understood, may be a natural aspiration of the present-day Sarawak elite, heirs to the Brookes' new "geo-body" [sic], but is surely premature if the realized, sociological existence of a nation-state is implied. Nevertheless, inasmuch as the aspirations and actions of states are an independent variable initiating change (especially in border zones, where modern states have an almost defining obsession about their sovereignty, as Ishikawa argues), this can be a relevant and productive framework. It is also an interesting perspective that where the society on one side of a border is disproportionately dedicated to revenue collection, it will have to enhance its border administration even more, to curb smuggling and evasion of a head-tax; or where it is disproportionately prosperous and has a strong currency, it will need to police labor migration from the other side. Ironically, it is the magnet of the modern Sarawak economy that has induced a new wave of Sambas population to move northwards (though not into Sarawak, residentally speaking), whereby the peninsula has become a zone of common Malay culture where it did not really have that nature in the past. However, even such a strong magnet cannot override the appeal of the Indonesian nation-state as the irresistible focus of its citizens' identity (p. 199). Ultimately, therefore, an international boundary does divide, and thus upholds the states on either side, however much Ishikawa in some respects seems more prone to highlight their mutual subversiveness at an interface, or the permeability of such a zone for cultural-cum-cognitive interactions and unification. Page 204 offers one of the less ambiguous statements inclined towards the former position.

Among many examples of empirical excellence are the exploration of the impact of the Brunei Rebellion (1962) on inter-family and cross-border relations to this day. Given the writer's superior skills as historian and ethnographer, the heavy theoretical interpolations seem an unfortunate distraction, if not actually detracting from his achievement. Presumably, at these points, Ishikawa has an audience in mind which may find the empirical content a distraction! The present reviewer is not an enemy of theory, but the chronological scope of the study, and the quite revolutionary changes which it documents, defy a simple choice among theories. Nor is it helpful to try to equal complexity on the ground by flaunting a panoply of current pacemakers, some of whose preconceptions turn out to offer a less than perfect fit with the situations described. How, for instance, does the rusticity of Teiok Melano, compared to the elite Malay culture of Kuching--due to distance--enhance our understanding of the dynamics of international demarcation, or vice-versa?

(Roger Kershaw, Clashnessie, Scotland IV27 4JF)
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Author:Kershaw, Roger
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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