Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The question of who is Malay, showing characteristics of the Malay identity, and who is indigenous to Brunei has had an impact on the treatment and recognition of indigenous peoples in Brunei.
According to Brunei’s Population and Housing Census 2011, the definition of who is Malay includes the following groups: Brunei, Tutong, Belait, Kedayan, Dusun, Bisaya or Murut. Recent censuses therefore, have conflated these ethnicities under the Malay moniker, resulting in a total of 66 per cent Malay, while all other ethnic groups other than Chinese are subsumed under ‘Other’ (24 per cent). It is difficult then to get accurate statistics on the peoples that could be considered indigenous. In the 1991 Census however, Dusun, Iban and Melanaus collectively comprised 6 per cent of Brunei’s population. Other recent estimates have put their numbers at around 4 per cent.
The Brunei Nationality Act of 1961 names seven ‘indigenous groups of the Malay race’ – Belait,Bisayah, Brunei, Dusun, Kedayan, Murut or Tutong – as qualifying automatically for citizenship. Elsewhere, it lists an additional 15 communities which are also considered to be indigenous to Brunei: Dayaks (sea), Dayaks (land), Kalabits, Kayans, Kenyahs (including Sabups and Sipengs), Kajangs (including Sekapans, Kejamans, Lahanans, Punans, Tajongs and Kanowits), Lugats, Lisums, Melanaus, Penans, Sians, Tagals, Tabuns and Ukits. Although here recognized as indigenous, they are not legally automatically granted citizenship. Indeed, the requirements they face are stricter: while having a father belonging to one of the seven ‘Malay’ indigenous communities is sufficient to secure citizenship automatically, for the other communities both parents must be members for the child to quality as a citizen.
Dayaks have faced discrimination due to being perceived as outside the Malay identity, particularly as Christians or holding traditional religious beliefs. Many however have converted to Islam and have received benefits from the state as a result, including recognition of their citizenship. Others however remain only as permanent or temporary residents. In the 1991 Census, only 23 per cent of Iban were citizens. Community members claim to have experienced discrimination based on their surnames or stereotypes related to former traditions of sea nomadism. Indeed, the term ‘Iban’ has been used as a derogatory expression, meaning ‘uncivilized’.
Some estimates suggest that around 50 per cent of the indigenous population is Muslim and another 15 per cent Christian, with the remainder subscribing to other religious practices including animism and ancestor worship. In particular, Dusun and Murut are traditionally animistic, though many have converted to Islam and Christianity. Their traditional territories are located in the forested interior of the country, with their communities practicing swidden agriculture and collecting non-timber forest products.
Penan are perhaps less than 300 individuals in Brunei and are forest dwellers who previously followed a nomadic way of life. They traditionally harvested and used blowpipes with poison-tipped darts to hunt animals. Most now live in permanent settlements and engage in year-round farming.
At its height during the 15th and 17th centuries the Brunei Empire extended to the entire island of Borneo and north into the Philippines. During its decline and the rising influence of European colonial powers in the region, Brunei gradually lost most of its territories until by 1888 the Sultanate was but a shadow of its former self, territorially divided into two slivers of land in the northeast section of the island of Borneo, and became a Protectorate of the British government. The various indigenous peoples of Brunei thus are indistinguishable from or at least share close links with the indigenous populations of Borneo. As is the case of the other countries with which it shares the island – Indonesia and Malaysia – Brunei considers the indigenous populations as Bumiputera, or ‘Sons of the Soil’, except for the Iban and Penan.
While indigenous peoples (except for Iban and Penan) are officially in a privileged position, since as Bumiputera they may own land, have access to certain types of employment (including in the Royal Brunei Armed Forces and Brunei Shell Petroleum) and benefit from other types of affirmative action programmes, there is pressure to embrace Islam for those who continue to practice animism or are Christians. In the 1970s, mass conversions to Islam were reported among the indigenous peoples of Brunei after pressure from the state.
The government of Brunei continues to ban many religious activities of non-Muslim groups, including those of indigenous peoples, while at the same time permitting or assisting those of Islamic authorities. The latter for example organize what are known as dakwah or proselytizing activities which include incentives to indigenous communities in rural areas such as financial aid, new homes and water pumps. There is thus great pressure for indigenous peoples to convert from animism and ancestor worship to Islam, though a smaller proportion continues to convert to Christianity.
Indigenous peoples are additionally encouraged to move away from many aspects of their cultures and languages. While there is no active attempt to suppress the private use of indigenous languages, the Government of Brunei’s languages policy and legislation, which provides for the exclusive official use of Malay and in some cases English, all but ensures that the number of speakers of indigenous languages continues to fall. Increasing urbanisation is also seeing traditional economic activities and lifestyles being relegated to the sidelines.
Penan communities in particular face social and economic marginalization, with Penan children facing discrimination in the school system, struggling with Malay language instruction and stereotyping as ‘non-conformist’. This situation has reportedly affected academic performance among students from the community and non-completion of primary school, particularly for girls.
Updated May 2020
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