Positioning Bajau Identities as Bumiputera: Challenges and Potentials of Leveraging Environmental Justice and Espousal of Islam in Sabah, Malaysia

Fadzilah Majid Cooke, Greg Acciaioli

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference paperChapterpeer-review


Bajau identity in Sabah, Malaysia, has been a vexed topic because, despite having historically been viewed as a ‘native’ group, Bajau have operated as a minority with respect to other more dominant groups. Aware of the scholarly tendency to treat Kadazan-Dusun-Murut (KDM) as the defining element of contemporary political and cultural life in Sabah, this study treats KDM nationalism as the background to the positioning of discourses and practices of the relatively smaller groupings of Bajau, primarily the coastal sea-oriented Bajau. Important to the background are the gains (although small) made by KDM of attaching identity to place as ‘natives’, disrupting dominant views about being Bumiputera to include non-Muslim as well as Muslim ‘natives’ of Sabah (and Sarawak). Worldwide, such claims to place are often a response to state programmes of territorialisation, providing an avenue for redress of past injustices, albeit limited. For Bajau, identity claims based upon place (a key achievement in the global environmental justice and indigenous rights movements) are difficult to establish over ‘maritories’ (marine territories) as opposed to land-based territories. Expanding on the standpoint that identity claims via the environmental justice movement might be limited for sea-oriented communities, this analysis explores how Bajau (including the Bajau Laut of eastern Sabah) have resorted to other social symbols, in this instance religion, to position their identities. In this regard, this chapter evaluates the view that has been advocated by some scholars, especially Kazufumi Nagatsu, that the bureaucratisation of Islam, via the Bumiputera policy, could provide a potential avenue for Bajau identity positioning and status as Bumiputera.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDiscourses, Agency and Identity in Malaysia
Subtitle of host publicationCritical Perspectives
EditorsZawawi Ibrahim, Gareth Richards, Victor T. King
Place of PublicationSingapore
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)9789813345683
ISBN (Print)9789813345706
Publication statusPublished - 24 Oct 2021

Publication series

NameAsia in Transition
ISSN (Print)2364-8252
ISSN (Electronic)2364-8260


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