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This paper focuses on how indigeneity has been constructed, deployed and ruptured in postcolonial Malay(si)a. Prior to the independence of Malaya in 1957, British colonial administrators designated certain groups of inhabitants as being ‘indigenous’ to the land through European imaginings of ‘race’. The majority, politically dominant Malays were deemed the definitive peoples of this geographical territory, and the terrain was naturalized as ‘the Malay Peninsula’. Under the postcolonial government, British conceptions of the peninsula were retained; the Malays were given political power and recognition of their ‘special (indigenous) position’ in ways that Orang Asli minorities—also considered indigenous - were not. This uneven recognition is evident in current postcolonial political, economic, administrative and legal arrangements for Malays and Orang Asli. In recent years, Orang Asli advocates have been articulating their struggles over land rights by drawing upon transnational discourses concerning indigenous peoples. Recent judicial decisions concerning native title for the Orang Asli potentially disrupt ethno-nationalist assertions of the peninsula as belonging to the ‘native’ Malays. These contemporary contests in postcolonial identity formations unsettle hegemonic geopolitical ‘race’/place narratives of Peninsular Malaysia.

Keywords: Indigenous; Malay; Orang Asli; land rights; place; postcolonial; sovereignty

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Sociology National University of Singapore (NUS) 11 Arts Link #03-06, Singapore 117570, Email:

Publication date: September 1, 2006

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