KITA Discourse Series 9/2018: Spectres of Affinity: Ethnicity, Language, and Illegality in Contemporary Sabah, 2 August 2018

On 2 August 2018 (Thursday), KITA Discourse Series No. 9/2018 was held with the following particulars:

Title: Spectres of Affinity: Ethnicity, Language, and Illegality in Contemporary Sabah
Speaker: Dr. Andrew M. Carruthers, University of Pennsylvania
Venue: KITA Meeting Room

Abstract: A spectre is haunting the East Malaysian state of Sabah — the spectre of so-called “illegal immigrants” from Indonesia and the southern Philippines. An alliance of state forces and concerned citizens has coalesced to exorcise this spectre, launching integrated operations to “cleanse Sabah of illegal immigrants” (membersihkan Sabah daripada pendatang asing tanpa izin) (Borneo Today, 21 December 2016). However, and much like the spectre that haunted Marx’s and Engels’s Europe, the one haunting Sabah is omnipresent, constantly felt, yet frustratingly elusive. The elusiveness of this spectre stems from a practical challenge: as Malay-speaking Muslim members of the greater “Malay race,” Bugis immigrants from Indonesia and Suluk immigrants from the Philippines are difficult to distinguish from their co-ethnic counterparts in contemporary Sabah.

Drawing upon ethnographic and linguistic fieldwork conducted between Indonesia and Sabah, I focus on the Bugis dimension of these ongoing developments, evaluating how qualitative similarities between Bugis Indonesians and Bugis Malaysians stymie the Malaysian state’s efforts to police the former. I show how state agents and concerned citizens seek to police “illegal Indonesians” by attending to wrinkles of difference which distinguish these groups’ habits of talk and comportment. So, too, I examine how — amidst intensifying state crackdowns on “illegal immigrants” — Bugis Indonesians and Bugis Malaysians are jointly reevaluating the qualities they are assumed to share in common, and are reckoning the various ways in which they are “the same, but different” (sama tapi berbeza).

About the Speaker: Andrew M. Carruthers is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. A linguistic and sociocultural anthropologist specializing in Malay-speaking maritime Southeast Asia, he studies the relation between language, mobilities, and infrastructures as a source of insight into the ways people navigate shifting and potentially hazardous terrains in their everyday lives. His ethnographic fieldwork has centered on the Bugis — a mobile, seafaring people who have long irregularly migrated from Indonesia to nearby Malaysia “in search of moreness.” His current book manuscript evaluates the meaning and materiality of “moreness” for this people in motion, foregrounding “intensity” as a mediating concept and object of analysis for ethnographic inquiry.