"Their Accent Would Betray Them": Clandestine Movement and the Sound of "Illegality" in Malaysia's Borderlands


Ethnically Bugis Indonesians have long emigrated from their homeland in Sulawesi to neighbouring Malaysia, where they gained employment as labourers and rapidly assimilated as Malay-speaking Muslim members of the greater "Malay race". Shifting socio-political and economic forces have more recently given rise to narratives that characterize Bugis migrants as an intrusive, displacing and "illegal" presence. The rise of this view has culminated in widespread crackdowns on undocumented immigrants in the East Malaysian state of Sabah. Efforts to police such immigrants have, however, proven difficult because of a practical challenge: Bugis Indonesians are virtually indistinguishable from their co-ethnic Bugis Malaysian counterparts. In response, state agents and concerned citizens have relied on a particular sensory modality — hearing or listening — to detect signs of "illegality", as they seek to sort non-citizens from citizens, and effectively police omnipresent yet frustratingly illusory presences.