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  • Being Malay in Indonesia: Histories, Hopes and Citizenship in the Riau Archipelago by Nicholas J. Long
  • Ahmat Adam
Being Malay in Indonesia: Histories, Hopes and Citizenship in the Riau Archipelago
Nicholas J. Long
Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with NUS Press and NIAS Press, 2013. xiv + 288 pp. Maps, tables, illustrations, index. ISBN 978-87-7694-133-8 (paperback)

The concept of Malay as an ethnic identity has in recent years received quite a deal of attention from Western scholars in the fields of history, anthropology and literature in Malay studies. About a decade or so ago a collection of essays by several writers attempted to provide an answer to the question: What is the meaning of ‘Malay’? Although the book, I think, never did really answer the question satisfactorily, in 2013 the Asian Studies Association of Australia, in association with the NUS Press and the NIAS Press, published a monograph bearing a similar theme. The latest attempt to define the Malay is made by a Cambridge-trained anthropologist who takes up the challenge to redefine Malayness as he finds it in Riau. As is reflected in its title, Being Malay in Indonesia: Histories, Hopes and Citizenship in the Riau Archipelago by Nicholas J. Long focuses on the issues pertaining to Malayness and Malay identity in a newly created Riau Islands Province following its detachment from the Eastern Sumatran province of Riau which originally came into being in 1957. The backdrop of the study is the province’s capital, Tanjung Pinang, and its multiethnic background.

In his study the author discusses the changes which have affected the Malays and other residents of the Riau Islands Province since its establishment as an autonomous region in 2004 following the collapse of Suharto’s New Order regime. Throughout this book of eight chapters the author tries to ascertain the consequences of the struggle for autonomy and the effects of bureaucratic-cum-political manoeuvres by the provincial government and some members of the Malay community in Tanjung Pinang to create a Riau identity. The move to harness the cultural elements of the so-called Riau Malays with a view to projecting a Riau Malay identity based on an imagined Malay province, however, can at times bring [End Page 114] about tension in interethnic relations and arouse prejudices that may spark latent racial conflicts in the capital, Tanjung Pinang. For example, the multiple definitions of Malayness have aroused apprehension among Malays who question whether the Bugis identity can be reconciled with Riau Malay identity since the history of the Bugis aristocracy is perceived by many Malays as obscuring Riau Malay history. The non-Malays have also questioned the rhetoric that Riau province is for Malays only. Intertwined with the identity issue is the concern of many Riau residents in the struggle to enhance the quality of human resource development in order that the province can be prepared for global competitiveness, by way of emulating ‘progressive’ Singapore and urban Jakarta.

Despite the author’s effort at highlighting the topics of decentralization and autonomy and their connection with the attempt of making Riau a Malay province within the Republic of Indonesia, the main thrust of the book really concerns the issue of Malay identity. Thus, like many others before him, the author of Being Malay in Indonesia also raises the question of the elusive definition of Malay. In his discussion on the nature of Malay identity in Riau’s multiethnic setting the author seems to conclude that being Malay in Riau Islands Province encapsulates more than a question of identity. It also engulfs the usual issues of change and modernity which expose several disadvantages of the Riau Malay vis-à-vis the Chinese, Javanese, Batak and Minangkabau. To this reviewer it appears that the author, in writing about the Riau Malays, still shares the uncertainty of many Western scholars in defining Malay, hence leading to the statement by one of them that the Malay identity ‘had no essence’ or that the identity was of European invention (Vickers, 2004: 33 and 26).

The book is divided into eight chapters together with a conclusion. The concept of Malayness is discussed in the introductory chapter with the...


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