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  • Being Malay in Indonesia: Histories, Hopes, and Citizenship in the Riau Archipelago by Nicholas J. Long
  • Michael G. Peletz (bio)
Nicholas J. Long. Being Malay in Indonesia: Histories, Hopes, and Citizenship in the Riau Archipelago. Honolulu: Asian Studies Association of Australia and University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013. 295 pp. Maps, tables, illustrations, glossary, index.

Many contributors to this journal have emphasized that in the past couple of decades Indonesians have experienced a series of tumultuous, headline-grabbing developments. Such events include, for example, the financial crisis that swept the region beginning in 1997, the resignation in May 1998 of president Suharto, and the reformasi movement associated with Suharto’s fall and the successive waves of democratization that followed. Consider also the devastating tsunami of December 2004, which is estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 170,000 people in the region of Aceh alone; the sectarian and communal violence in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, and elsewhere in Eastern Indonesia; and the florescence of movements throughout the archipelago, some heavily inflected by Wahhabi-style reformist Islam and the burgeoning of “anti-vice” militias, which have sought greater regional autonomy and at least partial respite from the centralization policies of previous decades.

Processes of decentralization and autonomy serve as the focus of anthropologist Nicholas Long’s Being Malay in Indonesia. The book is based on thirty months of ethnographic research in the Riau Archipelago, which is widely regarded by Malaysians, Indonesians, Singaporeans, and others as a bastion if not the epicenter or ur-source of “traditional” and “authentic” Malay culture, and which has recently aspired to become a center of global manufacturing. Long began his fieldwork in 2005, the year after Riau became an autonomous province (Indonesia’s 32nd). His concerns with processes of decentralization and autonomy lie less with the mass resentments and public protests leading up to them and the governmental machinery mobilized to achieve them, than with their symbols, meanings, and affective entailments. For instance, what kinds of sentiments, dispositions, and embodied subjectivities are engendered and conjoined in these processes? More specifically, how do the inhabitants of present-day Riau experience, understand, and represent what it is to be Malay in their everyday lives and social worlds, and how are these experiences, understandings, and representations informed by “broader trends in public and political culture” (17)? The latter questions are important for a variety of reasons, not least because “Malay” (like “Malayness”) is “‘one of the most challenging and confusing terms in the world of Southeast Asia’ … [a term whose] precise meanings ‘have never been established, and [perhaps] never will be’” (17).1

In endeavoring to answer these and related questions, Long engages recent literature in anthropology and related fields as well as some classics in existentialism [End Page 123] and psychoanalytic theory that have become part of the canon for many scholars involved in the “affective turn.” Especially germane is the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, particularly Sartre’s notion of consciousness and “bad faith,” construed as “an evanescent cognitive condition in which the subject strives to constitute itself in the mode of what it is not” (8); alternatively, as “subjects’ efforts to deny, avoid, or suppress a very particular existential notion of the authentic self” (9). Also relevant is Sigmund Freud’s corpus, most notably Freud’s notion of the “uncanny,” which connects “forms of fear, dread, and unsettledness” (25), just as it links the familiar and the comfortable with “what is concealed and kept hidden” while also emphasizing being “in place and out of place simultaneously” (25).

Following his incisive introductory chapter, Long turns in Chapter 2 to a discussion of the provincial capital, Tanjung Pinang, and the emergence of the various existential, political, and other dilemmas associated with the town’s Malayness. This town, once largely and more or less unproblematically Malay, experienced a massive influx of ethnically diverse migrants from surrounding regions during the years 1983–2008. By the latter part of this period it had also become a haven for Singaporean and other tourists in pursuit of cheap consumer goods, sex, and drugs. These developments led many long-standing residents to worry that their city risked becoming a place of...


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pp. 123-127
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