Modern Asian Studies

Powerful Persuasions: The Language of Property and Politics in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo), 1881–1996

a1 Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University

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In this article I examine the similarities between colonialism and postcolonialism in Sabah, Malaysia. I argue that the strategies of rule employed by the colonial and postcolonial states can be viewed as a sustained interaction in which the power of colonial discourses, institutions, and forms of rule still operate in postcolonial Sabah, particularly in terms of control over and access to natural resources. Drawing on archival and ethnographic data I present case studies from the colonial and postcolonial period that demonstrate that whether the focus of state rule is native land management systems and property rights or the conservation of biodiversity the result is the same: both states construct images of what types of agricultural practices and uses of forest resources are appropriate, what types of property regimes can persist, and how rural people should look and act in order to appear modern.

I conclude that the colonial and postcolonial states share the following characteristics: 1) they control access to resources through legal institutions that privilege private property law over customary practices; 2) they invent discourses that justify centralized rule while obfuscating the realities of those who live on the margins and whose lives depend directly on natural resources; 3) they utilize certain ideals of protection and/or commercialization of resources that privileges elite concerns over local concerns and subsistence uses; 4) they blame rural people for resource degradation while overlooking legal, political and economic structures that influence how rural people use resources; and 5) both the colonial and postcolonial states make it difficult for marginal people to define their own interests in their own terms.


Research for this article took place in Kew, England in June and July 1995 and in Sabah, Malaysia from October 1995 to September 1996. The research was made possible by the financial support of Fulbright-Hays, Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Award; National Science Foundation, Law and Social Science Program, Dissertation Improvement Award (#SBR 9511470) and the Social Science Research Council/American Council of Learned Societies, Southeast Asia Program, International Doctoral Dissertation Award.