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The Friction of distance in Borneo: migration, economic change and geographic space in Sabah

David R. Saunders

     Maritime Southeast Asia has for centuries been a region in flux. Situated at the crossroads between India and China, its itinerant populations have long contributed to the global spread of ideas, goods and even political systems. Migration throughout this diverse environment—ranging from small tropical atolls to vast islands such as Borneo, which are almost continental in scale—has embedded Southeast Asia into global networks. But scholarship has frequently overlooked these connections.

     Indeed, histories of modern Southeast Asia are often conceptualized through temporal frames that adhere to periods of either colonial or post-colonial rule, rarely spanning both. Studies circumscribed in scope by national and colonial borderlines risk overlooking even broader—often global or transnational—connections. 1 Historians derive such methodological framework from the regional power balances, imperial systems and post-colonial states that were dominant in the day. These were in turn predicated on the state’s enforcement of divisions and boundaries upon their subjects, whether spatial or temporal.2 As a result, Sabah is typecast in historiography as a parochial and undeveloped region; ostensibly segmented from the outside world and its transnational connections.

     In marked contrast, Sabah’s history has been shaped by global interactions. In particular, migration and demographic movement throughout the twentieth century reveals strong connections between the local and the global. But these movements were often impacted by what this article terms frictions of distance. Traditional environmental and geographic frictions, in addition to political or otherwise nonphysical inhibitors such as coercion, legal structures or threats of violence, contoured demographic movement and political authority alike in Sabah.3 The British North Borneo Company, and later the Crown Colony and Malaysian state in Sabah each sought to enforce divisions and boundaries upon their peoples as ways of monopolizing resources and land use. Their efforts at controlling demographic movement were key to this attempted monopolization. Migration, whether permanent or seasonal; inward or outward bound; volitional or involuntary, resulted in much change throughout Southeast Asia. The continually shifting demographic compositions of Southeast Asia’s many ports and cities reflected this transnational dynamism. But while such influxes of traders, laborers, preachers and countless fortune seekers often served to nourish these emerging economies and societies, Sabah’s colonial and post-colonial states invariably perceived migration as a threat.

     As shown in this study, the coastal-bound movement of indigenous Kadazandusuns and Muruts out of Sabah’s hinterland in the 1920s and 1940s energized colonial fears of insurrection emanating from the forests. It purported to undermine the local cultivation of rice, and, as colonials argued, it threatened hinterland security. This article traces attempts at controlling popular migration ranging from legislation devised to block coastal-bound movement, to plans devised to import labor from Italy and Mauritius. Finally, the legacies of these political interventions are considered alongside contemporary socio-economic pressures in Sabah. Though the direction of government-approved migration may have changed in the post-colonial era, continued uncertainty and greater coastal penetration threatens to undermine Borneo’s hinterland.

     Transnational—and even global—migration continues to shape Sabah. Scholars have recently shown how the influx of Chinese, Javanese, Buginese and Suluk settlers, amongst many other minorities from across Asia, stimulates government anxiety in Sabah as much today as it did in the 1950s and 1960s.4 Similarly, the rapid growth of Chinese communities in the port towns of Jesselton, Sandakan, Kudat and Lahad Datu precipitated governmental concerns of economic domination and, during the Cold War, of communist infiltration.5 This has been well documented in recent scholarship. 6 And while the threat of communism in Sabah was decidedly exaggerated, it resulted in the marginalization of minorities and entire ethnic groups.7

     Amongst prominent local and indigenous communities, too, xenophobic tendencies reached a fever pitch in the run-up to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. 8 The creation of Malaysia itself hinged on the forced inclusion of Sabah’s predominantly indigenous populations, who were strategically recast as ethnic Malay bumiputeras [‘sons of the soil’] to counterbalance Singapore’s Chinese-majority population.9 State-managed policies of demographic exclusion and the enforcement of racist hierarchies have continued, or even proliferated, in the years since decolonization. 10

     This article ultimately explores the antecedents of these contemporary socio-political pressures. It shows how resource monopolization, legal and political coercion and impediments to free movement shaped Sabah’s peoples and the uncertain status of its minorities. The friction of distance thus serves as an important motif for conceptualizing the struggles of populations in motion. Typically employed in studies of contemporary migration, such approaches hold that demographic flows will follow paths of least resistance. 11 With these aforementioned environmental and human frictions intensifying over greater distances, remoter communities are often affected disproportionately. By examining strands of least resistance—such as waterways and roads—against areas of most resistance—nonphysical (human) inhibitors and topographical features—anthropologists and human geographers are able to more accurately map migratory patterns. This study historicizes demographic movement.

     Distance, therefore, helps encapsulate the human experience in Sabah’s past. Indeed, while distance often manifests in Sabah’s geography and place, it is ultimately its human factors—the attempts by marginalized indigenous and migrant communities to survive and maintain their ways of life—that is most reflective of these defining socio-economic and political changes. These human interactions ultimately serve as the engine driving Sabah’s history. Analyzing the effects wrought by distance upon patterns of migration, socio-economic change and governance provides a more balanced understanding of the inequalities segmenting Sabah’s wealthy, globally-connected ports from its impoverished, environmentally-ravaged hinterland. In the colonial period, as in recent years, Borneo’s forested interior and ethnic minorities remain obfuscated and distanced conceptually from world history.

Map 1: A map of British North Borneo, by Edward Stanford for the British North Borneo Company, 1899. Source: Library of Congress,
Public Domain under US copyright law as work published before 1925 and copyright not renewed.

Migration over a longue durée

     Impediments to free movement across Borneo shaped how people lived their lives. Frictions of distance compelled migrants and travelers to take paths of least resistance, or at times forgo movement altogether. Southeast Asia’s most remote communities were particularly impacted by these dynamics. Although Sabah’s vast mountain ranges and tracts of rainforest delimited such migration, its coastline simultaneously facilitated global connections through its numerous ‘secure and capacious’ natural harbors. 12 Indeed, in such places the environment connected disparate communities as much as it supposedly isolated them. As this article demonstrates, however, human factors—ranging from government legislation and labor laws, to post-colonial attempts at controlling the forests—contrastingly curbed free movement and shaped Sabah’s history.

     For millennia, local communities plied their trades through ferrying sought-after ‘jungle produce’ to merchants along the coast, before returning upstream with commodities, foodstuffs and in later years foreign manufactured goods.13 This barter trading was made possible by thousands of kilometers of rivers that penetrated deep into Borneo’s interior. These waterways allowed indigenous rivercraft to moor alongside Chinese, Malay, Suluk, and increasingly by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European vessels along the coast.14

     Empowered by these transnational and trans-regional trades over the centuries, a series of influential polities consolidated their grasp upon Borneo. Alongside this, the spread of Islam across maritime Southeast Asia since the thirteenth century saw the injection of foreign religion and culture into Borneo.15 Between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries, Sabah’s coastline became largely Islamized, having come under the suzerainty of the often-warring sultanates of Brunei, Sulu and Bulungan. 16 These sultanates exerted influence over a series of lesser Malay-style chieftaincies which ‘derived their power . . . from tolls levied on river traffic.’17 They also extended protection over merchants and local elites from pirates and brigands. This relationship meant that Sabah’s indigenous polities were at once connected to global circuits of peoples, goods and ideas, whilst also exerting influence across the hinterland.

     Although this movement of goods and peoples had profound impacts on Sabah’s indigenous societies and their rulers, it also had global implications. These trades fueled global demand for raw materials and commodities, whilst heightening foreign territorial interest. 18 Foreign involvement in Borneo can be traced to at least the fifth century, when the Chinese monk Faxian was recorded to have first made landfall on the island.19 Fragmentary evidence of Chinese interactions stretches further still into the past, with archaeological discoveries revealing that Chinese porcelain, coins and other artefacts had long been transported inland. These mercantile links were remarkably pervasive, indicative of the global entanglements of a region typically disregarded as parochial. As Eric Tagliacozzo writes, ‘few Bornean societies, from the Kelabit deep in the interior of the island to the Bajau communities scattered along the coasts, can be said to have escaped these fluctuations altogether.’20

     With the advent of Western colonialism in Sabah in the late nineteenth century, however, many of these political and mercantile relationships were interrupted. The chartering of the British North Borneo Company in 1881 precipitated the rise of new systems of resource-extraction in Borneo. Although the early colonial state initially prioritized the extraction of mineral wealth, it swiftly settled on overseeing the growing of tobacco and later rubber along the coastal lowlands. 21 Colonial surveyors and explorers, tasked with charting the hinterland for mineral resources, were unable to locate fabled deposits of diamonds and gold, while the coal that was extracted was deemed to be of substandard quality.22 In fact, much of the oil that today sustains the petroleum extraction economies of Brunei and parts of East Malaysia had not yet been discovered. Unable to realize goals of out-producing the mineral exports of neighboring colonies across Asia, the North Borneo Company oversaw land sales and encouraged the establishment of cash crop estates to lure foreign investment.23 Walter H. Medhurst, a founding member of the company, advocated in 1885 that Sabah would wield ‘commanding commercial influence’ should it become ‘sufficiently developed.’24 And ‘development,’ Medhurst assured, would come easy to Sabah due to its ‘favourable’ conditions for cultivation. 25 Indeed, so ostensibly ‘grand’ was the climate and soil morphology of the coastal lowlands—‘I have never seen products grow so fast anywhere,’ wrote Medhurst—that Sabah would surely rank amongst the best ‘producing districts of the world.’26

     For colonials arriving in Sandakan, Jesselton and Kudat, amongst other coastal entrepôts, Sabah therefore became a site of cash crop cultivation rather than mineral extraction. But no sooner had surveyors and mineral prospectors been drafted into the new colonial project than they found themselves replaced by agronomists, botanists and a bevy of plantation estate managers from India, Singapore and Malaya, eager to import the Empire’s most profitable cultivars.27 Alongside British speculators came planters from the Netherlands, who, seeking to avoid taxation and regulation in the Dutch East Indies, ‘made preliminary plantings of tobacco’ at newly purchased concessions on Banggi Island and at Marudu Bay.28 These were prime coastal locations, poised towards trade with Hong Kong to the north.

     Colonials cast Sabah as an unregulated frontier for limitless opportunity. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, new high-yield tobacco varieties, such as the common Nicotiana tabacum, came to dominate the territory’s nascent cash crop industry.29 By the early twentieth century, however, rubber took precedence, with Hevea brasiliensis cuttings brought over from Brazil via Singapore swiftly transforming swathes of Sabah’s jungle into ordered and regulated spaces of cultivation.30 The rise of these plantations induced major environmental changes, which, colonials believed, would also feasibly eliminate much of the topographical frictions of distance that restricted colonial authority to Sabah’s coast. Borneo was swiftly embedded into global networks of cash crop trading.

     These changes occurred in tandem with a decline in political connections between coast and hinterland that had once sustained Borneo’s coastal sultanates. In its early years, the North Borneo Company was unable to maintain age-old political links with the interior. Impoverished and understaffed, the Company was confined to the coasts, where its officers ‘saw little or nothing of the people they were supposed to be ruling’ and where ‘the native peoples would not bother to visit them in their coastal outposts.’ 31 Colonial authority across the hinterland ‘remain[ed] questionable for many years,’ a vacuum that only abated with the rise of the increasingly pervasive post-colonial state in the 1960s and 1970s.32

     Traditional networks of hinterland commerce and kinship, which had for centuries supported Borneo’s sultanates, fell out of favor too. Indeed, where in previous years the coast was primarily a meeting ground for traders in the outflow of ‘jungle produce,’ by the late 1910s and early 1920s it was swiftly becoming a destination for indigenous workers and agriculturalists who had abandoned their hinterland Kampongs [villages] and rice crops in search of employment at colonial estates. Many endured great risks to migrate towards coastal ports and plantations, spending meagre life savings to hitch rides on rivercraft, or suffering weeks of travel trudging through unwieldy terrain. The coast, therefore, remained a point of convergence, though the nature of these exchanges had fundamentally changed. New sources of employment took hold, but it was not to last. Almost immediately, the government attempted to regulate indigenous migration, redefining the relationship between Sabah’s colonized coastline, global economic markets and the fiercely independent hinterland.

Map 2: Sandakan harbor from Walter J. Clutterbuck ‘s travel memoir, About Ceylon and Borneo, About Ceylon and Borneo; Being an Account of Two Visits to Ceylon, One to Borneo, and How We Fell Out on Our Homeward Journey, published in 1891 by Longmans and Green, page 177. See conditions of use under “no copyright restrictions” at

Shifting patterns of migration in a colonial state

     Southeast Asia was gripped by a catastrophic ‘rice crisis’ between 1919 and 1921.33 Longstanding cultivation shortfalls meant that Sabah had long been dependent on imports from rice-rich regions such as Burma, Indochina and Siam. 34 For years, imports remained stable and cheap, resulting in few measures emplaced by the government to safeguard provision. Production across Southeast Asia faltered in 1919, however, prompting rampant speculative buying, soaring prices and dwindling reserves. The hinterland was hit the hardest.

     The colonial government turned its attention to the local growing of rice. Indigenous Kadazandusun and Murut communities grew rice only sporadically, alternating between cash crops and other food sources depending on need. But other food crops diminished, too, with sago growing—referred to as the ‘barometer of native prosperity’—having virtually ceased by 1921.35 Coupled with these massive rice shortages, the rise of coastal-bound migration threatened to undermine indigenous kampong populations and with it, colonial officers feared, the overall security and economic viability of Sabah.36 Traditional indigenous elites—Orang kaya kayas [rich rich men] and Orang tuas [kampong heads; literally ‘old men’]—also resented this demographic change as it purported to undermine their authority.

     Indeed, from the colonial state’s perspective, food shortage and internal migration posed a greater threat to economic viability and state security than it did to public health. Although census data collected every decade in Sabah since 1891 showed that Murut communities were declining, little was done to ameliorate malnutrition or disease.37 Murut populations declined sharply in the 1920s and continued to suffer throughout the mid to late twentieth century due to periodic epidemics, famines and depopulation through migration.

     Amidst such demographic uncertainty, desires for economic productivity and social stability came to dominate government policy in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, following the rice crisis, the government sought to combat declining kampong populations by blocking coastal-bound migration, whilst promoting increased marriage, births and rice cultivation.38 According to Stephen Holley, who later served as post-colonial State Secretary to the Chief Minister in the 1960s, the advent of rubber plantations ‘disturbed Kampong life.’ 39 This was especially the case, he argued, in the ‘remoter areas where the adults, both male and female, would trek to an estate to work for a few months, leaving the old and infirm and their children to fend for themselves.’40 For the colonial state, such a dislocation of traditional kinship patterns portended social unrest. Matters were complicated by the fact that the government had no way of accurately keeping track of people once they had migrated towards the towns and plantation estates. Colonial officers bemoaned how those migrating for work would often change their names in between periods of employment, rendering plantation records unreliable. 41 Indigenous traction and mobility, it would seem, was undermining colonial authority.

     This high level of indigenous integration into Sabah’s plantation economy took colonials by surprise.42 In 1922, the government condemned that it had recently ‘become the practice to employ indigenous laborers on estates.’43 It argued that hiring indigenous workers was initially ‘not contemplated.’ 44 Migrants from Java, Sumatra and southern China had instead been intended to form the bulk of the plantation workforce. Assuaged by guarantees from immigration brokers, the government deemed foreign workers more reliable. 45

     Local Kadazandusun and Murut elites agreed. Many Orang tuas and Orang kaya kayas had long decried the loss of their subjects to new colonial plantations. Rice fields went untilled, whilst longhouses and hamlets were increasingly abandoned. There was concern amongst certain quarters of the European plantation sector, too. Although some estate owners bemoaned a loss of their workers, prejudice towards indigenous peoples and their supposedly poor work ethic meant that many bosses were eager to switch to foreign sources of labor. Indeed, some plantation managers voiced alarm that bad habits were spreading from the hinterland to the workplace, where productivity and discipline was enforced by meting-out violent punishment and withholding wages.46 One estate manager, for instance, even complained that it was often ‘difficult to find a sober man among them’ when it was time to rouse his predominantly ‘native’ workforce for work.47

     The government swiftly drafted legislation in March 1922 attempting to prohibit coastal-bound migration and reduce indigenous employment at the estates. 48 Crucially, the new Labour Ordinance also provided indigenous leaders with legal powers to recall their subjects back to their Kampong to cultivate rice for up to three months per year. 49 As well as intending to guarantee stable cultivation during the rice planting season, these labor recalls were also devised to provide time for the ‘renewal of relations with their families.’ 50 Indeed, C. F. C. Macaskie, Protector of Labour, stated that by arresting the free movement of indigenous workers, the government’s principal objectives were simply ‘marriage and increased population.’ 51 What was not considered, however, was that many of these people maintained families at estate compounds. Neither the company—nor the indigenous elites eager to rally their kampong numbers—acknowledged that these people had migrated voluntarily in search of employment and opportunity. But such movement upset colonial desires to maintain stability in the hinterland.

Image 1. Photograph taken by George Cathcart Woolley of a padi [rice] field in Inanam, a Bajau community north of Jesselton, c. 1937. According to Woolley, these fields were unirrigated and therefore subject to natural variations in water levels. In times of drought or low rainfall, rice cultivation ceased. Source: Colonial Office (CO) 874/463, The National Archives (TNA).

     Collaboration with Sabah’s indigenous elites was fundamental to the implementation of the Labour Ordinance. Barely a month after its implementation, thousands of indigenous workers were forcedly returned to their Kampong to work rice fields at the behest of their traditional leaders. In April 1922, for example, Orang Tu Kambiong of Kampong Bundu Thun toured the Sablas Company’s rubber estate at Papar, before leaving with fifteen employees.52 The forced withdrawal of these five women and ten men—described as skilled rubber tappers—left a sizable dent in the estate’s workforce. 53 In the following months, these labor recalls grew in size and frequency. At another estate in the Papar region, one labor recall in late 1923 saw 72 skilled employees brought back to their hometowns, with only 14 returning after the three-month period, a return rate of less than 20 percent.54

     Across the west coast, in particular, the Labour Ordinance reduced indigenous plantation employment by a large margin. Many of those recalled hailed from remote, interior regions. At the sixteen rubber estates in the Beaufort and South Keppel regions—amongst the largest and most high-yield ventures in Sabah—87.5 percent of indigenous laborers had travelled great distances to seek work, with only 12.5 percent having originated from within a close proximity to the estates. 55 Many of these more distant workers found themselves excluded from participating in the extraction economy after the three month recalls. Journeying back, without the means and infrastructure provided by their Orang tuas, became a trying and costly affair. Legal strictures, facilitated by collaboration between Sabah’s colonial government and indigenous elites, ultimately generated huge frictions of distance that bound many to the interior.

     Many in government, however, doubted the effectiveness of such a policy. Some even warned of its capacity to inflict damage upon the plantation sector, as well as Sabah’s standing in the world economy. There were also evident problems in treating Sabah’s diverse indigenous communities as a single, homogenous group. Stark differences between open lowlands and forested uplands meant that some ethnic groups relied on rice cultivation less than others. Indeed, many were not agriculturalists at all, with Murut communities in particular thriving off subsistence and itinerant hunting lifestyles. 56 Despite this, colonial critiques of indigenous farming practices and cultivation knowhow swiftly took hold. Macaskie argued that many Murut communities were poor agriculturalists, with the rice that was cultivated being used for the brewing of tapai [rice wine or beer] and other ‘jungle liquors.’ 57 To some, the deleterious effects of alcohol were worse than the risk of famine.

     Although the ordinance was effective in changing local patterns of movement and employment, the labor recalls gradually wound down in frequency in the 1930s. Ultimately, colonial-imposed frictions of distance—even with the support of indigenous elites—would fail to impede popular desires to migrate towards the globally-connected coast in search of employment and prosperity. Throughout the 1930s, indigenous labor was augmented with foreign workers from Java, Sumatra and China, via Singapore and Hong Kong respectively.58 But by the late 1940s, after a prolonged period of wartime occupation, labor and food shortages once again took hold, prompting further attempts to manage popular movement in Borneo.

Forced migration against the friction of distance

In the wake of the Second World War, Sabah faced tremendous ruin. Famine and disease wreaked havoc upon much of the population, disproportionately impacting remote indigenous communities. Orang Tua Oman, of Kampong Benoni in the west coast’s Papar district, claimed that ‘everything was habis [finished, devastated or ruined].’59

     While indeed devastating, the impacts of war and Japanese occupation also served to heighten the multitude of problems long affecting indigenous society in Sabah. Tenuous trades in foodstuffs, medicines and commodities ground to a halt, while local cultivation of rice and sago was again interrupted. kampongs were disconnected. The pathways and bridges that had once linked port to rural settlement; coastal buyer to upland proprietor, and so on, had all but become overgrown and lost to the jungle. For many of the most remote interior communities, frictions of distance again threatened to become insurmountable. Contemporaneously, the return to British rule in late 1945, and the establishment of a new Crown Colony administration in July 1946, swiftly saw the rekindling of colonial desires to resume cash crop exports. The prevailing thought in government was that a ‘healthy’ colonial economy would lead to a prosperous and contented public, thereby preventing the rise of anti-colonial opposition.60 The world was in this period dominated by the rise of anti-colonial nationalisms and independence movements.61 Sabah’s new Crown Colony administration, however, met little of the direct or unified opposition that had arisen in the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines and other Western colonies across Southeast Asia. 62 Yet there were dissenters. Indigenous elites decried the lack of food and medical supplies. Pockets of Japanese soldiers, unaware that the war had come to an end, continued to hold-out in distant forest enclaves well into 1947, disrupting nearby Kampong. 63

     It was against this backdrop of hardship that the motivations underpinning colonial administration were laid bare. Although withheld from public scrutiny, the foremost colonial concerns at the time lay in the reassertion of administration and the rejuvenation of commercial exports. 64 Profit always ranked highly in the official view. As a component of an old imperial structure that was predicated on a ‘self-generating and self-financing system,’ Sabah’s very purpose as a newly-established crown colony hinged on achieving profitability.65 While colonial officers at the time were swift to point out the differences between the pre-war chartered company and the supposedly enlightened system that followed, the post-war administration’s proclivity for commerce and profit swiftly became evident. Little would change in the decades that followed, especially for Sabah’s hinterland communities. As David Phillips argues, ‘the flow of historical development is not determined by the raising and lowering of national flags.’ 66 In this sense, mainstream historiographical periodization segmenting various colonial from post-colonial periods risks overlooking continuity.

     If these continuities in colonial objectives were obvious, then so too were the continuities in the practice and operation of the state. On an administrative level, the new crown colony regime was merely a retrofitted version of the old North Borneo Company. Many company employees were simply elevated after the war to become formal colonial officers, while old systems and schema were revived. Even the company’s ‘nondescript system’ of ‘commercial practice’ remained in use. 67 This had massive implications upon how the territory was governed, and crucially how administrators sought to control popular migration and economic participation. Although the temporary Allied military administration in 1945 had prioritized increased food production, the new government’s policy soon shifted to allow for a speedy return to cash crop growing. 68 In its policy recommendation for 1947, the new Department of Agriculture declared that ‘ . . . it is essential in the interests of general welfare and improvement of living conditions amongst the peasant agriculturalist, that due consideration should be afforded to the rehabilitation of cash crops.’ 69

     As in previous decades, fears that food shortages could lead to unrest and opposition circulated in government. Sabah’s Department of Immigration and Labour was keenly aware of this apparent causal relationship. Indigenous cultivation of rice, sago and other food crops was considered essential in placating opposition and in keeping distant communities locked away in the hinterland. Indeed, in its policy review for 1948, the Department declared that the rice harvest was the ‘tie which binds natives most firmly to their villages,’ and that efforts to ‘preserve village organisation’ were essential. 70 The problem administrators faced was to augment commercial production of rubber whilst coercing indigenous Kadazandusuns and Muruts to remain in their kampongs and work their rice fields. Labor shortages, however, meant that there was not enough manpower to devote to the growing of food and to tend to the territory’s myriad war-damaged estates.

     Food shortfalls were compounded by major climactic abnormalities across Borneo in the post-war period, leading to widespread crop failure.71 ‘Disasters . . . struck the island at regular intervals,’ writes Hans Knapen, ‘droughts, warfare, floods, forest fires, crop failures, and epidemics’ were common throughout Borneo’s history.72 1946 was little different: ‘exceptionally dry’ conditions and ‘unseasonable weather . . . prevailed during the normal padi [rice] planting season,’ reducing the ‘total area planted.’73 By the end of the year, local rice yields barely accounted for 40-50 percent of Sabah’s requirements, with governmental expenditure on agriculture outweighing revenue by fifteen to one. 74 Food yields remained insufficient between 1947 and 1949. 75 Administrators, seeking to revitalize Sabah’s cash crop industry, had jumped the gun before stable food provision could be guaranteed.

     Although labor shortages persisted, the government continued to oppose the inclusion of indigenous workers into the rubber cultivation system. In order to augment labor supply, the government sought to import people from all over the world to generate a stable workforce.76 Indeed, amidst the post-war ruin in Europe, government officials in Sabah broached the possibility of bringing in displaced workers from Italy to cultivate unused land. 77 The novel scheme was later aborted, however, due to concerns about Italians effectively integrating into Borneo. Its multi-ethnic society, tropical climate and logistical issues relating to transport and cost, were cited as reasons for its cancellation.78Some frictions of distance were simply too challenging.

     A competing plan was formulated in August 1947 to import up to 20,000 workers from Mauritius, which unlike Borneo, was considered overpopulated.79 In a wider global context, this heralded the beginning of the ‘Windrush generation,’ where after June 1948 vast numbers of migrants from the Caribbean were encouraged to resettle in Britain, Canada and elsewhere across the Commonwealth to make up for post-war labor shortfalls. 80 That the Mauritian plan predated the initial sailing of HMT Empire Windrush by almost a year reveals how Sabah lay at the forefront of global, trans-colonial and transnational labor reallocations after the war.

     The scale of the Mauritian proposal was enormous. Census data indicates that in 1948 Sabah’s total population was merely 336,000, with only one fifth estimated to be engaged in ‘wage-earning’ work. 81 The rest of the population was typically involved in subsistence farming or barter trading. The number of laborers employed in private estates and commercial agricultural ventures in 1948 numbered only 13,600 individuals, compared to 20,500 before the war in 1940. 82 The proposed influx of 20,000 immigrants would have drastically altered the territory, more than doubling the available workforce.

     For many in government, the lure of revitalizing commercial exports remained too enticing. Although the Mauritian plan was initially devised to bring in labor ‘to develop rice cultivation,’ officials later declared that it would bolster cash crops.83 How this change came about revealed that despite colonial pledges to usher ‘progress,’ the government’s desire for profitability remained dominant. 84 In November 1948, the proposal was met with staunch criticism amongst colonials over fears that it would paradoxically place undue strain on the fragile post-war economy.85 Most of Sabah’s surviving plantations simply could not cover the costs of passage to bring the Mauritian laborers into Borneo. 86 Likewise, there was opposition in government to bearing the costs on the estates’ behalf. What was initially envisioned as a mutually-beneficial scheme to offset Mauritian overpopulation and to aid food cultivation in Sabah, had swiftly transformed into an ill-defined plan to reinvigorate the territory’s cash crop estates. Indeed, most of the plantations that stood to benefit from the plan were overgrown and derelict following years of wartime abandonment. Unkempt fields and groves had to be reclaimed from the jungle. And in places where pre-war rubber trees could not be salvaged, it would take years for the replacement saplings to grow and mature for stable latex collection.

     The Mauritian plan was further scrutinized in 1949 by R. C. Wilkinson, Sabah’s Labour Commissioner, who despite having initial reservations, concluded that a small-scale trial should first be implemented. 87 He suggested that fifty families—rather than 20,000 individuals—should be sent to work at the Darvel Tobacco Estate to grow vegetables. Tobacco cultivation in Sabah had never recovered since its precipitous decline in the late 1890s. 88 That the government decided to prop up an ailing tobacco firm—albeit to ostensibly grow vegetables—suggests the extent to which commercial interests remained intertwined with colonial administration.

     While the Mauritian scheme was judged to be ‘well worth trying,’ potential complications remained.89 Plantation bosses grew skeptical because the plan no longer purported to offer free labor for cash crop cultivation. Others voiced concerns that Borneo was ‘by no means so well fitted for human habitation as is Mauritius.’90 It was felt that the ‘imported’ Mauritian families, like the Italians, would surely struggle to adapt to the harsh realities of the ‘undeveloped’ Bornean environment. Wilkinson conceded that the lack of adequate roads, railways, towns and public amenities would lead to a ‘bottleneck of communications.’ 91 Confined in virtual isolation at the defunct tobacco plantation in Darvel Bay in the distant east—now a picturesque tourist destination and vibrant fishing tow—these families could hardly have been more disconnected from the populated west coast. There was little government sympathy: if the Mauritians were willing ‘to put up with the bare necessities without ornament or luxury,’ wrote Wilkinson, then they may well prosper at the ‘frontier of civilisation.’ 92

     These immigration schemes ultimately failed to alleviate Sabah’s food cultivation woes. As in previous decades, cash crop ventures increasingly turned towards indigenous workers, who steadily migrated towards the coast despite governmental obstruction. In 1948, the Department of Immigration and Labour noted with concern that out of the 13,600 people employed at plantations, 56.4 percent were ‘natives,’ a considerable increase over the 46.3 percent recorded in 1940.93 They feared that this could contribute to organized dissent in the towns and plantations. One official reported that ‘the indigenous native is being drawn from his traditional ways of life into wage-earning employment,’ highlighting a revival of fears from the 1920s. 94

     Concerns such as these reveal latent colonial beliefs about coastal-bound migration and the perceived importance of limiting such movement. Diminishing kampong populations and low food yields risked undermining the tenuous support for the colonial state amongst key indigenous elites. Although these state-imposed frictions curbing migration remained in place until the end of colonial rule, the profitability of natural rubber was soon undermined by the advent of American synthetic latex in the 1940s and 1950s. 95 Sabah bore the brunt of these global economic fluctuations. Many rubber estates could not return to profitability, and the entire system swiftly fell apart. Indeed, after decolonization, the Foreign Office would later remark in 1967 that the prioritizing of cash crops in the 1940s was misguided, given that the rubber market ‘was a delicate one’ and already proven to be in terminal decline.96

     Such attempts at arresting the flow of popular migration are revealing of the government’s priorities amidst grave uncertainties. Despite the precipitous decline of the global rubber market, the growth of commercial logging in the late 1950s and 1960s propped up the ailing colonial economy. Taking the path of least resistance, the colony once again slid into profitability on the back of the world’s demand for Borneo’s tropical hardwood forests. As in neighboring Indonesia, Borneo’s forests ‘were not destroyed for local needs; their products were taken for the world.’97 But this process simultaneously enriched Sabah’s coastal elites. Colonial—and later post-colonial—forestry revolving around the commodification of the environment signified a return to resource extraction over cultivation. On the eve of decolonization, the late-colonial state ultimately differed little to its pre-war predecessor. Indigenous groups remained pushed out of logging and profit-making to make way for colonial, and later multinational, businesses.

Continued uncertainty during the post-colonial period

     Just as Sabah’s post-war Crown Colony was a retrofitted version of the North Borneo Company, so too in many ways was the post-colonial Malaysian regime established in September 1963. Unlike many colonial territories across Asia, Sabah never achieved independence. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which paints Sabah’s absorption into Malaysia as a merdeka [independence; freedom] moment, its merger led to an even more pervasive form of foreign rule. 98 Post-colonial figureheads were empowered through collaboration and power-brokering with the departing colonial state. Entire systems of administration were simply carried over, projecting a shadow of colonial rule beyond ostensible decolonization. It was only in the late 1960s that ex-colonial officers were gradually replaced by Malayan bureaucrats from the Peninsula amidst the ‘Malayanisation’ of Borneo. 99

     Although seldom discussed in the context of Sabah, this phenomenon has been well documented in the wider literature.100 Scholars have shown how other post-colonial states frequently relied upon—and often heightened—colonial-era infrastructure, systems and laws. This was enabled by their inheriting of a late-colonial state geared towards the suppression of dissent and demographic movement and the monopolization of capital and resources.

     Disregard for indigenous lifestyles and agricultural knowhow, too, continued in post-colonial Sabah. Debate has raged since the 1970s and 1980s regarding the relative environmental impacts of commercial logging versus indigenous agronomy.101 Numerous politicians, bureaucrats and individuals with vested interests in the logging industry argue that indigenous agriculture paradoxically inflicts more damage upon the forests than does commercial tree-felling. According to the government, intermittent rice and sago cultivation ‘based on the forest-fallow system and the rotation of fields rather than crops’ serves as the main driving force behind rampant deforestation in Sabah and neighboring Sarawak. 102 Although such condemnation echoed colonial-era critiques of indigenous farming knowhow, in the post-colonial period it also signaled a shift in the government’s intended roles for indigenous peoples. No longer were Kadazandusun and Murut minorities to be limited as static agriculturalists. Where in the past the state sought to bind them to the hinterland, since the 1970s and 1980s, this containment has been largely reversed. Amidst the transition towards commercial and state-led logging, the forest itself became increasingly commodifiable, and thus a greater target for state control.

     Alongside these great political and economic changes lay a shift in the role played by Sabah’s indigenous peoples in the post-colonial state. Where in the past the colonial government declared them best ‘locked’ away in the hinterland to promote rice cultivation and traditional kinship, in the post-colonial era they serve a new political role as bumiputeras. The post-colonial government has sought to counterbalance the once-welcomed arrival of foreign migrants from southern China, Java, Sulawesi and the southern Philippines, amongst other regions, with a steady flow of internal migrants. This is achieved by promoting internal migration and resettlement along Sabah’s burgeoning ports, thereby fueling urbanization and ‘development,’ whilst also reversing old colonial policies. Amidst the promulgation of Melayu identity amongst local groups, the state has increasingly shunned once valuable sources of foreign labor. 103 But with this steady reclassifying of indigenous groups into bumiputeras, great sacrifices are incurred by those coerced into abandoning traditions and access to their tanah ayer [homeland].

     Like an ebbing tide, the flow and counter-flow of human migration into and across Sabah amounts to a struggle between popular desires for free movement and state-led attempts at controlling it. Almost immediately after decolonization, the new state emplaced legal frictions of distance to limit movement within—but not out of—the hinterland. It expanded upon earlier colonial attempts at controlling the interior, but differed in that exodus was now actively encouraged, and at times even compelled. Previously, in 1930, the North Borneo Company enacted a Land Ordinance to project upon Sabah’s indigenous communities the ‘concept of private property,’ devised to facilitate the company’s buying and reselling of forest land. 104 The ordinance failed to redefine local land use, however, due to colonial misunderstandings of local adat [laws and customs], in which land was owned communally by the entire kampong rather than individuals.

     Prior to the growth of commercial logging, much of the interior was left to fend for itself. But with easing topographical frictions and correspondingly greater governmental access to the forests in the 1960s and 1970s, indigenous land use across Sabah came under heightened scrutiny. The passing of the 1968 Forest Enactment directly expanded upon the colonial-era Land Ordinance. 105 As Jill Cariño and Christian Erni argue, although the enactment ‘recognises the a priori rights of indigenous peoples to the forests, the government failed to notify [them] . . . of the need to come forward before the alienation of their lands.’106 With their lands being rapidly sequestered under the guise of ‘Forest Reserves’ by government officers, many indigenous communities were without notification dispossessed of their traditional holdings. In its wake, state-led deforestation grew rapidly as ‘reserves’ were then sold off to the highest bidder. Nor were itinerant hunting and gathering communities spared either. The 1984 Parks Enactment further empowered state authorities to ‘prevent people from encroaching into parks,’ denying many indigenous communities access to forest areas customarily used for hunting and the ‘collection of food and medicinal plants.’ 107

     Such pressure exerted upon Sabah’s hinterland communities emerged alongside attempts to incentivize coastal resettlement. This was conducted with the aim of forging a new sense of Melayu identity.108 By promoting Melayu and Muslim ideals amongst Sabah’s public, it was believed that a greater state-wide unity could be enforced in a territory long shaped by ethnic, linguistic and cultural heterogeneity. This served the wider Malaysian nation-building project as much as it did the economic agenda of Sabah’s government. Increasingly, since the 1970s and 1980s, people have been actively lured towards the coasts to work in the growing tourism and oil palm industries, with indigenous leaders formally divested of their traditional powers in favor of new coastal-metropolitan elites.

     These trends continue in Sabah today. In Kampong Tiong, for instance, a small community located in the southern foothills of Mount Kinabalu, locals resent increasing governmental intervention. ‘The fact that the government now appoints village leaders’ has caused local outrage and doubts over the ‘quality of leadership.’ 109 Matters are complicated by the fact that the state-appointed leader actually ‘resides outside the village,’ seeing little to nothing of the people they are meant to rule.110 Such trends are repeated across Sabah. Proliferating governmental influence has redefined many livelihoods, while increased physical, ideological and cultural distance between leader and subjects further ostracizes disenfranchised groups. Compared to other communities, however, Kampong Tiong’s relative proximity and links by road to Kota Kinabalu (formerly Jesselton) means that many of its residents—including many women—receive formal education and seek work in urban areas. This has been flagged by the government as evidence of positive change. Yet in contrast, many of Sabah’s more remote and disconnected communities have been pushed out of greater economic participation without reaping such apparent benefits. Indeed, similarly disenfranchised of their lands, many Kampong continue to lack logistical, educational and medical infrastructure. In Kampong Gana, for example, this has had a knock-on effect on the role of women. As men tend to assume dominant roles in local ‘decision-making processes’ and migrate towards the coast in search of employment, many women in Kampong Gana have been overburdened by household and family constraints and are thereby locked into cycles of poverty. 111 Demographic (im)mobility, therefore, has major implications on people’s access to work, opportunity and education.

     Tensions exist in Sabah over whether the recent trend of proliferating coastal-bound migration represents a positive change. Officials assert that the commercialization of the forests—and the associated increase in demographic movement—leads to greater opportunity, global connectedness and thus ‘development.’ Divested indigenous leaders and those without access to their tanah ayer, education and healthcare, however, decry a loss of rights and opportunities. Although construed by the state as free movement and social ‘development,’ as Sabah’s indigenous communities migrate towards logging and palm oil ventures, they are suiting metropolitan goals at the expense of their own autonomy. Despite great economic changes, migration in Sabah continues to reveal how access to resources and wider geographic space remains monopolized by coastal elites.


Examining the impacts of popular migration and demographic movement helps cast important light upon Sabah’s global entanglements. This article has traced how state-managed attempts at controlling migration—on a global scale, from Italy to Mauritius, as well as within Borneo—reveal the significance of demographic movement and the human experience in Sabah’s past. This has implications upon world history, where the fates of peoples caught up in virtually contemporaneous demographic relocations—such as that of the ‘Windrush generation’—remain uncertain even today.

     Migration—and the attempts to control its flow—serves a key role in explaining Borneo’s positioning in the world. While state-led attempts at dictating the pace of migration are important, movement itself can be a vital measure of local, as well as global and transnational interactions, such as the rise of post-colonial statehood and shifts in world economies. On the surface, traction signals ease of movement and interconnectedness, whereas friction indicates immobility; whether political obstruction or inherent environmental difficulty. Yet migration can also signify movement in times of emergency: famines, wars, epidemics, droughts and natural disasters have dominated Borneo throughout history. Sabah remains today a place in such turmoil: environmental changes impact lowland coastal areas; pollution and waste threatens agriculture and livelihoods; while deforestation-induced flooding and erosion contours the hinterland anew. A lingering precariousness shapes many peoples’ lives in Sabah, particularly amongst minority, indigenous and immigrant groups.

     The shifting fortunes of migrants in Borneo—both internal and foreign—represents one of the most understudied aspects of Southeast Asian history. This article has explored the antecedents of modern migration in Sabah by focusing on the key instances of government-induced demographic intervention during the twentieth century. In so doing, it has shown how the rise of (post)colonial regimes in Sabah redefined the links between the coast and the hinterland, and their subsequent transnational entanglements. Governmental efforts to control and dictate popular migration amongst indigenous Murut and Kadazandusun groups endured throughout much of the twentieth century, during which people were at times either prevented from accessing coastal work and opportunity, or contrastingly forced to relinquish their homelands to make way for logging firms. Elaborate and often abortive schemes to import labor, at first from Italy, and later Mauritius (but also Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi and southern China) contributed to a long tradition of inducing demographic movement to suit the whims of state and private resource extraction projects.

     Through adopting a longue durée approach, this study has demonstrated that Sabah’s history was characterized by significant socio-economic and demographic continuities over the years. These continuities reveal the extent that Sabah was embedded into global economic and political systems, despite often being disregarded by scholars as parochial and isolated. This broad-brush approach further demonstrates the extent that these continuities in resource acquisition, territorial and population control, as well as the ostracisation of unwanted minorities, have defied conventional historiographical periodization. In this sense, this article has argued that de jure political transitions do not necessarily amount to instances of major change.

     Examining the shifting fortunes of the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and the dislocated—those hailing from within Sabah and from afar—contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the lasting impacts of foreign rule. Likewise, the friction of distance provides a useful framework for tracing the experiences of those whose voices have either been silenced or seldom recorded in the official archive. Although anthropologists, geographers, political scientists and even historians today have greater access to recording indigenous and contemporary grassroots experiences, documentation relating to their forebears in Sabah remains scant. For wider scholarship on empire, decolonization and world history, therefore, such an approach facilitates a better appreciation for how popular desires for opportunity and stability shaped migration, economic change and indeed even the state itself. Legacies of migration, too, gain salience in a world still dominated by the afterlives of transnational demographic movement as witnessed in Borneo, and across wider Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. Amidst present-day environmental and geopolitical uncertainties, populations remain in motion.

David R. Saunders is currently a Part Time Lecturer of History at the University of Hong Kong, where he completed his PhD in 2020. His research interests are in colonialism, decolonization, and state formation in Southeast Asia. He is currently working on a book manuscript reconceptualizing decolonization in Sabah and the formation of Malaysia. He has recently written on island sovereignty and maritime disputes, published in TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia ( He can be reached by email at


1 In critiquing orthodox national histories, C. A. Bayly wrote that the term transnational ‘gives a sense of movement and interpenetration’ which is seldom present in traditional narratives. Likewise, he argued that transnational perspectives provide valuable nuance, where, for instance, ‘nineteenth century Malay sultanates looked to the Ottoman empire for legitimacy … something that does not come out very clearly in the “colonial Malaya” literature.’ See C. A. Bayly et al., ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History,’ The American Historical Review, 111.5 (2006), 1442-1452. James C. Scott similarly describes how the transnational turn in history achieves particular salience in the Southeast Asian context, where the ‘historical hegemony of the state is less obvious than … in India, China or in Europe.’ In this sense, virtually all of Southeast Asia’s various (post)colonial states laid claim to territories and regions that were beyond their capacity to control. Complex, intertwining border regions with populations that permeate ‘state lines’ further undermines this sense of hegemony. See James C. Scott, ‘Introduction to the Launch Issue,’ TRaNS: Trans–Regional and –National Studies of Southeast Asia, 1.1 (2013), 1-2.

2Jay O’Brien and William Roseberry, ‘Introduction,’ in Jay O’Brien and William Roseberry (eds.), Golden Ages, Dark Ages: Imagining the Past in Anthropology and History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 1-2. Further divisions exist, of course, regarding religion, ethnicity, language and access to resources and wider economic participation. While the term ‘friction of distance’ derives from human geography and migration studies, a similar concept has been utilised by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing in Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 3-4, to describe a so-called ‘friction of global connections,’ whereby global economic systems cause ‘messy’ entanglements on the ground. James C. Scott similarly introduces the term ‘friction of progress’ to show how states have been compelled to ‘streamline’ society and promote modernity, efficiency and minimal resistance. See James C. Scott,Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 93 and 237.

3 While the term ‘friction of distance’ derives from human geography and migration studies, a similar concept has been utilised by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing in Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 3-4, to describe a so-called ‘friction of global connections,’ whereby global economic systems cause ‘messy’ entanglements on the ground. James C. Scott similarly introduces the term ‘friction of progress’ to show how states have been compelled to ‘streamline’ society and promote modernity, efficiency and minimal resistance. See James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 93 and 237.

4See, for instance, Andrew M. Carruthers work: ‘“Their Accent Would Betray Them:” Clandestine Movement and the Sound of “Illegality” in Malaysia’s Borderlands,’ SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, 32.2 (2017), 221-59 and ‘Grading Qualities and (Un)settling Equivalences: Undocumented Migration, Commensuration, and Intrusive Phonosonics in the Indonesia-Malaysia Borderlands,’ Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 27.2 (2017), 124-50. For colonial perspectives on Javanese influences in Sabah, see ‘Indonesian associations used for subversion,’ 1962–3, in 2012/0012491, Arkib Negara Malaysia(ANM), 25-8.

5 Similar anti-Chinese (and anti-communist) sentiments developed rapidly in Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the mass-killing of Communists in 1965 and 1966. See, for instance, Taomo Zhou, Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia and the Cold War (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2019), in particular, chapters 5 and 6.

6 See Danny Wong Tze Ken, Historical Sabah: The Chinese (Kota Kinabalu: Natural History Publications (Borneo), 2005).

7 Robert Donhauser to Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, 16 October 1962, in National Security Files (NSF), Series 1, Box 140, Malaya/Malaysia, John F. Kennedy (JFK) Library.

8 In one such case in 1962, Datu Mustapha bin Datu Harun, the de facto leader of Sabah’s Suluk and wider Muslim communities, threatened to call upon his people to ‘set fire to the houses of Chinese and kill them,’ while in other cases, indigenous political organisations decried the nefarious agenda of Sabah’s so-called ‘immigrant races.’ See, for instance, ‘The Hon. Datu Mustapha bin Datu Harun, O.B.E.,’ 13 July 1962, in Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) 141/13013, The National Archives, UK (TNA), 95, and The United Kadazan National Organisation Executive Committee, ‘Memorandum on Malaysia for consideration of the Commission of Enquiry on Malaysia,’ 22 February 1962, ‘Cobbold Submissions – Associations,’ in Colonial Office (CO) 947/17, TNA, 13.

9 Alice M. Nah, ‘(Re)mapping indigenous “race”/place in postcolonial Peninsular Malaysia,’ Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, 88.3, (2006), 285.

10Herman J. Luping, The Kadazans and Sabah Politics, PhD diss. (The Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, 1985), pp. 1-2. See also Fausto Barlocco, Identity and the State in Malaysia (London: Routledge, 2014), 54-5.

11See, for instance, the work of Jonathan Rigg: ‘From Rural to Urban: A Geography of Boundary Crossing in Southeast Asia,’ TRaNS: Trans–Regional and –National Studies of Southeast Asia, 1.1 (2013), 5-26 and ‘From Traction to Friction in Thailand: The Emerging Southeast Asian Development Problematique,’ TRaNS: Trans–Regional and –National Studies of Southeast Asia, 6.1 (2018), 1-26.

12 ‘North Borneo,’ House of Lords (HL) Debate (Deb), 23 June 1892, Vol. 5 cc1808-19, 1.

13 Michael R. Dove, The Banana Tree at the Gate: A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 74-5. Typical ‘jungle produce’ ranged from camphor, animal skins and sago, to edible birds’ nests and copra (dried coconut kernels), amongst other commodities.

14Amarjit Kaur, Wage Labour in Southeast Asia since 1840: Globalisation, the International Division of Labour and Labour Transformations (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 5.

15 See, for instance, Kenneth R. Hall, ‘Upstream and Downstream Unification in Southeast Asia’s First Islamic Polity: the Changing Sense of Community in the Fifteenth Century “Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai” Court Chronicle,’ Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 44.2 (2001), 198, and Elizabeth Lambourn, ‘Tombstones, Texts and Typologies: Seeing Sources for the Early History of Islam in Southeast Asia,’ Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 51.2 (2008), 254.

16See, for instance, Graham Saunders, A History of Brunei (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1994), 64 and G. Carter Bentley, ‘Indigenous States of Southeast Asia,’ Annual Review of Anthropology, 15 (1986), 287.

17Amarjit Kaur, Economic Change in East Malaysia: Sabah and Sarawak since 1850 (London: Macmillan, 1998), 56-7.

18 Much of Hong Kong and Japan’s post-war economic resurgence in the late 1940s and 1950s was on the back of timber felled in Sabah. Vast quantities of tropical hardwoods were exported to Hong Kong for processing, manufacturing and re-exporting. In previous decades rubber, tobacco and lesser cash crops sustained many disparate economies in Asia. See Ooi Jin Bee, Tropical Deforestation: The Tyranny of Time (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 1993), 86.

19Eric Tagliacozzo, ‘Onto the Coasts and Into the Forests: Ramifications of the China Trade on the Ecological History of Northwest Borneo, 900–1900 CE,’ inHistories of the Borneo Environment: Economic, Political and Social Dimensions of Change and Continuity, Reed L. Wadley (ed.), (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2005), 27.

20Ibid, 31-2.

21The Library Atlas of Modern Geography (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1891), 37.

22 Danny Wong Tze Ken, Historical Sabah: Community and Society (Kota Kinabalu: Natural History Publications (Sabah), 2004), 51.

23Andrew Massey, The Political Economy of Stagnation: British North Borneo Under the Chartered Company, 1881–1946 (Kota Kinabalu: Arkib Negeri Sabah, 2006), 202-3.

24Walter H. Medhurst, British North Borneo (London: Unwin Brothers, 1885), 7.

25Ibid, 6.

26Ibid, 7.

27This process was aided in due course by the untimely deaths of some of the North Borneo Company’s early employees, such as Frank Hatton, who died surveying the Kinabatangan delta in March 1883. See Joseph Hatton, ‘Frank Hatton in North Borneo,’ The Century Magazine, Vol. VIII (1885), 438-9.

28 David R. Saunders W. John and James C. Jackson, ‘The Tobacco Industry of North Borneo: A Distinctive Form of Plantation Agriculture,’ Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 4:1 (1974), 91-2.

29 Ibid, 88-92.

30D. S. Ranjit Singh, The Making of Sabah, 1865–1941: The Dynamics of Indigenous Society (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 2000), 239.

31Ian D. Black, ‘Native Administration by the British North Borneo Chartered Company,’ PhD diss. (Australian National University, 1970), 161.

32Ibid, 163.

33 See, Paul H. Kratoska, ‘The British Empire and the Southeast Asian Rice Crisis of 1919–1921,’ Modern Asian Studies, 24.1 (1990), 115-46 and Haydon Cherry, Down and Out in Saigon: Stories of the Poor in a Colonial City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 94-5.

34Kratoska, ‘The British Empire and the Southeast Asian Rice Crisis,’ 116.

35‘Annual Report on the West Coast Residency for 1921,’ State of North Borneo Supplement to the Official Gazette, 1921, in CO 648/9, TNA, 223.

36 State of North Borneo, Official Gazette, No. 15, Vol. XXXIII, 23 October 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, p. 38.

37Singh, The Making of Sabah, 27.

38C. F. C. Macaskie to Secretariat, 7 July 1922, in CO 874/938, 80.

39Stephen Holley, A White Headhunter in Borneo (Kota Kinabalu: Natural History Publications (Borneo), 2004), 67.


41 C. F. C. Macaskie to Secretariat, 6 August 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, 50.

42D. R. Maxwell, Protector of Labour, to Assistant Protectors, 9 March 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, 53 and ‘Native Labour in North Borneo,’ China Express & Telegraph, 25 May 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, 81.

43State of North Borneo, Official Gazette, No. 15, Vol. XXXIII, 23 October 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, 38.

44‘Native Labour in North Borneo,’ China Express & Telegraph, 25 May 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, 81.

45Maureen De Silva, ‘Javanese Indentured Labourers in British North Borneo, 1914–1932,’ PhD diss. (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2009), 193-4.

46 De Silva, ‘Javanese Indentured Labourers in British North Borneo, 1914–1932,’ 61-2.

47NBCA 1201, ‘Problems employing native labourers’ in Arkib Negeri Sabah [Sabah State Archives], quoted in Maureen De Silva, ‘Javanese Indentured Labourers in British North Borneo, 1914–1932,’ 61.

48 H. W. L. Bunbury to Secretariat, 14 March 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, 52.


50State of North Borneo, Official Gazette, No. 15, Vol. XXXIII, 23 October 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, 38.

51C. F. C. Macaskie to Secretariat, 7 July 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, 80.

52 R. J. Graham to Secretary of the Sablas North Borneo Rubber Limited, 10 May 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, 100-101.

53 Ibid.

54N. G. Flynn to North Borneo Chartered Company Secretary, 3 October 1923, in CO 874/938, TNA, 26-7.

55C. F. C. Macaskie to West Coast and Interior Residency estate managers, 29 July 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, 60.

56 Michael R. Dove, ‘Smallholder Rubber and Swidden Agriculture in Borneo: A Sustainable Adaptation to the Ecology and Economy of the Tropical Forest,’Economic Botany, 47.2 (1993), 137.

57 C. F. C. Macaskie to West Coast and Interior Residency estate managers, 29 July 1922, in CO 874/938, TNA, 60..

58Douglas James Jardine, Administration Report for the year 1936, 1937, in CO 648/18, TNA, 30. See also De Silva, ‘Javanese Indentured Labourers in British North Borneo, 1914–1932,’ 259..

59Ronald J. Brooks, Under Five Flags: The Story of Sabah, East Malaysia (Edinburgh: The Pentland Press Ltd., 1999), 149.

60 ‘Annual Report for the Department of Immigration and Labour for the year 1948,’ in CO 648/23, TNA, 366.

61Paul Kratostka (ed.), ‘Introduction,’ in Southeast Asian Minorities in the Wartime Japanese Empire (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), 1-2.


63Ueno Itsuyoshi, An End to a War: A Japanese Soldier’s Experience of the 1945 Death Marches of North Borneo, Mika Reilly (trans.) (Kota Kinabalu: Opus Publications, 2012), 94, and Ooi Keat Gin, Post-War Borneo, 1945–1950: Nationalism, Empire and State-Building (London: Routledge, 2013), 57-8.

64Azmi Arifin, ‘Local Historians and the Historiography of Malay Nationalism, 1945–57: The British, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Malay Left,’ Kajian Malaysia, 32.1 (2014), 3.

65Wm. Roger Louis, Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez and Decolonization (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 452.

66Phillips, ‘The Migrated Archives,’ 1005.

67Arthur G. Tubb, ‘Report on Accounts and Finances for the Colony of North Borneo,’ 31 October 1947, in CO 648/23, TNA, 9.

68‘Annual Report of the Department of Agriculture for the year 1946,’ in CO 648/23, TNA, 2.


70‘Annual Report of the Department of Immigration and Labour for the year 1948,’ in CO 648/23, TNA, 366.

71‘Annual Report of the Department of Agriculture for the year 1946,’ in CO 648/23, TNA, 4.

72 Hans Knapen, Forests of Fortune? The Environmental History of Southeast Borneo, 1600-1880 (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2001, 367).

73 ‘Annual Report of the Department of Agriculture for the year 1946,’ in CO 648/23, TNA, 4.

74Ibid, 4-12.

75 ‘Annual Report of the Department of Agriculture for the year 1947,’ in CO 648/23, TNA, 81, and ‘Annual Report of the Colony of North Borneo for the year 1949,’ Council Paper No. 3, in CO 648/23, TNA, 24.

76 ‘Annual Report of the Department of Immigration and Labour for the year 1948,’ in CO 648/23, TNA, 354.

77‘Possible use of Italian labour in North Borneo,’ 1949, in FO 371/79536, TNA.


79P. Wilkins, Memorandum, ‘Recruitment of Agricultural Labour for North Borneo, 22 August 1947, in CO 167/942/6, TNA, 1.

80Marika Sherwood, ‘World War II and its Aftermath: Anti-imperialist struggles and the growth of multi-ethnic Britain,’ Teaching History, 90.1 (1998), 29-32.

81‘Annual Report of the Department of Immigration and Labour for the year 1948,’ in CO 648/23, TNA, p. 358.

82Ibid, 359.

83P. Wilkins, Memorandum, ‘Recruitment of Agricultural Labour for North Borneo, 22 August 1947, in CO 167/942/6, TNA, 1.

84‘“Material Rehabilitation is Borneo’s Most Urgent Task” – G. G.,’ Morning Tribune, 16 July 1946, 3.

85Higham to Sidebotham, Memorandum, 24 November 1948, in CO 167/942/6, TNA, 9-10.

86 Ibid.

87R. C. Wilkinson, ‘Report on the Project of Emigration from Mauritius to North Borneo,’ 1949, in CO 167/942/6 TNA.


89 Ibid.

90Ibid, 3.



93‘Annual Report of the Department of Immigration and Labour for the Year 1948,’ in CO 648/23, TNA, 359.


95Patricia Harvey to Penelope A. Keddie, Memorandum, Foreign Office Joint Research Department, 3 January 1967, in FO 370/2878, TNA.


97Tsing, Friction, 2.

98Many scholars continually refer to post-1963 Sabah as having achieved ‘independence.’ See Kaur, Economic Change in East Malaysia, 169.

99Björn Åsgård, ‘Ethnic Awareness and Development: A Study of the Kadazan Dusun, Sabah, Malaysia,’ Honours diss. (University of Gothenburg, 2002), 12

100See, for instance, Joseph M. Hodge, ‘British Colonial Expertise, Post-Colonial Careering and the Early History of International Development,’ Journal of Modern European History, 8.1 (2010), 24-5 and John Darwin, ‘What Was the Late Colonial State?’ Itinerario, 23.3-4 (1999), 73-82.

101Victor T. King, ‘Environmental Change in Malaysian Borneo: Fire, drought and rain,’ in Environmental Change in South-East Asia: People, Politics and Sustainable Development, Michael J. G. Parnwell and Raymond L. Bryant (eds.) (London: Routledge, 2017), 165.

102 Ibid.

103See Carruthers ‘“Their Accent Would Betray Them,”’ 221-59 and ‘Grading Qualities and (Un)settling Equivalences,’ 124-50.

104Jill Cariño and Christian Erni (eds.), Indigenous Peoples and Local Government: Experiences from Malaysia and the Philippines (Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2004), 90.

105State of Sabah, ‘Forest Enactment, 1968’ (Sabah No. 2 of 1968).

106Cariño and Erni (eds.), Indigenous Peoples and Local Government, 90.


108Åsgård, ‘Ethnic Awareness and Development, p. 12 and Barlocco, Identity and the State in Malaysia, 54-5.

109Cariño and Erni (eds.), Indigenous Peoples and Local Government,I 94.


111Ibid, 99-100.

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