Yunci Cai

Performing Cultures, Negotiating Identities: The Instrumentalisation of Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Malaysia

Influenced by international indigenous rights movements and heritage activism, indigenous cultures in Malaysia are experiencing a revival. Indigenous peoples are actively engaging in the display and performance of their tangible and intangible cultural heritage, manifested in the demonstration of traditional crafts, customs and rituals, as well as the recent establishment of indigenous cultural villages, a form of ‘living museum’, which aims to preserve the ‘living’ traditions and customs of cultural peoples by exhibiting collections of buildings and expressions of cultural heritage in an open-air setting. Based on a multi-sited ethnographic study of indigenous cultural heritage in Malaysia, I seek to investigate how this heritage is instrumentalised and articulated by different actors and stakeholders, including international and local activists, the Malaysian government, cultural brokers, tourists, researchers and the indigenous peoples themselves, to serve different agendas.

In this thesis, I examine the emergence of indigenous heritage consciousness and the proliferation of indigenous cultural villages in Malaysia by investigating their surrounding dynamics, focusing on the ideologies of the Malaysian government towards the state’s indigenous peoples vis-à-vis the indigenous peoples’ own sense of cultural identity and heritage, the government’s efforts to assimilate indigenous populations into mainstream Malaysian society, and the roles of international and local activists and cultural brokers in these dynamics. I investigate the role of indigenous cultural heritage in Malaysian national politics, and consider the impacts of this entanglement between indigenous peoples and the state on the form and function of their cultural identity and heritage.

Indigenous peoples have now been integrated in different ways and to different degrees into the urban fabric of modernising Malaysia, amidst immense pressures from the Malaysian state to integrate and assimilate them into the dominant Malay Muslim society. While developmental pressures have brought significant changes to their livelihoods and lifestyles, different indigenous groups have taken on a somewhat different approach in coping with the challenges. One method of resisting the homogenising influence of Malaysian national identity has been for indigenous populations to differentiate themselves through instrumentalising their cultural heritage. While the ostensible aim is to showcase and preserve their cultural heritage, this instrumentalisation of heritage has presented radically different outcomes for the peoples due to their different levels of agency and involvement. This thesis seeks to explore some of these political, social and cultural dynamics.

My investigation into indigenous cultural heritage in Malaysia is structured around five core questions:

  1. What accounts for the emergence of indigenous heritage consciousness in Malaysia?
  2. How is indigenous cultural heritage being instrumentalised and articulated by different actors and stakeholders in Malaysia in relation to their respective agendas?
  3. What are the discourses on indigenous cultural heritage in the Malaysian context, how are these constructed, and how are they influenced by, and, in turn, influencing international movements and discourses relating to indigenous rights?
  4. What has led to the proliferation of indigenous cultural villages in Malaysia? What purposes are they intended to serve, and how effective are they in achieving these goals?
  5. What impacts does the instrumentalisation of their cultural heritage have on the cultural practices, knowledge and identity of indigenous peoples in Malaysia?

My research contributes to the areas of indigenous anthropology by exploring how cultural heritage is being instrumentalised by indigenous peoples to serve different agendas. It contributes to the anthropology of development by offering empirical data on cultural brokerage in heritage developmental work and indigenous movements in the relatively under-researched region of Southeast Asia. My research gathers first-hand information on the development of indigenous cultural villages in Malaysia, a relatively under-researched area of the world, which can offer insights for government and peoples seeking to promote indigenous cultural heritage and establish indigenous cultural villages.

Funding organisation

  • UCL Overseas Research Scholarship
  • UCL Graduate Research Scholarship

Supervisors

 Educational background

  • B.Soc.Sci (Hons), Geography (First Class), National University of Singapore, 2005
  • MA, Museum Studies (Distinction), University College London, 2010

Cai, Yunci (Forthcoming) “Indigenous Cultural Villages as an Inclusive Museum Model?: Issues and Challenges of Showcasing Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Malaysia” in Conference Proceedings of Sabah Museum Golden Jubilee Seminar and Workshop: The Museum and Sabah’s Heritage – Past, Present and Future.

Cai, Yunci (Forthcoming) “Indigenous Cultural Villages as an Alternative Museum Model?: A Comparative Study of Indigenous Museums and Cultural Villages in West Malaysia” in Conference Proceedings of Museum of Our Own: In Search of Local Museology for Asia.

Cai, Yunci (Forthcoming) “Performing Cultures, Negotiating Identities: The Cultural Politics of Indigenous Cultural Villages in West Malaysia” in Citizens, Civil Society and Heritage-Making in Asia, Hsiao Hsin-Huang Michael (ed.). Taiwan: Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica.

Cai, Yunci (Forthcoming) “Review of UNESCO in Southeast Asia: World Heritage Sites in Comparative Perspectives” in ASEASUK News

Cai, Yunci and John Baptist, Judeth (2016) “Cleansing the Sacred Mountain in the Aftermath of the 2015 Mount Kinabalu Earthquake” in Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Issue 310, Volume 89, pp. 61 – 78.

Cai, Yunci (2016) “Mohlukas: A Housewarming Ceremony at the Linangkit Cultural Village” in Sabah Malaysia Borneo, March 2016, Issue 180, pp. 10 – 13. Malaysia: Sabah Tourism.

Cai, Yunci (2015) “Review of Museum of Our Own: In Search of Local Museology for Asia” in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Issue 25, Volume 1, pp. 1 – 6.  

Cai, Yunci (2013) “The Art of Museum Diplomacy: The Singapore-France Cultural Collaboration in Perspective” in The International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 127 - 144.

Cai, Yunci (2009) “Museums as Temples of Cultures or Palaces of Entertainment: A Study of New Museums in Singapore” in The International Journal of Inclusive Museum, Issue 1, Volume 3, pp 73 – 85.

Cai, Yunci (2009) “Law and Singapore’s Built Heritage” in Essays in Singapore’s Legal History: In Memory of Professor Geoffrey Wilson Bartholomew, Tan, Kevin Y. L and Hor, Michael (eds.). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp. 87 - 125.

Cai, Yunci (2009) “Living Landscapes: Breathing New Life into Singapore’s Community Heritage Institutions”, in BeMuse, Issue 3, Volume 2, pp. 76 – 79. Singapore: National Heritage Board.

Cai, Yunci (2008) “In the Land of the Ascending Dragon”, in BeMuse, Issue 3, Volume 1, pp. 68 – 75. Singapore: National Heritage Board.

Conference Presentations

Cai, Yunci (2016) “Performing Culture, Negotiating Identities: The Instrumentalisation of Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Sabah, East Malaysia” [Paper Presentation], Presenter, Association of Southeast Asian Studies in the United Kingdom (ASEASUK) Conference 2016, 16 to 18 September, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, United Kingdom

Cai, Yunci (2016) “Performing Culture, Negotiating Identities: The Instrumentalisation of Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Malaysia” [Paper Presentation], Presenter, Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies (CMIS) Seminar, 25 August, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Cai, Yunci (2016) “Performing Culture, Negotiating Identities: The Instrumentalisation of Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Malaysia” [Paper Presentation], Presenter, Sabah Museum Seminar, 12 August, Sabah Museum, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Cai, Yunci (2016) “Harmonising the Natural and Human Worlds: Indigenous Cultural Heritage for Adapting to Climate Change in Sabah, East Malaysia” [Paper Presentation], Presenter, Royal Anthropological Institute Conference: Anthropology, Weather and Climate Change 2016, 27 to 29 May, The British Museum, London, United Kingdom

Cai, Yunci (2015) “The Sustainability of Sabah’s Indigenous Cultural Heritage: Stories from the Field” [Powerpoint Presentation], Presenter, Southeast Asian Art Festival 2015: Film Screening of Musical ‘Aki Nabalu’, with Panel Discussion on Heritage and Sustainability in Asia, 27 November 2015, UCL Institute of Archaeology, London, United Kingdom

Cai, Yunci (2015) “Indigenous Cultural Villages as an Inclusive Museum Model?: Issues and Challenges of Showcasing Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Malaysia” [Paper Presentation], Presenter, Sabah Museum Golden Jubilee Seminar and Workshop: The Museum and Sabah’s Heritage – Past, Present and Future, 28 to 30 July 2015, Sabah Museum, Sabah, Malaysia.

Cai, Yunci (2015) “Saviours or Opportunists?: Cultural Brokers and the Mediation of Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Malaysia” [Paper Presentation], Presenter, 10th Singapore Graduate Forum on Southeast Asia Studies, 24 to 26 June 2015, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Cai, Yunci (2014) “Performing Cultures, Negotiating Identities: The Cultural Politics of Indigenous Cultural Villages in Malaysia” [Paper Presentation], Presenter, Citizens, Civil Society and the Cultural Politics of Heritage-Making in East and Southeast Asia, Academia Sinica Institute of Sociology Conference, 11 to 13 December, Taipei, Taiwan.

Cai, Yunci (2014) “Indigenous Cultural Villages as an Alternative Museum Model?: A Comparative Study of Indigenous Museums and Cultural Villages in West Malaysia” [Paper Presentation], Presenter, Museum of Our Own: In Search of Local Museology for Asia, International Museum Conference organised by Universitas Gadjah Mada (Indonesia) and National Museum of World Cultures (Netherlands), 18 to 20 November, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Cai, Yunci (2014) “From Museum Collections to Museum Souvenirs: Creating a Second Life for Museum Collections through ‘Souveniralisation’” [Powerpoint Presentation], Presenter, Material Properties Conference, 28 February, London, United Kingdom.

Cai, Yunci (2011) “Multicultural Museum Programming in Singapore and the Politics of Inclusion” [Powerpoint Presentation], Co-presenter, Commonwealth Association of Museums (CAM) Conference, 25 to 27 May, Singapore.

Cai, Yunci (2011) “Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Singapore” [PowerPoint Presentation], Networking on East Asia Cultural Heritage (NEACH) Seminar, 5 to 8 March, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Cai, Yunci (2010) “Protection, Preservation and Promotion of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Singapore” [PowerPoint Presentation], Intangible Cultural Heritage and Museum Field School, 23 August to 5 September, Lamphun, Thailand.

Cai, Yunci (2008) “Museums as Temples of Cultures or Palaces of Entertainment: A Study of New Museums in Singapore” [Paper Presentation], International Conference on Inclusive Museum, 8 to 11 June, Leiden, Netherlands.

[Selected publications and conference presentations are available for download at http://ucl.academia.edu/YunciCai.] 


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