Racial boundary-making has been an oft highlighted theme in the study of colonialism. The most overt symbol of British attempts to make sense of the peoples in the Malay Peninsula is the classification of people according to “race” in the censuses conducted during the colonial period. Drawing on studies of censuses which aim to denaturalise essentialised racial categories, I aim to complicate the depiction of British categorisation in order to show that races and the social identities on which they were based were not static by highlighting the gradations incorporated into the census between “Sakai”, the indigenous peoples, and “Malays”, the main native group in Malaya. Introduced in 1911, the category of “tame Sakai” was as a way of quantifying individuals who could not be categorised as either indigenous or Malay. In the process, however, the factors for inclusion in the original Malay and aboriginal categories themselves became subject to debate. Though in many instances, racial classification amounted to a rigidifying of identities, the case of “tame Sakai” highlights an instance of uncertain categorisation which was outwardly acknowledged within the census. The various discourses pulling at the Sakai category show races not as ideal existing types of humans, but a complex and sometimes contradictory manner of understanding people in Malaya.

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doi.org/10.1080/10357823.2014.928666, hdl.handle.net/1765/102901
Asian Studies Review
Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC)

Manickam, S. (2014). Bridging the Race Barrier: between "Sakai" and "Malays" in the Census Categorisations of British Malaya. Asian Studies Review, 34(3), 367–384. doi:10.1080/10357823.2014.928666