Becoming bruneian : negotiating cultural and linguistic identities in the 21st century

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As the world has become increasingly globalised, long-held understandings of ethnic, national, religious, cultural, and linguistic identities have been uprooted and diffused. This has resulted in a 21st century re-engagement with the nebulous concept of identity. This ethnographic study explores how the competing forces of essentialising and hybridising social constructs impact the personal identities’ construction of a group of 16 young people in Brunei Darussalam – a sultanate on the island of Borneo. It juxtaposes identity-as-performative with identity-as-assignation in light of the country’s powerful ideology of Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), translating as Malay Islamic Monarchy. This state apparatus seeks to confer and promote a triad of politically desirable identities on all Bruneians in an attempt to preclude the need for agentive identity construction at an individual level, something that is regarded as potentially destabilising. MIB emphasises Malay language and cultural norms as assertions of ethnicity and nationalism. However, Brunei has a rich linguistic ecology in which English, as one of its languages, plays a key role as the dominant medium of education, posing a linguistic dilemma. Drawing on qualitative data, generated by extended participant observation, informal interviews and content analysis, this study seeks to uncover how participants negotiate their multiple identities amid such contradictory influences. What emerges from four-fold thematic analysis (politico-economic; linguistic; religious; socio-cultural) is not a coercion of fixed identities, but a complex dynamic web of accommodation and reconciliation. Participants reveal how they actively calibrate their levels of commitment to or subversion of their many selves to achieve personalised local-global synthesis. In this way, they perform Bruneianness using all of their cultural and linguistic resources.
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