Seminar: “Their Accent Would Betray Them”: Undocumented Immigrants and the Sound of Illegality in the East Malaysian Borderlands



About the Seminar
Bugis Indonesians were long encouraged to informally emigrate to the East Malaysian state of Sabah as labourers, where they were readily assimilated as Malay-speaking Muslim members of the greater “Malay race”. In recent years, however, these immigrants have been accused by Sabah’s ethnic Chinese and indigenous Christian groups of displacing “genuine Sabahans”. Bugis immigrants have been framed by these groups as instruments of attempts by the United Malays National Organization to augment the Malay population and re-engineer eastern Malaysia’s political demography. Opposition leaders and concerned Sabahans allege that hundreds of thousands of falsified national identity cards have been distributed to such immigrants, allowing them pass as citizens and illegally vote in elections for UMNO. Minority groups and opposition politicians claim that these illegal interlopers are difficult to distinguish from their “authentic,” co-ethnic Malaysian counterparts due to a practical challenge: they look like locals, speak Malay, and carry fake IDs marking them as citizens. In response, state agents and concerned citizens have begun relying on a particular sensory modality — hearing or listening — in order to sort non-citizens from citizens.

This paper examines how state agents and concerned citizens are identifying illegal immigrants by virtue of their “foreign” or “awkward”-sounding Malay accents. So too, it addresses how undocumented Bugis immigrants are identifying, minimizing, and masking the out-of-place sounds in their Malay speech in order to more effectively pass as locals.

About the Speaker

Andrew M Carruthers is a linguistic and sociocultural anthropologist and a Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. His dissertation research centred on undocumented Indonesian labour migrants in the East Malaysian state of Sabah, evaluating how their assimilatory strategies are shifting amidst ongoing state crackdowns on illegal immigrants. His more recent work focuses on infrastructure and social dynamics of urban life in Makassar, Indonesia. He is the recipient of several grants and awards, including a Fulbright-Hays GPA grant, a Fulbright IIE research grant, and the Society for Linguistic Anthropology Graduate Prize. He holds a B.A. from Cornell, an M.Phil. from Yale, and receives his Ph.D. from Yale in May 2016.

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May 13 2016


10:30 am - 12:00 pm


ISEAS Seminar Room 2