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Media and Nation Building

Media and Nation Building: How the Iban became Malaysian

John Postill
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Media and Nation Building
    Book Description:

    With the end of the Cold War and the proliferation of civil wars and "regime changes," the question of nation building has acquired great practical and theoretical urgency. From Eastern Europe to East Timor, Afghanistan and recently Iraq, the United States and its allies have often been accused of shirking their nation-building responsibilities as their attention - and that of the media -- turned to yet another regional crisis. While much has been written about the growing influence of television and the Internet on modern warfare, little is known about the relationship between media and nation building. This book explores, for the first time, this relationship by means of a paradigmatic case of successful nation building: Malaysia. Based on extended fieldwork and historical research, the author follows the diffusion, adoption, and social uses of media among the Iban of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo and demonstrates the wide-ranging process of nation building that has accompanied the Iban adoption of radio, clocks, print media, and television. In less than four decades, Iban longhouses ('villages under one roof') have become media organizations shaped by the official ideology of Malaysia, a country hastily formed in 1963 by conjoining four disparate territories.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-687-8
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Tables and Appendixes
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  6. Introduction: Media Anthropology in a World of States
    (pp. 1-20)

    We live in a world of states. We have lived in such a world since the dismantling of the British and French empires after the Second World War. The remnants of both empires are still present, but the influence of Britain and France has waned as steadily as that of the United States, China, India and other large states has grown. In the 1990s, the now global inter-state system penetrated deep into the former Soviet bloc (the last European empire) and into non-aligned Yugoslavia. The result was a host of post-socialist states, some of which have joined the European Union...

  7. 2 What Became of the Iban?
    (pp. 21-45)

    Most anthropologists of an earlier generation ‘belong’ with a given people. Thus, Malinowski will always belong with the Trobrianders, as will Margaret Mead with the Samoans and Evans-Pritchard with the Nuer (Geertz 1988). Likewise, the late Derek Freeman (1916–2001) is inextricably linked to the Iban of Sarawak – and vice versa. Such is the identification of the Iban with Freeman that specialists in other regions can be forgiven for wondering what became of this Borneo people since Freeman’s classic studies in the 1940s and 1950s. Freeman’s work remains the obligatory entry point to Borneo studies, and it is essential...

  8. 3 Propagating the State, Phase I
    (pp. 46-69)

    In chapter 1, I discussed Gellner’s (1983: 140–143) robust thesis that most states seek to monopolise legitimate culture through mass education and a national language. The driving principle of nationalism, contends Gellner, is ‘one state, one culture’. A key neglected area of research isexactly how, through which media, states seek to transcend their cultural diversity and supposed backwardness and achieve a ‘literate sophisticated high culture’ (1983: 141). In this chapter I argue that one chief site of struggles between central and peripheral ethnic groups in Malaysia is language, and that the Iban and other Dayaks, who lack the...

  9. 4 Propagating the State, Phase II
    (pp. 70-88)

    This chapter covers a second stage of Iban and Malaysian media production, from 1977 to 1998. The latter year was a watershed, the year in which Anwar Ibrahim, at the time Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, was imprisoned. Anwar’s dubious trial and incarceration led to an explosion of alternative and oppositional media, especially news portals and websites (Anuar 2004). It is no exaggeration to say that Malaysia, and its media, underwent epochal changes in 1998 and 1999. Another reason for ending this chapter in 1998 is that this was the year in which I completed the main stage of fieldwork (in...

  10. 5 Sustainable Propaganda
    (pp. 89-112)

    In May 2003 I interviewed a Malay town planner on the subject of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Malaysia. When I asked him about the viability of the countless ICT pilot projects launched across Malaysia, he replied along the lines of: ‘No, we’re not worried about sustainability. Rural people will catch up. You see, when you bombard them with IT propaganda you’re already doing sustainable development!’ I found this idea of propaganda as a form of sustainable development deeply intriguing, and soon after that interview I coined the term ‘sustainable propaganda’. Unfortunately a Google search revealed that the term...

  11. 6 Writing Media
    (pp. 113-133)

    In 1984, the French anthropologist Maurice Bloch attended a conference in Eastern Madagascar on regional history. The attendants were mostly Malagasy academics and students, although there were a few foreign scholars as well. As is the usual practice in Madagascar, the papers were delivered in French, the language of the former colonial power. There was one exception. Arthur Besy, a renowned regional politician and intellectual, delivered a speech in Malagasy that lasted some two hours – well beyond the allocated fifteen minutes. The speech dealt with the origin of a local place name. It was traditional in its formal structure,...

  12. 7 Media Exchanges
    (pp. 134-151)

    In April 1997 I took part in a burial at Entanak Longhouse, my Saribas home base. At dawn, the all-male burial party marched down the longhouse gallery to an uproar of wailing women and the shrill squawking of cocks. The European- style coffin had been fastened onto a long bamboo pole. Half a dozen men carried it. As is customary with death-related practices, it was lowered from the downriver end of the longhouse. The men lifted it onto the back of a lorry and drove some five minutes until they reached a narrow opening in the thick forest undergrowth. The...

  13. 8 Clock Time
    (pp. 152-169)

    Clock-and-calendar time (CCT) may not make the world go round, but it regulates the daily rounds of most people and mobile cultural forms across the world. It is the visible hand of market, state and civil society alike. Its small set of symbols is easily acquired and communicated, for unlike more elaborate codes (e.g., those of art works, Bourdieu 1993), CCT leaves little room for ambiguity. Its material supports (clocks, wristwatches, calendars, diaries, radio sets, television sets, email messages, etc.) are virtually everywhere. CCT has invaded and helped to shape countless economic and technological niches, from offices to farms to...

  14. 9 Calendar Time
    (pp. 170-191)

    No visitor to Sarawak can leave without being invited to Gawai Dayak, the Dayak ‘Harvest Festival’. The Festival is held across Sarawak every year on 1 and 2 June. In 1997 I was at Entanak Longhouse, my main fieldwork base, during Gawai. The following rite of passage, seemingly minor, helps us to broach the close relationship between Gawai and nation building. At 11.56 p.m. on Gawai’s Eve, the master of ceremonies announced through the PA system the imminent ‘countup’¹ to the Gawai holiday. Taking up their positions along the outer wall of the gallery – the place of honour –...

  15. 10 Conclusion
    (pp. 192-199)

    In Anthony D. Smith’s influential formula, introduced in chapter 1, a nation is a:

    named human population which shares myths and memories, a mass public culture, a designated homeland, economic unity and equal rights and duties for all members (Smith 1995: 56–57).

    This succinct definition captures some of the main nation-building themes running through this book. Let us first apply to Malaysia, via a slight re-ordering of Smith’s scheme, the idea of the nation as a ‘named human population’ with ‘a designated homeland’. Malaysia undoubtedly belongs to such a category. It is a UN member state with a high...

  16. References
    (pp. 200-220)
  17. Index
    (pp. 221-232)