Searching for a Bornean identity?


Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo mixing water and samples of soil from 34 provinces during a ceremony in Penajam Paser Utara, East Kalimantan in this file photo, taken in March 2022, indicating the republic’s preparation to move its capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan. — AFP photo

WHILE glancing through the online Nusantara atlas, I recall the intriguing conversation with its founder. He raised a thought-provoking question about the existence of a distinct ‘Bornean’ identity among the island’s inhabitants.

At least for Kalimantan, as far as I know, there is no singular identity of ‘Kalimantanian’ or ‘Kalimantanese’ equivalent to ‘Sarawakian’ or ‘Sabahan’, let alone a unified ‘Bornean’ identity. It seems that he is not alone in pondering this question, as I recently heard about more thought-provoking ideas along the lines of ‘One Borneo’ (not the shopping mall).

The position of Borneo has undergone remarkable transformation in recent years. In 2019, President Joko Widodo announced the relocation of Indonesia’s capital city from Jakarta to East Kalimantan. This was accompanied by the introduction of several ambitious proposals throughout Kalimantan, including a massive ‘green’ industrial zone, mega hydropower plants, and an extensive food estate initiative.

Simultaneously, amidst national political turmoil, Sabah and Sarawak emerged as influential players in Malaysia’s political landscape. In 2022, Malaysia witnessed the appointment of its first Deputy Prime Minister hailing from Borneo.

Further fuelled by the recent rush for carbon offsetting and renewable energy, which recognises the island’s abundant carbon stock and potential for hydropower, these developments have brought unprecedented attention to Borneo. Such spotlight marks a departure from the past, where many felt the region received inadequate recognition and support at the national and international level.

Now, the people in Borneo have more political leverage to advocate for their claims and assert their rights.

Political divisions

The name ‘Borneo’ is believed to be derived from the phrase ‘Brunei’ and may have roots in Sanskrit, possibly referring to the Hindu god of rain, Váruṇa.

‘Borneo’ could be the pronunciation that evolved from the European transliteration of Brunei. The island is also called ‘Kalimantan’ by Indonesians, possibly derived from the Sanskrit word Kālamanthāna, meaning burning and hot air.

Today, the island is politically divided among Indonesia (73%), Malaysia (26%), and Brunei Darussalam (~1%). This division is a result of the island’s colonial history, with the northern territories under British control and the southern territories colonised by the Dutch. Geographically, the island is separated by a central spine of rugged mountains, which serves as a loose political boundary between Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.

At the subnational level, the region is further divided into eight territories: the five provinces of Kalimantan; the two Malaysian states; and Labuan, a Federal Territory. In the near future, together with Brunei Darussalam, we may potentially see the addition of the tenth territory on the Indonesian side, namely Nusantara.

Despite the political division, trade, people movement, and cultural exchanges occur across the borders. More frequent and extensive exchanges can be observed between Sabah and North Kalimantan, facilitated by sea and land routes.

Meanwhile, Sarawak has closer ties with West Kalimantan. The exchange among the people in the interior is relatively limited due to the challenging mountainous terrain along the border, with exceptions like the Lundayeh communities in Lawas and Krayan, as well as the Murutic communities in Pagalungan and Lumbis.

Multiple ethnicities

Today, Borneo’s socio-cultural characteristics remain predominantly ethnicity-oriented, whether in Malaysian or Indonesian territories. Ethnic classifications in Borneo have significant political implications and are subject to debate. While ethnicity is a fluid concept on the island, the population may be loosely categorised into ethno-religious groups that differ in land-use practices, lifestyles, territorial affinity, and spiritual connections to the land.

The term ‘Dayak’ is currently employed as a collective reference for Borneo’s indigenous non-Muslim population. Prior to the colonial era, the indigenous people did not possess a unified sense of identity. The concept of ‘Dayak’ as a broad and encompassing category was constructed and expanded upon by colonisers and ethnographers. It is essential to acknowledge that Dayak groups exhibit significant variations, and that the ethnic identity of ‘Dayak’ is constantly evolving and adaptable.

Along the coastal areas and riverbanks, the inhabitants are mainly Muslims. The Banjarese, primarily residing in South Kalimantan, is the largest group of Muslims on the island. They were historically engaged in coastal trading and established powerful sultanates in Borneo. Muslim migrants from other islands, such as Java and Sulawesi, also contribute to this ethnic block.

The remaining population mainly consists of Chinese descendants. They primarily reside in highly urbanised areas of Sarawak, West Kalimantan, and Sabah. Some of the earliest waves of migrants arrived in the 18th century, brought to Borneo by the sultanates of West Kalimantan to work as labourers in gold or tin mines. Some established their own mining companies – one notable example being the renowned Lanfang company in Sambas.

There could be nearly 1 million non-citizen residents in Sabah, including stateless people, Indonesians and Filipinos. Some of the second and third generations were born locally but without official identities. Some frequently travel across the porous borders between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, working as low-wage labourers in cities or on plantations.

A ‘Bornean’ identity?

The socio-cultural differences among Borneo’s various population groups are apparent. At the moment, there is no clear definition what exactly a ‘Bornean’ identity could mean.

Perhaps, a Bornean identity could be simply defined by the deep connection to the island’s natural surroundings, encompassing its rivers, mountains, oceans, and rich biodiversity. The shared experience of living in this unique environment and facing common sustainability challenges could also contribute to a collective sense of identity among the people of Borneo.

Additionally, the cultural diversity found across the island is another remarkable characteristic that shapes the Bornean identity, demonstrating a convergence of multiple flavours and exotic elements from different ethnic groups.

Will maintaining strong, diverse local or cultural identities pose a problem for unity? I do not think so. Embracing and celebrating diversity may contribute to a richer and more inclusive identity. Being born as a Southeast Asian, I am grateful for the natural ability to switch identities based on different contexts and environments, allowing me to navigate various social settings and connect with people from different backgrounds.

A sense of unity that transcends artificial political and ethnic boundaries encourages collaboration and cooperation. There are too many sustainability issues, from water pollution to climate change, require collective efforts, shared responsibilities, and coordinated actions across these boundaries. Forging a ‘Bornean’ identity may not only create a sense of belonging to Borneo’s nature, but also inspire creativity and innovation in addressing sustainability challenges.


My friends across Borneo used to jokingly refer to me as an ‘honorary Bornean’ due to my frequent visits and affinity for the island. I am departing for Germany for a job at an international organisation, which means, sadly, I will have to pause this column for a while. Hopefully, there will soon be opportunities to resume it someday with fresh perspectives.

Dr Goh Chun Sheng is a researcher at Harvard University. He studies sustainable development in Borneo, captivated by the myriad complexities and possibilities it holds. His book, ‘Transforming Borneo: From Land Exploitation to Sustainable Development’, was published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore in March 2023.