Making sense of Melayu
: an ethnographic study of primary school children in Brunei Darussalam

  • Shariza Wahyuna Shahrin

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This study examines how social relations in a school, and at home, shape primary school children’s understanding of Melayu (Malay) in Brunei Darussalam. Social relations, specifically the child-child, teacher-pupil, and parent-child relationships, are significant because they inform children’s notions of being Malay as well as uncover ideas that are taken for granted by adults. Concurrently, these relationships highlight the fundamental condition of intersubjectivity, as a form of human sociality.

The ethnographic fieldwork for the study took place at a state school between January 2016 until March 2017. While pupils are the main focus of the study, teachers, parents and guardians are also interviewed because of its usefulness in investigating their experiences when they were primary school children themselves in order to document the transformation of ideas due to changing historical circumstances. The methods used are mainly participant observation and interviews as well as casual conversations with both children and adults.

From the data gathered, the major themes that form the research – and is tied together in the Bruneian context – is personhood, Malay, morality, and respect. Children come to understand the concept of Malay, and what it means to be a Brunei Malay Muslim person, through the different ideas and understandings of respect, which is inextricably linked with moral values and hierarchical relations, against a backdrop of state ideology and the Islamic religion. Consequently, what is significant is that children do not see themselves being born as a Malay person but that they eventually become Malay through their relationships with others. Therefore, I argue that the basis of all social interaction centres on respect since it figures powerfully in the maintenance and negotiation of social relationships. Overall, this study contributes to the current discourse on personhood and to the anthropological inquiry on the concept of respect.
Date of Award28 Jun 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorChristina Toren (Supervisor)

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