English, Indonesian, and Cocos Malay: Language, Power and Identity on a (Post)colonial tropical atoll

Dr Nicholas Herriman1, Dr Alistair Welsh2, Dr Monika Winarnita2

1La Trobe University, , Australia, 2Deakin University, , Australia

Generally, scholars in postcolonial studies view rejecting a colonial language as a radical act. But is it less radical for (formerly) colonised subjects to speak in the coloniser’s tongue? Based on extensive fieldwork on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, we contend that local Malays have an uneasy relationship with English. After 150 years’ rule under a dynasty of English-speaking ‘White Rajahs’, the local Cocos Malays voted, in 1984, for their islands to be integrated into Australia. As Australian citizens, for the Cocos Malays the significance of using English is context/situation-dependent. Using English can be highly empowering as much as oppressive. However, other options are also problematic. Local residents perceive themselves to be partly descended from Indonesians. Indeed, Indonesian was taught in the local school as part of the Australian education department’s curriculum. This however met with disapproval, leading to calls for the teaching of Cocos Malay. However, Cocos Malay mostly exists as an oral—formal codification has yet to be undertaken. At the same time, most parents desire that their children achieve proficiency in English. This complexity of the language situation is a barometer of the historical and social contestation.


Dr Nicholas Herriman is a senior lecturer in Social and Cultural Anthropology at La Trobe University. He has conducted fieldwork in East Java and on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. His published works included The Entangled State (Yale Southeast Asian Studies) and Witch-hunt and Conspiracy.

Monika, Alistair, and Nick have all undertaken fieldwork among Cocos Malays on Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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