Mat Salleh

The Manglish Dictionary – “Mat Salleh”

No. Is it really that time again? The crowds clamour at the pearly ivory gates of language, begging to be let in. Begging to be enlightened as to the mysteries of Manglish, the accursed pseudo-language spoken by the peoples of Malaysia. Oh Manglish! What confounded, unhallowed secret do you protect! What treasure do you conceal amongst incoherent verse! Pray tell! The last time, we exhumed the all important “Makan”. This time, we plunge further into the black vagaries of Manglish, and explore the genesis of “Mat Salleh”, the honoured title bestowed by Malaysians upon the Westerner.manglish-words-feature-image

“Mat Salleh”

Throughout history, men have always endeavoured to label his fellow with names he thought more suitable. It is not enough that men already had names. Names had to be bestowed upon them, for such is the nature of humans. As time passed, these many names met different fates. Some have become derogatory, others have prospered, and others still have slipped under the surface of history, to be forgotten forever. Here in Malaysia, when the Manglish language is whispered furtively in the black night, the name bestowed upon the Caucasian foreigner spells: “Mat Salleh”. Thankfully, this name has not achieved any derogatory status just yet, and enjoys frequent use without any restrictions, both by Malaysians and good-humored “Mat Sallehs”. But the question remains, why “Mat Salleh”? What is the mode of motion that determined the genesis of such a term? From what shadowy beginnings did “Mat Salleh” originate?

To arrive at a possible answer, we have to look back in time, when from the eye of industrialized Europe poured forth all the power of the Western man in the glorious age of imperialism. In those misty bygone days, Malaysia had once been a colony of the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, and it is inevitable that human nature would conjure names for the men from across the water.

According to this theory, the breed of Caucasian that first arrived onto the soil of Malaysia were drunken sailors, and the non-English-speaking locals learnt of the term “Mad Sailor”, the English manner to describe them. Gradually, this evolved into “Mat Salleh”, and the word is used to this day. Now, it can seem derogatory, for not all Caucasians today are “Mad Sailors”. Some could be “Placid Engineers”, for instance, and could certainly take offense at being called a mad sailor. However, it is worthy to note that although it seems derogatory, the term certainly is not employed as such, and in fact, has the unplaceable, affable tinkling of local charm. It is also necessary to note that while “Mad Sailor” is a largely cited genesis of “Mat Salleh”, it should not be taken as the absolute truth, as simple research shows that the source of this information is a single, anecdotal article in the New Straits Times published 24 years ago.

Not a good representation of Westerners.

But what of the term “Mat Salleh” itself? Does it not contain any meaning on it’s own? Or did it borrow completely from the phonetic sounds of English words? In Malay, “Mat” is the common denominator used to address persons back in the day. While “Mat Salleh” was used very often during the colonial era, there were other, less known “Mats”, with which Malaysians used to refer to Western men.  

Among the most terrific of which were “Mat Kambing”, and “Kambing” refers to a goat. “Mat Gila”, where “Gila” refers to madness, and also the delightful “Mat Gendut”, where “Gendut” means “pot-bellied”. Obviously, these are more offensive than “Mat Salleh”, and they have fallen completely out of use. Then what of “Salleh”? Does that mean anything? Well, it turns out that “Salleh” is just a name, and Mat Salleh happens to be the name of a native man born in Borneo (now Sabah), who ironically led an uprising against his “Mat Salleh” conquerors for 10 years.

The genesis of such a thing can never truly be discovered, as detailed documentation surrounding the label didn’t exist at the time, and by extension, could not possibly exist now. We can only shoot into the wind and conduct elaborate guesswork as to the mythical “Mat Salleh”.

So, if you hear echoes of “Mat Salleh” while walking the streets of Malaysia, have no fear, it isn’t a catcall or a discriminatory insult, merely the name of a dead guy. But, there are other more fabulous and mysterious terms used to refer to Caucasians employed in Manglish. Besides “Mat Salleh”, there is also the well-known Cantonese “Gweilo” and the Hokkien “Angmo”, both literally meaning “Ghost Man” and “Red-haired” respectively. But these fantastic specimens, we will only visit, perhaps, in another story.

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