The digital reincarnation of a national bestseller by KIT LEEE (now known as ANTARES)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Mat Salleh

If you're white and you're walking along the street and someone says something about Mat Salleh - he's probably referring to you.

The original Mat Salleh wasn't a white. In fact he was probably very, very tanned, being a notorious pirate and the scourge of the Sulu Sea and all.

Another notorious Mat Salleh was a Borneo Malay who stabbed to death a white 'Tuan' and became a cult hero. Even so, the epithet makes sense, since the first white men to appear in these waters were all Great Pirates, though they regarded themselves as traders and royal emissaries. Another explanation I've heard is that 'Mat Salleh' is a mispronunciation of 'mad sailor' - which also makes sense. At any rate the Mat Salleh has been on the scene for so many centuries we have to include this species in our survey.

In colonial times white people were reverentially addressed as Tuan or Mem. After Independence they were called orang puteh by the Malays and ang mo kwee by the Chinese. However, these names were too obvious and the whites quickly caught on. That's when the term Mat Salleh came into popular use.

For some reason the antics of the Mat Salleh have always been a source of awe and amusement to the Natives. Whether it's some well-heeled American heiress who breezes into a souvenir shop and charges up $5,000 worth of knick-knacks on her Mastercard (without even a feeble attempt to haggle); or a determined Danish backpacker who insists on drinking her instant coffee black ('I said no sugar, no milk, and no ice!') indignantly sending her order back three times, the Mat Salleh has solid entertainment value. Especially if she's young, buxom, serious about getting a suntan - and thinks she's just discovered a nice beautiful deserted beach all to herself.

Mat Sallehs in Malaysia fall into three broad categories - short-term, mid-term and long-term.

Short-term ones are mostly tourists, travellers, or fortune-hunters passing through: usually dressed in shorts and short-sleeved batik shirts or singlets emblazoned with a bold Chinese character. There's always a crumpled street map in their hands or else they tend to be conspicuously overdressed in white zoot suits lugging expensive attachè cases and rushing from one business meeting to another, handing out calling cards that proclaim their bearers as Directors of Import-Export Companies or some kind of Consultant.

The mid-term Mat Salleh will be found either in a diplomatic mission, an educational institution, or supervising some high-tech enterprise. He usually resides in Kenny Hill, Ukay Heights, Damansara Heights, or Mont Kiara - the high-rent districts where most houses boast a pool in the garden (although in recent days many opt for luxury condos with all the perks). Weekends he takes his family to Fraser's Hill or Cameron Highlands or else they have a barbecue on the patio. His cultural activities might include membership in the Liberal Arts Society* or the Selangor Philharmonic which gives him and his wife an opportunity to appear in local productions of popular musicals or operas; and attendance at events like a concert by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields or the première of a new work by dancer-choreographer Ramli Ibrahim. Life for the mid-term Mat Salleh is, in short, quite idyllic. And it matters little to him whether he's in Malaysia or Sri Lanka or Senegal or Papua New Guinea. His only fear is being sent back to his home country.

Once you've attained the status of 'mid-term Mat Salleh' it's very easy to deteriorate into being a long-term one. The problem, as usual, is love. It's almost inevitable that the Mat Salleh will fall in love: with a person, with the people, with the place. They wind up getting married to a local and acquiring impressive fluency in Malay (or one of the myriad exotic tongues spoken here). Before long they become addicted to sambal belacan and rice. They get accustomed to eating with their fingers and, what's worse, develop a craving for the flavour and aroma of durian, the king of fruits. Once this happens, it's too late: the Mat Salleh is ready to be conferred honorary citizenship (or even a title, if he's acknowledged as an authority on Malay court traditions like the late Tan Sri Dato Mubin Sheppard) and, for better or worse, he's stuck here with the rest of us Natives.

Tuan - diminutive of Tuhan, Lord.
Mem - contraction of madam, Lady.
orang puteh - literally, white person.
ang mo kwee - Hokkien for 'red-haired devil.'
sambal belacan - a spicy, pungent dip made from dried, savoury shrimp paste pounded with red hot chilli peppers.
durian - an oval or globose fruit with a hard, prickly rind, a soft, creamy pulp, a heavenly flavour, and a hellish odour - according to Webster. It gets its name from the Malay word for thorn, duri.

*now defunct


Anonymous said...

astute in observation, concise in delivery, leaves me pondering .. the wise man of the woods speaks the truth again!


Anonymous said...

Hey Antares,

Very insightful observations - you really have a gift for understanding Malaysian society. Funny blog - I'm looking forward to reading through all of it.

Regarding mat salleh, the only point I'd disagree on is: "And it matters little to him whether he's in Malaysia or Sri Lanka or Senegal or Papua New Guinea."

That may be true for some short-term expats on temporary corporate contracts, but for myself and the other mid-term mat salleh I know, we have a deep love for Malaysia specifically. It's not the money, as I can earn more back home in Australia - I just love the people and the country. Hope to be a long-term mat salleh one day!

Anyway, congrats again on a great blog!


Starmandala said...

George? Mr Wielgus? Sorry I overlooked your comment posted in September 2008! But the appreciation remains fresh :-)

Alex, thanks for reading & commenting. You're among the many good reasons why I decided to convert my out-of-print book into a dedicated blog. Been meaning to offer a downloadable or POD version but got snagged on some technical hitch and lost steam...