March 29, 2013, by Tessa Houghton

Berhati-hati! Researching While Mat Salleh

Part 1 of a series of posts on the complexities of engaging in political social science in a neo-authoritarian state.

Cross-posted to

Foreign Dissident

Western Troublemaker

Meddling Mat Salleh

Scion of Soros

Enemy of the State

Until I moved to Malaysia I never knew I was so dangerous. Serius, lah! You probably think I’m joking, but I’m not. I wish I was.

Sure, these kinds of accusations are somewhat amusing, and it’s tempting to respond to them with that most beloved of quotes from The Ever-Abiding Dude: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

But when you’re a Mat Salleh; an Orang Putih; a blonde, blue-eyed, European-looking and mostly-genetically-European New Zealand woman with a tendency to be rather outspoken, and you’re researching the kind of things I research, while living and working in academia within Malaysia? Tidak boleh, cannot. These kinds of opinions count.

Let me tell you a story.

I attended the third Bersih rally as an observer at the end of April last year. Bersih, a coalition demanding free and fair elections in Malaysia, have contributed to the increasing normalisation of street protest and non-violent civil disobedience in Malaysia – a state of affairs that is, by all accounts, a radical departure from the previous state of citizen politics in Malaysia. The day I spent alongside, if not precisely ‘with’ the Bersih crowds was one of the most inspiring, yet simultaneously most frustrating experiences I’ve had in this country. After being told over and over about the racial and religious tensions and conflicts endemic to Malaysian society, I was surrounded by people of all races and religions and ages, talking to one another, laughing with one another, giving masks and salt and water and aid to one another when their government tear-gassed and water-cannoned them, asking simply for the right to elect who they want as their government via a fair and free electoral process.

Every time they sang a protest song or chanted ‘Hidup Rakyat‘, I desperately wanted to join in; every time they clapped their hands and pumped their fists in the air, I held my arms awkwardly by my sides, dressed in demure black and white in a sea of yellow and green. Not because I didn’t support their cause – I do, completely and utterly. Not because I was afraid, although having been informed that I was on my own if I got arrested, there was a little of that too. But primarily I played my observer role because I didn’t want to be that Orang Putih. The one who gave anyone an excuse to raise the spectre of the meddling Westerner who think they know what’s best for Malaysians and Malaysia, evidence of an invasion of whitey-knows-best neoimperialism intent on causing trouble and fracturing unity.

I’m wary of this because I see this discourse mobilised in the government-controlled media again and again. I’m wary, because just about every time I go to a public forum on Malaysian political issues and the media are there, somehow the cameras end up positioned right next to me (and my long-suffering partner, who is of a build more commonly associated with rugby players than electrical engineers, and who is almost as glaringly foreign as I am).

The first, time, I thought it was coincidence. Now I’m not so sure. I wonder how many times I’ve appeared on Malaysian television, a nameless blonde mat salleh laughing at jokes made at the expense of the current regime, iconographic fodder for a discourse that characterises people like me as dissidents and troublemakers, agents of Western imperialist powers, sent to disrupt and destabilise national harmony and contentment – or at least the ideological veneer of this harmony and contentment.

Let me tell you another story.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran a ‘training’ (a.k.a. a workshop) at one of the bigger state universities in Malaysia. It was for a research project I’m working on with the Malaysian Centre for Independent Journalism – we’re going to be monitoring the national media coverage of the ever-imminent, as-yet-unannounced 13th Malaysian General Election, looking for statistical evidence of media bias. (Given the fact that we’re going to be doing a month’s-worth of sentence-level content analysis of 28 different media outlets, spanning print, TV & online media, and in 4 languages, I’ve been running quite a few of these workshop to train our 50-odd coders, and have been privileged to meet academics, students and civil society participants from across the country.) I got to the university a bit early, and just sort of wandered around, as is my wont, until the group I was meeting arrived. I should have known I would have been noticed. The next day, I found out that the academics I’d been working with at the university (who were already being asked to explain their involvement in the project) had been questioned several times along the lines of “Who was that mat salleh and what were you doing with her?”.

I have more of these stories than I like to count.

Maybe I am a dissident and a troublemaker – my research agenda doesn’t exactly suggest otherwise. I make no claim to being objective in my selection of who and what I research – I want, as much as possible, to engage in research that exists in solidarity with progressive issues and causes. I’m a scholar of activist counterpublics; staying dispassionately removed isn’t really an option for me – something I suspect many social scientists will be intimately familiar with. I study these things because I believe (truly, madly, deeply) in them. How I research them is a different matter – there are academic standards to be upheld, and that is as it should be – but that doesn’t mean I’m not trying to intervene on the side of what I see as ‘good’. In line with my favoured methodological tradition, I don’t see the roles of activist and academic as mutually exclusive.

But living and working here, I’ve had to become hyper-aware of the fact that my very presence can be counterproductive to those I’m trying to support. My solidarity can be toxic: to their cause, to them personally. I am a liability, a Schroedinger’s albatross hung round their necks – half dead, half alive, capable of wrecking us all on the rocks of creeping Western influence.

I have learnt to shut my mouth, still my hand, limit my public opinions – none of which comes naturally. I have developed Gramsci-esque abilities in the already-arcane art of writing funding applications. I have become skilled at self-discipline and self-censorship – I won’t sign this petition, because there aren’t enough other signees to hide my name; I won’t lend my voice to this Facebook page, because my hair is too blonde; I will limit my public role in this research project to a dispassionate discussion of the methodology.

I will not stand out, stand up, be counted, because here, I am a negative number.

A crowd multiplied by me = a Western conspiracy.

A mat salleh,
A mat salleh,
We all fall down.

Dr. Tessa Houghton (School of Modern Languages and Cultures at The Univeristy of Nottingham Malaysia Campus)
Image by Nina Matthews Photography (CC BY 2.0)
Posted in MalaysiaPost colonialismResearch