The powerful word pendatang is used to describe not just other migrant groups, but also Malaysians residing in the peninsula, in a derogatory and disparaging way. Originally a neutral term without political insinuations, pendatang evolved into a synecdoche—with a new modern meaning—from the late 1970s and 80s. Today, pendatang is used by Malaysian politicians as an exclusionary tool of identity politics. This article argues that this term has grown in influence over society over the years, but also examines how people have attempted to fight back.

While I am a member of a minority community, I began learning about the etymology of pendatang because of an interaction with a woman who has lived her entire life as an irregular migrant on our shores.

Members only

Log in or

Join New Naratif as a member to continue reading


We are independent, ad-free and pro-democracy. Our operations are member-funded. Membership starts from just US$5/month! Alternatively, write to sponsorship@newnaratif.com to request a free sponsored membership. As a member, you are supporting fair payment of freelancers, and a movement for democracy and transnational community building in Southeast Asia.

Vila Somiah

Dr. Vilashini Somiah is a Sabahan anthropologist who received her PhD from the National University of Singapore. Currently a senior lecturer at the Gender Studies Programme at the University of Malaya, her work focuses primarily on underrepresented narratives of women, youth, migrants and marginalised Borneans living in the interiors. With over a decade of research experience behind her Dr. Somiah has also produced interdisciplinary research in the fields of history, politics and socio-economy. Outside of academia, she writes ethnographic articles on the local socio-political landscape.

Ellena Ekarahendy

Ellena is a visual communication designer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Her creative works are integrations between design-thinking and economic, sociopolitical, and cultural discourses. Her works can be found at https://ellenae.work. She's New Naratif’s Art and Design Manager. Reach her at ellena.ekarahendy@newnaratif.com.

Rosmaini Sunarjo

Rosmaini Sunarjo, a.k.a. Mr. Comic, is a freelance artist based in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Mainly operating from his humble studio at the Laman Seni at Wisma Budaya, his diverse range of works include caricature, sculpture, and murals. Find his work on Instagram @artattackrosmaini.