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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.
In 2013, while conducting ethnographic research on undocumentedness and irregular migration in the town of Lahad Datu, I met 52-year-old Siama. To support herself and her three children, Siama depended on daily sales of smuggled cigarettes and illegal medication from Mindanao. It was difficult to make a decent wage when competing with hundreds of others in the small town. Siama made it a point to ask everyone she could to buy her wares. She’d probably spotted me conducting fieldwork in the market for some weeks already, and decided to try her luck. Although I had no desire to consume the cigarettes, I quickly agreed to buy a pack of Astro Reds, just to make her acquaintance.
As I rummaged through my bag for spare change, Siama asked why I was always simbang-simbang (chit-chatting) with migrants from the Philippines. I gave my rehearsed answer on wanting to expand discourse around migration in Sabah. As she was eager to continue with her sales, our conversation only lasted for 10 minutes, but I was struck by Siama’s choice of word for migrant: perantau, rather than the more common pendatang. Days later, I asked her if the two words carried the same meaning, and she said yes. As children, she and many like her had seen themselves as perantau, but had in recent years been called pendatang. I was left with several questions: what’s the difference between a perantau and a pendatang? Why and how did this shift happen? And what impact did it leave on us along the way?
What’s the difference between a perantau and a pendatang? Why and how did this shift happen? And what impact did it leave on us along the way?
From perantau to pendatang
To understand this evolution, it’s necessary to look further into the history of migration in the region and the language surrounding it. Merantau (out-migration), a practice from the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra, is the traditional Minangkabau act of voluntary migration. Young adult males migrate around the rantau, or region, to garner beneficial experience and independent income. J.T. Newbold estimated that the arrival of Minang people to the Malayan Peninsula can be traced to the 12th century. Merantau saw the migration of “the skilled, educated and in the economically productive age bracket” to other parts of the archipelago. Sociologist Mochtar Naim describes groups of people leaving for the large cities for economic and intellectual growth; these people who merantau are called perantau. They would not return home, except possibly for short visits to see their family. Children produced in a foreign land as a result of merantau were called anak seberang (literally “overseas children”). When accompanying their parents home for visits, they would feel estranged and eventually return to their land within the rantau.
Merantau, a practice from the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra, is the traditional Minangkabau act of voluntary migration. Young adult males migrate around the rantau, or region, to garner beneficial experience and independent income
According to Naim, the early 1900s saw many a perantau migrating to Malaya, “due to the closeness and common Minangkabau traits”, as they saw the “Malays to be their brothers”. It was common to “merantau to [the town of] Klang” and then return after many years to Indonesia, “[bringing] with them nuances of Malay culture, fashion and language”. Thus, both the term and concept of merantau were commonly understood in pre-Independence Malaya. Naim further theorised that merantau was just as commonly practised in another regional neighbour—Sulu in the Southern Philippines, where Siama descended from. It is believed that Islam was first brought to Sulu in the 15th century by a prince from Minangkabau named Raja Baguinda Ali. He was said to have “helped with the founding of the Sultanate of Sulu and introduced merantau to the people of Sulu” as a form of “religious training and strengthening” ties with their Malay brothers.
Pendatang has a different etymology. One of the earliest texts containing the word is the Hikayat Panji Kuda Semirang, a Javanese folktale about a kingdom and its royal family, dating back to 1832 and told as a three-part epic. Pendatang is mentioned briefly when a princess distinguishes the love she has for a stranger (the pendatang) from that for a betrothed, as a way of truly recognising her feelings for her future husband. She explains that she is capable of loving both, but can only be married to the one that she is truly in love with, a testament to her kind and loving nature. In this hikayat, the pendatang is referred to as a stranger, who may share the same religion or ethnic background but is ultimately unfamiliar.
In the modern language of Malaysia, pendatang has been appropriated by the state to refer to persons who require visas and special documents to enter the country. In 1967, the official yearbook of Malaysia (published yearly by the Home Ministry) classified visa-seeking foreigners from countries such as India and Cambodia together with those from Indonesian islands like Palembang and Riau, an indication that a pendatang was still a stranger regardless of cultural affinity. At that time, the word pendatang remained free of mean spirit or ill intent. However, by 1985, official terminology had evolved. The official government yearbook included newer terms such as orang asing (foreign persons) and pelawat (visitor), which introduced new, varied degrees of foreignness. Newer state documents began to emphasise the pendatang as persons not born in Malaysia and without state birthright.
The pendatang is referred to as a stranger, who may share the same religion or ethnic background but is ultimately unfamiliar
Mahathir’s public speeches
The shift in meaning of pendatang began most notably during the first premiership of Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir was the fourth (and longest-serving) Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, and, since May 2018, has become the seventh Prime Minister as well.
Controversial and influential, Mahathir has been labelled Bapa Pemodenan (Father of Modernisation) for bringing rapid modernisation and economic growth, and initiating many bold infrastructure projects. Mahathir rose to political dominance by sidelining other centres of power—from the Agong (the King) and sultans, to members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), as well as the judiciary—till they no longer presented serious threats to his authority. He created for himself a legacy that emphasises his hard work and discipline, and his role in instilling in Malaysians similarly “desirable” economic values and practices.
Mahathir was extremely deliberate in creating political content that would shape public discourse and action. Many national policies—including foreign policy and migration law and practice—were designed and re-created to fit the face of progress that he envisioned for Malaysia. His public speeches were an extension of his much-debated public policies, setting the tone for the public and shaping their expectations and values.
|14/11/81||“Pendatang dari luar bandar mempunyai nilai hidup yang tersendiri berbeza dengan nilai-nilai mereka yang sekian lama di bandar.” (Mahathir 1981)||Foreigners from rural areas have a different way of life from those who have been living a while in the city.|
|05/02/82||“…ada di antara orang yang pandai menyakiti hati orang lain ini yang berkata bahawa Kerajaanlah yang merancang supaya pendatang haram dari Vietnam datang ke Malaysia dengan tujuan untuk mengurangkan peratusan orang Melayu.” (Mahathir 1982)||…there are those who wish to cause hurt by saying that it is the government who plan to allow illegal immigrants from Vietnam to come into Malaysia in order to reduce the percentage of Malay people.|
|10/3/82||“Tidak seperti banyak negara-negara lain di mana pengaruh kebudayaan asing dan kaum pendatang telah tidak diterima langsung, kita di Malaysia amat bernasib baik kerana rakyat kita diberi jaminan kebebasan untuk mempelajari dan mengamalkan kepercayaan dan kebudayaan mereka masing-masing…”(Mahathir 1982)||Unlike many other countries, where the influence of foreign cultures and foreigners is completely unacceptable. We in Malaysia are very lucky because our people are given the guaranteed freedom to learn and practice their own beliefs and cultures…|
|16/11/86||“Orang-orang Melayu dan bumiputera lain, daripada sudut sejarah, adalah penduduk asal negara ini… (tetapi)… warganegara Malaysia yang berketurunan Cina dan India bukanlah pendatang asing dan mereka mempunyai hak yang sama dengan lain-lain warganegara.” (Mahathir 1986)||The Malay people and other bumiputeras, from a historical perspective, are the original people of this country… (but)… Malaysian citizens of Chinese and Indian descent are not immigrants and they have the same rights as all the other citizens.|
|29/09/89||“Kerajaan Persekutuan tetap akan memberi perhatian kepada pembangunan Sabah dan menolong mengatasi masalah-masalah yang dihadapi oleh negeri Sabah, termasuklah masalah pendatang haram.” (Mahathir 1989)||The Federal Government will continue to give attention to the development of Sabah and assist in overcoming any issues that are faced by the state of Sabah, including the issue of illegal immigrants.|
A selection of Mahathir’s public speeches from the 1980s containing the word pendatang.
A quick look at some of his public speeches shows how Mahathir particularly emphasised the word pendatang in the 1980s. It was initially used to discuss domestic rural-urban migration, but in later speeches, it referred to irregular migrants from Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. The word haram (“forbidden” in Arabic) stressed their illegal status, reflecting the Islamic values greatly influencing the state even then. Pendatang was also used to discuss local Chinese and Indian communities, who, Mahathir emphasised, were not foreigners, but were not penduduk asal (original people) either.
Characteristically, Mahathir has not admitted to his reasons for these controversial ways of speaking. Perhaps only members of his administration were privy as to why he and they chose to shift the meaning of pendatang; probably we will never truly know. Yet we can look to other evidence, especially historical events, and draw inferences.
A quick look at some of his public speeches shows how Mahathir particularly emphasised the word pendatang in the 1980s
A genealogy of pendatang
The 13 May 1969 racial riots—one of the darkest moments in Malaysia’s history—were when the concept of pendatang began to gain traction as an instrument of order. The official account, explains Kua Kia Soong, states that “rioting began a few days after general elections in which the ruling alliance coalition, headed by [UMNO], suffered a setback in the polls”. Disgruntled Malay voters, frustrated at the election loss and their lack of economic power, clashed with supporters of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a predominantly Chinese-based party responsible for the electoral upset. Over two months, hundreds of people were killed. State documents concluded that “such racial riots will occur spontaneously if, or when, the status quo is shaken”.
In response, in 1971, the government proposed the highly controversial New Economic Policy (NEP), a comprehensive social engineering and affirmative action programme. The NEP sought the deliberate enrichment of the bumiputera (“son of the soil” or indigenous) community, which faced immense poverty. This was to overcome the colonial legacy of inequality and mistrust between ethnic communities, particularly ill-feeling towards the local Chinese community. By the 1990s, Malaysia saw a significant drop in national poverty, particularly among the Malay population, though it is debatable if the NEP was solely responsible for this, as it has been criticised by Thomas Sowell as a state-backed patronage scheme which enabled massive corruption, with well-connected bumiputera forming the main beneficiaries.
At the time it was introduced, it was generally agreed that the NEP was beneficial for national socio-economic growth. However, it brought new, unintended problems. The newly elevated positions of bumiputeras did not necessarily eradicate racism, but rather changed the way it was practiced. The NEP was promoted as a programme that would ensure May 13 would never happen again, a reminder repeated in school books and television and radio advertisements. This memory perpetuated the perception, in both ethnic groups, of an “other” responsible for unrest and inequality.
The 13 May 1969 racial riots—one of the darkest moments in Malaysia’s history—were when the concept of pendatang began to gain traction as an instrument of order
Patterns of unrest began to emerge nationally and regionally. As the racial divide seeped deeper into the collective consciousness, experimental and creative works by ethnic Malay writers such as Sajak-sajak Pendatang by Muhammad Haji Salleh (1974-78) and Seorang Pendatang by Usman K. (1975) gained popularity. These works expressed fresh ideas on indigeneity and recognising the foreign, provocatively addressing questions of inclusion and exclusion. Regionally, the late 1970s was a time of great bloodshed and struggle—with the beginning of the Cambodia-Vietnam war (1977-1991) as well as the reign of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), who oversaw genocide and famine as a result of a peasant revolution.
The reappropriation of pendatang
By the early 1980s, a local movement of non-bumiputera communities attempted to reappropriate the word pendatang. Influenced by the events of the previous decade, writer and academic K.S. Maniam wrote his acclaimed book The Return (1981). This centres on Ravi, a young Tamil man who returns from his studies abroad to become a teacher in the newly formed Malaysia. Maniam sought to counter closed-mindedness and prejudices against diaspora communities, whom he felt were just as vital in the development of Malaysia as the bumiputera population. In subsequent academic papers, Maniam challenged the treatment of Indians and other non-bumiputera communities by openly using the word pendatang. In correspondence, he told me that he felt that the word had grown into a form of hate speech, and so he “began creating and stirring what was never there to begin with” and using the word himself with the aim of “confronting and diluting its impact”.
K.S. Maniam was not the only member of a diaspora to openly question their pendatang status. Journalist and political activist M.G.G. Pillai, poet and writer Wong Phui Nam and academic Lloyd Fernando became well-known for producing written work and attempting open discussions on rights, unity and politics. Singer Francissca Peters’ second studio album, released in 1985, was titled Aku Hanya Pendatang (I am only a Migrant). The album and the song achieved Gold status (10,000 copies sold in Malaysia), a rare feat for non-bumiputera entertainers in those days. The song hints at a love that has gone stale, but interestingly, employs the metaphor of a migrant whose love has been rejected and pushed out beyond a border.
By the early 1980s, a local movement of non-bumiputera communities attempted to reappropriate the word pendatang
The lyrics play on a desperation to be re-accepted and the memory of former residence in a loving space. As more migrant groups (of all stripes) took ownership of the word through the 1980s, the less of a negative impact “pendatang” had on their communities and sense of identity.
|Lyrics in Bahasa Malaysia||English Translation|
|Aku bagai seorang pendatang/
Ke sempadan yang mengasingkan/
Sedang dulu disini aku/
Kedatangan tiada sambutan/
Dan senyuman tiada balasan.
|I am like a migrant/
Waiting at the border that divides/
I was once allowed in here/
Close to you/
Now my presence is ignored/
And my smiles unreturned.
Excerpts from Aku Hanya Pendatang by Francissca Peters (1985)
But these efforts were affected by darker clouds brewing in nearby skies. Southeast Asia was confronted by newer and bigger citizen-led protests, beginning in February 1986 with the People Power Revolution in the Philippines against President Marcos’ Martial Law, regime violence and electoral fraud. The revolution climaxed in a series of major demonstrations over three days, which saw millions take to the streets in Manila. In 1988, the student-led 8888 uprising hit Burma (today, Myanmar) in response to economic mismanagement and military dictatorship, with millions taking to the streets in nationwide demonstrations, protests and civil unrest that lasted for over six months.
These developments alarmed the Malaysian government. Socio-political movements in Malaysia were hardly at the scale of those in the Philippines or Burma, and since the 1969 racial riots, Malaysia had been peaceful. However, the Mahathir-led government, rightly or wrongly, perceived sufficient local tensions that could exacerbate internal conflict over time, and excite feelings against the government.
In October 1987, Operasi Lalang saw the arrest of 107 Malaysians on the ostensible grounds that (as described by Julian Lee) “they were a threat to national security by contributing to escalating inter-ethnic tensions”. Those arrested “were largely members of opposition political parties” but they also included “non-partisan activists” such as students, labour unionists, religious leaders, academics and human rights activists. What a majority of detainees had in common was questioning the special rights of the bumiputera population in comparison to the lack of rights of pendatang communities. Critics labelled Operasi Lalang as oppressive and were concerned over the lack of natural justice. In “[putting] state infrastructure, and in this case, a draconian law, to self-serving purposes”, in Lee’s words, Operasi Lalang deeply affected how Malaysians grasped ideas of race, rights and their position in society, with implications for the language of pendatang.
Critics labelled Operasi Lalang as oppressive and were concerned over the lack of natural justice
Spheres of exclusion
The word pendatang became crucial in fixing not just physical but also social borders. Alice Nah posits that categories such as pendatang create an “inside and outside” that helps make each “individual legible; it assigns them identities”. Those on the “inside” are made to believe that their world “operates on a phantasy that a controllable inside can be delineated from an uncontrollable outside”, and those on the “outside” are opened to being “punished, disciplined”. This discourse—identifying outsiders and specifying the undesired within a space—places the pendatang outside the literal and metaphorical borders of belonging.
Broadly speaking, the pendatang endured three transitional phases. The first phase from the independence of Malaya to 1969; the second from 1969 to 1987; and the final from 1987 till the present. In each phase, the light blue box (see above) represents the perceived legitimate citizens of the country, understood as the non-pendatang, while communities situated within the white box are acknowledged by the state. Prior to the May 13 incident, Malaysia was fairly inclusive of the major races and generally amicable to foreign migrants, regular or otherwise.
However, by the 1970s, the bumiputera groups were differentiated from the other races. The emergence of the light green box in 1969 represents the pendatang, the emerging fractured “others” of Malaysia, as the combined national unity of the country began to slowly dissolve. Here, bumiputeras began to consolidate within their own sphere while the Chinese and Indian communities were moved into separate shared sphere. While all three races share a common grouping, the bumiputeras have shifted to one side of the sphere while the other groups are transformed into quasi-outsiders.
By 1987, every non-bumiputera group became outsiders relative to members of the light blue box, but in varying degrees. Further exclusions appeared as some irregular migrants were rendered more illegitimate (while others, as I discuss later, were legitimised and included in the bumiputera based on ethnic and religious affiliations). Despite the efforts of the government to make Malaysia more inclusive, such as through the infamous 1Malaysia initiative, there has been little genuine reform of the political landscape away from race-based sentiments and policies.
While all three races share a common grouping, the bumiputeras have shifted to one side of the sphere while the other groups are transformed into quasi-outsiders
Pendatang in today’s discourse
Today, according to Joseph Liow, the term pendatang is used to “imply that (these communities) are sojourners with no loyalty to the land, foreigners, aliens, or immigrants as opposed to penduduk tempatan or local inhabitants”. In 2004, several NGOs suggested opening the bumiputera-only Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) to other local ethnic groups and were met with wide protest. State-endorsed media asked if it was fair to allow the pendatang into bumiputera spaces. This manner of labelling Malaysians of Chinese and Indian ethnicity has highlighted their disempowerment relative to Malays whenever the issue of citizenship is discussed.
A state-led practice of Ketuanan Melayu or Malay Supremacy, which prizes “special birthrights and ethnic primacy”, is, to the non-Malays of the country, an obstacle to what Liow calls “[envisioning] a civic and pluralist conception of nationhood”. It renders their position in Malaysia illegitimate. The modern usage of the term pendatang leads us to the central issue of a national identity being constructed around one ethnic and religious group. Liow argues that “considering that the term itself does not even appear in the Federal Constitution, its emergence is arguably the most important and controversial concept in the Malaysian political lexicon”.
The classification of a person as pendatang has implications for their rights and privileges, yet the label simultaneously denies the so-called pendatang any agency in deciding how they should be approached. It is convenient for law enforcers to segregate people using labels which provide them with power to carry out their duties based upon judgemental assumptions. In distinguishing between bumiputera with non-bumiputeras, as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims, they apply an “Us versus Them” method that was prevalent throughout Mahathir’s first premiership.
The modern usage of the term pendatang leads us to the central issue of a national identity being constructed around one ethnic and religious group
This has played out in, for instance, the treatment of irregular migrants in Sabah. Many irregular migrants have taken refuge there for decades, eventually outnumbering existing local communities. Many have been granted citizenship on the basis of their “Malay-Muslim” traits, through the highly controversial covert “Project IC”, described by Sina Frank. In effect, the government altered the demography to increase the number of bumiputeras, which was politically advantageous for UMNO, through these naturalisations along ethnic and religious lines, effectively displacing other local ethnicities as pendatangs. This shows the power of the state in applying and altering the meaning of the term pendatang.
Some irregular migrants like Siama, who do not benefit from these selective acts of state inclusion, have self-identified as pendatang, a crucial follow-up that implies certain communities cannot escape socially exclusionary labelling. Consequently, they live in a constant state of fear, as they are highly vulnerable to manipulative control and even extortion by the state.
Over the years, the meaning of pendatang has shifted negatively not just in governmental discourse but also in everyday use by Malaysians, who now recognise the pendatang as outsiders, different and alien. People who were once tolerated as perantau are now suspicious pendatangs. The term channels inner prejudices and nationalistic perceptions, resulting in discrimination in spheres such as employment, housing and scholarships. Through this usage, Malaysian society has become complicit, not only in separating insider from outsider, but more importantly in surrendering power to the state to decide on how communities on both the inside and outside are privileged or disfavoured. Policies moulded in this way further fragment the Malaysian public.
Today, pendatang maintains its loaded nuances, and is often used by members of the public as a divisive and exclusionary insult. In 2010, a school head called all non-Muslim students “pendatang” and told them to “balik” (return) to their “country”. With its dark history and association with previous administrations, this word has been weaponised.
However, a subversion of its use has also emerged. In 2014, Gerakan leader Tan Lai Soon called the Malay community pendatangs, causing a public uproar, particularly from the right-wing Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia’s Fauzi Asmuni, who sternly clarified the difference between pendatang and perantau. Notably, the word pendatang was there used on the one population group that it was never meant to apply to: ethnic Malays.
More recently, the Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran, of the newly elected Pakatan Harapan government, addressing an Indian Malaysian crowd in Tamil, disparaged the term pendatang and argued that ethnic Malays were more foreign than Tamil Indians, as the indigenous groups in the country were predominantly Hindu in early historic times. A short clip of this speech went viral, inciting great anger towards him, including many calls for him to resign. He has since apologised.
The example of Mahathir shows how the government has immense clout in altering the intentions and associations of a word. The new government needs to be aware of its implications so that it may one day destigmatise the word and ensure that it shall no longer be used to marginalise, divide and ostracise a people desperately in need of newer approaches to solidarity.
Today, pendatang maintains its loaded nuances, and is often used by members of the public as a divisive and exclusionary insult
The last time I saw Siama was in March 2013, at the height of the infamous Royal Sulu Incursion. Police, armed forces and immigration vehicles entered the Lahad Datu town square that morning, en route to a standoff between security forces and militants taking place 120km away. Town dwellers mistook this for a security raid and began vacating their stations in a panic.
I was able to make Siama out among the frenzied crowd of local residents rushing to close their shops and booths and reach the safety of their homes. People were packing themselves into local minibuses and sprinting hurriedly in groups of threes and fours, many with children in tow. Still, Siama, ever the business woman, continued selling her cigarettes, convincing potential customers that it would be difficult to buy any later. I stood documenting the panic for several minutes, and eventually made eye contact with her in the midst of a sale. She acknowledged me with a wave and a half smile, perhaps mirroring the look of confusion on my face. Siama mouthed “lari kita?” (should we run?), and mimed a running motion with her hands. I nodded and mouthed back “iya” (yes) and watched her disappear into the moving crowd, looking for more customers on the way out.
In retrospect, I now realise how those last few moments revealed the meaning of pendatang to me. Whether she intended it or not, Siama beckoning at me to leave the town square with her, evoked in me a feeling I have come to recognise with time. It was an intuition grown from questioning the degree to which one feels illicit, illegitimate or undesired in Malaysia. Siama, like hundreds of people in the town square that morning, has conceded to her place in society as secondary and peripheral.
This recognition has brought to light, for me, the similarities between those from her community and many Malaysians of minority heritage, from irregular migrants like Siama, to Sabahans like myself, and other minority groups in Sarawak and the Peninsular of Malaysia. Although pendatang emerges from distinct and specific historical contexts for each community, elements of its influence are shared and collective. Ultimately, seeing oneself as a pendatang means inheriting a barrage of socio-political insecurities, impacting everyday interactions with the status quo. Embodying the pendatang results in private, personal training to stay alert to social rules and act accordingly. It requires a censorship of other truths, from the extraordinary to the mundane, as a form of survival in Malaysia.
Ultimately, seeing oneself as a pendatang means inheriting a barrage of socio-political insecurities, impacting everyday interactions with the status quo
The current power of the term pendatang lies in its ability to form different orders of exclusion on multiple levels of society: from delegitimising various migrant communities to reducing the political will among minority groups in Malaysia. However, this article is not calling for the removal of the word from society. That would not solve the core of prejudice. Instead, we must find ways to shift the word’s interpretation and power. One can only hope that with time and a new government that the use of the word is managed with more empathy and awareness, and that the concept of pendatang no longer seeks to exclude, but becomes simply functional and purposeful, as it was originally intended.
Text: Dr. Vila Somiah
Illustrations: Rosmaini Sunarjo
Figures: Ellena Ekarahendy
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The figure above is a simplification for conceptual ease, as shifts and exclusions within each group are still possible; and it does not reflect the specific positions of Orang Asal, Eurasians or other biracial and indigenous groups of Malaysia.
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