The term Mat Salleh is often used by Malay-language speakers as a colloquial, expression to refer to a white Caucasian.[note 1] How this expression came about is difficult to completely determine. This is because there exists several versions of its origins passed down by word, with little (or none) official documentation to ascertain this.[note 2] The different versions are:

  • The word might have been derived from the expression "mad sailor". The native's first encounters with Westerners were typically drunk sailors. Their intoxicated behavior led to the non-English speaking locals learning the expression "Mad Sailors"[1][2][3] from other Sailors. The expression however, was articulated as "Mat Salleh" instead and the term has stuck till now, regardless of the subject's involvement with either seafaring or alcoholism.
  • Another version is also derived from the expression "Mat Salleh". In this version, shipwrecked and marooned in a foreign land, many sailors panicked and ran away at their first sights of a native inhabitants whom they assumed were cannibals.[4]:p.114 As mentioned above, the expression "Mad Sailors" that the natives learnt to explain their eccentric behavior got mispronounced as "Mat Salleh" due to their unfamiliarity with the English language and its pronunciation protocols.
  • It could also have been derived from the meaning of the word "Mat Salleh" which means preacher or one who preaches referring to early colonials who came with the secondary agenda of preaching Christianity.
  • The word salleh is the outdated spelling for the word salih in Malay meaning albino or white due lack of skin pigmentation. The term Mat is a slang word for Mohammad which in turn refers to a man. Hence, the term Mat Salleh refers to an albino man. The current spelling is Mat Salih according to the official dictionary by the Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka Malaysia (the official guardian organization of the Malay language in Malaysia). White Caucasians have fair, almost albino like skin, hence the term Mat Salleh. In Indonesia, white Caucasians are referred as orang bule or just "bule" in Bahasa Indonesia. Orang means person and bule means albino because a Bahasa Indonesia synonym of bule is bulai.

Given the label's inherent connection to European colonialism, and therefore the atrocities committed, it is considered inappropriate for modern-day use.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ See Wikipedia's list of: ethnic slurs and nicknames given to the British colonials
  2. ^ Various blogs with useful discussion threads, discussion forums, popular literature and newspaper reports have been looked into to find (1) a common consensus on the most agreed upon possible origins of the term, and (2) other available possible origins.


  1. ^ Tan, S.H. (July 16, 2000). "Interesting origins of the words Mat Salleh, ronggeng and satay" (Reprinted from New Straits Times,from the section "Focus", and the column "Ramblings" published on 16 Jul 2000). New Straits Times. Retrieved November 18, 2012.
  2. ^ Arope, Ani (December 29, 1992). "Possible origin of Mat Salleh term". New Straits Times. p. 13. Retrieved November 18, 2012.
  3. ^ MacVay, Jordon (April 27, 2007). "Speaking Apa?". MacVaysia. Archived from the original (See responses by readers:discussion thread started by "Ida" on 27 Apr 2007) on March 4, 2016.
  4. ^ Chin, Grace V. S. (March 2009). "Reading the postcolonial allegory in Beth Yahp's The crocodile fury: Censored subjects, ambivalent spaces, and transformative bodies". Nebula. 6 (1): 93–115.

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