In Indonesia, I’m told,  bule is a common nickname for foreigners. That’s not really in use over here that I can tell (maybe it is, just not to my face). What I get called most often is orang putih, white man. It’s not the least bit derogatory, and I don’t mind being referred to that way. I never cared much for “Caucasian” as an ethnic designation anyway. What I find funny is when it is used as a synonym for English, as when a shopkeeper will turn to his helper when I come in and say, “you go help him, I don’t speak white man“. It makes me ticklish every time I hear it used that way.

But my favorite term for foreigner is Mat Salih [or Salleh]. It’s slightly derogatory, since it could mean stranger or weirdo depending on who’s hurling it. What I like about it is the Mat. Muhammad is an extremely common first name, so much so that most people go by their middle names instead. Some people will even have an abbreviated form on their birth certificates, like Muhd. Arif bin Muhd. Azhari. With all these Muhammads floating around, it makes sense that a nickname would arise: Mat, short for Muhammad, from strong emphasis on the last syllable. Mat is used like John or Jack, a generic name, as in John Q. Public or John Doe. So you have Mat Dispatch, a comic book character delivery boy; or Mat Smart (that rhymes), a nerd; Mat Kool, a cartoon gorilla in ice cream advertisements; and Mat Salih. Lots of guys have silly nicknames starting with Mat too, like Mat Gun, who went to military school or Mat Panjang, a tall kid. If you know any more Mat- nicknames, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

Join the Conversation


  1. Hmmm… Mat is more common in Johor or selangor… almost everywhere in malay peninsular including singapore. in some states, they call “yeop” (dude) and “yong” for the girl. this is in Perak just like “mat” and “Minah”. In Negeri Sembilan – “Jang” or “Ujang” and “Milah/Melah”, they also call “Wagheh (Waris) for both gender coz according to their customs, anyone from the same clan is considered siblings, “Awe” and “Mek” in Kelantan.

  2. Hi! Reading this blog has been very enjoyable… I’m an expat too actually, but maybe it’s because I’m too close to home that I seldom pay attention to these kinds of amusing details.

    About Mat, here in Singapore it’s also used by the Malay-speaking community. Although in some cases it can be derogatory with the meaning of ‘uneducated Malay man’. For instance I once went to Paya Lebar (an area in Singapore) alone and one of my Singaporean (Malay) friend warned me, “Just be careful OK? There’s a lot of mat-mat in that area.” She said she doesn’t like it when she passes a bunch of them because they’ll start wolf-calling her.

    In my home country Indonesia, a lot of people are named Muhammad, too. Usually in a class of 40 students, an average of 4 or 5 guys would be named Muhammad.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply