Languaging Resistance and Accommodation in Chinese Malaysian Political Speech

Author: Sharon Carstens (Professor Emerita Anthropology, Portland State University, Portland, U.S.A.)
Speaker: Sharon Carstens
Topic: Language, Community, Ethnicity
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2020 General Session


Chinese Malaysians inhabit a wondrously polyglot world; most receive formal education in Mandarin, Malay, and English while continuing to speak and understand (in various degrees) Chinese topolects of family, region, and popular media such as Cantonese, Hokkien and other languages. As individuals negotiate social relationships, they draw selectively and creatively on an array of language resources to convey a range of linguistically coded identities and ideologies that are at once personal and political. Although Malay is the formal national language of the Malaysian state, the diverse languages of political expression in Malaysia highlight the tensions in different visions of Malaysia’s multiethnic and multilingual reality. These linguistic expressions have been emboldened by new media forms such as YouTube, which are often able to skirt the censorship imposed on the local media.This paper analyzes the multiple ways that Chinese Malaysians communicate resistance and accommodation within the complex political terrain of contemporary Malaysia by employing different language genres in the production of satire, parody, and political discourse. The main corpus of data is a series of Chinese New Year YouTube videos produced by the Chinese Malaysian politician Teresa Kok from 2013 through 2019. There are multiple ways to read the political and linguistic messages embedded in these videos, which shift in tone and focus over time as Teresa Kok’s party changes from Malaysian opposition to the party in power. My interpretations draw on a range of readings that relate to traditions of Chinese humor and satire in politically charged and politically controlled environments; new forms of linguistic expression available through new media outlets; the relationship between humor and critical theory; and Chinese Malaysian linguistic practices. Further primary data includes information on language practices and attitudes gathered through interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic research in Malaysia in 2013.The paper addresses three main questions. First, how does the mix of languages used in these videos index an array of Chinese Malaysian subject positions; underscore a set of widely shared language ideologies; and suggest alternative visions of a multiethnic society. Second, how does the mixing of Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, and English, both oral and written, provide fertile ground for satire and parody that can evade censors while speaking to a linguistically sophisticated Chinese Malaysian audience. Third, how do the continuities and changes in language use over the span of these videos communicate political shifts in resistance and accommodation over time.

Keywords: Chinese Malaysian, political satire, language ideologies