Slouching towards Beijing?: WhatsApp Family Groups and Chineseness in Malaysia

A/Prof. Emma Baulch1, Dr Ting-fai Yu1

1Monash University Malaysia, Sunway, Malaysia

WhatsApp is a messaging app launched in 2009 that has since become the most widely used messaging app worldwide. In 2017, Reuters Digital News report cited WhatsApp as the most important source for online news, and identified Malaysia as the site of the highest rates of WhatsApp use globally. WhatsApp has shaped politics in Malaysia in important ways. In the lead up to the 2018 general election, the platform provided opposition activists with a venue free of state surveillance (Johns and Cheong 2019). Pro-PH messages circulating on the platform helped sway rural Malay votes in vital swing states (Tapsell 2018). In other contexts, WhatsApp’s group feature has been found to quicken the pace of political information’s circulation, and broaden its reach. WhatsApp family groups in particular have been identified as key to Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil (Pereira and Bojczuk 2018). This paper examines WhatsApp family groups in Malaysia. Anecdotally, such groups are important venues for the circulation of information regarding the Chinese state in contentious matters. The paper reports on research employing the scroll-back method and interviews that explore the socio-technical constitution of Chinese Malaysians’ political identities by considering how WhatsApp family groups mediate their orientations to China.


Emma Baulch researches Indonesian media and popular culture, with a focus on popular music and digital cultures. She is an Associate Professor in Media and Communications at Monash University Malaysia. Her new book, Genre Publics: consumerism, class and popular music in Indonesia is published by Wesleyan University Press in 2020.

Ting-Fai Yu is an anthropologist who works in Asian, cultural and queer studies. He is currently a Lecturer in Gender Studies at Monash University Malaysia and was previously a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden University.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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