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Hello. I’m Vila.

Anthropologist & Gender Scholar

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Dr. Vilashini Somiah is an anthropologist from Sabah, Malaysia at the Gender Studies Programme at Universiti Malaya. She received a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies from the National University of Singapore under the supervision of Assoc. Prof. Dr. Oona Paredes (now of UCLA). She is passionate about the narratives and agency of Bornean women, migrants, and indigenes, and other sexual and gender minorities, which are often underrepresented. Dr. Somiah also has an interest in human-non-human interaction, a theoretical focus within the field of Anthropology and the social sciences.

She has over ten years of mixed methods research experience and has conducted fieldwork in Sabah, Sarawak, and the Peninsular of Malaysia. Dr. Somiah has been a recipient of numerous grants and awards which includes the Tun Abdul Razak Chair Graduate Scholarship at Ohio University, The Graduate Research Scholarship at the National University of Singapore, the ASEAN-Australia Visiting Fellowship, and together with colleagues from the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at Universiti Malaya and The Singapore University of Social Sciences, The Henry Luce Foundation - LuceSEA initiative Award

She has written many academic articles and has also co-edited “Sabah From the Ground: The 2020 Elections and the Politics of Survival" (SIRD/ISEAS, 2021). Currently, she is excited about the launch of her first single-authored book Irregular Migrants and the Sea at the Borders of Sabah, Malaysia: Pelagic Alliance (Palgrave MacMillan, 2022), which is based on her Ph.D. thesis that explores the relationship between irregular migrants, and the sea, in their struggle against the realities of state power in Sabah.

Outside of academia, Dr. Somiah has done professional consultancies, evaluation projects and research programmes for international non-profits. She also continues to write on and speak about the local socio-political landscape and oppressions. 

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Pelagic Alliance.jpg

Author: Vilashini Somiah

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Year: 2022

This book is an exploration of the relationship between irregular migrants, many originating from southern Philippines and the sea, in their struggle against the realities of state power in Sabah. It explores the ways in which these irregular migrants contest inconvenient national sea boundaries, the trauma of detention and deportation, and other impositions of state power by drawing on supernatural support from the sea itself. The sea empowers them, and through individual narratives of the sea, we learn that the migrants’ encounter with the state and its legal system only intensifies rather than discourages their relationship with the Malaysian state.

Editors: Bridget Welsh, Vilashini Somiah & Benjamin YH Loh

Publisher: Strategic Information & Research Devt Centre / ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute

Year: 2021

This book is the first in-depth study of a Sabah election. It brings together scholars, journalists and social activists who were on the ground in Sabah to analyse what happened in the 2020 state elections, why and the broader implications of the outcome for Sabah and Malaysian politics. Traditional explanations prioritise the role of the federal-state relationship in shaping Sabah politics. Sabah from the Ground challenges this paradigm, suggesting that politics in Sabah needs to be better understood as a reflection of conditions within Sabah – as Sabahans struggle to navigate and survive on Malaysia’s periphery.

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Selected Publications

Journal Articles

  • Somiah, V., “The Sea is Indigenous ‘Land’ too: Negotiation of Presence and Rights of Indigenous Maritime Communities in Sabah, Malaysia,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Special Issue, (accepted for publication, Q4 2021). SCOPUS

  • Somiah, V., “Grasping the Back and Forth: A Reexamination of Detained and Deported Filipino Returnees in Sabah, Malaysia,” Regional Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 2, Issue 1, Jan 2017. 

  • Somiah, V., “Rice without chili: Ideas of self-sacrifice and the desire for violence in BERSIH 4.0 and 5.0,” JATI- Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 21, Dec 2016, pp. 26-43. (Refereed)

Book Chapter

  • Somiah, V., “Romance Through Digital Avatars: Online courtship, representation and catfishing amongst irregular female migrants in Sabah ” Loh, B.Y.H.  & Chin, J. (eds.) New Media in the Margins: Lived realities and experiences from the Malaysian peripheries (Under Review -Palgrave McMillan)

  • Welsh, B., Loh, B.Y.H., Somiah, V.,  “An Introduction to Sabah’s Politics of Survival,” Welsh,B., Somiah, V., Loh, B.Y.H.  (eds.), Sabah From The Ground: The 2020 Elections and the Politics of Survival ( SIRD/ISEAS: Kuala Lumpur & Singapore, 2021)

  • Welsh, B., Loh, B.Y.H., Somiah, V.,  “Sabah after the Covid-19 Election Aftermath: Not Just New (and Old) Political Alignments” Welsh,B., Somiah, V., Loh, B.Y.H.  (eds.), Sabah From The Ground: The 2020 Elections and the Politics of Survival ( SIRD/ISEAS: Kuala Lumpur & Singapore, 2021)

  • Somiah, V. & Jalil, A.,  “Incessant Political Narratives: Perilous Migrants and the Treacherous East” Welsh,B., Somiah, V., Loh, B.Y.H.  (eds.), Sabah From The Ground: The 2020 Elections and the Politics of Survival ( SIRD/ISEAS: Kuala Lumpur & Singapore, 2021)

  • Somiah, V., Usman, M.R., & Baltazar, A.”Remembering the undocumented of Sabah in a panicked Malaysia” Baysa-Barredo, J.M.,  Khoo.Y. H. & Wiratraman, H.P. (eds.) Southeast Asia, Infected and Interrupted: Elevating Critical Voices on the State of Human Rights and Peace in the Time of COVID-19 (SHAPE-SEA, 2021)

  • Somiah, V., “Romantic Whispers: When Relationships Mobilize Political Agency in the Sabah Elections,” Lemiere, S. (ed.), The Other Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People Vol. 3, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, May 2019. 

Other Research Publications

  • Somiah, V.  & Sto. Domingo, J.R, (2021)  Sabah’s Unrelenting Exclusionary And Inclusionary Politics  (RSIS Working Paper, no. 334) S. Rajaratnam School Of International Studies: Singapore 

  • UN Women. (2021). ASEAN Regional Study on Women, Peace, and Security. 

Popular Publications

  • Loh, B.Y.H., Somiah, V., “The right to cyberbully?,” Malaysiakini, May 2021.

  • Loh, B.Y.H., Johan,A., Somiah, V., Varkkey, H., “Empower our academics against predatory journals,” Malaysiakini, Feb 2021.

  • Somiah, V., “What Is the MA63? And Why it Is Important to Sabah and Sarawak,” New Naratif, September 2020.

  • Somiah, V., Usman, M., Baltazar, A. “Remembering Sabah's undocumented in a panicked Malaysia,” Malay Mail, March 2020

  • Somiah, V., “Shifting Spheres of Exclusion: Examining The Evolution of Pendatang,” New Naratif, May 2019.

  • Somiah, V., “Sabah and its GE14 deliverance from nationalized identity,” New Mandala, Apr 2018.

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Ongoing Research

August 2021- Dec 2021

Women and Malaysian Politics

Position: Co-Lead Researcher 

A qualitative study of the struggles and challenges women in Malaysian politics face.

Sept 2020 - Sept 2022

Interdisciplinary Approaches to Covid-19

Position: Lead Editor

A book project focused on interdisciplinary discourses on the issues of recovery, survival, and politics during the Pandemic in Malaysia.


Southeast Asian Neighbourhoods: Seremban

Position: Co- Primary Investigator

A study on aging communities their survival through technology. The research employs a gender and historical lens.


Early-Cancer Detection and B-40 Women

Position: Co-Researcher 

A qualitative study with a focus on the socio-cultural, religious, and legal implications on the early diagnosis of cancer among urban poor women in Malaysia.

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Talks & Public Lectures

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Selected Appearances

Selected Appearances

Selected Appearances
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Film & Animation
News & Politics
Science & Technology
Sabah State Election Primer: Borneo Goes to Polls

Sabah State Election Primer: Borneo Goes to Polls

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SDSN Malaysia: What is Happiness? A Provocative Conversation

SDSN Malaysia: What is Happiness? A Provocative Conversation

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Living Stateless (Di Ambang)

Living Stateless (Di Ambang)

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The Nation: Christchurch mosque shooting, the aftermath- March 2019

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Consider This: Sabah | Lessons from 2020 election

Consider This: Sabah | Lessons from 2020 election

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Discussing Sabah- Sept. 2020

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#ConsiderThis: PH Plus - Playing The Sabah Card?

#ConsiderThis: PH Plus - Playing The Sabah Card?

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Ideal Malaysia : Real or Utopia? | #BernamaMBOR2019

Ideal Malaysia : Real or Utopia? | #BernamaMBOR2019

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Tea with Tehmina - Episode 20 - Educating Sabah's Stateless Children- August 2020

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Science and Math in English- Aug 2019

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#LTSK: Sabah Bangkit – More Than Youth Anthem?- Sept. 2020

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“Language & National Unity”

Inisiatif Pengislahan Pendidikan Nasional (IPPN)

Panelist- Oct 2021

“A Roundtable Discussion on Sabah’s covid-19 Responses”

UndiSabah and Belia Bawah Bayu

Panelist - Sept 2021

“Figuring Out Body Figures”

Taylor’s University’s Dia/Them

Panelist - Sept 2021

“Sabah and Sarawak’s Political History & Self -Determination Theory”

New Naratif’s Sekolah Democracy

Speaker - June 2021

“King Makers/King Breakers: Anthropological Perspectives on Sabah and Sarawak

XPLORE: The International Young Scholars Xchange 2019, (Kyoto University)

Speaker  - Dec 2019

“Even the sea has roads: Challenges of indigenous maritime communities in Sabah”

Malaysia’s indigenous people: Land rights and livelihoods (ISEAS)

Presenter - Jan 2019

“Challenges facing Malaysia Baharu: the view from Sabah and Sarawak”

Lowy Lecture Series 2019, (Australian National University)

Speaker -  June 2019

“Building the New Malaysia: From elation to frustration"

Lowy Lecture Series 2019, (Lowy Institute, Sydney & National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)

Speaker- June 2019

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Teaching Experience

2019 - Current

Senior Lecturer
(Universiti Malaya)

  • Gender and Sexuality

  • Ethics & Professionalism at the workplace

  • Gender and Masculinity

  • Gender, Science and Technology

  • Indigenous Knowledge and Gender​

2014 - 2016

Teaching Assistant
(National University of Singapore)

  • Introduction to Southeast Asian Studies

  • Introduction to World Religions

  • Singapore, Asia, and American Power 

2013 - 2014

Teaching Assistant & Language Instructor
(Ohio University)

  • Introduction to Bahasa Malaysia

  • Introduction Malaysian Studies

2008 - 2011

(Universiti Malaya)

  • Introduction to Media Studies

  • Media Rhetoric 

  • Society and Media

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Contact Me.

I welcome research collaborations, consultancies, and opportunities. 

The Gender Studies Programme,
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Universiti Malaya 
50603 Kuala Lumpur, MALAYSIA

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