Review: The Chinese in Malaysia


Editors: Drs. Lee Kam Hing & Tan Chee Beng (OUP 2000)

Reviewed by Dr. Ng Kam Weng

It is undeniable that the Chinese community contributed much towards the development of Malaysia. There is, however, a lack of scholarly studies on the Chinese community as a whole. In the absence of such documentation, it is tempting for some people to downplay and even ignore the contribution of the early Chinese community which helped Malaysia attain the status of a modern state. The need for Chinese scholars to present accurate historical facts that demonstrate how the Chinese community contributed towards nation building has become especially urgent. Such studies will also help contemporary Chinese to appreciate afresh the exemplary virtues left by their forebears such as economic prudence, perseverance and concern for communal welfare.

In this regard, the new publication from Oxford University Press, The Chinese In Malaysia, should be viewed as a landmark in studies of Malaysian Chinese. For the first time, we have a team of local Chinese scholars pooling their expertise to provide a historically informed study which directly addresses issues confronting the Chinese community in Malaysia. The study is unprecedented in its comprehensiveness. Issues discussed in the fourteen chapters include demographic processes, Chinese business community and politics, Chinese trade unionism, Chinese schools and cultural resilience, Chinese New Villages, Chinese Religions, Chinese performing arts and literature.

The book invites comparison with earlier studies on the Chinese community. Victor Purcell’s book, Chinese in Malaya (1948), which draws from his wide experience as a colonial administrator dealing with Chinese affairs is still a valuable text for the period the book covers. However his sympathetic scholarship cannot substitute the need for local Chinese scholars to articulate for themselves their concerns on issues that currently confront the Chinese community. Furthermore, The Chinese in Malaysia (OUP) provides a broad overview of the Chinese community, which makes it unlike the book Stepping Out (published in Singapore by K. B. Chan & Claire Chiang) which provides in-depth portraits of Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore. The approach adopted by Stepping Out addresses the psychological need to reinforce the confidence of Chinese entrepreneurs who have to face tough competition in a globalized economy. But, surely, the more immediate task facing Malaysian Chinese is not to search for local heroes. Rather, the task is to provide the average Chinese with a sense of belonging to a community that has successfully weathered many difficult challenges in the past.

The Chinese in Malaysia begins on the right footing by highlighting the rich diversity of Chinese immigrants as evidenced by different dialect groups and religious practices. The early immigrants, after all, came from different parts of China. Surely, here lies the clue towards understanding why social tolerance has been a strong feature of the Chinese community in Malaysia.

The book helps us understand how it was possible for the Chinese to practise diversity because they shared common bonds based on mutual economic interests. The difficult circumstances pressing on early immigrants demanded economic co-operation. Such alliances resulted in the formation of Chinese Associations and commercial guilds which matured into Chambers of Commerce. More significantly, the Chinese community continued the practise of economic partnership across ethnic divide, which became necessary with the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP). It should be noted that the concerns voiced by Chinese businessmen were valid in instances where some government officials implemented the NEP in ways which seemed unfair vis-a-vis the economic welfare of Chinese citizens. Still, the continuing support given by Chinese businessmen towards the NEP reflects their belief in the wise maxim, “Prosper thy neighbours”. The Chinese contribution towards economic development of the nation as such is most appropriately assessed in the profitable business relationships they build with businessmen from other communities.

The book gathers ample statistics detailing the vital contributions made by the Chinese in all sectors of the national economy, including areas such as agriculture, construction, manufacturing and finance. These vigorous economic activities give the impression that the Chinese community is one which is wholly urban. The book, at this point, offers us some surprises. For example, the chapter on Chinese New Villages highlights the need to go beyond a simplistic association of the Chinese with urban society. On the contrary, large numbers of Chinese remain in rural small towns and new villages where they engaged in cottage industries and agricultural small-holdings. As such, stories of rags-to-riches Chinese businessmen, however much they capture our imagination, should not lead to neglect of Chinese villages. Indeed, the reality is that millions of poor Chinese continue to be neglected by the government.

It is natural then, that the Chinese community feels compelled to look after its own welfare. This self reliance was epitomized by the rise of Chinese schools which “were community projects, drawing mainly on local resources and involving local leaders and organization.” Reference is made to Yung Yuet Ling’s description of the early Chinese: “As migrants in a foreign land where they were treated as aliens, most Chinese were anxious that their children should not lose their linguistic and cultural heritage.” At the same time, “a traditional respect for education was further enhanced by a keen awareness among Chinese immigrants that education was the only means by which their children could be assured of better employment and a path to social mobility” (p.236).

Nevertheless, it was not possible for the Chinese to pursue their education divorced from the wider national educational system with its aim of fostering national unity and promoting inter-racial harmony. In 1955, a compromise was reached between MCA and UMNO, whereby “UMNO leaders, led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, pledged that if elected they would ‘see to it that the Chinese were given a chance to preserve their school, language and culture’” (p. 241). It is unfortunate that Chinese education sometimes becomes a politically sensitive issue in Malaysian politics. Differences over Chinese education will become more moderate if protagonists are able to place the issue of Chinese education in its historical context by reading the informative chapter “Chinese Schools in Malaysia”.

The historic compromise on Chinese schools exemplifies the cooperative relationship and mutual respect then found between the Chinese MCA and Malay UMNO. What began as an informal arrangement based on electoral convenience evolved into a lasting format of multi-cultural co-operation. Lee Kam Hing and Heng Peck Koon in their joint chapter give a clear and concise history of the changing fortunes of the Chinese share of political power in Malaysia. However, the chapter may elicit dismay as the reader follows the account depicting the continuing erosion of the status of the Chinese community both in politics and economics, amidst resurgence of Islamic piety. It is obvious that the community must overcome the ‘Chinese Dilemma’ of either accepting token power by supporting a weak and subservient MCA, or enduring painful exclusion from the power franchise by supporting a confrontational DAP. The authors point to hopeful developments explored by the younger generation of Chinese who have involved themselves in NGOs. “They work with like-minded social activists from other racial groups to alleviate social conditions for the underprivileged. . . By expressing their concerns from a non-racial perspective, these organizations have generally transcended narrow ethnic preoccupations” (p. 221).

The chapters on performing arts and literature are most revealing. On the one hand, diversity within the Chinese community ought to provide its literati with abundant resources for artistic ventures. The chapters, however, only detail a continuing decline of Chinese arts and literature. One can only empathize with such a toll exacted on a community struggling to survive amidst adversity. Not surprisingly, there is little grappling with the anxieties of a displaced community which can only be partially alleviated by economic success. Such anxieties are aptly captured by a Chinese scholar Leo Lee,

Deprived of his cultural heritage, the Wandering Chinese has become a spiritual exile; Taiwan and the motherland are incommensurable. He has to move on. Like Ulysses, he sets out on a journey across the ocean, but it is an endless journey, dark and without hope. The Rootless Man, therefore, is destined to become a perpetual wanderer. . .The Chinese Wanderer yearns for the “lost kingdom,” for the cultural inheritance that has been denied him. . . .He is a sad man. He is sad because he has been driven out of Eden, dispossessed, disinherited, a spiritual orphan, burdened with a memory that carries the weight of 5000 years.

One cannot help but sense the inadequacy of the chapter on religions which seems to focus on external rituals and festivals. The chapter would have been more helpful if it goes beyond a broad survey of religious institutions and set out the beliefs and sensibilities that motivate Chinese religious practices. One is left wondering why the Chinese in Malaysia continue to practice religion. Is it a mindless hanging on to the traditions of the elders? What social psychological need may be met by these religions? Is the growth of Christianity among Chinese indicative of new needs being met in the context of modern society?

The fact that such important questions are not addressed is symptomatic of the raison d’etre of the book. As pointed out earlier, the Chinese community feels acutely the failure among participants in public discourse to acknowledge the contribution of their community to nation-building. How else does one respond to this social-political exclusion except by stressing undeniable historical contributions as well as renewing support for existing Chinese institutions? It is natural that less tangible experiences related to social psychological identity and spiritual fulfillment are inadvertently left out.

I must point to a further lacuna found in the book. There seems to be a lack of discussion on the challenges which Modernity and globalization pose towards the Chinese community. Perhaps the authors remain confined by past approaches to cultural identity which was primarily defined by stressing how one is culturally distinct from one’s immediate neighbour. But the reality is that these cultural traditions are being swept aside by the unrelenting forces of Modernity. It is conceivable that urban Chinese may come to share more cultural interests with their Malay neighbours than with their rural counterparts. Such an awareness should encourage Malaysians, whether Chinese or Malay, to stress their commonalities rather than differences with one another.

Despite this criticism I judge the book to be the most comprehensive, and arguably, the most competent study on the Chinese community in Malaysia to date. I personally would have preferred a book comprising integrated and more absorbing historical narratives that explore in greater depth the psychological and cultural anxieties facing Malaysian Chinese. Still, anyone who wants to acquire a reliable framework in order to develop fuller strategies on how to engage with issues facing the Chinese community can do no better than to begin with this book.

Comments are closed.