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Flag of MalaysiaOverseas Chinese in Malaysia

malaysiaHistory records the presence of Chinese in Malaysia for the past 600 years; the sea faring Ming dynasty's emperor put the important Sultanate of Malacca, which controlled the strategic straits for trade, under his protection.

To seal this bargain, Ming geneology chronicles make mention of the marriage of the princess Hang Li Po to the legendary sultan Paramaswara. She brought with her a retinue of 200 attendants.

This began the settling of Chinese in the Malaya [later called 'Malaysia']. The men brought wives and the bachelors married Malay women whom they sinicised. These early Chinese retained their cultural identity, yet spoke Malay and wrote in the Arabised 'jauwi'.

Mostly from Fujian province, their descendent in time form an aristocracy of lineage and claim to Malaysia. We know them as Peranakan [Straits born], the well known babas and nonyas, whose cooking, clothing, and architecture, and industry are celebrated even until now. The vast Chinese cemetery in Malacca, Bukit Sina house the earliest Pernakan tombs.

18 to 19th century

Fast forward to the 18 and 19 century, at a time of the far reaching hand of British colonialism, came the arrival of the second wave of Chinese immigration, mainly from Fujian and Guangdong provinces.

It was buoyed by growing streams of emigrants in early 20 century. Originally as traders in the Straits Settlement, the enterprising Chinese fanned out throughout the Malay states.

It is to their business sense and seizing economic opportunities, encouraged by the British colonial government and the encouragement of Malay sultans, development of the Malay States tin and gold mines, gambier, pepper, and rubber plantations, cash cows for British rule.

Chinese emigration reveals a populace from every group in China besides the Hokkien and Cantonese; we find Hakka, Teochews, Hainanese, Macauans, so on and on.

With an instinct for trade, the Chinese shifted to towns where they founded banks, set up small, medium, and large business to meet local needs and expand foreign commerce.


Today, the local coffee shops, the catering and fishing industries remain a testimony to Chinese enterprise. Nor did Malayan Chinese scant agriculture such as rice growning, vegetables, and fruit.

Today, too, they reside in smaller towns in the hinterland, they are in every province of West and East Malaysia. And the country owes much to their penchant for hard work and education, and drive of social improvement.

Education is a respected among the Chinese. The first Chinese school began in Malacca in 1815. You find two streams of schools, one where English remained the language of instruction, the other Chinese.

Today since 1969, Malay is the required language in the schools, but among Chinese broadly speaking, English and Chinese remain vehicles of international exchange.

Although Mandarin which neighboring Singapore has imposed as the dominant spoken Chinese idioms, Malaysian Chinese remain faithful to dialect, the predominant ones being Hokkien and Cantonese. Thus in business, they are more skilful linguistically, and hence, more valuable in trade and industry, and for foreign businesses established in Malaysia.

Malaysian Chinese have energetically defended in their identity as Malaysian of Chinese ancestry, as we shall now see. Under British colonial rule, through the principle of divide and conquer, Chinese in the Malay States were treated as sojourners broadly speaking without place and rights of citizenship.

Among the Malay sultans, this suited a purpose, which encouraged economic development and pride of place, without disturbing the traditional way of Malay life in the kampongs, for obvious reasons.

In spite of unfair treatment, Chinese in the Malay States' primary loyalty lay there, with a fond, nostalgic sense of the Chinese mainland. As such, the Chinese community with all its class and different dialects, prospered and grew naturally and through emigration, and earned an honored place in the racial mosaic that is present day Malaysia.

China Relief Fund

This can best be exampled by Malaysian Chinese resistance against the Japanese occupier during World War Two. The Japanese marked them out for brutal treatment and murder, because of their support for China Relief Fund and their resistance against seizure of Malaya after humiliating the British colonialists.

Whilst the Japanese tried to enlist and entice the Malays and the Indians to their plans for a Greater Asia under Tokyo's control, Chinese guerrillas sprung up and fought the Japanese troops, alongside stragglers of a defeated British army, and even with the help of the Americans. Thus, Malaysian Chinese proved their mettle to their country of adoption by shedding blood and valor on the battlefield.

The Anti Japanese Liberation forces had strong Communist leadership under Chin Peng; it forged a policy of engaging other race, Malay and Indian, but that despite its policy, that goal remained elusive.

Chin Peng called for an independent Malaya, but no matter what the British promised in a united fight against Japan, they quickly reasserted control at war's end [which was part of a colonial design of the defeated French and Dutch in Asia].

Civil war erupted from 1948 to 1960. The British called it an 'Emergency', in order to keep insurance premium low for the much needed tin and rubber need for rebuilding a war torn British economy.

Since the 'Emergency' was fought against the Chinese, we find the British expelling Chinese, creating fortified villages to isolate them, rewards for defectors, etc. They garnered support from the Chinese business community and traditional political parties, the Malay sultans and parties, as well the Indian community.

As the 'Emergency' proved more and more successful, and British colonial policies proved onerous for an impoverish Great Britain, the Malay States acceded to independence under Malay leadership in 1957.

At the time of independence, Malaysian Chinese accounted for a strong pluraity of 45 per cent of the population. Today it hovers in the mid 30's, although exact census data are hard to come by.

Racial Riots

The racial riots of 13 May 1969 tested the mettle of Malaysian Chinese, for which they were the target. As a result under the leadership of the Razak UNMO [Unitedr  Nasional Malay Organisations] imposed a policy of what is today called 'positive discrimination', whereby the Malay got favored treatment in all aspects of Malaysian life.

Thus, Malaysian Chinese suffer from racial profiling, along side Indians, in business, mortgages, owning of property, education, and in brief, every facet of daily life in Malaysia.

Since the Malay majority, elites excepted, learnt English, Bahasa Meleyu was instituted as the medium of instruction and daily commerce; foreign and confessional schools, nationalised, etc.

Foreign investment which under the Mahathir governments brought country's economy into the 20 century had to remain a minority shareholder, thereby encouraging crony capitalism.

Such a policy has steeled Malaysian Chinese in their sense of being Malaysian, all hardships and ethnic profiling not withstanding, and witnessed by the strong share of the population they represent.

The long history of Malaysian Chinese prove beyond a shadow of a doubt of the vital role they play in Malaysia and the pride of place they fight to maintain as Malaysian of Chinese ancestry.

Article contributed by Dr. Jak Cambria


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