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Malaysia People - Chinese

The constitution specifies that a Malay speaks Malay, is a Muslim and practices the Malay culture. The features of being Malay are cultural. Chinese are excluded from this definition. According to the 2000 census, half of the population is Malay, and a quarter Chinese.

Before the major wave of Chinese immigration in the late nineteenth century, the Chinese community had assimilated Malay culture by adopting such elements as dress, language, and cuisine. The descendants of these early Chinese immigrants, known as Baba, or Straits Chinese, remain a distinctive community within the Malaysian-Chinese population. Other settlements of Chinese in predominantly Malay areas also evince considerable social and cultural assimilation.

But the massive wave of Chinese immigration in the late nineteenth century led to the creation of large Chinese settlements that had little or no contact with the indigenous Malay community. In such an environment it is not surprising that Chinese settlers, even after a generation of Malayan residence, considered their primary identity to be Chinese. It is also possible that the major wave of Chinese immigration led to a greater sense of Chinese identity on the part of the Malayan Chinese community.

Chinese immigration to Southeast Asia came largely from the two southern Chinese provinces of Kwangtung and Fukien. Suffering from poverty in the relatively overpopulated villages in China, the Chinese were lured away by stories of great economic opportunities in "Nanyang" (the South Seas.) Although a few struck it rich, most could barely eke out a living as laborers before being forced to return to China almost as poor as when they had left. Although originating mainly from several southern provinces of China, the immigrants were quite diverse linguistically, and as they settled in Malaysia, the various dialect groups concentrated in certain occupational lines or geographical areas. Accordingly, in the mid-twentieth century the largest Chinese dialect groups in Peninsular Malaysia were the Hokkien, the Cantonese, the Hakka (Khek), and the Teochius. Small groups included the Hainanese, the Kwangsi, and the Hokchiu. In Sabah the major Chinese dialect groups were the Hakka (more than half), the Can- tonese, and the Hokkien. In Sarawak the Foochow and the Hakka were the largest groups, followed by smaller numbers of Hokkien, Teochius, and Cantonese. In addition to informal processes, colonial policies reinforced communal solidarity by failing to acknowledge the Chinese in the Malay states (outside the Straits Settlements) to be sojourners, filling a temporary labor need. This policy allowed the colonial administration to defend its political role in alliance with the traditional sultanates (whose subjects were the Malay community) and to avoid governmental expenses for Chinese education, community needs, and the like. Under such conditions, the Chinese community experienced considerable social and political autonomy, financed its own schools and community services, and developed a strong ethnic and cultural identity.

In addition to the economic and social policies that caused Malays, Chinese, and Indians to inhabit separate social, economic, and geographical spheres, the colonial era also legitimized ethnic stereotypes. Colonial administrators, in both their official and unofficial writings, created images of Malay, Chinese, and Indians that compared unfavorably with European society. Decades after independence — Malaysians in all ethnic communities still believe that Malays are inherently less ambitious, that all Chinese have extraordinary economic motivations, and that ethnic strife is just beneath the surface. More than bridges and roads, schools and hospitals, the real legacy of colonialism is the "racial" ideology of the country.

The economic and geographical structure of Malaysian society served to separate ethnic groups into different residential communities. Historically, most Malays have lived in rural villages and the majority of Chinese and Indians were concentrated in tin-mining settlements, rubber plantations, or in the towns and cities throughout the country. Even within urban areas, ethnic communities tended to be residentially segregated. Because schooling was largely organized along vernacular lines (with the exception of the English-medium stream), children were largely exposed to ethnically homogeneous environments. Most in- terethnic contacts were in the market, where Chinese and Indian merchants predominated. Most rural Malay villages participated in the market economy, not only to purchase consumer goods but also to sell their agricultural products—especially rubber. Given such a situation, it is somewhat surprising that ethnic antagonism was largely kept in check for most of the twentieth century.

It is clear that Malay social and political leaders in the early twentieth century were disturbed with the growing non-Malay - particularly Chinese — role in the country. The most common reaction was to urge Malays to be more competitive in the growing urban economy and to appeal to the British to expand opportunities for Malays. Chinese leaders, especially the English-educated, were often outspoken in their belief that colonial policies tended to discriminate against their political aspirations.

The first clear episodes of Malay-Chinese violence occurred during the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II. The resistance army against the Japanese, the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), was predominantly Chinese. During the occupation, some MPAJA soldiers killed Malays (and Chinese) who were thought to be Japanese collaborators. One such incident in February 1945, near Batu Pahat in Johore, resulted in a backlash, and Malays attacked nearby Chinese settlements.

Initially, the Japanese encouraged such violence but finally intervened to stop it. After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the MPAJA emerged as the dominant political authority in many towns and cities until the British military administration was set up in September 1945. During this interregnum, there were numerous MPAJA executions of Malays and Chinese who were thought to have been Japanese collaborators. These in- cidents and the memories of them led to considerable fear of in- terethnic hostility in the postwar era.

There have been a few other episodes of ethnic violence in the postwar era, such as in Singapore in 1964. Most significant, however, were the riots of May 1969 in Kuala Lumpur. In retrospect, it seems that this episode of ethnic conflict marked a critical turning point in the postwar era. The election of 1969 had aroused considerable ethnic expectation and fear. The opposition non-Malay parties had not run on anti-Malay sentiments; indeed, there seemed to be a fair degree of Malay support for the People's Movement of Malaysia ( Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia — better known as Gerakan.) Nonetheless, the modest success of the opposition parties (which came largely at the expense of the Malayan Chinese Association [MCA]), encouraged a number of non-Malays to make public comments that denigrated Malays. A series of hostile events then led to full-scale riots, which took several days for the authorities to contain. The May 13 incident was limited to Kuala Lumpur and largely confined to some aparts of the city. Nonetheless, the stories of at- rocities and the shifting of the government's public policies made deep imprints on public thinking.

The Chinese religion in Malaysia is a mix of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Taoism combines with old animistic beliefs to teach people how to maintain harmony with the universe. Confucianism guides political and moral aspects of life. Buddhism teaches of the afterlife. Integral parts of the Chinese religion are death, the afterlife, and ancestor worship. Ancestor worship is not practiced as extensively as it is in China, where many generations of ancestors may be worshipped. The Chinese immigrants to Malaysia generally only honor the ancestors of a few generations.

Historically, dialect groups within the Malaysian Chinese community were considered the major subethnic division (sub-divided by clan and surname groups), and formal and informal organizations often followed linguistic subgroupings. However, the passage of time, the use of the Chinese national language — Kuo Yu or Madarin — in Chinese schools, and the societal perception of Chinese as one population have eroded the boundaries among dialect subgroups.

Perhaps the most significant division within the Malaysian Chinese community was between the Chinese- and English-educated. Generally, the English-educated are middle class and have a close contact with Malays and Indians of similar status. The Chinese-educated qwre the much larger community and often live and work in ethnically homogeneous areas. Although most of the Chinese in this latter group onsider themselves Malaysians, they maintained a high degree of identity — both politically and socially — with China and Chinese concerns.

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Page last modified: 24-11-2017 18:56:20 ZULU