Chinese women in British Borneo

Malaysian Chinese are the second largest ethnic group in Malaysia. Mostly descendants of Chinese immigrants during the 19th century, the Chinese are known for their diligence and keen business sense. The three sub-groups who speak a different dialect of the Chinese language are the Hokkien who live predominantly on the northern island of Penang; the Cantonese who live predominantly in the capital city Kuala Lumpur; and the Mandarin-speaking group who live predominantly in the southern state of Johor. In Sarawak this 25 percent is made up of a mix of dialect groups including Foochow, Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese and Puxian Min while in Sabah the population of Chinese drops to around 10 percent who predominantly speak the Hakka language. [Source: Malaysian Government Tourism]

In the past, Malaysia was divided into the Chinese haves and Malay have nots. Ethnic tension ran high. A Chinese living in Malaysia I talked with compared the situation in his country to apartheid. Assimilation has been particularly difficult for Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia where Islamic practices discourage marriages involving Muslims and non-Muslims. For local people marrying a non-Muslim is also seen as rejection of Muslim-based nationalist pride.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, cultural assimilation of Chinese has been less common because of Islam and the emphasis placed "peoples of the soil" — which excludes Chinese — an important expression of ethnic and national identity that tends to impede intermarriage and full assimilation. By contrast, Chinese have tended to assimilate more readily in the Buddhist countries of mainland Southeast Asia such as Thailand.

Chinese Population in Malaysia

There are around 6.7 million Chinese in Malaysia (2021). They make up approximately 22.4 percent of Malaysia’s population and account for the second largest population of Chinese outside mainland China and Taiwan behind Thailand. These numbers do not always reflect the full extent of Chinese presence. Partially assimilated Chinese are often not counted as Chinese. There are many levels and degrees of mixed blood. Around 6 million Chinese were counted in Malaysia (34 percent of the population) in the 2000s. [Source: Wikipedia]

Between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, ethnic Chinese dropped for 28 percent of the population to 26 percent. The primary reason for this was that Malays have a higher birthrate than the Chinese. To correct this situation a Chinese political party set up a “Cupid” matchmaking club that hosted mixers to bring single Chinese men and women together in hopes that they would get married and produce more children. In recent years, young Chinese adults have said they were more interested in advancing their careers than getting married. Participant in the Cupid Club events had to swear they were single and reveal their favorite political party and bloodtype and confess if they had drinking or gambling problems.

History of Chinese in Malaysia

Chinese Malaysian actresses in 1880

Ethnic Chinese in Malaysia are mostly descendants of Chinese who arrived is various waves of immigration and established themselves in the cities. Like their counterparts in Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, many are from the southern Chinese province of Fujian. Most Chinese and Indian Malaysians are descendants of 19th and early 20th century immigrants who came as traders, laborers and miners during British colonial rule. Many of the Chinese in Malaysia were brought in by the British in the 19th century to work the tin mines and rubber plantations as laborers.

Some Chinese did quite well under British colonial rule. Jean DeBernardi wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ In the Federated Malay States and the Straits Settlements, Chinese bid for contracts to manage the lucrative opium farms and controlled opium distribution on behalf of the British. The legendary successes of a few who amassed great wealth reinforced the stereotype of Chinese migration as a form of economic colonialism that exploited Southeast Asian resources and the Southeast Asian "peoples of the soil." [Source: Jean DeBernardi,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East/Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

In Malaysia and Singapore, the Chinese language was creolized with Southeast Asian languages. Baba Malay was formed from Hokkien and Malay. In Malaysia, however mastery of the national language, Bahasa Melayu, became indispensable for getting head in public life but Mandarin Chinese continued to be a medium of instruction in Chinese-medium primary schools and private secondary schools, and the Chinese-language press has endured |~|

Straits Chinese and Peranakan Chinese-Malay

Most of the first Chinese to arrive in Singapore, Penang and Malacca married local Malay women and this union gave rise to a community of “Straits Chinese.”Peranakan (Malay for born here) are Chinese who intermarried with Malays and adopted Malay styles of dress and cuisine .

Phuket Town in Thailand, along with the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, is home to a peculiar hybrid of Chinese commercial culture and tropical laissez-faire that dates back centuries. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Finnish Theatre Academy wrote: “From the 15th century Chinese traders began to settle in both Insular and Peninsular Southeast Asia. In the regions of the Malay Peninsula, Chinese communities started to emerge, especially along the west coast, in what was to become known during the British colonial period as the Straits Settlements: Penang, Malacca and Singapore. These “Straits Chinese” adapted to local conditions and developed a unique eclectic culture of their own.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki |~|]

The Peranakan Chinese-Malay culture flourished in southwest Malaysia from the 17th century to its peak at the turn of the 20th. The Peranakan culture, also known as Baba-Nyonya — men were called babas, women were nyonyas — incorporated Dutch, English, Portuguese and Indian influences. The Peranakan were aficionados of Victorian fashion in the 19th century.

Chinese Culture in Malaysia

Sunday market in Kota Kinabalu

The Chinese tend to live in urban areas. Unlike Muslim Malays, they eat pork and drink alcohol. About 95 percent send their children to Mandarin-language schools. Many say the “three pillars of the Chinese community” are: 1) the Chinese media (six in the peninsula and eight in East Malaysia); 2) Chinese schools (1,291 SRJKs and 60 independent schools) and the Chinese organisations or hua zong (7,000 registered clan, guild and business groups).

Malays in Malaysia have intermarried less with the Chinese than Thais in Thailand have. Babas and Noyas are the respective names and males and females born to Chinese-Malay unions. Old Baba and Nyonya families are descendants of Chinese traders that married into Malay families. The book “The Straits Chinese” by Malaysian sociologist Khoo Jo Ee is about the subculture of Babas and Noyas.

Baba Malay, a fusion of Hokkein and Malay, is spoken in Singapore and Malaysia. Hokkein, the Southern Min dialect of Fujian, is the primary dialect of many Overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Mandarin Chinese continues to be the primary language of instruction at Chinese primary schools and private secondary schools. A Chinese-language press has managed to endure in Malaysia.

The Chinese in Malaysia generally keep a low profile. They generally do not go to great lengths to display their Chineseness nor to make a great effort to express their Malaysian patriotism. Many Chinese have adopted English nicknames. In the early 2000s only 9 percent of Chinese students attended national school. Most went to private schools oriented for the Chinese community.

Chinese homes often have altars with Buddha statues. Chinese grave offerings—cardboard microwave ovens, televisions, air conditioners—are burned during holidays as offerings to the dead. There are even checks, credit cards and passports which can be used by the dead in the other world.

Chinese media includes six in the peninsula and eight in East Malaysia. Sin Chew Daily is the top-selling Chinese paper in the country. It not only makes money, but it is the most powerful voice in the stable of Chinese papers. Even Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein courts the paper because he needs Sin Chew's cooperation to air policies on Chinese schools. [Source: Joceline Tan, The Star, September 23, 2007]

Chinese and Business in Malaysia

The Chinese have traditionally dominated business in Malaysia and run shops and hotels. Many are descendants of laborers who worked hard and saved so that succeeding generations could prosper. Many are self employed. In the 1970s, Kuala Lumpur about 90 percent of all the shops, banks and factories are were owned by Chinese and Chinese businessmen still control a large share of the commercial enterprises. These days bumiputra (Malay) billionaires run much of the economy rather Chinese billionaires. Ethnic Chinese tycoons were hit hard by the Asian financial crisis. Many remain technically bankrupt.

John Howkins wrote in The Australian,” Marketing and PR are primitive. Reputations can rise and fall without much base in reality. Newspaper coverage favors those who have government connections or pay for it. On working in China, the film producer Ismail Merchant said. “People don’t like saying “yes” here. They think about things, and say you can’t do that when there a shooting schedule to keep.” Architects working in China voice similar complaints.

Chinese, Violence and Politics in Malaysia

In 1965, there were mass killings in Malaysia and Chinese were often the targets. After that tensions were very high between Malays and Chinese. In 1967 there were rumors that the Muslim Malays had poisoned pork eaten by the Chinese and many Chinese men cam down with a mental disease called “koro” in which they believed their penises were being sucked into their bodies.

There were bloody race riots between Chinese and Malay on May 13, 1969 that nearly ripped Malaysia apart. At least 63 people were killed and 4,000 were arrested. They occurred after a hotly contested general election in which the ruling party lost a lot of seats to the opposition and the parties tried to win voters by making racial attacks at one another.

Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote: “Ethnic Chinese have grown increasingly vocal about alleged government discrimination in economic, social and religious policies. Malays enjoy a host of privileges in jobs, education and business as part of an affirmative action program launched in 1970 following racial riots fueled by Malay frustration over the Chinese community's wealth. Growing dissatisfaction about racial policies prompted many Chinese and Indians to vote against the government in March general elections. Many Malays also backed the opposition, causing the National Front to retain power with only a simple parliamentary majority. [Source: Sean Yoong, Associated Press, September 9, 2008]

In November 2005, the New York Times reported, there was big outcry in the Chinese community after “four Chinese women accused the police in Kuala Lumpur of forcing them to strip and perform a series of squatting exercises. The government in Kuala Lumpur is investigating the incident vigorously to calm an outcry both within China and among ethnic Chinese throughout the region. The government is particularly concerned with mollifying Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China, who was scheduled to visit. At least as important an audience, though, are the 938 rural residents of Pengakalan Pasir,” Kelantan, where the ruling need votes to beat an Islamic party in a local election.[Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, December 6, 2005]

See 2008, 2013 Elections

Anti-Chinese Remarks by Malaysian Politicians

In September 2008, a senior government official was punished for his racist outburst warning Malaysia's ethnic Chinese minority not to become greedy for political and economic power.Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote: “Ahmad, a district chief in the United Malays National Organization ruling party, claimed that the Malay majority was losing patience with minorities, particularly ethnic Chinese politicians. "I urge the Chinese not to become like the Jewish in America, where it is not enough that they control the economy, but they also want to dominate politics," Ahmad told a news conference late Monday in northern Penang state. "Consider this a warning from the Malays," Ahmad said. "The patience of the Malays has a limit. Do not push us against the wall, for we will be forced to turn back and push the Chinese for our own survival." [Source: Sean Yoong, Associated Press, September 9, 2008]

Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish advocacy group, called the remarks an example of "classic anti-Semitism." But he added: "I'm delighted to hear that there is at least a rejection from the prime minister of this bigotry and anti-Semitism. ... The most important thing is the voice of the prime minister saying that this is bigotry, this is racism, this is unacceptable."

In a country where racial tensions are palpable but never discussed publicly, Ahmad dropped a bombshell last month by describing the Chinese as "squatters" and "immigrants." The 14 parties in the National Front represent Malaysia's main races — the majority Malays and the minority Chinese, Indians and others. Ahmad belongs to the Abdullah's United Malays National Organization, the dominant party in the coalition.

Following the comments, the Chinese-based Gerakan party in the National Front severed ties with UMNO's Penang branch, raising fears that it would also do the same at the national level. Gerakan leader Koh Tsu Koon said his party would determine its next move after UMNO decides on the disciplinary action against Ahmad.

Chinese Muslims in Malaysia

Chinese Malaysian dish

There are about the 70,000 Chinese Muslims in Malaysia. Things are not always easy for them. According to Reuters: “There is the popular notion that becoming a Muslim means “masuk Melayu” (becoming a Malay), adopting the Malay culture at the expense of his or her Chinese identity. Chinese converts have to take on Arabic names, such as Abdullah, and change identity cards to reflect their new religion. [Source: Reuters, February 20, 2007 +]

“They also face deep-rooted prejudices, said Mohamad Asri Zainul Abidin, a young firebrand Muslim cleric who has came out in support of the Chinese mosque proposal despite the government’s reservations. “Malays assume they are the only pure Muslims, although Chinese Muslims may have stronger faith,” Asri, himself a Malay, said in a commentary published in the New Straits Times. +

“Some Chinese Muslims have also been rebuked by Malays for celebrating Chinese New Year. Ridhuan, married to a Malay, also had a painful experience. “They (the Malays) want us to become a Malay. Three or four years after conversion, my father passed away. They didn’t allow me to go back, they say if I go back, I will revert to become a Chinese but I defied them.” +

Controversy Over Chinese Muslim Mosque in Malaysia

In February 2007, a controversy broke out over a request Chinese Malaysians who have embraced Islam to build their own mosque. Reuters reported: The Malaysian government has spurned applications by Chinese Muslims to open their first mosques, officials said. The authorities argued that having separate mosques would segregate Muslims and could anger the majority Malays, who by definition are Muslims. Mohamad Ridhuan Tee Abdullah, a convert championing Chinese Muslims, said Malaysia must show that Islam transcends race and culture. “We have to change the perception that Islam only belongs to a particular race, for example the Malays and the Arabs,” the 42-year-old Islamic scholar told Reuters. “We have to show the universality of Islam by allowing Chinese mosques,” he said at the weekend. “The authorities have to do away with the stereotypes.” [Source: Reuters, February 20, 2007 +]

“The issue goes to the heart of what Islam means in Malaysia, and shows how race continues to shape life in Malaysia 50 years after independence, analysts said. “There is fear that the Malay identity will be lost if Islam is practiced in languages other than Malay,” Canadian Muslim, Moaz Yusuf Ahmad, wrote in the New Straits Times recently. +

“There is not a single mosque for Chinese Muslims, although Indian Muslims are allowed to have their own mosques. Ridhuan, a vice-president of the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association, said his association was proposing to build mosques that would reflect Chinese design. “We would like to portray mosques that are based on Chinese architectures,” he said. “It’s to show that we are still Chinese but the mosques will be opened to all Muslims.” +

Diversity Among Chinese in Malaysia and the Three Pillars of the Chinese Community

Joceline Tan wrote in The Star, “People often talk about the Chinese as though they are a homogenous entity but they are not. According to Rita Sim, who is also deputy chairman of the MCA think-tank Insap and executive director of the Chinese vernacular newspaper Sin Chew Daily, anyone who wishes to understand the Chinese social and political sentiment has to first understand the Chinese who subscribe to the concept of the three pillars (G1) for the simple reason that they make up 85-90 percent of the 6.5 million Chinese in the country. The remaining 10-15 percent are, for want of a better term, referred to as the English-speaking group (Bangkok). [Source: Joceline Tan, The Star, September 23, 2007 ]

Chinese Temple in Penang

“The three pillars of the Chinese community” are: 1) the Chinese media (six in the peninsula and eight in East Malaysia); 2) Chinese schools (1,291 SRJKs and 60 independent schools) and the Chinese organisations or hua zong (7,000 registered clan, guild and business groups). The G2 encompasses those who are not Chinese-educated; they speak English and include a large number of Christians, the peranakan and also those who are part of the Lions and Rotary Clubs set.

“Sim and Insap director Fui K. Soong have done quite a bit of research on the two groups. “People often talk about the Chinese as though they are one homogenous entity but they are not,” said Soong. The two groups are quite distinct although they overlap in some traits and issues. But what distinguishes the G1 from the G2 is that the latter does not subscribe to the three pillars concept even if some of them have begun sending their children to Chinese schools.

“To the G1, Chinese education is part of their socio-cultural life and even their identity as a race. Chinese associations and Chinese media also form part of that identity. But the G2 who send their children to Chinese schools do so for largely pragmatic reasons. They think these schools offer a better standard of teaching and that it is useful to learn an additional language. The G2 are more likely to read English and Malay papers than Chinese papers and their social life and networking do not revolve around the traditional Chinese associations. The G1, said Sim, are distinguished by their relative sense of self-sufficiency. They do not depend on nor do they demand too much of the government. Many run their own businesses, mostly small and medium scale enterprises or SMEs.”

Political Concerns of Chinese Groups in Malaysia

Joceline Tan wrote in The Star, “Political stability and a good economic environment to work and live in are very important to the G1 and they expect the powers-that-be to provide that climate for growth. “They want the government to be fair and not to interfere too much in their businesses. Basically, this group wants to be left alone. “They think they can take care of themselves as long as there aren't too many barriers or interference,” said Sim. That is why schemes like the Northern Corridor Economic Region and even the Iskandar Development Region, to some extent, do not excite the G1. They think the NCER, which is about logistic and infrastructure building, benefits the GLCs rather than SMEs like their own. [Source: Joceline Tan, The Star, September 23, 2007 ]

Sim aid: “Chinese want the government to be fair and not to interfere too much in their businesses The G1 also see many issues from their own narrow perspective. For instance, the crackdown on pig-farmers in Malacca was not just about the authorities regulating pig-farms but a threat to Chinese business interests. At the height of the pig farming issue in Malacca, Alor Star MP Datuk Chor Chee Heung could not walk into a coffeeshop in his Kedah constituency without being bombarded with comments.”

“It was taking place down south but Chinese businessmen in Kedah were riled up as though it was happening at their doorstep. “One day, I walked into the coffeeshop and I thought ‘die, man, I'm going to get it’. They saw it as a move against the community,” said Chor. The downside about people in this group is that they tend to live in their own ethnic bubble – they attend Chinese schools, read Chinese papers and, as Soong noted, some of them probably know more about what is happening with political personalities in Taiwan than, say, UMNO or PAS.”

“The G1 have their own grouses but their concerns are somewhat more diverse. “At least 30 percent of them are hardcore opposition supporters at anytime. This group, even if you sent them to heaven and back, will still vote for the opposition, especially the DAP,” said Soong. Within the G1, there are also about 25 percent hardcore MCA supporters who will sink or swim with the party. Of the remainder, 10 percent are deemed indifferent to politics and elections, leaving about 35 percent who are known as the swing voters. They are the ones whom political parties woo like crazy during elections because their votes can determine the result. The swing voters are also very issue-oriented and would react to things like controversial statements from UMNO leaders.

Hokkien — light green
Cantonese — purple
Hakka — dark blue
Foochow — beige
Hainanese — light blue
Teochew — brown
Kwongsai — dark green
Hokchia — greyish brown

“The G1 are generally uncompromising when it comes to Chinese education. The MCA and Gerakan took a beating at the polls during the 1980s because this group felt the government was unfair to Chinese schools. Many of them now feel that their struggle for Chinese education has been vindicated with the rise of China as a global powerhouse.

“Economic opportunities are another top concern while recent years have seen a rise in concern about crime and public security. This group's fear about the Islamic State has less to do with its potential impact on their respective religions than on how syariah law will affect their economic interests.

“But the issue of fairness underlies the concerns of both groups. As Chor put it: “Whether it's education, business or local services, the Chinese just want fair treatment.” If there is anything homogeneous at all about the Chinese, it is about fairness for everyone.”

Chinese Bananas and Their Political Views

Joceline Tan wrote in The Star, “The Chinese-educated have long labelled the English-speaking group as “bananas,” meaning they are yellow outside (Chinese), but white inside (pro-Western culture). Or, as the Hokkiens would put it a little more explicitly, the G2 folk “chiak ang moh sai” (have eaten too much Western s**t). [Source: Joceline Tan, The Star, September 23, 2007 ]

“There's no denying that the G2 are more open to Western ideas and ideals. “Their ideas of governance, democracy, role of the media and even elections are influenced by the West, namely Britain and the United States. They like to say these are universal ideals even though half the world does not subscribe to the way the Americans and British think,” said Soong.

“Soong said the G2 are issue-oriented. They are influenced by issues and their votes swing from one election to another. They are mostly middle-class, articulate and prone to take issues to the press and in recent years into the Internet. Incidentally, Gerakan's base lies mainly with this group. The Chinese, it is often said, are quite inscrutable about their politics but not this group. They are not afraid to air their political views or who they will vote for. “They are so articulate about their grievances that people think, ‘oh dear, the entire Chinese community is upset’.But actually, their views reflect mainly those in this English-speaking group,” said Soong.

“The G2 have been the most critical of the ruling party in recent years. The Christians in the G2 are particularly concerned about the issue of Islamic state. According to Soong, the survival of the common law and the secular state is very important to this group because it guarantees their modern lifestyle and for the Christians, the freedom to practise their faith. “Their fears about the Islamic State is very real and emotional because they see it as a threat to Christianity. The fear comes from deep in the gut,” she said.

Chinese Malaysian captain with Chinese and Malay soldiers

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.