Chinese New Villages - at the fringes of modernity?
STRATEGIC RELOCATION: For insights into the development and challenges facing Chinese New Villages in Malaysia, we talk to Dr Voon Phin Keong, Director, Institute of Malaysian and Regional Studies, New Era College
The Chinese version of the Malay kampong has less than romantic beginnings. Not only was its beginnings shrouded in political intrigue, some consider it an outright sinister ploy by the colonial masters to contain the communist threat in addition to other less savoury administration strategies.
Among the contradictions of Chinese New Villages in Malaysia (commonly known as xincun among the Chinese in Peninsular Malaysia) is that contrary to the name, they are far from “new”.
Many of the villages are now more than 60 years old.
The spread of Communist activities to overthrow the British government in Malaya led to the proclamation of a state of emergency in 1948, or popularly referred to as “The Emergency”.
Thus, the Chinese New Villages were conceived in accordance with The Briggs Plan, named after General Sir Harold Briggs who took on the task of containing the Communist spread as the British Director of Operations. He set out to cordon and protect all populated areas within proximity of known Communist presence.
“Chinese New Villages (NVs) were a product of the British administration’s post-war attempt to contain anticolonial opposition to the British. It was a central colonial strategy to win the “hearts and minds” especially of the widely dispersed Chinese rural “squatters” and smallholders during a period of Malaysian history known as the ‘Emergency’,” explains Dr Voon.
“The result was a lightning operation to resettle by decree about half a million rural Chinese in tightly nucleated villages. The immediate effect was to cut the residents off from contact with the anti-colonial guerillas in the countryside. Most of the NVs were strategically sited on the border of towns and fenced in with barbed wires. At the height of the Emergency, movements in and out of these villages were subjected to a dusk-to-dawn curfew,” adds Dr Voon.
The emergency ended on 31 July 1960 with the defeat of the Communists.
Despite that, life at the Chinese New Villages continued on with no plans to resettle the residents.
The continued existence of Chinese New Villages changed every aspect of life in Malaya significantly. One of its most far-reaching effects was the resettlement of over one million rural dwellers in more than 600 new villages and the reconfiguration of the population pattern of what was then Malaya.
“The decision to carry out such a completely new settlement programme was unprecedented in scale and in concept. It was a sweeping move that transformed not just the settlement pattern of the country but, more importantly, hitherto rural-based Chinese into semi-urban communities. The entire programme may be likened to a “social revolution” that was possible only during times when the authorities were vested with extraordinary powers to act. A whole community once regarded as “squatters” became instant owners of land on which their new houses were built,” shares Dr Voon.
“Hundreds of villages”: The largest New Village in Malaya was Jinjang in Selangor which in 1954 had a population of 13,000 on an area of 486 acres.
The smallest was Labu Besar (Kedah) with a population of 44. The New Villages usually had populations of between one hundred and one thousand.
Currently, there is a total of 450 – 500 Chinese New Villages in Malaysia, out of which about 10 per cent are located in Selangor.
The historical term “Chinese New Village” is still commonly used today, especially among the Chinese community in Malaysia. The New Villages as settlements in Malaysian landscape may not mean anything to a lay person.
However, to the Chinese community in general and Chinese-based political parties in particular, issues of the New Villages are of daily concerns.
In 2002, the total population of New Villages was approximately 1.25 million people, which translated to about 21 per cent of the total Chinese population in Malaysia. The living standards of these new villagers is relatively lower compared with that of the urban Chinese.
“The resettlement exacerbated the segregation of the different communities by ethnicity and space. As the Malays continued to live in traditional kampongs, some of whom later shifted to land development schemes, the rural Chinese were moved away from the countryside to resettle in the outskirts of towns. The physical and social distance between the two largest ethnic communities was consequently widened and seemed to have remained so ever since,” Dr Voon reveals.
After more than 60 years, just like many rural traditional villages, some of the new villages have developed rapidly, while others have remained relatively underdeveloped with a host of issues and problems facing them such as land shortages, lack of economic opportunities, over-crowdedness, ageing population and migration of youths to urban centres.
“Many people are still not certain what NVs are or how they have come into existence. There are insufficient reliable statistics on the population of individual NVs and census reports do not treat NVs as a separate entity for enumeration purposes. This inadequacy will continue to hamper proper planning and the future development of NVs. The absence of basic demographic data will also place a limitation on a proper appreciation of the changing nature of NVs,” Dr Voon elaborates.
“Changing the physical landscape of NVs will pose complex problems in legal, social and economic terms. Yet leaving NVs in their current shape and size may not help them to keep abreast of the times or be integrated into the broad trends of development that is going on in surrounding areas.
“The dilemma is one of choosing between unchanging villages with a direct link to the past and new structures that may blur the past, if not obliterate it altogether. It is the residents who should have the final say on the future of the NVs,” the academic director concludes.