AS the Chinese community in Malaysia (and around the world) usher in the Year of the Dog, it is perhaps appropriate that we examine generally the state of the community in the nation and its contribution to nation-building efforts.
It is fair to say that Chinese everywhere (and those in Malaysia) are among the best examples as proponents of capitalism with their well-known traits of frugality, a penchant for saving for the proverbial rainy day and being quick to sense and pick up any business opportunity. The Chinese are known to thrive even in the most adverse and unfriendly economic and political environments.
An emphasis on education and learning ingrained almost innately into the community contributes immeasurably to the success of the Chinese in Malaysia. Elsewhere in the world, they are most usually identified with Chinatowns — centres of commerce and culture that are now part and parcel of almost every cosmopolitan urban centre in the world.
In this sense, the Chinese in Malaysia are almost unique. They are so well-woven into the nation’s multi-racial fabric that some of the urban centres in the country started out as “Chinatowns” before they grew into cities and towns. That uniqueness also says a lot about how receptive the pre-existing communities in Malaysia had been at the arrival of Chinese settlers.
Manila in the Philippines may have the world’s oldest Chinatown (Binondo), and Jakarta in Indonesia one of the region’s most vibrant (Glodok) but the Chinese in Malaysia permeate the larger community such that they are not confined to any Chinatown in the country.
This, of course, has larger questions and implications for the integration of the Chinese into Malaysian society at large. The examples of the Chinese in the Philippines and Indonesia hold significant and instructive pointers for us in this regard.
In both neighbouring countries, initial contact between local host communities and the Chinese was, by most accounts, benign and welcoming. In West Kalimantan, Indonesia, local sultans even countenanced the setting up of the Lanfang Republic (which styled itself as a tributary state of imperial China) by local Chinese settlers in 1777. It was Dutch colonialists who put paid to the republic over a century later, in 1884.
In Spain-controlled Philippines, the policies of the colonial administration saw to it that the Chinese and local natives alike converted into Catholicism, the better presumably to ensure the integration of all in the country under Spanish rule.
It was President Suharto in modern Indonesia who felt the need to forcibly circumscribe Chinese community cultural practices and identity in order to enforce the community’s assimilation into Indonesian society, buttressed by every Indonesian speaking one common language, Bahasa Indonesia, at work and even at home.
Even such drastic efforts at integration and nation-building did not prevent Glodok going up in flames in the economic and political tumult that marked the end of Suharto’s rule in 1997-98.
Neighbouring Indonesia and the Philippines offer interesting pointers but hardly any lesson for Malaysia in terms of relations between local Chinese and other communities.
Malaysia’s Chinese population is proportionately roughly ten times those of these two countries vis-à-vis the total population of each of these countries.
Malaysia’s Chinese thus share with those in Indonesia and the Philippines economic preponderance in their respective countries but ours further enjoy political leverage owing to their numbers as a percentage of total population that their Indonesian and Filipino ethnic brethren lack.
To be sure, this can be a double-edged sword for Chinese Malaysians. While it provides political protection for Chinese cultural and ethnic identity that their Indonesian and Filipino counterparts may not thoroughly enjoy, such ethnic distinctiveness coupled with great economic leverage enjoyed by the community are privileges which must be preserved and not taken too much for granted.
As Malaysians decide in the 14th general election later in the year, it is important to remember that ours is akin to living in glass houses where different communities have distinct and different privileges they each want to guard zealously.
The start of the lunar new year is always an occasion to again celebrate our multi-racial harmony. That must extend through to the elections and beyond.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.