20 April 1999

There is currently an immense interest worldwide, in the United States in particular, about China and the Chinese diaspora. The Chinese networking is superb. They are everywhere, even in the upper reaches of many governments. They raised millions for President Bill Clinton's election and re-election and their influence in Asean, and in Indonesia in particular, is legendary. Singapore is the only Chinese-majority government and nation in Asean.

I was invited to give a talk on the Chinese diaspora, the Malaysian experience to some 50 students who are majoring in Chinese Studies at the University of Boston on March 4,1999. Because I consider it important and a remarkable tribute to the Malaysian Chinese, I have asked my editor to use the speech in full.

Is there any discernable upsurge in "Chinese nationalism or communalism" amongst the Chinese in Malaysia, indeed in Asean as a whole (excluding Singapore), as a result of China's growing importance in the world and that of general ethnic consciousness worldwide?

What are the long-term consequences of an emerging Chinese hegemony? Will 'decommunalisation' of Malaysian politics and society help?

Perhaps it will eventually occur though I suspect not until the bumiputras feel secure economically and socially; not until the Malaysian Chinese take on bumiputras to participate as co-equals in commerce, industry, manufacturing, banking, insurance and sophisticated financial services and market et al.

We are progressing (albeit slowly) towards a Bangsa Malaysia. We allow political dissent unlike in one or two neighbouring countries where any sort of political dissent is still a no-no or exercised at one's own peril.

There are Chinese everywhere, the world is borderless for them, and wherever they live many of them play a crucial and dynamic role in the local economy and their total contribution is a major part in the global economy.

They have a great story to tell and I am attempting to tell this nuanced and remarkable story to you:

"I like to express my appreciation for your kind invitation to come to talk to you about one of the most important peoples in the world today: The Overseas Chinese, The Chinese Diaspora And The Malaysian Experience In Co-opting them.

"What sometimes seems to alarm non-Chinese about the Chinese is the fact that there are too many of them - 1.3 billion in Mother China and anything between 40-60 million or even more overseas. I have no exact figure. In any event, the Overseas Chinese are a dynamic clever, practical, industrious and rich people. It is a fascinating study of a great success story and achievement.

"China, following the communist takeover in 1949 and within half a century, has become a world power. Perhaps not a major world power yet but it is well on its way there, and I reckon, it will be a power rivaling that of the United States in the same manner the Soviet Union was by the second half of the new century or even sooner. The Chinese seemingly have everything going for them notwithstanding the numerous hindrances and the relentless criticism being leveled against them.

"If it could improve and manage its economy better, it will be a formidable force in addition to its growing military firepower. China will and must become both a source of apprehension and inspiration.

"Japan has become a major world power in economic and market terms, but it does not behave like one. However, China though on the threshold of achieving what rightly should belong to it, is already sometimes acting like a major world player even if it is a major power in the making. The Soviet empire was short-lived but the Chinese will necessarily be longer, much longer. That is another story.

"The Chinese are an ancient people, their civilisation stretching back 5,000 years before the Christian era. Following a long period of instability in the middle of the nineteenth century (1839-42) and concessions to Western Powers, mass Chinese emigration began.

"I believe it was around this time many Chinese arrived in the Malay Peninsula to seek their fortunes, riches and work. This pattern of emigration increased after China became a republic in 1911 and following a deliberate British policy of attract cheap labour to work on their mining concessions rubber, coconut and coffee plantations in the Malay Peninsula which was renamed Malaya by the British colonialists.

"As the Malayan economy boomed British capital poured in simultaneously with cheap labour from India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and China. It is interesting to note that while this was going on the British never did - a premeditated policy try to import cheaper labour from Java which is nearer to Malaya than either China or India. Simply to have done so would not have been in the long-term interest of colonialism.

"Had it occurred - hiring cheaper Javanese labour - Malaya would have been a homogenous society like Japan. The Malays - the natives of Malaya - and the Javanese belong to the same racial stock and are co-religionists, Islam.

"By the 1930s the immigrants had overwhelmed the Malays. The Malays protested and immigration slowed down and eventually stopped before the Second World War. But the damage was done.

"At independence the Malays were still a minority in their own land though they were the biggest group amongst the three largest racial groups - Malays, Chinese and Indians. Now, 42 years after merdeka or independence, the Malays or bumiputra (sons of the soil) have a slight edge over the combined population of Malaysians of Chinese and Indian origin.

"The Chinese immigrant society was dynamic, exceedingly industrious and talented, and along its side lived a hardworking- and a highly literate - Indian community The Malays continued to be small farmers, soldiers, policemen and low-level government servants. At the top were the British, Europeans, Eurasians, WOGS (the Western Oriental Gentlemen or the Brown Mat Sallehs or Brown Sahibs) and the minuscule Malay aristocracy. This was the setting or the background before World War II.

"The history of the Chinese in Nanyang (Southern Seas), many claim, began many centuries ago, some even say 2,000 years ago. Be it as it may, the Chinese became an important part of the complex mosaic of Southeast Asian culture, commerce and industry.