20 April 1999

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Even today, the Chinese role in the economy is a dangerous short fuse, in Indonesia especially this was made worse because wherever they settled, the Chinese usually would cluster together in Chinatowns and villages which would reproduce the native landscapes they had left behind.

"Later generations have become Malaysians and the majority of them are patriotic. Thousands of them died fighting the Chinese communists. Though the Malaysian Chinese are in the minority, it is a big minority at 37%. They control commerce, manufacturing, construction, the professions and sophisticated banking, financial and capital services and major industries.

"I must be fair; it is nothing like the Chinese control of the Indonesian economy. It is said the Indonesian Chinese, an ethnic minority of 3% to 4% in a nation of 205 million, owns 75% of the private corporate capital and the national wealth. Yet they are not allowed to participate in government and the armed forces.

"In Malaysia the Sino-Malay cooperation is strong, very strong in fact. All races share political power. The economic policy is fair, every one has a share in the economic pie or cake; some have more than others but no particular race is denied opportunities. There are Chinese and Indian ministers, top officials in the administrative and diplomatic service and generals and colonels in the armed forces."

"But according to Sejarah Melayu or the Malay Annals, the Chinese first settled in Malacca. The legend says that an entourage of 500 Chinese men and women accompanied Princess Hang Li Po when she arrived to marry the Sultan of Malacca in the middle of the 15th Century. They were given Bukit China (Chinese Hill) for their settlement and burial grounds. The burial grounds are still there but the settlement is no longer there as the Chinese and their descendants moved out to other parts of the city.

"The early Chinese settlers had no problems with the Malays, I think, because of three reasons, maybe more; many of them saw themselves only as sojourners (huagiao) who were in Malaya temporarily, always planning to return to China when they have made their fortune or saved enough money They wanted to spend their remaining years in their native land. Those who chose to remain assimilated somewhat, they adapted and adjusted.

"They adopted and used the Malay language, creating their own patois, their women dressed like Malays, but in reality the racial differences were (and are) deep-rooted, in the main because of religion. The Malays were and are exclusively Muslim whilst the Chinese are pragmatic, many remain ancestral worshippers or Buddhists. But many also became Christians and a few, Muslims.

"The divide was sharpened by the vast differences in wealth, education, outlook and goals.

"They shunned politics and government service.

"The various races lived in separation: separate schools, settlements, jobs and developed and progressed separately but not equally

"The British divide-and-rule policy worked perfectly in Malaya. All accepted British rule even under protest.

"The Chinese, who remained adjusted to local conditions were known as Peranakan or local born. They aligned themselves with the British Raj.

"They became rich as middlemen between the new Chinese immigrants and the colonial rulers - became compradors, British commercial agents, promoters, advisers and enforcers, and in the process, many became wealthy land and plantation owners.

"Their British patrons awarded them casino, opium and other forms of concessions.

"Many became super rich and westernised. They intermarried and called themselves either the Queen's Chinese or King's Chinese.

"As always, Chinese politics engaged and engrossed the new immigrants and interfered in their lives which, in turn, altered their relationships with the local born Chinese, and the Malays, even with the British.

"This changed many events in the country.

"To compound the growing alienation with the British, Malays and the Peranakan, the aggressive immigrants were themselves fragmented on the basis of dialect, class and region of origin in China.

"Thus, within the Chinese community, two parallel societies developed, one adhering to the Chinese lifestyle and the other, more Western-oriented.

"The two groups struggled for economic resources and status but, before too long, the aggressive, dynamic and go-getter new immigrants became dominant.

"The 'new rich' began to compete socially, offering themselves as community civic, cultural and commercial leaders who were aligned with China rather than with the hated British Raj

"When they arrived, they had brought along the secret societies which maintained like the mafia, strict code of ethics and fought and died for the political and economic interests of their members whereas the local-born Chinese accepted British rule, law and order and the principles of free trade.

"The differences between them became more evident after WW1 and the WWII.

"The Malays had watched these developments with awe and apprehension on the sideline and became politically conscious.

"They were worried about the future of their land. They began to form political organisations to protect their rights and for eventual freedom."

(Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad is our envoy to the United Nations)