Chapter 01 - The Beginnings of Plural Society in Malaya: Chinese and Malays | 13 May 1969


Since A.D. 414, when Fa Hsien, the intrepid Buddhist monk and pilgrim, stayed in Java for five months on his way back to China after a stay of fifteen years in India, the Chinese have continued to visit the Nanyang (Southeast Asia) in increasing numbers. However, as far as the Malay Peninsula is concerned, the earliest record that we have from Chinese sources of a Chinese colony there comes from the account of Wang Ta-yuan, who in 1349 mentions Tumasik, or old Singapore.

The first significant Chinese settlements on the islands of the Malay archipelago date from as early as the thirteenth century. At San-fo-ts'i, in the neighbourhood of Palembang in Sumatra, there were several thousand Chinese, and it was one of the important ports of call for junks from China and ships from India.* Nevertheless, perhaps the best known early contacts with Malaya occurred during the early Ming dynasty, when the Chinese eunuch admiral Cheng Ho visited Malacca several times in the first half of the fifteenth century, and his name is still commemorated there in its deified form as Sam-po-kong. One of his secretaries, Fei Sin, writing in 1436, reported that there were some people of Chinese descent living there, which seems quite likely as it is customary to date the history of Chinese settlements in Malaya to after the establishment of the Malacca Sultanate circa 1400.

Malacca was probably the first and certainly the largest place of any Chinese settlement in Peninsular Malaya, although there were other long-established communities of Chinese traders living usually in the Malay rulers’ villages situated at the river mouth, where the Malay chiefs could control riverine trade and impose a tax on it. Some of these were permanently settled communities whose founders had married local women, and their offspring formed the nucleus of what later, during the nineteenth century,

The Beginnings of Plural Society in Malaya | 13 May 1969


became known as the 'Straits Chinese' or babas. The main centres of the babas were Malacca and Penang. They did not regard themselves as merely temporary immigrants in search of a living but as settlers. Many of them did not speak any Chinese at all but only Malay, although they adhered to a Chinese way of life which was influenced by Malay and other local customs.

Meanwhile, the network of Chinese traders grew. There were a thousand Chinese families from other places who settled in Johore in the early eighteenth century. It was estimated that in 1720 half the population of Kuala Trengganu was Chinese. The Chinese in Johore were mainly pepper cultivators and in Trengganu, traders. In the latter state they mined for gold too. The Trengganu Chinese owned junks and traded with Siam, Cambodia, Tongking and Sambas in Borneo. In Perak, Chinese miners had worked tin since at least the eighteenth century, and they played an important role in the development of tin mining in Selangor in the 1780s.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Chinese im¬migrants began to move into the western Peninsular Malay States following the discovery of tin deposits in Malacca (Linggi), Perak (Larut) and Selangor (Klang). The owners of the mines were Malay chiefs, but much of the finance was provided by Chinese and western entrepreneurs in the Straits Settlements, in particular from Singapore and Penang. Although the direct employers of Chinese labour were invariably Chinese lessees or contractors, the Chinese labourers were called in by the Malay chiefs.

This was the beginning of a flood of Chinese immigration which was eventually to change the racial composition of the country. Before 1850, for instance, there were reported to be only three Chinese in Larut, but by 1862 there were 20,000 to 25,000 and by 1877 about 40,000. At this time, it should be noted that there were only 150,000 Malays in the west coast states of Perak, Selangor, and Negri Sembilan. In 1907, it was estimated that there were 229,778 Chinese engaged in tin-mining in the Federated Malay States of Selangor, Perak, Negri Sembilan and Pahang. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese formed 65 per cent of the population of Selangor, that is, twice the Malay population, and 46 per cent of the population of Perak, where they were about equal in numbers to the Malays.

The Chinese were also active in many other sectors of the economy. For instance, they cultivated spices, pepper and gam*

The Beginnings of Plural Society in Malaya | 13 May 1969


bier in Penang, Province Wellesley and Singapore. Nutmegs and cloves, planted by Chinese, remained an important crop of Penang and Province Wellesley until around I860, when the plantations were destroyed by disease." When the pepper plantations cultivated by Chinese planters in Singapore became exhausted around 1840, the planters concerned moved into Johore. The cultivation of sugar cane was carried out by Chinese in Province Wellesley and Krian. Tapioca was yet another crop which was planted successfully by Chinese in the Malacca area until it was replaced by the more profitable rubber in the 1890s.

Chinese labourers were employed, too, in clearing the jungle, building roads, and more important, with their strong commercial instincts and knowledge of the use of money, they assumed the role of retailers and small shopkeepers.

Although virtually none of the Chinese who immigrated to Malaya brought with them wealth, some of them prospered and they eventually came to fill every rung of Malaya's economic and social life. In a sense, they formed a complete and separate economic community in Malaya, ranging from labourers to a large middle class of shopkeepers, merchants, tradesmen and entrepreneurs, at the apex of which was a smaller group of capitalists who had fought their way up to head business enterprises of immense complexity, such as banks, insurance companies, shipping companies, tin mines and rubber estates.

With each successive wave of immigration of Chinese male labourers from south China — very few Chinese women came until the second decade of the twentieth century — there were some who decided to stay on and make Malaya their permanent home. However, their average length of stay in Malaya was not more than seven years as most of them had the intention of saving a modest sum sufficient to purchase land in their ancestral village and of returning to China.

There were several factors which encouraged immigration from south China on an increased scale during the second part of the nineteenth century. There was great unrest in south China which was the centre of the disturbances caused by the Taiping Uprising (1850 — 64). Neither food nor employment opportunities were able to keep pace with the increase in population. To many Chinese, therefore, the Malay States were a 'new frontier' offering opportunities of economic advancement which were not available in China itself. There was the attraction, too, of being able to earn

 The Beginnings of Plural Society in Malaya | 13 May 1969


higher wages than could be earned in China (even though some authorities have compared the lot of the Chinese immigrants with 'serfs'), as well as a chance, if one were frugal enough, of saving money which could be remitted to relatives in China. Additionally, compared with China itself and other parts of Southeast Asia at that time, there was at least an acceptable modicum of law and order in Malaya, and it was known that the British administration ensured the enforcement of private property rights.

In spite of their large numbers, or perhaps because of them, as they preferred to keep together wherever possible in large family and clan groups, the Chinese remained aloof from the Malay community and lived completely separated social and economic lives. There was the spatial element too. The Chinese tended to congregate in the urban settlements whereas the Malays traditionally lived in their kampungs (villages) around the lower reaches of the major rivers. In the large urban settlements, 'Chinatowns' grew up in the business centres and the Malays built their houses on the outskirts." The Chinese, apart from the baba community, represented an alien element in Malaya. They spoke their own language, which hardly any non-Chinese spoke in Malaya at that time, and followed their own distinctive way of life and customs. They tended, therefore, to be segregated in their own sector of the towns, and in their own kongsis (labourers' lines) on tin mines and rubber estates. This separation was, in fact, tacitly encouraged by the British, and in the old town plans prepared by British architects and engineers of that period provision was invariably made for a clearly demarcated sector of each town to be reserved as the Chinese quarter, as indeed similar areas were reserved for Indians, Arabs and Europeans.

It should be noted that this segregation did not represent any divide-and-rule policy on the part of the British, as it antedated the British arrival, but it was endemic to the whole region and beyond, even before the days of the Malacca Sultanate. It was simply that the different racial groups preferred to live in their own areas, where they could feel at ease among their own people, and where they would not encounter problems on account of language, food, customs and religion. Administration was made simpler, too, by the practice of appointing a capitan, or headman, for each group, who was responsible to the authorities for the conduct of the persons under his supervision.

The racial composition of Peninsular Malaya from 1835 to

The Beginnings of Plural Society in Malaya | 13 May 1969


1970, which is indicated by percentages of the total population in Appendix 1, shows very clearly the phenomenal increase in the Chinese population from a low of 7.7 per cent as opposed to 85.9 per cent Malays in 1835, to 29.4 per cent as against 63.9 per cent Malays in 1884, until in 1970 the Chinese made up 35.4 per cent of the total population. However, if the other substantial non-Malay element of the population, that is, Indian, is added to the Chinese figures, the position of the Malays is made even more precarious, as demonstrated below:

Percentage of Population (Peninsular Malaya excluding Singapore, Penang & Malacca).

It should be noted that these figures exclude the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang and Malacca, and as these were predominantly Chinese settlements, it can be seen that by 1931 the Malays had become a minority in their own country.

In keeping with the xenophobic and sinocentric attitude adopted by Chinese towards all foreigners, who were traditionally regarded as 'outer barbarians' and 'foreign devils', the Chinese tended to look down on Malays, and criticize them for being lazy, backward and pleasure-loving.

On the other hand, the Malays, who are Muslims, were socially exclusive. For the Malay, the sense of community is inextricably bound up with the concept of a community of true believers. Malays have a strong feeling of racial identity which is reinforced by Muslim attitudes towards kafirs (unbelievers), and they, in turn, did not hold the Chinese in very high esteem and commonly referred to them as orang berhala (worshippers of idols), without a kitab (holy book), meaning in this context the Koran. This feeling was undoubtedly accentuated by the incompatibility with Islam of certain Chinese habits, such as the keeping of pigs and the eating of 'unclean meat' (pork), which is expressly forbidden to all followers of the Muslim faith.

From the evidence available, it would seem that an acceptable definition of a Malay around the mid-nineteenth century would be a person professing the Muslim religion, habitually speaking

The Beginnings of Plural Society in Malaya | 13 May 1969


Malay, conforming to Malay adat (custom), and owing allegiance to his Malay ruler. There was no sense of national loyalty, as this did not develop until the Second World War, but only a more parochial loyalty to the Malay ruler of the state concerned.

It is patent that there was no way in which the Chinese could fit into the above category. In any case, as has been said above, intermarriage between the two communities, which would have helped to break down racial barriers, was very rare, especially as the non-Malay partner would be required to accept the Muslim faith. Moreover, as one Malay put it rather pithily, for a Malay to marry a Chinese would be like 'eating curry without sambal', the latter ingredient being the highly flavoured and pungent condiment eaten with curry to make it tastier. In fact, it may be said that the social and religious structure of the Malays made it impossible for any other religious or ethnic community, with the exception of Arabs or Indian-Muslims, to be integrated with them.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the Malays did not feel that their position had been unduly threatened by the great influx of Chinese immigrants, as the majority of the Chinese had no intention of settling permanently in Malaya. Nevertheless, by the twentieth century the position had changed, and there was an increasing awareness and anxiety about the growing numbers of local-born Chinese who, although they may not have been assimilable, were undoubtedly putting down roots in Malaya, and driving the Malays off the land.

While there were Malays working as rubber tappers and tin miners, and in other sectors of the economy, they were not participating in the modernization and opening up of their country; this move was being spearheaded by western and Chinese interests, and it was evident that the Malays preferred to follow their own rhythm of life in the kampungs, where they could grow rice and coconuts, keep chickens, or in the coastal areas combine subsistence agriculture with fishing, and remain their own masters. Rice cultivation was seasonal, and the actual work occupied only about two months a year, although the yield was sufficient for the entire year. The rest of the year could therefore be spent at leisure, as the country was well endowed with natural resources and there was, generally speaking, no need for anyone to go hungry.

The Malays traditionally had a strong, almost mystical, attachment to the land, which was connected with their underlying

The Beginnings of Plural Society in Malaya | 13 May 1969


animistic beliefs, similar to those of the Javanese for their tanah air (homeland). For instance, to protect the soul-substance of his staple food of rice, the Malay farmer performed a series of ritual acts to propitiate the spirits and supernatural powers, and resorted to divination to ascertain the best time to begin agricultural activity. Indeed, practices of this nature pre-date Islam, and are often encountered in Malay traditional life not far below the surface of the more orthodox Islamic overlay. They relate back to the time when animism was the indigenous belief of the Malays. Moreover, in this connection, the influence of Hinduism, which was brought to Malaya by Indian traders before the coming of Islam, should also not be overlooked.

A rationalization of the Malay perception of themselves would be that they regarded themselves as the subjects of their own hereditary rajas to whom they gave their allegiance and loyalty, rather in the same way that a feudal vassal owes fealty to his liege lord. They felt that their place was in their kampungs, looking after the land, which they regarded as their birthright and heritage, and not working as cash labourers for westerners or Chinese.

It is therefore inaccurate and unfair to describe the Malays as 'indolent' and 'lotus eaters', as many non-Malay observers have done. The situation is not as starkly simple as all that and it may well be that Malay perceptions and values were different in regard to commercial and industrial aspects of life.

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