Being Chinese in Malaysia

We just celebrated the Chinese New Year. My daughter is a 4th generation Chinese living in Malaysia. Like most Chinese (around my age), my grandfather came from southern China and settled down in Malaysia, sometime before World War II. My parents were born Malaysians, just like my daughter.

Ask anyone for an introduction to Malaysia, you are bound to get an introduction about the races that form Malaysia – i.e., Malays, Chinese and Indians. The chance to experience cultural diversity is one of those things (besides that Petronas twin towers and the photoshop-ed beaches) that get highlighted in glossy travel brochures that travels around the world.

Being Chinese, I grew up in a traditionally Chinese environment, maintaining a very distinctive Chinese identity. I went to Chinese-medium primary and secondary schools. I speak Mandarin and a couple of Chinese dialects (and hardly any Malay nor English). From young, I have been implanted with all things Chinese – history, ethics, cultural laws, literature and arts. I have been educated to treasure my “roots” – the ancestry and the long outstanding heritage. As a kid, I was proud to be Chinese and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it is that preaching of the “5000 years of Chinese legacy” thing that stuck itself deeply into the child’s psyche?

After spending considerable time abroad, I started looking at things differently.

For starters, this whole Chinese education thing – the formal education and the “my aunty says so” bits – really messes the head. From a Malaysian angle, we were brought up to be proud of our heritage – that we are superior in all fields – commerce, science and technology, industrial and engineering, arts and literature. That “they” (the other race) were afraid of us, hence, all the protectionist’s methods to curb “our” progress. We were forced to be hardworking – we were supposed to be the smarter ones, but unfortunately, we don’t deserve the same scholarships and privileges granted to “the others”.  We are to think highly of our schools as being the A-graded institutions and producers of the future leaders whereas “the other” schools are basically lazy bums, morally loosed and academically failures. We are told that the Chinese in the government are mostly traitors, all willing to follow the “Malay” agenda for their personal monetary gains. Even the language we speak is full of racial discrimination – typically classifying the other races as “ghosts”. Ask any Malaysian Chinese and they will tell you how they were being threatened by their parents to be given away to Indian ghosts (???) if they were being naughty kids. (Serious! No offence to my Indian friends!)

We are asked to fight to preserve a cultural identity – never to give up our school, our language, and our history. We are to be fiercely possessive about whom we are, what we have and where we stand in the grand scheme of things.

But why?

I cannot imagine a German-medium school in New York, or a Swedish-medium school in Berlin, though I presume there would be thousands of Germans settled permanently in New York. Is there a Cantonese-medium school in Toronto or a Hindi school in London? Do the Hindus in the States group together to form a political party to lobby for their “rights”?

However this is Malaysia. The dominant coalition political party is made of three parties – The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA). As the names suggest, they are racially segregated, each vowing to safeguard (and fight for) their community. As the upcoming election is getting nearer, it saddens me to imagine another round of racial politicking – the playing of the racial cards to get the votes.

I am concerned that I cannot be generally seen as a rakyat (citizen) Malaysia. I am disturbed when Chinese talk zealously about “we Chinese” or Malays issuing rally calls of “Hidup Melayu (long live Malays)”. I can’t see the country moving forward when we are stuck with the fight for racial supremacy. How about looking at the nation as one nation, working on one united system and equal-for-all policies? We can call for the abolishment of bumi-favoured economic/educational policies, but we must also be ready to give up the “we Chinese” mentality and look at the bigger picture. If it means overhauling the education system and sacrificing the Chinese schools, so be it – the change in mindset has to start somewhere. More important is the need to recognise the reality that there should be no us versus them in this country, for the greater good.

I do want my daughter to be able to read and speak the language though. For communications. For the appreciation and the understanding of elders and people in our life. For the economic advantage of being able to understand the largest population in the world. And also to be able to enjoy Red Dream Chambers (红楼梦), Water Margins (水浒传), Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国志) or Bai Xianyong 白先勇; Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, or Infernal Affairs. For the simple fact that it is a culture full of inspirational gems (just like any other culture). But, I don’t want my daughter to grow up to tell me stuff like “we Chinese must…”. That’s a horrifying thought.

I am happy being simply a Malaysian.