Tag Archives: China

An Open Letter to my Malay Friends and Anyone Who Cares Where Malaysia is Going

August 31 is Malaysia’s Independence (Merdeka) Day. On this day fifty five years ago, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time and a new country was born.

Malaysia (then called Malaya). 

She was to be a powerful narrative for multiculturalism. A place where many races – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, Orang Asli (native indigenous people) – would live together, work together, as one, to move the country beyond the shadow of colonisation.

Malaysia remains a powerful idea. It’s one I believe in. But it has gone badly wrong. That’s why today, I’m writing this open letter to my Malay family and friends. I believe Malaysia is fast reaching a crossroad; where it goes next will be determined by you, my dear Malay friends. And where Malaysia goes is important to the world – because it remains one of the more tolerant Muslim countries.

First though, I want to say a big thank you. On this Merdeka day, I want to thank you, my Malay family and friends, and all fellow-Malaysians of Malay descent, for your historic generosity. Your ancestors welcomed mine when they arrived. You have shared the land with us, and this in turn, gave us opportunities we wouldn’t have had on mainland China. You provided us safe refuge from the turmoil of China. When I learn what happened there in the past century, I am so grateful my ancestors left. And that they found shelter in the beautiful land now called Malaysia.

My Malay friends, your own ancestors came from other places. They knew what it was like to be strangers in a new country. They treated my ancestors with that gracious hospitality which I myself have experienced countless times. All this I acknowledge, and thank you for.

But now I need to move on to something else: why I left Malaysia, and why I won’t be returning any time soon.

You may already know that 2 out of 10 Malaysian graduates live outside Malaysia. This is an astonishing fact for a middle-income country like Malaysia. It was revealed in a detailed study on Malaysia’s brain drain, carried out by the World Bank.

My Malay family and friends, do you not care about this exodus of talent? This isn’t just an abstract number: in our family, half those of my generation live abroad. We are the graduates this World Bank report identifies. We compete happily in the world economy and have no need to return.

Perhaps, my Malay friends, you think the brain drain irrelevant, since most of the people who have left are of Chinese and Indian descent? Certainly, this is what many Malays think, as Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, has alluded to. (If you haven’t heard her speak, I recommend you watch this youtube clip. The opening is in Malay; the rest in English). 

“For me,” she says, “one Malaysian regardless of race, who has left the country…is a loss to us. They should be here celebrating, to improve the economy. I detest many people trying to singularly find out whether they are Malays, Chinese or Indians.”

My sentiments entirely. This fixation on race, race, race, in Malaysia is strangling the country. Yes, 88% of the one million Malaysians estimated to be living abroad are of Chinese and Indian descent. So what? My Malay friends, I ask you: does our race matter more than the fact that we have taken our talents elsewhere?

Yet, should I expect anything else? How could any Malaysian not be fixated on race, when you, my Malay family and friends, are accorded ‘special’ rights solely because of your race and religion?

Imagine if the United States had given ‘special’ privileges to the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers and their descendants. Special rights to land, schools, gold mines and everything else – all because they sailed first; yes, just imagine! This is exactly what your special rights equate to. If the US had adopted such a policy, do you think it would have turned into a magnet for talent and skills?

Tell anyone about a Malaysian university reserved for people with ‘special’ privileges based on race, and you will see the reaction. What? People stare in disbelief. You must be kidding!

I’m not. And there have been demonstrations against opening the institute up to other Malaysians. Yet, Malaysians are so used to these oddities that we don’t bat an eyelid. We no longer notice the strange ideas plaguing our country.

Your ‘special’ rights, my Malay family and friends, alienate me. They make me feel unwelcome, unwanted and second-class. They are why I left. They are also why I won’t be back. Rights are a zero-sum game: for you to have more rights, others must necessarily have fewer. TalentCorp (the agency set up to attract Malaysians back) completely misses the point.

And when I see the culture of entitlement your ‘special’ privileges have led to, and the increasingly racist rhetoric this culture generates, I fear for Malaysia. Outrageous remarks are now commonplace, as former US ambassador John R. Malott outlined in his Feb 8 2011 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Malaysia has once again been called Tanah Melayu (Malay Land). Malay Land was given airtime by none other than Mahathir Mohamed, former Prime Minister and rabble-rouser extraordinaire, who is himself from a family with Indian immigrants. Malay Land is more than just a name. His is a supremacist concept: a land for Malays, where Malays will be Lords, everyone else their subjects.

Some people say Mahathir no longer matters, but actually he does. I feel less welcome now in Malaysia than at any time in the past. The attitudes of Malay Land are creeping in, and Malay Land is completely the opposite of Malaysia. Malay Land excludes, while Malaysia embraces and includes – a country for all races.

My Malay family and friends, which is it you want: Malay Land, or Malaysia? You cannot have both; you must choose.

On this Merdeka Day, I urge you to think about that choice. Because you, my dear Malay friends, are the only people who can truly change the direction Malaysia takes. Know that we, your fellow-Malaysians who have voted with our feet, are rooting for Malaysia. We are no traitors. 68% of the Malaysians abroad who were surveyed by the World Bank expressed a strong sense of patriotism/attachment to Malaysia. I am among this 68%. I may have been away for thirty three years, but Malaysia continues to be in my dreams. I left with regret, and I stay away with sadness. I hope Malaysia will prevail. Assalamualaikum.

The above blog-post was published in its entirety, but without video or links, on Malaysia Kini on August 31 2012 (http://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/207623).

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Lost Cells 2: Chinaman, Englishman and the Malaysian-Chinese Divide

“Chinaman!”

I remember the first time I heard the word. It was more a cry really, a shout which came back in a dream, stirring the depths of my memory.

I wonder what the word conjures up for you. Does it evoke an image? I would love to know. Please click below to answer a simple question.

Thank you for sharing your experience.

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It was the tone in which ‘Chinaman’ was said which must have caught my attention, because I began to ask questions. The adults around me squirmed, and then became evasive as they pretended that ‘Chinaman’ was an innocuous word. They told me it referred to a man from China, in the same way that ‘Englishman’ referred to a man from England.

But they were lying.

‘Chinaman’ had a ring to it; the word shook the dust, as if phlegm were being expelled. No one said ‘Englishman’ in the same way, or ‘Frenchman’, or any other word which contained the name of a country.

As I grew up, I learnt its many connotations.

Uncouth.

Lower class.

Untrustworthy.

Dirty.

Greedy.

Rude.

Slitty-eyed ugly.

No wonder the adults had been ambiguous. There is nothing attractive in the descriptions above, and they must have been embarrassed at having to explain themselves. Every one of them was of Chinese ethnicity, and I wonder what they could have been thinking. If you were Chinese – a Chinaman or a Chinawoman – what did you have to tell yourself in order to be able to spit out ‘Chinaman’, a word loaded with implications, so easily? How did you deal with the confusion which must have lurked somewhere inside your head and your heart?

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As I held the contradictions inside, I veered between shame and outsized pride. There were moments when I shuddered, disgusted at my association with a race of coarse, yellow-skinned peasants who spat on the street and spiced each meal with slurping and burping. How could I have come from the same stock? There was no escaping genetics, but I sometimes pretended I could. I had to make these ‘Chinamen’ separate from me.

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Before I came into the world, my grandfather and granduncles did the same. They were born in Malaya in the early 1900s, a time when China was fast declining while Britain’s star remained in the ascent. My great-grandfather Chin Choon Sam was a first-generation Chinese immigrant who married a Nyonya woman, my legendarily fierce great-grandmother. When my great-grandfather settled in Ipoh (see map and blog-post My Ipoh), he raised a second family, as was common with Chinese immigrants of the time who had left families behind in China. We know little about his first family other than that he had a China-born son, who often visited his half-siblings in Malaya.

His two families were raised very differently, however. With the onslaught of British colonisation, his Malayan sons were educated in English – at the Anglo-Chinese School in Ipoh. This is one of Malaysia’s most famous schools and among the first to be founded by missionaries (as detailed in my blog-post Smart Girls don’t find Husbands?!). My grandfather and granduncles learnt to speak and write fluently in English; they wore Western clothes, adopted healthy doses of British manners, and converted to Christianity. In contrast, their China-born half-brother, having been schooled in China, spoke only Chinese and was more comfortable with traditional Chinese customs.

It was perhaps inevitable that my grandfather and granduncles thought themselves superior to this ‘Chinaman’ among them. We have no photographs of my China-born granduncle; whenever I try to imagine what he looked like, all I can see is a man with a brown face, clad in a Mandarin suit, his hair covered by a cloth cap or a hard conical hat. This, I realise, is simply an image of a Chinaman I have picked up somewhere along the way, a picture not unlike that well-known photograph of Yap Ah Loy, the founder of Kuala Lumpur (see map), Malaysia’s capital city.

I wonder what my Westernised grandfather and granduncles must have thought as they sat with the supposedly flesh-and-blood intruder inside their home. Perhaps choice words came into their minds?

Uncouth.          Lower class.   Untrustworthy.

My aunt who remembers the visitor from China confirmed the disdain with which my China-born granduncle was treated. “Like a second-class citizen!”

The poor man eventually decided his prospects would be better in his native country and returned there for good. I only hope life wasn’t too harsh for him after the Communists came to power.

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My family’s story was not atypical. In the decades when Malaysians looked up to the West and regarded English as superior, Malaysians of Chinese descent who came from English-speaking homes looked down on their Chinese-speaking compatriots. (Of course, all Malaysian-Chinese speak both English and Chinese to some extent; what I’m referring to is our primary preference, our modus operandi: the language in which we feel the most comfortable and which shapes how we behave in this world.)

For a long time, we English-speaking Malaysian-Chinese walked with a swagger. Our compatriots felt our condescension, as I was reminded by a Malaysian-Chinese friend from a Chinese-speaking background. She herself attended a Chinese language primary school before continuing to one of the former mission schools for her secondary education.

There, she met Malaysian-Chinese students from English-speaking homes. It was then that she felt the subtle divide which separated her from her English-speaking peers. Nothing was ever said and no one was openly rude, but she knew she was perceived as a lesser person: less wealthy, more ulu (market Malay for backward), not as well-dressed. In the canteen, social segregation took place; English and Chinese speakers usually sat in separate groups. Segregation continued inside the classroom, because in Malaysia, students are streamed according to ability and in general, English-speaking students achieved better examination results.

For my friend, what she felt palpably from one day to another drove her. She wanted to prove to her English-speaking classmates that she was their equal. She has succeeded admirably in this goal; after university in Australia, she worked for a multinational company and now lives a global lifestyle. Years later when she recounted her story, I could still hear the anguish in her voice. My friend’s success has come at a price though: she has now forgotten her Mandarin.

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This is largely in the past. With the rise of China, social perceptions have changed. Malaysians no longer look to the West in the same way, and Malaysian-Chinese now prefer their children to be educated in Chinese (for political reasons which I will not discuss here).

In this brave new world, even the word ‘Chinaman’ has lost some of its sting. But a shifting state of affairs always brings its own challenges. A recent review in the UK’s Guardian paper  brought home to me what some of these may be. The reviews was of the much-acclaimed novel Chinaman which is about, of all things, cricket.

Here’s what it said. “A Chinaman in cricket is a particular delivery, a slower ball designed to fool the batsman into thinking it will bounce in the opposite direction to the one it does. It also, in Sri Lankan argot, is a term indicating gullibility.”

Guile and gullibility, juxtaposed effortlessly over one another. This tells me that there are people – perhaps many – who fear and loathe the Chinese (us Chinese?) at the same time. (I rewrote that last sentence repeatedly and still couldn’t decide which phrase to use. Who do I stand with here? Do people regard me in the same way as they do the mainland Chinese? Do they fear us too but would never say so openly?) Their fear and loathing may well increase as China continues to ascend, as it surely will. And while this happens, we overseas Chinese will have to continually reassess our relationship with the land our ancestors once graced, as well as with each other, whether or not we wish to.

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Lost Cells 1: the Cultural Challenge of being Overseas Chinese

I was born on a starless night in Singapore, one among fifty seven million people of Chinese descent to have been born outside of mainland China.

According to my Mandarin teacher, some overseas Chinese were at one time referred to as ‘same cells’ by our fellow-Chinese on the mainland. This sobriquet applied to those in Hong Kong and Macao, the idea being that they were all part of one body, one organism. As for the rest of us, we presumably floated too far away to qualify for ‘sameness’. Like lost cells, we’ve become disentangled from the mother organism and are now drifting aimlessly through space.

I rather like this idea. The term ‘lost cells’ conjures up amoeba-like objects from biology lessons. I imagine blobs with malleable membranes, expanding and contracting as they skim across a vast ocean.

It has sometimes been lonely being a lost cell. China always loomed, but I couldn’t have told you what it signified. When I eventually spoke to other overseas Chinese, I discovered I was far from alone. No matter where our homes were – be they in Jamaica or Australia – we all grappled with what being overseas Chinese meant.

How did this vast ancestral land of ours, with its millennia of culture, fit into our lives?

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Of course, we Chinese are a practical people. Nothing as nebulous as existential angst could ever stop us in the day-to-day business of simply getting on. To quote the legendary investor Jim Rogers: “By one count, the overseas Chinese together make up the third largest economy in the world.”

I found this statistic truly staggering. Imagine placing all fifty seven million of us – you if you’re an overseas Chinese, me, my family, friends and acquaintances – onto the same land. Our collective effort, according to Jim Rogers – from the businesses we owned, the work we did, the things we made – would create a powerhouse third only to America and Japan (the top two at the time) in terms of output.

(If you haven’t heard of Jim Rogers, he once worked with George Soros, retired early and then rode around the globe on his motorcycle. The above quote is taken from his book Hot Commodities, a terrific read for anyone interested in investing in commodities.)

Rogers’ statistic surprised me, but it also made me strangely proud. It spoke to me about core Chinese values: hard work, family, education. Because he was talking about far-flung Chinese, it said other things too. I thought of the way many of our ancestors had arrived in unknown places from an impoverished China, with nothing other than the clothes on their backs and the few dollars in their pockets. That they had built new lives out of so very little told me they must have had courage, a gift for adapting, and gritty determination.

Against such odds, overseas Chinese have been conspicuously successful. This is especially true in South-East Asia where most of us live.  

Alas, our success has not made for an easy relationship with the other peoples of the region. It certainly didn’t make my quest for identity any easier.

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The search for identity permeates my novel. Its main character is a Nyonya woman who claims a meaningful role for herself within her own culture. With the arrival of the British in Malaya, great change comes, and my heroine struggles as her culture is eroded by new Chinese immigrants and relentless Westernisation. She eventually understands there are things she cannot change; what she can change requires courage, and the confronting of bruising reality.

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When I was growing up, I never felt especially Chinese. Thrust into the three cultures of Malaysia – Chinese, Malay and Indian – all heavily spiced by Western influence, I became accustomed to what is now called a ‘multicultural’ society early on.

Unlike friends who can remember astonishing details, I have few childhood memories. The big events I recall were the colourful weddings, of which there were many, all involving copious amounts of food and drink; also Chinese New Year celebrations, which I looked forward to because children received red packets (ang bao) with money inside. I was always excited by a red packet. Before peeling the envelope open, I would caress its sleeves to feel what coins it contained. Envelopes with no coins were the best, because those contained bank notes.

None of what we celebrated made me feel any allegiance to China though. I didn’t even like fireworks, that staple of Chinese New Year celebrations. Whenever my family gathered to light long thin sticks or bunches of red crackers which popped like machine-guns, I cowered inside the house.

“You know we Chinese invented fireworks,” my father once told me, as if this indicated a genetic predisposition to enjoying thunderous explosions.

As I became older, it was clear there were other ways in which I wasn’t typically Chinese; in my bluntness for example, and my tendency to call a spade a spade, which even straight-talking Dutch friends find difficult. Also, while I don’t deliberately seek conflict, I don’t go out of my way to avoid them. If things need to be said, I will say them, regardless of the consequences and even at the risk of conflict. This is quite un-Chinese. It’s un-Asian too; where I come from, talking without mentioning indelicate truths has been elevated to an art form.

Such etiquette works, but only if everyone is equally attuned to fine nuances. My mother once thought she had told me something when in reality she had not – her reference to a gay relative was so oblique, I had no clue what she meant.

Such restraint has passed me by. Who knows why? Perhaps it’s my Nyonya heritage coming alive, or simply the result of decadent Western influence. I can’t help thinking though, what a pity so much is left unsaid by us all. So much holding back of words, thoughts, feeling…while every passing moment masks our and life’s fragility.

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In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I felt truly Chinese for the first time.

It was the virulent criticism of China beforehand which spurred this ‘quasi-patriotism’ in me. Not a day passed in the spring of 2008 when we in the UK didn’t hear about the air quality in Beijing (poor), Chinese policies in Tibet (oppressive), and other tit-bits such as scenes of the Chinese countryside (full of tanned peasants with crooked teeth, decaying houses and filth). In other words, the usual Western media fare when reporting on a developing country.

When British troublemakers unfurled the Tibetan flag at one of Beijing’s iconic towers, I became indignant. Not because I support Communism or think China blameless or disagree with the right to protest, but because the manner of this protest smacked of Western neo-colonialism. It showed no sensitivity to ‘face’, an important part of life in Asia. It took no account of how far China has come in the last thirty years, or how it became what it is today. China had to work damned hard for its moment of glory and no Westerner has any right to take it away. I felt personally affronted, as if I had been slapped on both cheeks.

Fortunately, we were avenged. Watching the opening ceremony live on television with colleagues, I remember very clearly my burning pride at the jaw-dropping spectacle. The grandeur, feats of coordination, and the unfurling of blocks of our history, made my heart full. It made me think of visiting the land my ancestors had come from.

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My first trip to China took place in 2011. It was actually instigated by my Russian partner, who had already been three times. I on the other hand, remained nervous. It seemed such a large undertaking, so fraught with meaning.

At the time, my Mandarin teacher, an overseas Chinese woman from Singapore, had just lost her job in London and was reluctantly considering two employment offers from China. “I don’t want to go,” she said. Her statement made my ears prick up. “Why?” I asked. “I don’t understand the mainlanders,” she confided. “And the toilets are terrible. Make sure you have loo roll with you.”

As if that weren’t enough, she added, “Oh, be careful when you go shopping. They’ll fleece you.”

From her description, I expected the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when I loved Shanghai. I was struck by how clean the city was; the floors of every metro station gleamed. Though my Mandarin teacher was right about taking loo roll, toilets were generally fine where we went, better than their Malaysian equivalent (see my blog-post Truly Malaysia: The Wetness of Toilets).

More importantly, I blended in. No one towered over me. I looked like everyone else, which made me feel strangely at home. According to my partner, twenty four hours was all it took for my ‘veneer’ of British politeness to rub off. By the second day, I behaved like a local and happily jumped queues. 

Despite this, I was also aware of being different. For a start, I hardly speak Mandarin. Yet even if I did, I don’t think it would have changed anything. The mainlanders eyed me cautiously and I did the same, as if we knew we shared a heritage but our experiences had diverged too long ago for collective memory to matter. China may be my ancestral land, but it is definitely not my homeland. Like a lost cell which had thrived elsewhere, I knew then that China wouldn’t be my destiny.

To be continued

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