A new book attempts to shed new light on the Malaysian Chinese community.
XINNIAN kuaile; Sin-ni khoai-lok; or Sun nin fai lok: there are more than eight Chinese dialects and languages to pick from when wishing Happy New Year to our fellow Malaysians.
Then we have the choice of ang pow, laisee or hung-bao, among others, to give out as gifts to children.
Most Malaysians, however, are not aware of this as the Chinese community is often seen as one homogenous community.
Rita Sim, co-founder and fellow of the think tank Centre for Strategic Engagement (Cense), says this is perhaps the biggest myth about the Chinese community in Malaysia.
“Even for those who are aware that there are various dialects and languages among the Chinese, many still think that the Malaysian Chinese community is homogenous,” she says.
This is one of the misconceptions that Sim hopes to address in her book Unmistakably Chinese, Genuinely Malaysian.
The idea for the book, she relates, was conceived when she was doing marketing for the local Chinese daily Sin Chew.
“Media planners and advertisers in Malaysia are largely English speakers, so many do not realise how big and diverse the Chinese community in this country is,” she says.
In her book, Sim divides the Chinese community into three clusters, G1, G2 and G3, which in loose terms can be defined as “Chinese literate”, “non-Chinese literate” and the “Overlap” respectively.
“This is only to give it a vocabulary. Actually, this is common knowledge among the Chinese speakers and readers, but it is new for the others,” she tells Sunday Star, adding that the terminology was first mooted by social observers and influencers of Chinese communal development.
The first cluster, G1, is the largest and forms 85% of the 6.5 million Chinese in Malaysia. “They are guided by Chinese philosophy and are immersed in Chinese language and culture,” Sim says.
This cluster is growing as more than 95% of Chinese parents are now opting to send their children to Chinese schools.
“Over 90% of the Chinese in Malaysia now are Chinese speakers,” she highlights.
The second, a considerably smaller group at between 10% and 15% of the community, is more cosmopolitan. They are likely to have a large network of close friends from other communities and are influenced more by Western-style learning.
Between these two groups is an overlap the G3, which consists of G1 or G2 Chinese who, through language or work exposure, have stepped into the other grouping and survived, even thrived.
Sim notes that although carving up the community in this manner may seem overly simplistic, “it does support the reality in significant ways.”
Crucially, she adds, the clusters are not fixed.
“They are fluid as the Chinese move in and out of the clusters depending on their education and income level, and they are certainly not like mainland (China) Chinese.”
As Sim points out in her book, the G1 have adopted a socio-cultural framework which rests on three main pillars: Chinese education, Chinese media and Chinese organisations.
The G2 Chinese are not Chinese-educated. They speak English and include a large number of Christians and the Peranakan. They are comfortable reading English or Bahasa Malaysia newspapers and tend to take a Malaysian perspective as opposed to an exclusively Chinese one.
Despite the existence of the G3 category, the two main groups remain quite distinct.
The G2 parent, for example, does not subscribe to the three pillars but for pragmatic reasons, many send their children to Chinese schools to give them a leg-up in the globalised world.
Among the G1 group, Chinese education is inextricably linked to identity and has little to do with globalisation.
Thus, the G1 stands firmly by the Federal Constitution, which allows Chinese and Indian communities the right to mother tongue education, Sim says.
No hindrance to unity
While Chinese schools have been blamed as the cause of disunity in Malaysia by certain sectors, Sim disagrees.
“Today, I don't see Chinese schools as a hindrance to integration because even in Chinese schools you have to learn Bahasa Malaysia. It is a compulsory (subject). And if you go out today, more than 90% of the Chinese in the country are able to communicate in Bahasa, so there is no communication problem.”
Sim strongly believes it is time to acknowledge the role the G1 play in the country's social and economic development.
Proficiency in Chinese is an advantage in the world now, especially if you want to do business in China, she points out.
This is true, and even the BBC has recently reported that Malaysians have an advantage in China because of our multilingual education.
“How many people can speak Mandarin, multiple Chinese dialects, Malay and English?” Lim Cheah Chooi from engineering firm Unimech Group Berhad, which has production factories in China, was quoted by the BBC.
Sim concurs, adding that Malaysians are also able to venture into the Indonesian market because of their fluency in Malay and they can go to the United States and Europe too because of their knowledge of English.
Malaysia is unique in the sense that we have parallel education systems vernacular schools, national schools, and private schools, stresses Sim.
“It is unique as it is only in Malaysia that different streams are allowed to exist, and in such a thriving manner, as part of the mainstream school system,” she says.
“In the whole of South-East Asia, Malaysia is the only country where you can find 1,293 Chinese primary schools, so we have a choice of sending our children to Chinese schools or national schools, then let them continue their secondary education at one of the 61 Chinese independent schools or 78 SMJK (C). And later, they can even finish their tertiary education in Chinese at three local colleges,” she adds, highlighting that the schools are highly in demand even among non-Chinese families.
Instead of politicising the issue, we need to list the qualities of the system and see how we can push it further, she says.
“In the long run, perhaps a review is needed to standardise the national education system have one school system with language classes available but it will need a lot of resources.”
Notably, says Sim, the new G1 generation is very connected to the local community.
“Although some received tertiary education in Taiwan and China, many are very connected to Malaysia. Many are very aware of the issues in Malaysia and are engaged with Malaysian communities, especially in the urban areas. They feel that this is home and want to make it a better place.”
Although many speak and read mainly in Chinese, they have no problem forging relationships with other races.
Sim had originally targeted her book at advertisers, media planners as well as government agencies to stress the importance of understanding the complexity of the Chinese community for effective communication, but she now believes that it can also benefit the general public.
This is particularly essential in light of the pendatang (immigrant) issue that is now and again flogged by various factions for political gains.
“In any society, you will always have the extremes, the ultras and conservatives, and the way to deal with this is to continuously engage in educating them. That is why the historical aspect is important how Malaysia came about. This needs to be taught in school and for all Malaysians to understand. Hopefully, in time to come, the ultra conservative element can be reduced.”
At the same time, an understanding of the contemporary Malaysian society is also important.
“This is something else that I hope to spur debates on the issue,” she says.
Ultimately, Sim hopes the book can shed some light on the Chinese community and help end the pendatang argument.
“We never deny the fact that we are Chinese through history and in the historical context, but today we are genuinely Malaysian. We are very different from the Chinese who came here in the 18th century,” she stresses.
“Whatever our historical background, we are Malaysian, so we should not question this any longer. That is why I named the book Unmistakably Chinese, Genuinely Malaysian.”