Friday, December 15, 2017
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Malaysia's melting pot

Millennium markers - Immigration

MALAYSIA boasts a relatively harmonious mix of peoples and cultures today. Most people assume that history began stirring this melting pot as recently as colonial times when the British imported labour. In reality, this country has always attracted immigrants.

The earliest human settlement here can be traced to the proto-Malay migration from Yunnan (circa 2500BCE*). The later waves of Malays (the deutero-Malays, circa 300BCE) are, however, more difficult to trace because, unlike Chinese and Indian immigration, Malay immigration patterns are not so well documented.

By the 19th century, the various Malay royal houses were in place on the peninsula. The Kedah royal house, for example, traces its roots back to the 11th century while Malacca, of course, boasts an empire in the 15th and early 16th centuries.

Indian, Arab, Indonesian and Chinese immigration during those centuries gave rise to some hybrid communities. There are the Straits-born Chinese in Penang and the Peranakan or Baba and Nyonya community in Malacca; the latter speak a Malay/English patois and have a distinctive cuisine that is most demonstrative of their mixed heritage.

The most dramatic change in Malaya's population, however, occurred between 1830 and the early decades of the last century. British intervention in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore encouraged large-scale immigration from China, India and the Indonesian archipelago. By 1850, these immigrants had helped create many of Malaya's towns.

It all began with Captain Francis Light's open invitation to the world to settle on Penang when he established George Town as a base for the East India Company in 1786; this encouraged the influx of immigrants from China and India.

Although Sumatrans had first occupied Penang Island (between 400 and 500 years ago) and its first Chinese settlement can be traced back to Ming Dynasty records (between 1368 and 1644), large-scale immigration to the island actually began only in the 19th century.

Penang's growth was, however, outstripped by that of Singapore's in the 1830s. By 1874, when the Pangkor Treaty was signed allowing the British to extend their influence into the west coast states of the Malay peninsula, both Penang and Singapore had become centres for immigration to British Malaya.

Tin Mine Malaysia c1930

The Chinese were brought here primarily for tin mining. Conditions in tin mines were so bad that many died before they could make enough money to return to China. Organised crime, kidnapping and indebtedness also beset the Chinese. Although some of the Chinese traders eventually became millionaires, the bulk of Malaya's wealth remained in Western hands at that time.

Rubber plantation

Indians who arrived to work on rubber estates in Malaya found conditions resembling slavery. Many turned to alcohol to ease their suffering - if the Chinese were faced with the evils of (British-encouraged) opium, the Indians on estates grappled with the devil alcohol. There was, however, a small group of educated Indians who started out in the colonial civil service or as estate mandor (supervisors); their descendants became lawyers, doctors and engineers.

The contribution of Malaya's immigrant races cannot be denied. It was their labour that helped develop much of Malaya.

However, there was fear that the Malays would be swamped by immigrants. Despite an influx of Javanese, Bugis, Minangkabaus and Acehnese from Indonesia, the 1931 census recorded that the number of immigrants from China and India outnumbered the Malays. This resulted in protectionist policies, such as the Aliens Ordinance 1933 enacted during the Great Depression to curtail large-scale immigration.

Female migration, however, was allowed to continue to create a more balanced male-female ratio in the Chinese community. This led to a more permanent immigrant population - the basis of today's multiracial society.

(* What was Anno Domino or AD before is now called Common Era or CE by historians; Before Christ or BC is now Before Common Era or BCE.)Notes: STF - : This week's Millennium Markers invites you to people-watch at the turn of the 20th century and marvel at how little daily life has changed over a hundred years.

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