President Xi Jinping this year described relations between China and Malaysia as the “best ever” in history, echoing what Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had said two years ago.
While the majority of Chinese Malaysians have viewed China’s presence in the country positively, in reality, their feelings are mixed.
They are as wary as they are welcoming. As China engages further in Malaysia’s domestic affairs, Chinese Malaysians are finding themselves in a dilemma. How will this affect them, given the realities of Malaysia’s ethnic politics? How will they be viewed by the other communities, especially the majority Malays, given the periodic tensions between them?
As China increasingly becomes Malaysia’s dominant economic partner, its growing presence has crept into local politics. In September 2015, China claimed that the country is the protector of overseas Chinese in Malaysia after the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia, Mr Huang Huikang, paid a visit to Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown.
Referring to a pro-Malay “red shirts” rally earlier that month against mostly Chinese traders, the envoy even stated that China “is against all forms of terrorism as well as racism and extremism which target specific ethnic groups” and warned that China “will not sit idly by as others infringe on the national interest of China”.
His remarks led to accusations that he was interfering in Malaysia’s politics, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry defended Mr Huang’s actions.
Mr Huang and Chinese diplomats have since further entrenched themselves in Malaysia’s domestic politics, accompanying local politicians during visits to their constituencies.
A case in point was when the ambassador accompanied Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) assemblyman Teoh Yap Kun to his Paloh constituency in 2016. The ambassador had also repeatedly called on Chinese Malaysians to support MCA and the Barisan Nasional (BN) government.
As China continues to establish good relations with the United Malays National Organisation (Umno)-led government, the Chinese Malaysian community remains wary. The status of ethnic Chinese is very sensitive in Malaysia.
Chinese Malaysians have refrained from being portrayed as pro-China out of fear of their loyalty to Malaysia being questioned. They had been repeatedly accused by politicians, particularly from Umno, regarding their affiliation with China.
For example, Sungai Besar Umno Chief Jamal Md Yunos has said: “They (Chinese Malaysian) have their homeland in China’s mainland, and if anything happens to them, they still have somewhere to turn to”.
Many more would remember the quote from Kinabatangan Member of Parliament Bung Moktar: “Cina balik Cina (Chinese go back to China)”.
Hence, it is not improbable that the interference of China would give opportunistic Malay politicians more ammunition to single out and isolate Chinese Malaysians further.
Indigenism, the ideology that makes the indigenous people central in politics, remains important in Malaysia. The ethnic Chinese periodically become the scapegoat during critical political moments.
For instance, Mr Najib coined the term “Chinese tsunami” to explain the significant erosion of votes for the ruling BN coalition in the 2013 general election. In response, he reemphasised the pro-indigenous doctrine of “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay dominance).
CHINA’S ROLES IN MALAYSIA’S SCHOOLS AND ECONOMY
China has also positioned itself as a supporter of Chinese education in Malaysia. In February, the Chinese ambassador donated RM200,000 (S$64,000) to 11 Chinese Malaysian primary schools.
Yet Chinese education is a very sensitive issue in Malaysia. Politicians, particularly from Umno, have consistently claimed that Chinese education is the cause of ethnic disunity in Malaysia, and called for the abolition of Chinese vernacular schools.
Donations from China could be viewed both positively and negatively. The need for aid underlines how Chinese schools are inadequately funded by the government.
Hence, it is crucial how Chinese Malaysians react or respond to China’s “generosity”.
While Dong Zong (United Chinese School Committees’ Association) and Jiao Zong (United Chinese School Teachers’ Association) welcomed China’s help, the rest of the community remained cautious, fearing overreaction may provoke another controversy.
On the economic front, Chinese Malaysians have played an important role in connecting investments between the Chinese and Malaysian markets since the 1980s. However, as more key or strategic industries in Malaysia (e.g. infrastructure, development finance, utility, and gas and oil) are controlled by Malaysian government-linked companies (GLCs), the Chinese community has shifted to dominate small and medium enterprises in Malaysia instead.
As a result, in the past decade or so, economic relations between China and Malaysia have seen more collaboration between Malay-led GLCs instead of the Chinese business community, as most of the projects have focused on infrastructure building and housing development.
For example, the Kuantan Port expansion is a cooperation between IJM Corp and Guangxi Beibu; the Melaka Gateway project, which is getting investments from Power China, is operated by the Malacca state government’s KAJ Holdings.
Moreover, local Chinese businesses face fierce competition from China as GLCs opt to work with mainland-China firms rather than local Chinese enterprises.
While old players who have long penetrated China’s market, like Francis Yeoh and Robert Kuok, continue to profit, the new gainers are Malay-led GLCs including IJM Corp and Sime Darby instead of Chinese Malaysian SMEs.
Malaysian observers say that China should be more cautious in its engagement with the Malaysian government and society. Its claim to be the protector of overseas Chinese and its consequent meddling in local politics could have the opposite effect: China could in fact harm the interests of the Chinese Malaysians.
Many ethnic Chinese in Malaysia would rather co-exist peacefully with the other ethnic communities than be shielded by a “protector” in a society already divided along ethnic cleavages. Besides, there are still unresolved controversies between China and Malaysia, despite the current warm relations between both countries. The South China Sea disputes are still ongoing, and it is uncertain how long this cosy bilateral relationship will last. If geopolitical conflict occurs, the Chinese Malaysians will be further pushed into a difficult position.
China should be aware of the ethnic Chinese’s sensitive position in Malaysian politics, given the complex and fragile nature of nation building in a multiethnic society. Hence big powers like China need to be careful to prevent the further fragmentation of Malaysian society.
By Chan Xin Ying