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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Malaysia/Singapore as Immigrant Societies

"What music is more enchanting than the voices of young people, when you can't hear what they say?" - Logan Pearsall Smith

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Malaysia/Singapore as Immigrant Societies

I’d like to ask everyone, especially those characterized as ‘Malays’, to list their family histories. And see how many of us can really go back further than three generations born in this land. I know I can’t (Marina Mahathir)

... In Malaysia of course official ideology requires that 62% of the population be regarded as ‘sons of the soil’, defined in racial terms rather than place of birth. But there is also an older pre-nationalist tradition there of understanding Malaya as an immigrant society, and a tendency as in other immigrant societies for the relatively recent migrants in all communities to provide much of the innovative energy and leadership – witness Hussein Onn, Tun Razak and Dr Mahathir in Malay politics...

The populations of Malaysia, Singapore and Australia all grew at exceptionally high rates over the past two centuries, so far above the Asian average up to 1950 as to mark them as standouts. Overall, however, it is Malaysia/Singapore that had the more exceptional rates of growth, among the highest in the world for most periods before 1950...

The immigration rate (immigrants per 1,000 population) of Malaya (Peninsula Malaysia and Singapore) was the highest in the world throughout the period 1881-1939, more than ten times as high a rate as the United States or other so-called ‘immigrant societies’... In each decade until the 1930s, the number of immigrants arriving in Malaya represented between 84% and 100% of its total population...

The Malayan Peninsula... then unrelated northern Borneo, and Australia, were all relatively sparsely populated before the arrival of the British in these places in the 1780s. Although figures are highly controversial, the Peninsula and Australia appear each to have then had sparse populations below a half-million in total... The question of indigeneity, or indigeny as Geoffrey Benjamin insists on calling it, is extremely politicized in Malaysia... Wheatley (1961: 232) concludes from the silence of Arab navigators in the previous period that they found no ‘civilised human settlement and opportunity for trade’ to the south of the place they called Kalah...

[In Malaysia] Pockets of rice-cultivators may already have settled the river-mouth areas of Kedah, Kelantan and Pahang before 1400, presumably through interactions of Indian traders, aboriginal populations, and other mobile Southeast Asians from Sumatra and elsewhere. We cannot label them ethnically before the category ‘Malay’ began to be created by the hybridizing genius of fifteenth century Melaka. In such a crossroads of trade routes, the migrants were also more diverse than Australia’s. The major waves of migrants before 1870 were:

[Malay kings, Minangkabau pioneers, Bugis, the European/Chinese/Indian/SEAsians in what became the Straits Settlements, Chinese mining & agricultural pioneers, Organised contract labourers {mostly Cantonese and Tamil}, others]...

There developed a more artificial racial construct of ‘whiteness’ (in Australia) or ‘Malayness’ (in Malaysia), which could be all the more shrill because it had no basis in a shared past...

A fierce competition between generations and types of migrants, about the identity of the state and the types of new migrants. Racism has been a marked feature of migrant societies, because of the way the dominant migrant community seeks to cohere against both the aboriginal population and other more recent and hungry migrant groups who threaten their control. The unnaturalness of these exclusions was part of the reason why racism reached such shrill heights at times in the 20th Century...

We might hope that migrants would be highly tolerant of other migrants, sympathetic to their needs and to their legitimacy. In this regard the Malay rulers and gate-keepers get the highest marks for tolerance and absorption of a diversity of migrants. Malay identity proved wonderfully absorptive in the 15th Century as a creative creole, turning Indians, Arabs, Chinese, Javanese and Filipinos into loyal subjects of the sultan, bilingual in their own language and Malay. Although the line between Muslim insiders and non-Muslim outsiders became gradually more firm from the 16th century, right up to the 20th migrants constantly joined the main game through accepting Islam (masuk Melayu). In this the Malay record long-term is far more generous and accommodating than that of the British in places such as Australia...

[Mahathir] argued that every country has a ‘definitive people’ who were the first immigrants to set up states in the territory in question. Since the aborigines in both Malaysia and Australia were stateless peoples who did not do this, it was the Malays in Malaya, like the English-speaking Christians in Australia, who defined the core culture and set the conditions by which subsequent migrants were admitted. [He interpreted] Australia somewhat idiosyncratically to suit his argument for permanent Malay supremacy in Malaysia"
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