Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Honey, I shrunk the Chinese!


The sharp reduction of Chinese as a population ratio is contrary to natural growth patterns and an anomaly due to institutionalized discrimination. The present Chinese condition requires them to speak better BM to fit in.


No greater love hath man and moms than they lay down their life savings for their children to study overseas and emigrate.

Between March 2008 and August 2009, some 50,000 students sailed from our shores, Deputy Foreign Minister A. Kohilan Pillay told Parliament last week. The Star speculates that many will not return. Star editor Wong Sai Wan wrote: “… some even admitted that they had already applied for their PR visas???.

They are among 304,358 persons registered with Malaysia’s representative offices abroad over the past 18 months. A review of statistics will help us to interpret this unique Made-in-Malaysia export of roughly 17,000 units of human capital on average a month.

Among the ethnic groups in Malaysia, the Chinese are the largest outflow and also experiencing the biggest change in demography.

Proportion of Chinese in Malaysia total population
1957    45.0 +
1980 32.1
1991                        26.9
2000 24.5
2010   22.6 *
2035    18.6 **
+ Decimal point is approximate
* Projection by Department of Statistics
** Projection in The Population of Malaysia (ISEAS)


In the 80s decade, the Chinese had a negative net migration rate of -10.6 percent. “Between 1980 and 1991, the [Chinese] migration deficit was estimated at 391,801 persons as against a national increase of 777,339 persons,??? statistician Tey Nai Peng found in his study.

Chinese annual growth rate also showed a consistent drop, recording only 53 percent between 1990 and 2000 during a period when the national population grew 123 percent.

Tey said in his paper ‘Causes and consequences of demographic change in the Chinese community in Malaysia’ that “the fertility of the Chinese declined from 4.6 children to 2.5 children between 1970 and 1997???. Comparatively, total fertility rate for Malays in 1987 remained a high 4.51 when TFR for Chinese was 2.25. 

Changes in the states

It is no longer true that Penang is a Chinese majority state. In 2010, Malays in Penang are projected to be 670,128 persons – outnumbering Chinese at 658,661. Between 1991 and 2000, Penang had an average annual growth rate of 1.8 percent but Penang Chinese only 0.7 percent.

Perak has significant numbers of Chinese but still, Chinese registered a negative growth of -1.0 percent in 1991-2000 whereas the average annual rate of Perak population growth was a positive 0.4 percent.

The Department of Statistics records that in the 1990s, Chinese fell in number in Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis too. In Malacca, Negri Sembilan and Pahang, Chinese were practically stagnant.

In Sabah, Chinese were 23 percent of the population in 1960 but shrunk to 10.1 percent in 2000. “In contrast, recent immigrants and refugees, with a population of 614,824 persons in 2000, form close to a quarter of the total population, or more than twice the size of the long-settled Chinese community,??? writes Danny Wong Tze-Ken in his paper ‘The Chinese population in Sabah’.

The situation in Sabah is largely a result of ‘Project M’ giving Indonesians and Muslim Filipinos Malaysian ICs. Overall, the abnormality of a shrinking Chinese population ratio can be traced to government policies that actively discriminate against this community.

Small families, ageing parents

By year 2000, Chinese were mainly concentrated in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. The Klang Valley accounted for 38 percent of all Chinese in the Peninsula. Nine out of 10 Chinese today are found in urban areas, concentrated in the major cities.

In the dozen years between 1980 and 1991 when the Malaysian population increase nationally was 4,634,500 persons, Chinese increase was only 530,400 persons. Or looking at it another way (as indicated in table below), the Chinese are merely doubling in absolute numbers when the population will have quadrupled.

Numbers of Chinese in Malaysia
Chinese (million)
Total population


1970 3.610.5
1980 4.413.7
1991 4.918.4
2000 5.723.3
2010 6.5   28.9 *
2035 7.7    41.1 **


    * Projection by Department of Statistics
    ** Projection in The Population of Malaysia (ISEAS)

It is conspicuous that among the younger age cohorts, Chinese are an even smaller proportion of the national average. On the other hand, among the elderly [60 years and above], Chinese constitute 5.4 percent of the population, as against the national average of 5 percent.

Among the ethnic groups in Malaysia, Chinese have the highest proportion of the elderly. “It is found that most of the ‘clients’ in nursing homes are the Chinese,??? observes researcher Philip Poi Jun Hua in his essay 'Ageing among the Chinese in Malaysia: Some trends and issues'.

This situation affecting the Chinese community, with parents either in nursing homes or ‘home alone’ in Malaysia whilst the children are abroad, has ironically come about due to education as a main contributory factor.

“The Chinese community places great emphasis on education but the escalation in the cost of acquiring an education might have compelled young couples to limit their family size,??? surmises Tey.

Because educated Chinese women are in the workforce as well as limiting themselves to only one or two children, Chinese couples have more money to spend on each child’s education.

This is in a way a lose-lose scenario because the couple would then tend to over-protect the single offspring – do recall China’s one-child policy outcome of producing Little Emperors – and the well-educated child is more likely to emigrate.

Self-interest vs community concerns

“All my friends plan to leave Malaysia,??? a private student in the offshore campus of a premier Australian university in KL declared to me just a couple of months ago.

These youths have cogently articulated why they intend to vote with their feet. Aside from the various reasons we’re all familiar with, I’d like to introduce here the theory of ‘placelessness’ which Lee Boon Thong links to the Chinese condition.

In his paper ‘Placelessness: A study of residential neighbourhood quality among Chinese communities in Malaysia’, Lee observes that Chinese in cities have subordinated neighbourliness and personal ties to the pursuit of personal advancement.

The move to new urban and suburban residential neighbourhoods – where availability of Chinese food and access to shopping malls are often major considerations – is accompanied by other shifts, among them the increasing “technopolistic grip??? [orientation towards digital entertainment] and losing some of their traditions [e.g. ancestral worship], especially if they convert to Christianity or Islam.

These shifts have the effect of loosening bonds to an old hometown – witness Chin Peng’s strong attachment for Sitiawan as a contrary example – because the young generation has become city born and bred.

Lee describes the new society resulting from intense urbanization as one breeding individuals who are more self-centred, more covetous, less considerate and kiasu to boot. “Self-interest overrides almost everything else that concerns the welfare of the community.???

He also says that if the trend persists of residents in emerging neighbourhoods failing to develop ties that bind and a sufficient sense of commonness in community life, then “urban Chinese are at risk in producing a pseudo-progressive society that appears to be outwardly prosperous through its middle-class façade but in effect lacking social coherence and a sense of shared ‘placeness’ for the neighbourhood???.

Commonality as militating factor

Further aggravating this estrangement is a social milieu that is changed, parallel to the pronounced changes in demography. It is projected that while the annual growth of Bumiputera in the next decade (2011-2021) will be 1.98 percent, the corresponding growth of Chinese will be 0.73 percent.

Saw Swee Hock in his 2007 ISEAS paper ‘The Population of Malaysia’ projects that by year 2035, Malaysia will have a population of 41 million, 72.1 percent of them Bumiputera. By then Islam would have stamped a thorough dominance on the physical and moral landscape of the country.

Concomitant to this development is the fact that in the mainstream of all spheres of life and particularly official domains, the predominant speech community will be Malay.

This fait accompli of demography dictates that the minorities have to be adept in the Malay/national language for any meaningful integration to occur. Otherwise, to borrow a turn of phrase from Lee, they will be living in “proximity without propinquity??? or in other words, have trouble relating to the majority.

It is thus necessary that next generation Chinese be effectively multilingual and able to ‘code switch’, i.e. use different varieties of language in different social settings. If Chinese are unable create a connectedness especially across ethnic lines, this shortcoming would just be adding another factor to the myriad push factors driving young Chinese away.

The statistics tell a very sobering story. In another short 25 years, Chinese will only be a mere 18.6 percent of the population. They will soon fall below the sustainable threshold for propagating their culture, and their diminishing numbers will only increase the pressure for assimilation – something Chinese are reluctant to do.

Let us recall Lee’s description how “[i]n a sense, ‘placeness’ may be defined in terms of ‘belonging to a residential neighbourhood that demands a reciprocity of identity in terms of behavioural or interactive response. The lack of such may be termed as ‘placelessness’.???

Neighbourhoods today are increasingly Malay, and one of the largest is Shah Alam where the authorities have disallowed the building of a Catholic church, tried to restrict the sale of beer, made it very difficult to own a dog, and residents protested against a proposed Hindu temple.

To extrapolate Lee’s allusion of ‘placeness’ to a wider national context, we can infer that having a poor facility in Bahasa Melayu would only compound the Chinese placelessness in a country that has purpose-built for one race such a locality as Shah Alam, and one that will in future be dotted with more mini Shah Alams.

Related article:

Honey, I shrunk the Indians


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