COMMENT | It was refreshing to hear Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar say that Johor appreciates the role played by the Chinese community in developing the state since the beginning of the Johor Sultanate in the 16th century. He said the Chinese were invited to Johor as “guests” by his forefathers to help develop the state and were not pendatang (immigrants). They were invited to Johor to open the land and cultivate plantations. “They are the ‘Bangsa Johor’ – just like the Malays, Indians and others, who are all Malaysians,” he stressed.
Obviously, the Johor Sultan is as sick as most of us are over the charade that continues to play out in the communalist politics of this country over who is ‘Pribumi’ and who is ‘Pendatang’. Already, Umno is calling on Malays to unite for the approaching GE15.
Certainly, the sultan’s forefathers invited the prominent Chinese commercial capitalists, who in turn organised indentured labourers ("coolies" they were called) to work in the plantations and other enterprises. Those towkays who stayed on in the country were immigrants. Why were they not? Any wealthy person who decides to emigrate to another country as an investor would also be an immigrant in that country if he or she decides to stay in that country.
As the Malayan economy expanded at the turn of the 20th century, the services sector also expanded, and more immigrants came. My grandfather first came to Singapore at the turn of the 20th century because of the hard times in China at the time. He tried to make a living by selling fruits, among other things, until he decided to come over to Batu Pahat.
He must have been quite enterprising, for he went on from the rice trade to found the Batu Pahat Bank, which according to the late Prof Khoo Khay Kim in an article in The Star in the 80s (‘The Bankers of Batu Pahat’), was the first bank to open outside Kuala Lumpur. My grandfather was also president of the Batu Pahat Chamber of Commerce during his prime. The present Johor Sultan’s grandfather, Sultan Sir Ibrahim Sultan Abu Bakar, honoured him with an SMJ title. Still, he was an immigrant in Malaya at the time, since he did not return to live in China.
There are many examples of Chinese entrepreneurs who came to Malaya from humble beginnings. The boss of Hwa Tai, the publicly-listed biscuit company, started as a labourer carrying sacks of rice for a shop in Batu Pahat; the boss of China Press, Zhou Ruibiao, was a rag-and-bone man who went around collecting bottles to recycle. There are countless other examples of immigrants who helped to develop the country.
Malaysians will also remember the Umno general assembly in 2010 when the top Umno leaders were poking fun at each other’s immigrant backgrounds. The Umno bigwigs who were on stage were goaded for their Bugis, Achinese and other foreign origins. Of course, the father of the biggest Umno bigwig at the time was an immigrant from Kerala, India!
The bumiputera/immigrant conceptual trick
But by some “conceptual trick”, these political bigwigs are defined as "Malays" no matter their ancestral origins (whether they are from Indonesia, Kerala, Pakistan or the Middle East) and therefore qualify as "bumiputeras" who are entitled to special privileges in this country.
It so happened that in the same week as the 2010 Umno general assembly, the Galas by-election in Kelantan was in full swing and the papers highlighted the fact that in the historic Kampung Pulai in the constituency, a Hakka Chinese community had been living there for 500 years and yet amazingly they still did not have titles to their land! Why? Because they are considered “immigrants”, that is, they had not been granted titles to their land, apparently because they had not “assimilated” by converting to Islam and sloughing off their "immigrant" stigma.
There are more than 500 Chinese new villages in the country with a population of some two million and many are facing this problem. They have existed for more than 70 years, ever since the emergency. At every election, a few households will be dished out land titles in the same way that citizenship is occasionally dished out to a handful of elderly residents. The boss of the Yongdaohu restaurant, where I have been frequenting recently, got his Malaysian citizenship after living in this country and paying taxes for more than 50 years.
Are these Chinese and Indian Malaysians asking for special privileges? No, they are only asking for the simple birthright that accompanies having been born in this country and for having lived and contributed to this country through so many years.
The citizenship issue was a ruse to divide the anti-colonial forces
The citizenship issue was thrown into the Independence struggle to put the anti-colonial forces on the defensive – namely, who are the "pribumi" (indigenous people) and who are the pendatang (immigrants) and therefore not qualified for citizenship, except through stringent conditions. Victor Purcell, who served as a colonial officer, wrote: “But up to Independence, the fact remained that Malayan-born or Muslim immigrants from Indonesia were ‘subjects of the rulers’ and automatically Malayan citizens, whereas the Chinese, Indians, etc, had to satisfy certain conditions of the law in order to become citizens.”
I have been monitoring this rather contrived controversy since the 1970s and never fail to be bemused by the antics of leaders of Malay-based parties. On Nov 8, 1983, then Umno culture minister Anwar Ibrahim referred to non-Malays in Parliament as the “new immigrants”. After his 1998 sacking by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, he finally recanted his foolish past. Mahathir also referred to non-Malays as immigrants on Aug 21, 1985. And during the rather contrived controversy between Umno and MCA over this issue toward the end of 1986, an “eminent historian” even suggested:
"Malaysian Chinese are still considered ‘immigrants’ but can become ‘pribumis’ (indigenous people) if they are able to assimilate Malay customs and religion (Islam)”.
Somehow, the eminent historian overlooked an elementary point of logic – namely, how could a ‘non-pribumi’ become a ‘pribumi’ simply by assimilating when the latter is strictly a historical category? He unwittingly exposed the fact that the ‘pribumi/pendatang’ distinction is rooted in the political ruse and has nothing to do with historical justification!
The obsession with ‘race’
Since the anti-colonial struggle, politicians of Malay-based parties have been obsessed with race. It is not surprising when there is so much at stake for them in terms of economic largesse, especially after the New Economic Policy was implemented in 1971. Mahathir’s Malay Dilemma is rooted in that paradigm. This obsession with race has little currency in the anthropology or sociology disciplines, not to speak of human rights in the international community. Sir Roland Braddel, former president of the Council of the Malayan branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, and once a legal adviser to Umno, has pointed out:
“There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as the Malay race; there are Malay people, the Malay culture and the Malay language, etc.” (The Study of Ancient Times in the Malay Peninsula and Straits of Malacca”, MBRAS, 1980:3).
Serious scholars of history, anthropology and ethnography are not concerned with the chauvinistic question of “who was here first?” just to please racists and communalists. They are more concerned with holding a humanistic and enquiring attitude. The racists may like to know that the concept of race, as used by geneticists and the like, has no relevance to the political differences between people. There is no concept of dominance (ketuanan) or subordinance (kehambaan) as far as the rights of citizens are concerned in a democratic country.
As history is our witness and as the fat cats who cream the largesse of the NEP also know, "Malays" are also immigrants to this country, while the Orang Asli have the sole claim to the epithet “original people” or Orang Asal. But alas, do they enjoy “bumiputera” special privileges?
The Sultan of Johor is sensitive to the fact that non-Malays have been referred to as “immigrants” or pendatang because their citizenship status in this country has been continually questioned by communalist politicians for so long. Thus, even though the Chinese had settled in Kampung Pulai, Kelantan and Malacca for some 500 years; in Perak, Penang, Singapore since the 19th century or longer, only 500,000 Chinese and 230,000 Indians held citizenship in 1950 (Federation of Malaya Annual Report, 1950:24). This represented merely a fifth of the total Chinese population, even though by 1947 more than three-fifths of the Chinese and one-half of the Indian population in Malaya were locally born (1947 Census, 1949:29).
A speech by Tan Cheng Lock, then senior Chinese representative on the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements on Oct 19, 1932, is rather revealing:
“I look in vain for any tangible sign or indication of any active interest, practical sympathy and encouragement that has been shown by the government of late toward… the Straits-born Chinese who have formed a continuous colony in this country for more than 500 years, and the locally-born Chinese subjects of the Protected Malay States who have made this country their home.
“On the contrary, these loyal subjects of Malaya are, practically speaking, not to be allowed in future to own and cultivate rice lands in this country of their birth though foreigners from Sumatra and Java are granted that privilege...” (R Emerson, “Malaysia”, 1964:513).
At the time, according to “A Report on the 1931 Census” compiled by CA Vlieland:
“Only a negligible fraction of the Malay population consists of descendants of pre-19th century immigrants… more than half of it has less than 50 years’ prescriptive right to the title ‘owners of the soil’. The Malays are in fact merely immigrants of generally longer standing than the other migrant races represented in the peninsula and are in no sense an autochthonous population.”
From the foregoing, it is clear the "pribumi/pendatang" distinction is an elaborate charade designed and played out by communalists since colonial times. So, let us take the recent refreshing call by the Sultan of Johor to stop referring to non-Malays as pendatang in a positive spirit and reaffirm that the status of nationality and citizenship has the crucial implication that every citizen is equal in the eyes of the law. It does not matter in the least whether citizens have been recently naturalised, or that their forefathers came here centuries ago; whether they were invited by sultans or came as refugees or indentured labourers to escape the hard times in their original lands.
“For all our languages, we can’t communicate
For all our native tongues, we’re all natives here
Sons of their fathers dream the same dream
The sound of forbidden words become a scream
Voices in anger, victims of history
Plundered and set aside
Grown fat on swallowed pride…”
(Natives by Paul Doran)
KUA KIA SOONG is adviser of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram).
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.