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Malaysian Chinese is a Malaysian of Chinese originmarker. Most are descendants of Chinese who arrived between the fifteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries. Within Malaysia, they are usually simply referred to as "Chinese" in all languages. The term Chinese Malaysian is also sometimes used to refer to this community.


See also: Chinese migration

First Wave

The first wave of Chinese settlers came during the Malacca Empire in the early 15th century when Princess Hang Li Po married overseas to the Sultan of Malacca, bringing along her huge retinue of nobles, companions and servants from China. These people came mostly from Fujianmarker Province.

These early Chinese brought over brides from China or married locally available Malay/Nusantara women. Their original tombs can be found in Bukit Cina, Malacca today.

Their descendants are called Peranakan or baba (for men) and nyonya (for women), and they still retain their Chinese surnames through present day.

Second Wave

The second wave of Chinese immigrants came during the 19th century and early 20th century. Most Chinese immigrants to Malaya came from southern China, particularly the provinces of Fujianmarker, Guangdongmarker and Hainanmarker.

They first settled in the Straits Settlementsmarker as traders. They were subsequently encouraged by the British to work in the tin mines of Perak and Selangor (which at the time included Kuala Lumpur). Thus, the Chinese were mainly concentrated on the west coast of Peninsular Malaya.


An early census of ethnic groups in the British Malay states, conducted by the British in 1835, showed that ethnic Chinese constituted 8 percent of the population and were mainly found in the Straits Settlementsmarker, while the Malays and Indians made up 88 percent and 4 percent of the population respectively. Malaya's population quickly increased during the 19th and 20th centuries, although the majority of Chinese immigrants were males rather than females. By 1921, Malaya's population had swelled to nearly three million, and the Chinese constituted 30 percent of Malaya's population while the Malays constituted 54.7% of Malaya's population, whose growth was fueled by immigrants from neighboring Indonesiamarker (the Indians made up most of the remainder). While the Chinese population was largely transient, and many coolies returned to China on a frequent basis, 29 percent of the Chinese population were local born, most of whom were the offspring of first-generation Chinese immigrants. The British government began to impose restrictions on migration during the 1930s, but the difference between the number of Chinese and Malays continued to close up even after World War II. The 1947 census indicated that the Malays constituted 49.5% of the population, compared to the Chinese at 38.4%, out of a total population of 4.9 million.

The number of Chinese speakers has increased from 2,667,452 in 1957 to 5,365,846 in year 2000 , comprising 26% of total population in Malaysia.

Chinese Majority States

As of 2008, the majority of Chinese people are mainly concentrated in the west coast states of west Malaysia with significant percentage of Chinese (30% and above) such as Penang, Perak, Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Johor.

Areas with significant Chinese populations(40% and above) for each state are:

Kuala Lumpur

Kepong, Cheras, Bukit Bintang, Old Klang Road, Sri Petaling, Segambut.


Subang Jaya/USJ, Puchong Kinrara/Jaya/Puteri, SS2, Petaling Jaya, Damansara Jaya/Utama, Bandar Utama, Serdang, Port Klang.

Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1891 81,592 23,750 50,844


Penang island, Bukit Mertajam

Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1812 26,107 9,854 37.7% 7,558 28.9%
1820 35,035 14,080 40.2% 8,595 24.5%
1860 124,772 71,723 57.4% 36,222 29.0%
1891 232,003 92,681 39.9% 86.988 37.5%
1970 775,000 247,000 30.6% 436,000 56.3%
1990 1,150,000 399,200 34.5% 607,400 52.9%


Ipoh, Taiping, Batu Gajah, Sitiawan

Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1891 94,345 44.0%
1901 329,665 150,239 45.6%


Johor Bahru, Kluang, Batu Pahat, Muar, Segamat

Chinese Minority States

These are states where the Chinese are a minority (below 30%)

The major Chinese population areas (40% and above) for each state are


Malacca City


Bentong, Raub, Mentakab


Kuching, Sibu, Miri


Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan

Ancestral origins

The ancestral origins of the Malaysian Chinese are diverse in nature and they are identified by their linguistic differences and place of origin. The vast majority of ethnic Chinese came from the Fujianmarker and Guangdongmarker provinces in Southern China, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries various trade and professions became synomynous with individual dialect groups. As a result, distribution of the various dialect groups across Malaya and North Borneo varied from region to region, with each town or region being populated by ethnic Chinese of one specific dialect group. A governmental statistic in 2000 classifies the dialect affiliation of the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia:

Dialect Population
Hokkien 1,848,211
Hakka 1,679,027
Cantonese 1,355,541
Teochew 974,573
Mandarin 958,467
Hainanese 380,781
Min Bei 373,337
Foochow 249,413

Chinese settlers from the southern parts of Fujian constitute the largest group, and generally identified as Hokkien. The bulk of Chinese settlers in Malaya before the 18th century came from Amoymarker and Zhangzhoumarker and settled primarily in Penangmarker and Malaccamarker, where they formed the bulk of the local Chinese populace. More Hokkiens settled in Malaya from the 19th century onwards, and dominated the rubber plantation and financial sectors of the Malayan economy. The bulk of Hokkien-speaking Chinese settled in the Malay Peninsula and formed the largest dialect group in many states, specifically in Penang, Malacca, Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis. In North Borneo, the Hokkiens make up a sizeable proportion within the Chinese community, and are primarily found in larger towns, notably Kuchingmarker and Sibumarker.

Settlers from Fuzhoumarker (also known as Hokchew or Foochow among the Hokkiens and Cantonese respectively) also came in sizeable numbers during the 19th centuries and dominated the corporate industry in the 20th century. They speak a distinct dialect and are classified separately from the Hokkiens and a large number are Christians. The Foochow formed the largest dialect group in Sarawakmarker–specifically in areas around the Rajang River, namely in the towns of Sibu, Sarikei and Bintangor. The Foochow also settled in large numbers in a few towns in Peninsular Malaya, notably Sitiawan in Perak and Yong Pengmarker in Johormarker.

Large numbers of Hakka settled in the western parts of Malaya and North Borneo and worked as miners in the 19th century as valuable metals such as gold and tin were discovered. Descendants of these miners formed the largest community among the Chinese in Selangormarker and very large communities in Perakmarker (specifically Taipingmarker and Ipohmarker), Sarawak and Negeri Sembilan. As the gold and tin mining industries declined in economic importance in the 20th century, many turned to the rubber industry, and large numbers of Hakka settled in Kedah and Johor (principally in Kulaimarker and Kluangmarker). The Cantonese were also engaged in the gold and metal mining trade with the Hakkas, and frequently engaged in civil wars over mining rights. From the late 19th century onwards, many Cantonese shifted their focus to developing banks in Malaya as the metal mining industry declined in economic importance. The Cantonese settled down in towns, and formed the largest community within the Chinese populace in Kuala Lumpurmarker, the Kinta Valleymarker in Perakmarker, Pahangmarker as well as very large communities in Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and principal towns in Sabah, notably Sandakanmarker.

Immigrants from the Chaoshan region began to settle in Malaya in large numbers from the 18th century onwards, mainly in Province Wellesley and Kedahmarker (mainly around Kuala Mudamarker). These immigrants established were chiefly responsible for setting up gambier and pepper plantation industries in Malaya. More Teochews immigrated to Johormarker at the encouragement of Temenggong Ibrahim in the 19th century, and many new towns were established and populated by plantation workers from the Chaoshan region. The Teochews constitute a substantial percentage within the Chinese communities in Johor Bahrumarker and principal towns along the coasts of Western Johor (notably Pontian, Muarmarker and to a smaller extent, Batu Pahat) as well as selected hinterland towns in the central regions of the state. Many rural communes in Sarawakmarker and Sabahmarker were also populated by the Teochews, many of them being descendants of plantation workers which came to set up gambier and pepper plantations, following the administrative pattern of their countrymen in Johor. Smaller communities of Teochews can also be found in other states, notably in Sabak Bernam in Selangor, where many Teochews settled down as rice agriculturalists, as well as in the hinterlands of Malaccamarker.

Chinese immigrants from Hainanmarker began to migrate to Malaya and North Borneo from the 19th century onwards, albeit in much smaller numbers than the aforementioned speech groups. The Hainanese were employed as cooks by wealthy Straits Chinese families, while others were engaged in food catering business or the fishery business and formed the largest dialect group in Kemaman district of Terengganu and Pulau Ketam (Selangormarker) as well as sizeable communities in Penangmarker and Johor Bahrumarker. Smaller communities of Hainanese are also found in Sarawak and Sabah, where they work as coffeeshop owners and are mainly found in large towns and cities.


There are, in general, three sub-linguistic groups of Malaysian Chinese with three metropolitan centers. The Penangmarker, Klangmarker and Malaccamarker groups are predominantly Hokkien-speaking and the Kuala Lumpurmarker, Serembanmarker & Ipohmarker group is predominantly Cantonese and Hakka-speaking. To the south of Peninsular Malaysia, in Johor, Mandarin is predominantly spoken among the Chinese communities there, which is a result of the Mandarin media influence from Singapore, and the use of Mandarin in formal education. This has resulted in many people, especially the younger generation, to discard and neglect the usage of Chinese dialects. Whereas in East Malaysia (Malaysian Borneomarker), Hakka and Mandarin is widely spoken, except in Sibumarker, Fuzhou.

Local Cantonese and Mandarin media is frequently broadcasted by Malaysian television channels, notably NTV7, and 8TV.


While public education remains free and accessible to all citizens of Malaysia, there are several types of schools available for Malaysians to choose from to be educated from primary levels up to tertiary levels. There are known to be three types of schools with their language of instructions where education is delivered: Malay, Mandarin (Chinese), and Tamil. Each of these medium of instructions signifies the three major races that exists in Malaysia and peculiar to the Western Malaysian communities. It is common for a Malaysian Chinese to be either Chinese, English or Malay educated.

The Malaysian Chinese communities, therefore, usually have a choice to send their children to either Chinese schools or national schools. Whichever schools they went to, the Bahasa Malaysia must be taught as a compulsory subject, if the language of instruction is not already in Bahasa Malaysia.

Chinese educated

Early use

The first Chinese school in Malaya was established in Malacca in 1815.

The early use of the unofficial term "Chinese educated" referred to Chinese who attended such Chinese schools before the 1960s (see Razak Report). Since then, the term has gained sizable recognition, particularly among the Chinese community in Malaysia.

After the Razak Report

(see Early Malay nationalism#Towards independence) Today most schools in Malaysia are national-type schools fully or partially funded by the government, however during early 1960s roughly 60 Chinese schools rejected the Razak Report, they continue and insist on the use of Mandarin Chinese as teaching medium, these type of schools were to be later known as Chinese independent high school. The students of Chinese independent high school studies numerous ancient Chinese literature, Chinese calligraphy, the teaching of Confucius, Four Books and Five Classics, etc, and they also study Bahasa Malaysia and English. Students of these type of schools are Chinese educated.

Malaysia is the only country outside mainland China, Taiwanmarker, Hong Kongmarker and Macaumarker to have a complete Chinese-medium education system. The secondary Chinese-medium school in Malaysia is not funded by the government of Malaysia, existing in the form of privately owned Chinese independent high schools (Chinese: 独立中学). However they represent only 5% of all Malaysia Chinese schools.

There are roughly 1,300 national-type Sekolah Rendah Kebangsaan (SRK, National Primary School) (Chinese) primary schools in Malaysia that are all partially government funded, where the wages of teachers are paid by the government while the up-keeping of school buildings is funded by local communities in forms of donations. The Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (SMK, National Secondary School) (Chinese) national-type high school received less than 3% of total funding for all primary schools, while Bahasa Malaysia is the language of instruction in SMK (Chinese) national-type high school for all subjects except in Chinese language classes and English language classes.

During the 1960s (see Barnes Report), most of the Chinese secondary schools had received government funding and had been converted into national-type high schools (SMK - Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan), known as "National-type Secondary Schools (Chinese)" to date to indicate their previous statuses as Chinese schools. Today, only 60 Chinese independent high schools that are supported financially by the public remain throughout the country, where Mandarin is the main language of instruction in all subjects, except Bahasa Malaysia and English classes, but some schools use either Malay or English in selected subjects (see Chinese independent high school#History).

Dropout rate

Educationist Goh Kean Seng pointed out that while about 90% of Chinese children in Malaysia enroll into Mandarin-medium primary schools, which are run by the Malaysian government, less than 5% go on to Mandarin-medium secondary schools (such as Chinese independent high schools) which are privately-run and fee-paying. Parents preferably send their children to government schools, where education is free but resulted in many dropouts as students are unable to cope with the difference in the medium of instruction. Goh claimed that the situation is worsened by the switch from Mandarin to Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction when the pupils go on to secondary school.

The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) also pointed out an estimated 25% of Chinese students dropout before reaching the age of 18; the annual dropout rate is estimated to be over 100,000 and worsening. Certain dropouts become apprentices in workshops, picking up skills like plumbing or motor-repair. Others eager to make a quick buck find themselves involved in illicit trades, such as peddling pirated DVDs or collecting debts for loan sharks.

English educated

A sizeable group of Malaysian Chinese speak English as a first language (something carried over from the British colonial days). They speak English at home, and make it a point to immerse and educate their children in the English language. Like their counterparts in Singapore, they are known as the "English-educated" although the term is something of an anachronism. Most of these "English-educated" Chinese, especially Peranakans, are unable to read and write in Chinese.

Unlike in Singapore, English has not been used as a language of instruction in Malaysia (except in private institutions and urban schools) since it was phased out the 1970s and 1980s in favor of Malay. Although there are English medium schools in Malaysia that provide an education based on a British or US-based curriculum, these cater to expatriate children. However, as of 2002, the Malaysian government has reintroduced English as the language of instruction for Science and Mathematics in national secondary schools and universities.

While proper English is generally spoken and understood among Malaysian Chinese, a common form used is a patois called Manglish (Malaysian English). Manglish is very similar to Singlish (Singaporean English). Manglish speakers typically understand 80-90% of Singlish and vice versa. See British and Malaysian English differences. Unless specifically Manglish or Singlish terms are used in a conversation, it can be difficult even for native speakers to differentiate the two as the intonation and most terms (especially the infamous lah) are common. Singaporean television sitcoms such as Phua Chu Kang and Under One Roof that make use of Singlish are popular in Malaysia. The Singapore government has tried to reduce the use of Singlish in these serials, with visible success.

New immigrants and old immigrants

The new immigrants who have not learned the colonial trading language of English were often jealous of the older immigrants who have integrated into an English-speaking colonial system. As such, the majority of Chinese-speaking immigrants often attacked the older immigrants in British Civil Service using derogatory cultural remarks, a typical intra-racial infighting that explained the weak national identifications and identities that gave foreign colonization under British power an upper-hand. The derogatory term "banana" ( ), "white on the inside, yellow on the outside" was invented. The ungrammatical construction of the term reflects its linguistic origin and basis - from various dialects. However, with development of Greater China's economy, this intra-racial infighting has reduced because many of the English-educated families sent their children to learn Chinese language.


The Chinese in Malaysia maintain a distinct communal identity and rarely intermarry with native Muslim Malays for religious and cultural reasons. According to Muslim Laws, the Chinese partner would be required by law to renounce their religion and adopt the Muslim religion. Most Malaysian Chinese consider their being "Chinese" at once an ethnic, cultural and political identity. However, there are many who have intermarried with Malaysian Indians, who are predominantly Hindu. The children of such marriages are known as Chindians.


The Malaysian Chinese have traditionally dominated the Malaysian economy, but with the implementation of affirmative action policies by the Malaysian government to protect the rights of ethnic Malays, their share has somewhat eroded. However, they still make up the majority of the middle- and upper-income classes. As of 2007, they constituted about a quarter of the Malaysian population.

New Economic Policy

Ye Lin-Sheng, the author of The Chinese Dilemma, said that the winners from former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad's New Economic Policy benefits Malays, who receive preferential treatment in education and business, while leaving the Chinese with the feeling that they have been victimised by the policy.

Regional community

The Malaysian Chinese community was intricately linked to the Singaporean Chinese community because of a shared history and culture. Singapore was a part of the Federation of Malaysia before it became independent in 1965. Many Singaporean Chinese have relatives in Malaysia and vice-versa. There are also a significant number of Malaysian Chinese residing and working in Singapore. Some families in nearby Johor send their children (around 5,000 of them) to school in Singapore, commuting back and forth between the two countries every day.

On that same note, the Malaysian Chinese are culturally much more distant from the Indonesian Chinese, Filipino Chinese and Thai Chinese. This is attributable to the fact that these countries did not have a shared history with Malaysia like Singapore did.

The entire Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora is characterized by their considerable economic fortunes and their susceptibility to discrimination or political exploitation by politicians. This diaspora is commonly referred to as the Nanyang Chinese, 'Nanyang' (南洋) being the Mandarin term for Southeast Asia.


A majority of the Chinese in Malaysia claim to be Buddhist or Taoist, though the lines between them are often blurred and, typically, a syncretic Chinese religion incorporating elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and traditional ancestor-worship is practised, with the fact that each individual follows it in varying degrees. About 9.6% are Christian (Mainstream Protestants, Catholics and other denominations including a fast-growing number of Evangelicals and Charismatics) and a small number (0.7%) profess Islam as their faith.


Since there are three main ethnic groups in Malaysia, there are also inherently three distinct cuisines unique to only these ethnic groups. (Furthermore there are several sub-groups including the Baba-Nyonya, the Malacca Portuguese Eurasians and the Caucasian ex-patriates.) Most, if not all, of Malaysian Chinese enjoy all types of food not limiting to their own, which is commonly known as Malaysian Chinese food. There can be, however, some limitations as to what certain Malaysian Chinese can eat owing to their beliefs and/or religion. A very significant amount of Malaysian Chinese do not consume beef, these people are either god-children of the Goddess Of Mercy (Guan Yin) or they are faithful followers of the Religious figure.

Cultural differences

There exist some degrees of differences in the Malaysian Chinese culture compared to that of Chinamarker. Some traditional festivals celebrated by the Chinese community in Malaysia are no longer celebrated in China after the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This is especially true of regional rites and rituals that are still celebrated by the Malaysian descendants of the peasant migrants from China. Some have attributed the traditional practices of Malaysian Chinese to "a little backwater of Chinese culture as it was in China 80 years ago" .

There are also significant differences in the way the Chinese language is spoken among the Chinese community in Malaysia. One notable example is how the Minnan or Hokkien dialect is spoken in Penangmarker and even in parts of Indonesiamarker like Medanmarker. The variant spoken is influenced by Malay and English vocabulary and forms and is commonly referred to as Penang Hokkien.

1971 National Culture Policy

Malaysian Chinese Culture is limited to the "1971 National Culture Policy" of Malaysia. It defines 3 principles as guidelines for 'national culture':
  • The National Culture must be based on the indigenous [Malay] culture
  • Suitable elements from the other cultures may be accepted as part of the national culture
  • Islam is an important component in the moulding of the National Culture.

Celebration of festivities

See Festivals of Malaysia.

Prominent Malaysian Chinese


The population of Chinese is shrinking in Malaysia due to relatively lower birth rate (compared with other ethnic groups) and emmigration due to discrimination by Malaysia's New Economic Policy. It is expected to drop until 13% in 2070.

See also


  1. Yamashita, Eades (2003), p. 7
  2. Ooi (1963), p. 122
  3. Chandler, Owens (2005), p. 312
  4. Hwang (2005), p. 22
  5. Prof. Dato' Dr Asmah Haji Omar, edt: " Encyclopedia of Malaysia - Languages and Literature", pp 52-53, Kuala Lumpur: Editions Didier Millet, 2004, ISBN 981-3018-52-6
  6. International Conference of South-East Asian Historians (1962), p. 102
  7. Colonial Construction of Malayness: The Influence of Population Size and Population, Kiran Sagoo, November 27, 2006, International Graduate Student Conference Series, p. 9/16
  8. Tan (1984), p. 3
  9. Goh (1990), p. 148
  10. Ball (1903), p. 129
  11. Dept. of Statistics: "Population and Housing Census of Malaysia 2000", Kuala Lumpur: Department of Statistics Malaysia, 2001
  12. Joshua Project database for Malaysia
  13. Yan (2008), p. 71
  14. Tan (2002), p. 1
  15. Tan, Kam (2000), p. 47
  16. Pan (1999), p. 185-6
  17. Backman, Butler (2003), p. 27
  18. Toong, Siong Shih, p. 1976
  19. Constable (2005), p. 138
  20. Constable (2005), p. 129
  21. Constable (1988), p. 137
  22. Hara (2003), p. 24
  23. Megarry (2006), p. 166
  24. Pan (1999), p. 173
  25. Tan, Kam (2000), p. 39
  26. Villagers, church authorities in standoff in Malacca, 22 October 2008, The Star
  27. Tan (1984), p. 20-2
  28. Butcher (2004), p. 80
  29. Pan (1999), p. 43
  30. Razak Report: National Library Of Malaysia
  31. Denied chance to study Mandarin
  32. BBC News: Chinese diaspora: Malaysia (URL last accessed on May 17, 2007)
  33. 1971 National Culture Policy


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