होम Modern Asian Studies Multiple Ethnicities in Malaysia: The Shifting Relevance of Alternative Chinese Categories

Multiple Ethnicities in Malaysia: The Shifting Relevance of Alternative Chinese Categories

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फ़ाइल की गुणवत्ता क्या है?
पुस्तक की गुणवत्ता का मूल्यांकन करने के लिए यह पुस्तक डाउनलोड करें
डाउनलोड की गई फ़ाइलों की गुणवत्ता क्या है?
खंड:
15
साल:
1981
भाषा:
english
पत्रिका:
Modern Asian Studies
DOI:
10.2307/312092
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आप पुस्तक समीक्षा लिख सकते हैं और अपना अनुभव साझा कर सकते हैं. पढ़ूी हुई पुस्तकों के बारे में आपकी राय जानने में अन्य पाठकों को दिलचस्पी होगी. भले ही आपको किताब पसंद हो या न हो, अगर आप इसके बारे में ईमानदारी से और विस्तार से बताएँगे, तो लोग अपने लिए नई रुचिकर पुस्तकें खोज पाएँगे.
1

Ch'ing Changing Images of the Overseas Chinese (1644-1912)

साल:
1981
भाषा:
english
फ़ाइल:
PDF, 543 KB
2

Back Matter

साल:
1993
भाषा:
english
फ़ाइल:
PDF, 1003 KB
Multiple Ethnicities in Malaysia: The Shifting Relevance of Alternative Chinese Categories
Author(s): Judith Strauch
Source: Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2 (1981), pp. 235-260
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Modern Asian Studies, 15, 2 (I98I), pp. 235-260.

Printed in Great Britain.

MultipleEthnicitiesin Malaysia:
TheShiftingRelevanceof Alternative
ChineseCategories
JUDITH

STRAUCH

Harvard University
ETHNICITY

takes many forms, meets a variety of needs, and has a wide

range of uses. No single case can provide material for an exhaustive
analysis of the full complexity of the phenomenon, but all contribute
pieces to the mosaic, illuminating that complexity. Analyses have been
couched in terms of cultural definitions, of perceptual and cognitive
categories, of social distance and solidarity of groups, of boundary
definition and maintenance, of conflict and competition, of emergent
versus conservative qualities of the phenomenon, and so forth-and all
hold some validity, for ethnicity is multi-faceted. As A. L. Epstein points
out, to define ethnicity exclusively in terms of only one of these many
its potential as a focus for political mobilization, its
fac; ets-whether
contribution to an individual's psychic comfort as a member of a group,
or its cultural or linguistic attributes-'is to confuse an aspect of the
phenomenon with the phenomenon itself' (1978:96).
The present paper examines the shifting relevance of segmentally
ordered 'levels' of ethnicity among Chinese in Malaysia, revealing some
of the diversity possible among the several related meanings of the single
conceptual term 'ethnicity.' 'Subethnic' boundaries separating culturally and linguistically distinct groups within the wider Chinese-Malaysian1 community appear to be declining in salience, at least insofar as
such salience is manifested through the use of subethnic categories to
The researchon which this paper is based was made possible by grants from NIMH,
NSF, and the East Asian Research Council and the Clark Fund of Harvard University,
which I gratefully acknowledge.
1 The use of the term 'Chinese
Malaysian' rather than the more common 'Malaysian
Chinese' is intentional, and will persistthroughout this paper. It is increasinglyaccepted
that language usage shapes consciousness, and traditional usage often implies definite
conservatism,though perhaps subconsciousand unintentional. Most, possibly all, of the
Chinese of whom I am writing probably prefer to identify themselves politically with
Malaysia rather than with China, and thus the ethnic term 'Chinese' is properly an
adjective modifying the noun 'Malaysian,' which connotes nationality in the sense of
citizenship or political affiliation.
oo026-749X/8 /0404-030

I $02.oo

1981 Cambridge University Press

235

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JUDITH

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shape or define certain kinds of social action. Nonetheless, affective
identification in terms of these subethnic categories remains strong. At
the same time, a conscious ethnic identification with a more broadly
defined 'Chineseness' has become heightened. These observable trends
are not simply evidence of a unilinear melting-pot process. Rather, they
are reflective of historical developments in which increasing security and
predictability of life and livelihood within small face-to-face communities of Chinese have been paralleled by an increasing sense of vulnerability as Chinese vis-d-vis the broader national multiethnic political environment. Thus a number of possible meanings and uses of'ethnicity'
appear to operate simultaneously for individuals participating in a
social arena comprising ethnic categories of different conceptual orders,
some of which may be nested or overlapped, and some of which are
unequivocally discrete.

Ethnicity

as a Concept

Ethnicity, where it appears, is ultimately based in distinctions of 'we'
from 'they' that may generally be considered to be irreducible givens
(although gradations of distinction may in fact be distributed continuously along a scale rather than dichotomously or at discrete intervals). But it is context that determines whether and to what extent those
distinctions are socially or psychologically significant. Ethnicity, i.e.,
does not exist simply because such distinctions exist; such distinctions
provide no more than the potential for ethnic differentiation. Moreover,
even when ethnicity cum ethnic differentiationis manifest, it is not safe to
assume that ethnic groups are a necessary concomitant, for the word
'group' implies some organization function or at least consciousness of
group existence and identity of purpose. Careful analytical distinctions
must be drawn between different conceptual orders of'ethnicity' as they
apply to a wide range of self-conceptualizations and social behavior and
experience.
Explicit differentiation among three sorts of ethnic phenomena is
useful: i) ethnic identity, 2) ethnic categories, and 3) ethnic groups.
Each of the first two implies the existence of the other, though identity
may be seen to operate independently of overt recognition of categories
once both are well established in the conceptual schemas of the individuals who make up a given social system. The third often, but not
always, appears as an outgrowth of the first two: ethnic identities and
categories may exist without ethnic groups, but ethnic groups, if they do

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come into being, must be built on categories and identities, and may
then in turn serve to reinforce those categories and identities.
Much of the current debate in the literature over the nature and
meaning of ethnicity is bogged down unnecessarily in a failure conceptually to distinguish ethnic groups from ethnic categories. Barth, in
analyzing the generation, maintenance, and negotiation of ethnic boundaries, shows that ethnic categories demarcated by such boundaries
may vary considerably in form and in content, as well as in the degree of
relevance and the breadth of scope with which they impinge upon social
action (I969: I4). He refers in fact to categories rather than to ethnic
groups as such in much of his theoretical discussion. Abner Cohen misses
the distinction, however, both in his critique ofBarth (1974:xiii) and in
his own treatment of the subject ( 1969, 1974). In focusing so intently on
the political use of ethnicity, as it underlies the formation of competitive
interest groups in African towns, he highlights a very important dimension of ethnicity, but at the same time dismisses the very real significance
that ethnic identification and ethnic categorization can hold in the
absence of actual group formation. Epstein points out that Cohen's
data, drawn from a group that is relatively cohesive in residential and
occupational as well as ethnic terms, lead logically to the notion that
ethnic expression is essentially political interest expression. But he goes
on to note that this model may be inadequate in situations marked by
greater diversity and heterogeneity (Epstein 1978:94).
J. C. Mitchell, by contrast, has been assiduous in drawing the contrast
between group and category (I970, I974). He sees categorization as
a process that provides necessary order and predictability in social
relations by reducing the complexity inherent in situations in which
social interactions are transitory and superficial and at the same time
multitudinous and extensive. For Mitchell, 'ethnicity' is a perceptual or
cognitive construct, while 'ethnic groups' are behavioral phenomena,
and any connections between the two must be empirically demonstrated
and explained rather than assumed. Ethnic identities are derived from a
labeling process that relates more to categorical expectations of public
behavior in a public context than to an individual's basic customs,
beliefs, or cultural practices. 'The social meanings of ethnicity, therefore, depend directly on the wider social context of which it is only a
part, since the meanings have social significance in that they enable
behavior to be predicted' (Mitchell 1974:23).
In the case material that follows, we will see the persistence of ethnic
categories that originally emerged to meet political and economic needs
under conditions that have now undergone considerable change. What

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JUDITH

STRAUCH

were once groups are today merely categories, for ethnic groups of a
different order, demarcated by expanded boundaries, have come to the
political fore in response to a transformed social and political environment. The formation of the ethnic groups relevant today in Malaysia
does represent, as Cohen would argue, a dynamic rearrangement of
relations and customs, and not merely a resurgence of cultural conservatism and continuity (see Cohen I974:xxiii). David Parkin's related
notion of ethnicity as 'a) the articulation of cultural distinctiveness in b)
situations of political conflict or competition' (I974: I I9) accurately
describes a part of the range of observable ethnicity in Malaysia as well.
But the political interpretation of ethnicity illuminates an aspect of the
phenomenon, not the phenomenon itself. The point that both Cohen
and Parkin neglect is that the original ethnic categories do not necessarily disappear simply because they are superseded by newly relevant
categories as bases for interest group formation. That a category falls
into operational disuse does not necessarily mean that it ceases to exist or
to hold social meaning. The ethnic categories that informed economically and politically competitive groups among Chinese in Malaya half
a century ago today persist only as social identities. Nonetheless, however seldom they may be elicited for concrete purposes, they appear to
offer some measure of psychological satisfaction to people who refuse to
forget who they, and others around them, are.
Overseas-Chinese

Ethnicity

The plural society of Malaysia, like many the world over, is comprised of
a multiplicity of groups, some indigenous and some immigrants. The
aanyang ('Southern Seas') Chinese are immigrants of a particular sort,
however, in that the homeland they left behind cradles one of the world's
oldest and greatest cultures, whose historical as well as contemporary
significance cannot be denied. The large-scale emigrations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries included impoverished coolies, petty and
not-so-petty merchants, and, particularly in this century, members of
the intelligentsia. All, even the poorest who hardly knew the written
characters for their own names, carried with them an indisputable sense
of their cultural heritage. Chinese chauvinism was given a free rein by
the colonial governments in control of most of Southeast Asia, and
events in China such as the 1911 revolution and theJapanese invasion of
1937 provided unifying foci for the Chinese nationalistic and culturalistic pride that was propagated through a widespread network of Chinese
schools which socialized even the poor. The 1949 revolution met with a

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more mixed response, but response there was, and overseas Chinese were
no less certain that they were Chinese first, immigrants second-though
whether Communists, Nationalists, or neutrals was not always so clear.
Despite its chauvinistic focus on a broadly 'Chinese' culturalism,
overseas Chinese society exemplifies a characteristic shared to a certain
degree by all groups defined by ethnic criteria-the potential for segmentary opposition ofsubethnic categories. Chinese can be divided into
subgroups which, like similarly constituted and territorially discrete
groups in Africa and Europe, through the centuries developed linguistic
and cultural distinctiveness. But in contrast to most of the rest of the
world, China, while evidencing rich cultural variation at regional and
local levels, maintained a striking degree of unity and integration at the
higher level of empire for more than two millenia. A geographically
mobile Chinese individual, whether an imperial bureaucrat or an emigrant merchant or laborer, never (traditionally) severed his ties or his
identification with his (or his ancestors') native place, but instead added
additional levels of identification with each move (see Skinner 1976,
I977). Because of this imperial integration, the Chinese segmentary
opposition model differs from the African by virtue of its vast inclusiveness. It is not limited by kinship, putative or otherwise, but is extended
by a sense of cultural commonality instilled across a vast empire through
ideological, economic, and political integration that perdured for centuries. Thus the emigrant Chinese could and did recognize common ties,
in ascending order, with village mates, with members of the same
standard marketing system (and both of these might also be lineage
mates), with nonkin from the same intermediate marketing system or
administrative unit of the lowest level, or from the same county, prefecture, province, region, and ultimately from the same empire.
From the time of the earliest Chinese settlement in the Nanyang, the
use of these nested native-place categories has been important in the
social organization of the immigrant community (see Crissman I967).
In the contemporary context, the most inclusive meaningful units are
national units (Malaysian Chinese, Thai Chinese, Indonesian Chinese,
etc.). Within each of these national Chinese communities, the first
degree of internal segmentation follows linguistic lines (Cantonese,
Hokkien, Hakka, etc.) which largely coincide with territorially bounded
native place divisions as well (the notable exception being the Hakka
group, who in China are territorially interspersed with other locally
dominant populations). Further segmentation is likely to occur within
any given host locality according to smaller geographical units of origin,
which also display some cultural diversity in custom and dialect usage.

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Although theoretically any set of territorially contiguous ethnic
groups or categories could construct a similar hierarchy of identities, few
have in fact elaborated the model to such a degree or utilized it so
universally as the Chinese. At different times and places in history many
of the various levels of Chinese ethnic and subethnic identities available
have served in turn as the bases for group formation, while the others
remained meaningful, for the time being, merely as categories. Chinese
have always had simultaneously at hand several non-conflicting identities-the concept of'being Chinese,' the only slightly contrary notion of,
e.g., 'being Cantonese' as opposed to 'being Hokkien,' and within that,
the clear self-identification as, e.g., a Szeyap person (a grouping of
Cantonese counties), or finally a Toisan person (one of the four Szeyap
counties). For convenience I refer to the lower-level units of Chinese
ethnic categorization as 'subethnic,' to distinguish them from the
higher-order differentiations that are more commonly made in Malaysia
between Chinese, Malay, Indian, etc. 'ethnic' groups, or 'communities.'
But in fact these Chinese subethnic categories are as ethnically distinctive as are many African 'tribes,' and indeed they have been referred to
as 'tribes' by earlier writers (e.g. Purcell 1965), although they lack the
overarching kinship or political organization that is more usually associated with this imprecise term.
The Chinese-Malaysian community has demonstrated considerable
variability in self-identification, self-categorization, and group formation, as it has experienced a number of different encapsulating political
and social environments. The national political system has gone from
prewar laissez faire mercantile colonialism to military rule (by first the
Japanese and then the British Emergency administration), to the
Malay-dominated sovereign state, and each has meant a very particular
sort of incorporation for the ethnic Chinese. Local-level Chinese social
groupings have ranged from labor kongsis in tin mines and logging
camps, to scattered squatter settlement, to forced relocation camps
('new villages'), to densely packed urban centers. In each context,
ethnicity has a specific meaning, and in each, a particular conceptual
order of ethnicity underlies the sense of commonality of purpose that
defines the ethnic 'group.'

The Malayan

Historical

Background

Under British indirect rule Chinese were permitted a high degree of
internal self-rule, as were the other major ethnic groups. Broadly speak-

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ing, colonial Malaya approached the epitome of the plural society as
described by Furnivall (1948), with different communities living side by
side, interacting little except in the marketplace, and kept in order by
the overarching but foreign political force, which dealt separately with
leaders of each local community. Edward Bruner draws attention to
Furnivall's ethnocentric grouping together of all 'natives' under one
rubric (I974:255),
and of course the same device was applied to all
'Chinese' as well. Certain lines of cleavage (those perceived by Furnivail) were indeed muted by the power situation, but the classic formulation obscures those cleavages which were not so affected, those within
each of the broader communities.
For the Chinese immigrant laborer the effective social and political
world comprised only other Chinese. Newcomers followed their natural
proclivities to join together with their native-place fellows (tongxiang)
who spoke a common language and had common cultural habits, preferred the same foods, propitiated the same gods, and so forth. Among
this tongxiangcommunity one was most likely to get help in finding work,
in borrowing cash during periods of temporary enforced idleness, in
settling disputes with fellow workers, and, as the settlers put down roots,
in finding a suitable bride to be brought over from the home community
in China. Native-place associations (tongxiang huiguan) were formally
organized in every port city and large town in Southeast Asia (see
Freedman I960).
Just as associations among tongxiang were important, so too were
cleavages between different tongxianggroups. Economic competition, as
well as cooperation, tended to be organized along linguistic and nativeplace lines into the larger groupings of voluntary associations and secret
societies that provided the political structure of the community. Such
competition led to frequent and violent conflict, both in developing
ports and in tin-mining areas in the hinterland. The British eventually
stepped in, attempting to bring order in part through the establishment
of an official Chinese Protectorate charged with combatting secret
societies and their power. The Protectorate offered direct recourse for
new immigrants that allowed them to bypass the hierarchical segmentary channels provided by the Chinese community's internal structure.
Thus direct rule was implemented to supplant the indirect 'Kapitan
China' system (see Skinner 1968), but it was by no means entirely
successful (Purcell I967: 52f), for the function the native place
associations filled was a meaningful one. In the southeastern Chinese
provinces from which most of the immigrants came, the strong localized
lineage had offered its poorer members some economic and political

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security through both strength in numbers and special protection based
on the wealth and power of its elites. Consequently, horizontal class
cleavages within the lineage were less salient than vertical cleavages
between strong rival lineages. In the absence of large kinship groups in
the Nanyang, native-place associations played a similar role, providing
the individual with the security of membership in a strong cooperative
group.
In this environment subethnicity (native place and language) tended
to determine the opportunities open to the immigrant, defining both his
initial employment in a certain category of work (e.g. more likely
commercial if he was Hokkien, more likely agricultural if Hakka) and
his chances for advancement within that category. Although internal
class divisions existed objectively, class-consciousness had far less
salience in daily life than had ethnic solidarity. The Hakka logger saw
the rich Hakka lumber merchant as his patron, and the wealthy Teochiu rice wholesaler was likewise viewed as a trusted protector by the
poor Teochiu vegetable farmer. The 'armies' engaged in the Larut Wars
of the Perak tin-mining district in the late nineteenth century tended to
comprise primarily Hakkas on the one side and Cantonese on the other,
each with a few segmentarily determined allies, and each made up of
loyal 'foot soldier' workers bound through secret-society ritual to their
elite leaders who filled authority roles modeled in part on those of
lineage heads in China. In sum, cleavages and alliances within Chinese
immigrant society were both complex and of daily significance, whereas
for all but the elite, contacts with Malays and with Europeans were few
and relatively unimportant.
It has been noted in many contexts that in plural societies the colonial
umbrella served to mute interethnic conflict, and that once it was
removed, such ethnic conflict emerged as central in the struggle for the
power once held securely by foreigners and now open for capture as the
prize of independence (see e.g. Parkin 1974: 120). In the plural society of
colonial Malaya, however, we see that though contact and thus conflict
between Malays and Chinese was in fact muted, as Malay bumiputras
('sons of the soil') continued in their traditional roles as sultans and
farmers while Chinese and Indian immigrants met most of the newly
created demand for wage labor and merchant middlemen, subethnic
conflict among competing Chinese groups ran rampant. The close of the
colonial era, here as elsewhere, opened up new ethnic conflicts and
rivalries. The British formula which granted political dominance to the
Malays through numerous constitutional protections, while leaving the
problem of Chinese economic advantage to be dealt with in the future,

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satisfied no one. But although the opening of new ethnic rivalries led to
ethnic group formation of a different order, it did not entail the total
closure of ranks at the subethnic level that perfect operation of the
segmentary model would imply. Chinese subethnic categoriespersist as
categories,and in many specific cases as subgroupsas well, despite the
contemporary preeminence of the Malay-Chinese political opposition.

The Special Condition

of the Chinese of West Malaysia

The experience of the Chinese in West Malaysia2 differs significantly
from that ofhuaqiao (overseas Chinese) elsewhere in Southeast Asia and
the rest of the world in a number of respects. Most salient is the unusual
demographic balance. Chinese Malaysians are nationally an extremely
large minority, as indicated in Table i. Table 2 shows the contrast in the
comparison with other countries in the region (Singapore, as an essentially Chinese city-state, is an exception of a different order). In five of
the eleven peninsular states, all along the relatively densely settled west
coast, Chinese make up approximately 40 percent of the population,
and in one, Penang, 56 percent. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Chinese
are overrepresented in urban areas, but in Malaysia they are found in
large numbers in small towns and rural agricultural areas as well. The
I970 Malaysian census shows that of the roughly 3, I00,000 Chinese in
West Malaysia, 47 percent, not quite one and a half million, live in
urban centers of over o,ooo population, 23 percent in towns from I,ooo
to Io,ooo in population, and 30 percent in population concentrations of
under I,ooo.
TABLE I
West Malaysian Populationby Community

Community
Malay
Chinese
Indians
Others

Percentage
53.2
35.4
io.6
o.8

Source: Chander I972
2

Conditions in East Malaysia, both demographically and historically, are sufficiently
different from those in West Malaysia tojustify their exclusion from consideration in this
study. Thus when for simplicity's sake I refer to Malaysia, I mean, in fact, West
Malaysia.

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TABLE

2

Ethnic Chinesein SoutheastAsia (17jo estimates)
Percentage of Chinese
in total population
74.5
34. I
10 0
6.4
6.5
2.6

Singapore
Malaysia
Thailand
Cambodia
Vietnam
Indonesia
Laos

2.0

.4

Philippines
Source: Heidhues 1974:3

The subethnic mixture of Chinese in Malaysia is particularly complex. The overall percentages for West Malaysia appear in Table 3,
contrasted with those of some other nations of the region. Judging from
the available figures, broken down by district, these groups appear to be
quite thoroughly intermixed throughout the country. Given areas are
thought to be predominantly occupied by one subethnic category or
another, as indicated by the particular language most commonly in use,
but extrapolation from the district figures suggests that contrary to
common wisdom even these areas are in fact quite mixed. Despite clear
linguistic dominance, Cantonese comprise less than one half and one
third of the Chinese populations in and around Ipoh and Kuala
TABLE3
Chinesein SoutheastAsia by SubethnicGroup (percentages)

Hokkien
Hakka
Cantonese
Teochiu
Hainanese
Other

West Malaysia
(1970)

Thailand

34
22
20
12
5
7

7
I6
7
56
12
2

(I955)

Philippines
(I939)

Indonesia
(I930)

75

44
6
I0
7

25

-20(?)

Sources: West Malaysia: Chander 1972; other estimates: Purcell 1965:82,
386-7, 498

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Lumpur respectively, and Hokkiens make up less than half the Chinese
population on the island of Penang (Chander 1972).
An additional regional contrast lies in the fact that in Malaysia,
unlike Thailand and the Philippines, for example, there exists no transitional ethnic category, halfway between Malay and Chinese and able to
move in either direction at will. Islam demands total adherence, allowing for no half-Muslims: Malays are, virtually by definition, Muslim,
and Chinese are, almost without exception, non-Muslim. The Straits
Chinese, like Indonesian Peranakan Chinese are often thought of as
semi-assimilated, speaking a home language that is a sinicized form of
Malay, and adopting certain Malay food habits and clothing styles
(Freedman I965). But they cannot situationally opt for Malay or
Chinese identity by choice, as some Thai Chinese might choose between
Thai and Chinese labels. Chinese do not take Malay names, and
intermarriage is practically negligible, among urban educated classes as
well as among more parochial rural segments of the population. Chinese
female children (often infants) are sometimes adopted by Malay
families, but they are then raised wholly as Malays, and often come
strongly to deny any Chinese parentage despite their Chinese physical
characteristics.
Prior to the second world war a process of residential integration had
been underway in many rural areas, where Chinese households were
interspersed among small Malay hamlets. During the depression many
urban Chinese had been forced to move to the countryside to take up
subsistence farming; under the Japanese occupation more joined them,
fleeing the cities for both political and economic reasons. In the communist insurgency of the I950s, however, all rural Chinese were presumed to be potential supporters of thejungle-based Chinese guerrillas.
About half a million rural Chinese, one in four of the country's Chinese
population at that time, were grouped together into fenced and curfewed 'new villages' under a forced relocation program. Thus the urban
Chinese concentrations that had developed over time through natural
social and economic processes were complemented by rural ghettoes
established at one stroke, so to speak, as a short-range political and
military strategy.
Given the population distribution in both urban and rural areas,
Chinese Malaysians are less likely than most huaqiao to think of themselves; in the context of daily life and social interaction, as a minority
community surrounded by a numerically dominant local group. In his
study of ethnic group interaction in Indonesia, Bruner argues that social
demography is critical in two respects: it determines the presence or

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absence of a 'dominant culture,' and it may define a clear and unambiguous locus of power (I974:255). For most Chinese Malaysians, the
dominant culture that shapes daily social intercourse is likely to be
Chinese, but all are aware that the locus of real power lies within the
Malay-dominated government bureaucracy, a function as much of
political history as of demography. Thus, although it is a locally salient
subethnic category-e.g. Cantonese or Hokkien demographic ascendancy-that will determine the choice of language used in the street, it is
the centralization of power with an ethnic group of a higher orderdetermines the structuring of ethnic groups at the most
Malays-that
as opposed to Malays. Although in
inclusive level of ethnicity-Chinese,
a
Chinese
individual may never actually
the course of the day
given
interact with a Malay (and the individual is thus interacting in terms of
categories only), he or she will probably be reminded more than once of
the salience of ethnic groups, and thus of his/her membership in a group
by virtue of automatic ascription at birth. Within a political environment in which people must rely on government sanction, intervention,
or simple negligence on matters ranging from business permits to land
titles to university positions for students, under rules that provide ethnic
quotas for these and other limited goods, ethnic-group consciousness can
never be completely submerged for long.
Most of the generalizations made about huaqiaothroughout Southeast
Asia are based on urban data, in part because in most countries Chinese
are primarily urban, and in part because that is the body of data that
was collected in the I950s and ig60s. In Malaysia, however, the rural
and semirural Chinese merit closer attention as an important segment of
the community, both numerically and politically.3 The material that
follows describes the subethnic structure and social relations within a
small rural market town of about 3,000 people in southern Perak, one of
Malaysia's five hundred 'new villages.' Relations within the Chinese
community of Sanchun4 provide the salient ethnic frame for the daily
lives of its people. Rural Chinese, like their urban counterparts, have
only limited contact with Malays and Indians as individuals, though
their livelihood and future aspirations are in no small degree affected by
3 Concernovergovernmentalneglectof new villagersand squattershas been a hot
politicalissuesincetheraceriotsof 1969;in 1971a newfederalministrywithfullcabinet
statuswas establishedprimarilyto deal with issuesbeingraisedrelatingspecificallyto
newvillages,thoughthefocusof thisministryis todaylessexclusive.Thereis continued
governmentalconcernregardingthe possibleexistenceof communistsympathiesand
supportamongthe ruralChinese.
4 The name'Sanchun'is a pseudonym.

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a federal government controlled predominantly by Malays, and they
are aware of this fact.

Sanchun
Sanchun5 has existed as a settlement for nearly a century. Originally it
consisted of a cluster of a few wooden Chinese shops near the river and a
scattering of Malay hamlets nearby. The first rows of permanent twostory stone shophouses were built a few miles away at the present site in
I919, when the development of British rubber interests was attracting
increasing Chinese immigration to the area. Until I950 Sanchun
remained a small market center serving nearby rubber estates and
smallholders, both Chinese and Malays, scattered throughout the
vicinity, but under the relocation program instituted during the communist insurgency it became a population center as well. About two
hundred families, mostly Chinese rubber tappers and loggers, were
brought together in a newly cleared area adjacent to the market town.
The new village and the existing shop area were enclosed from the
beginning within the same fence and subjected to the same curfews,
conscription for the home guard unit, and so forth. Nonetheless a
distinction persists in the minds of the people today between the xincun
(new village) and thejieshang (the shop area, literally, 'street').
In the early days the shopkeepers in Sanchun were predominantly
Hokkien, while most of the tappers and loggers in the surrounding area
were Cantonese and Kwongsai. Shortly before the war large numbers
of Hakka laborers and Teochiu vegetable farmers also settled in the
vicinity. Today the Hokkiens still cluster in the street section, but
Cantonese merchants are now numerous as well. The village is made up
largely of Cantonese and Hakkas. Malays and Indians comprise nearly
twenty percent of the community, but are centered chiefly in the shop
area, aside from two small clusters of Indian rubber tappers in the
village. Most of the Malays are government servants living in government housing at the edges of the town. Both Malays and Indians turn
outside of Sanchun to nearby hamlets, rubber estates, or the district
administrative capital for social, religious, and even political affiliations,
and Sanchun proper is essentially a Chinese town.
Among the Chinese households in the community, the current
subethnic distribution is as follows: Cantonese, 45 percent; Hakka, 27
5 This community is described in Strauch 198 ; fieldwork was carried out in 1971-72,
and on brief follow-up visits in 1976 and 1978.

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percent; Hokkien, I percent; Teochiu, Io percent; Kwongsai, 4 percent; Hainanese, Hokchiu, Hokchia, Henghwa, and Hunanese
together, 3 percent. As would be expected from the discussion above,
occupational groupings show some correlation with speech groupings.
Hokkiens are overrepresented in the commercial sector and Hakkas in
manual labor, while the Cantonese are somewhat more evenly distributed. Two of the four coffee shops are run by Hainanese, two of the
three bicycle shops by Henghwas, and the goldsmith, like most goldsmiths throughout Malaysia, is Cantonese. Cantonese is now the lingua
franca, spoken by almost everyone, but informants say that in prewar
years this was less common. A number of the villagers reported that they
could not speak Cantonese before they were moved into the new settlement.
To what extent is the subethnic diversity seen in Sanchun typical of
other comparable rural Chinese Malaysian towns? Unofficial census
figures indicated that as many of these towns are heterogeneous in
speech-group composition as are homogeneous, a fact not surprising in
the light of their origins as forced groupings of scattered hamlets rather
than as naturally formed and gradually developed social units. Observations on interspeech-group relations and attitudes in Sanchun, then,
illuminate the persistence of certain uses of subethnic identity among
Malaysian huaqiaoin the rural and small town contexts.
I) Formal organizations:Much of the overseas Chinese literature draws
attention to the salience in the urban situation of formally organized
Chinese native-place associations. Similar associations, often branches
of those in larger towns, were sometimes established in small market
centers as well. In Sanchun two such native-place associations own
buildings serving as headquarters, appropriately labeled Gugangzhou
Huiguan and Gaozhou Tongxianghui, respectively. The former
includes members tracing their origins to the four xian (counties) commonly referred to as szeyap (in Cantonese) and two additional Guangdong xian, while members of the latter claim Gaozhou prefecture, also in
Guangdong, as their native place. In I972 these associations still functioned in the traditional manner as mutual-aid societies, providing their
members with financial aid for funerals and the use of tables and benches
for both wakes and weddings. Leaders of the organizations visited the
Sanchun Chinese cemetery for the spring and autumn ritual observances, after which members joined together in banquets of commemoration and solidarity. The Gugangzhou and the Gaozhou associations
claim about fifty and thirty families as members, respectively. Another
dozen or so families participate in a less formally organized manner in

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the Hanjiang association, which includes Hakkas and Teochius from
Chaozhou prefecture, while some twenty Hokkien families are members
of the Hokkien association. These two are affiliates of larger associations
in a nearby town, and have no formal local branches, but their members
met twice yearly for the spring and autumn observances and banquets.
Nearly half of the families interviewed6 said they were members of a
native-place association, either locally or elsewhere.
Leading members of all of these associations, however, agree that they
are not as important in the community as they once were, and younger
men often drop out after their fathers die.7 Sanchun has two locally
organized mutual-aid associations that draw broader support from the
community as a whole, both providing assistance with costs and labor
needs for wakes and burials. One is organized privately by a respected
village elder; the other operated under the aegis of the locally dominant
political party, the Malaysian Chinese Association, until a local party
split in 1973, though its members were not necessarily party members. It
has now dropped its party affiliation, but its executive committee membership, encompassing both political factions comfortably, has changed
little. As community-wide organizations, these two societies can make
larger contributions to families in need than can the more narrowly
based native-place associations. A similarly broadly based organization
is the cemetery committee, comprised of men of all speech groups, which
is in charge of spring and autumn graveyard rites centered on the
Sanchun Chinese 'common grave' commemorating all Chinese who
have died in the area, including those unknown, with no descendents. In
I972 these ceremonies were held a day or so after each separate tongxianghui held its own observances and were followed by a community
banquet in the Chinese recreation club. Thus, following temporary
ritual division along native-place lines, these activities symbolically
reunited the local community as a solidary whole. In I976 I was told
that this communal observance has replaced the smaller tongxianggatherings almost completely. The single exception is the Hokkien group,
whose members continue to meet separately before the community
gathering out of deference to their highly respected leader, who apparently cannot bring himself to abandon tradition.
6

A random sample of over half of the Chinese households in Sanchun were inter-

viewed at length in 1972.
7 The son of the Gaozhou chairman is
working to revive the association, but I believe
his interests lie not in rejuvenating tongxiangsolidarity but in attracting a following that
might then be won over to the opposition political party he is trying, so far with little
success, to build up in Sanchun.

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2) Local-levelpolitical processes:In studies of urban huaqiao,speech-group

and native-place affiliation have consistently been seen to be of salience
in local political organization. Hence, I originally hypothesized a
similar basis for leadership rivalries and support-group cleavages in this
heterogeneous community, but the data proved to contradict the
hypothesis. The three most important and respected leaders are
members of three different speech groups, but neither rivalry nor
support follows speech-group lines today.
The village patriarch, an elderly Hakka who came to power in the
chaotic period of the Emergency, cooperates with, and is deferred to, by
the local council chairman, a middle-aged Cantonese businessman.
Another leader now of somewhat peripheral status, the traditionallyminded Hokkien leader referred to above, eschews formal politics in
part because of the personal animosity he feels towards the elderly
Hakka, whom he believes to be responsible for his (the Hokkien's)
imprisonment as a suspected communist supporter during the Emergency. The mutual aversion between the two may have deeper roots
tracing back to subethnic divisions in the early days of the settlement,
however, for the Hakka's late patron (also a Hakka) and the Hokkien's
father were the two dominant local figures before the war. The Hakka
patriarch has a long string of minor conflicts with both Hokkiens (the
elder Hokkien died in the early I96os).
Today the Hokkien leader is chairman of the temple committee, is
active on the school board and various other committees in the community, and is in every way treated as a community leader by all except
the elderly Hakka, who is merely passably civil to him. The Hokkien's
staunchest supporters are a Teochiu and a Hakka, who covertly criticize
the patriarch, but show no interest in challenging him openly. The local
council includes in addition to the central figures-the Hakka patriarch
and the Cantonese chairman-other
Hakkas, Cantonese, and a
Hunanese, as well as a Malay and an Indian. The actual leadership and
decision-making functions are carried on smoothly by a cohesive clique
of mixed speech-group composition centered on the patriarch and the
chairman. Most local dispute mediation is carried on not by this council
but by three of its members who are considered 'village elders'-the
Hakka patriarch, the Cantonese organizer of the private mutual-aid
society, and an elderly Cantonese businessman. Many people of all
speech groups throughout the community express trust and faith in
these three men, in their honesty, and in their ability to resolve difficult
matters fairly.
3) Social interaction:When I asked people about the relevance of speech-

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group differences I was consistently told that they no longer matter. In
the early days, before the war, according to some informants, the
different groups did not mix much, in part because of their physical
Hokkiens clustered in the town, and Cantonese and
dispersion-the
Hakka laborers were scattered in groups throughout the surrounding
areas. In those days, I was told, when differences arose between
members of different groups, mediation by leaders of both groups
involved was necessary for settlement. Today, however, the elders
serve the community as a whole, not their own speech groups or
tongxiang.
I was also told that in the old days marriage outside the speech group
was virtually unknown, but that today such matters are irrelevant. My
own impression was that intermarriage was increasingly frequent
among younger people, as I happened to know a number of such
couples. People under 35 have been raised for the most part within this
integrated community, and many teenagers of minority groups even
admit to speaking Cantonese better than their own mother tongues. The
data show less intermarriage than either I or my openminded informants would have guessed, however. Interestingly, families in the shop
section, who are by and large differentiated from those in the village by
occupation, income, educational attainment, and residential stability in
the prewar years, show slightly higher rates of intermarriage regardless
of age or generation in Malaysia. Thus subethnic integration, at least as
indicated by intermarriage, does not follow a simple time vector even in
a small community with relatively minimal socioeconomic differentiation. Instead, patterns generally observed more clearly in 'modern'
urban-rural contrasts are seen to operate to some degree even within a
single rural context.
Friendship groups, from surface appearances, seem to be thoroughly
integrated. There is real difficulty, of course, in trying to substantiate
such an observation in any formal way. Given a population 45 percent
Cantonese, for example, one might count the number of friends a person
has and try to determine whether there is a non-random excess of
non-Cantonese among them, but such a count can never be fully
accurate, nor can it measure degrees of friendship controlled for degrees
of kinship. Some minority group members seem to have many ties
among their own group, but these ties may ultimately be based on
kinship rather than on speech-group or subethnic solidarity. Of the two
dozen or so Teochiu families in Sanchun, for instance, kinship links four
second-generation middle-aged brothers, all now established in separate
homes, and their many affines through both wives and sisters, most of

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whom are Teochius. Thus the group manifesting high solidarity turns
out to be based on kinship rather than (or as much as) on Teochiu-ness
or minority-group status.
4) Business alliances: Accurate information on business partnerships is
difficult to come by, but more appear to be mixed than exclusively
limited to one group or another. The largest local enterprise, a sawmill,
was established by a Hakka some twenty years ago, but is now owned by
a partnership of ten men of various groups. The Cantonese council
chairman, in addition to family holdings shared with brothers, owns
pieces of land jointly with the Hakka patriarch and with his Hokkien
brothers-in-law. A small pork raising, roasting, and selling partnership
includes a Hakka, a Cantonese, and two Teochius. Young laborers,
asked who if anyone has provided useful job introductions for them,
generally cite former schoolmates (tongxue),coworkers in the same trade
(neihangren), or relatives, both patrilateral and matrilateral; some of
these may be tongxiangas well, but that is not treated as a significant
category in itself.
Counter examples do of course exist. The rubber smokehouse is
owned jointly by two Hokkien rubber dealers, but since it was established a generation ago by the fathers of the two men now partners, it
tells us little about contemporary attitudes. On the other hand, a
particularly successful and progressive fifth-generation Hakka agricultural entrepreneur who talks of Chinese unity and the irrelevance of
speech-group divisions, nonetheless has only Hakka partners in his
several ventures.
5) Conceptualframeworks: Despite these clear tendencies toward integration on the operational level, subethnic categories appear to retain
some degree of meaning, for purposes of labeling and easy identification,
at the very least. When asked, my companions in a local coffee shop
could invariably name the speech group and often supply a lower-level
native-place category as well for every other person present in the shop.
When my assistant, a young man from a new village near the federal
capital who is fluent in five Chinese languages as well as Malay and
English, first came into the community, I noticed that in many of his first
conversations with Sanchun people information about his speech group
and often his family's native xian was either requested or offered as a
matter of course. People still carry conceptual stereotypes in their heads
about other groups, and maintain that they can usually tell a person's
subethnic identity on sight.8 They can catalogue such differences as the
8 When asked for some
distinguishing features, an example people frequently offered
was that Hokkiens are light-skinned and wear glasses, while Hakkas are dark-skinned-

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kinds of rice bowls and eating utensils preferred by Hainanese, Hokkiens, and Cantonese,9 and cite differences in wedding and funeral
rituals, points that occasionally necessitate acknowledgement and
active compromise. With so many variations on China's 'little traditions' now available, it seems that pragmatism rather than family
affiliation is sometimes the factor determining a choice. The young head
of a Hokkien family told me that when his father died, Cantonese burial
customs were followed because they were considerably cheaper than the
proper Hokkien funeral.
It is clear that the roughly 2,500 Chinese who live in this semirural
town are finding over time that the experiences they share together on a
day-to-day basis in what has been a reasonably cohesive and stable
community for 25 years or more provide more relevant criteria on which
to base choices in social behaviour than do traditional categories rooted
in a land many of them have never seen. Nonetheless, the traditional
categories persist to some degree, even when the linguistic barriers that
may have once been one of the chief pragmatic reasons for their importance in social life are now effectively eradicated. People still, for whatever reasons, tend to label themselves and others in one way and not
another, and most perpetuate subethnic linguistic usage in the home.
Many, moreover, continue to display large plaques above their doors
identifying the village of their ancestors' origin. Though they tend less
often than in the past to allow these identifications to shape or limit their
behavioral choices, they refuse to give them up, seeing no contradiction
in the persistence of subethnic categories that have little or no operational pragmatic use within a local community that has grown familiar
and predictable in its own right.

Chinese Malaysians

and 'others'

Considerably more has been written about Malaysian ethnic relations
than about subethnic relations (see e.g. Wilson 1967, Enloe 1970,
Rabushka I971, etc.), and most is supported by the Sanchun data.
Rural Chinese have only limited personal experience with members of
other ethnic groups, and so of necessity most operate both behaviorally
characteristics
thatcouldbe predictedeasilyin tropicalMalaysiagiventhat Hokkiens
arepredominantly
whileHakkasaregenerallyagriculturalworkers.
shopkeepers,
9 In the homein which I was a guestfor two monthsin 1976,the Cantonesewife
invariablyuseda ricebowlandchopsticks,butset a shallowbowlandspoonandforkin
frontof herHokkienhusband(ofa StraitsChinesefamily)and the children.

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and conceptually on the basis of widely held stereotypes. Most interaction is in the marketplace, and while hostility is never open or even
obviously apparent, negative stereotypes hold considerable currency. In
conversations on the subject of intergroup relations, most Chinese
express disdain for Malays, and some even urge total avoidance of them
as the wisest course of action. A number of shopkeepers insist that
Malays are untrustworthy, citing examples from their own past experiences, and refuse to extend credit to them. By and large, Sanchun
Chinese seem to feel that Malays are decidedly different from themselves
in ways of thinking and feeling-xinli butong-and the assumption seems
to be that the differences are irreconcilable.
Sanchun Chinese perceptions of the government and its Malay
leaders, however, bear only an uncertain relationship to their views of
rural Malays. Among Chinese there is strong resentment of government
policies regarding Malay-language requirements in school examinations and Malay quotas in university admissions, various business
licenses, and government employment. Most rural Chinese are well
aware of these issues through the Chinese press and through their own
experiences. The better educated and more politically active Sanchun
Chinese discuss these matters frequently, and complain that the government treats Chinese as nothing more than second-class citizens.
It is not entirely clear, however, to what extent the Malays in power in
the government and the Malays encountered in the Sanchun marketplace are seen as one and the same. Locally relevant ethnic stereotypes
refer primarily to what is perceived as childlike behavior and lack of
ambition, traits that can be smiled on with some condescension. Government officials, by contrast, may be viewed as heavy-handed tyrants
spoon-feeding the Malay peasant on the one hand and constricting
natural Chinese rights on the other. The conflicts inherent are obvious.
The Malay owner of the so-called 'Ali-Baba'10 taxi license may himself
be a very likeable fellow, but the Chinese who spends long hours driving
the taxi understandably resents both the individual who takes a part of
his earnings and the system, based not on capital but on ethnicity, that
allows him to do so.
Chinese and Malays in Malaysia represent ethnic groups in terms of
both political and economic consciousness. There are no non-ethnics in
Malaysia, for one's 'race' is relevant in virtually all formal applications
for jobs, licenses, and the like, and the information appears on the
identity card that must be shown often, regardless of whether quotas
apply to the particular issue at hand. Sanchun Chinese are constantly
10 Ali is a common Malay name, and Baba is another term for Straits Chinese.

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aware of certain interests that they share with other Chinese by virtue of
in the continuation of good Chinese-language
their ethnicity-interest
schools
for
their
children, for example, and in increased quotas
primary
for non-Malays at the nation's government-run universities (the government is currently rejecting attempts by Chinese leaders to establish a
private university where official quotas would not apply). Many
Chinese, of course, are aware of the complexity of the situation confronting the government and are willing to grant good intentions on the part
of leaders of both ethnic communities. Nonetheless, seeing both sides of
the issues involved does not simplify the personal choices a Chinese may
have to make in his own interests or those of his family. One successful
Sanchun Hakka entrepreneur employs both Malays and Indians as well
as Chinese in his enterprises, is personally friendly with a number of
Malays, and defends them both as individuals and as a group in
discussions with other Chinese. Pragmatically, however, he notes quotas
and fears future trends, and so makes plans to educate his sons in English
and send them to Australia or New Zealand where he feels they will
enjoy fuller lives.

Subethnic

categories

among Chinese and Malays: Contrasting
Forms and Meanings

A cogent analysis of Malay subethnicity by Judith Nagata (I974) provides a valuable opportunity for comparison of two ethnic groups which
stand in strikingly different relation to the single national power structure that encompasses them both. Like the Chinese, Malays are in fact a
mixed bag, comprising groups of diverse geographical origin and cultural heritage. The principles of fragmentation, however, are too irregular and variable to fall legitimately under the rubric of complementary
segmentation. Nagata notes that a number of different identifying
criteria are in use in Malaysia, but the most salient definition of a
'Malay' is that provided by the federal constitution. It is purely cultural:
a Malay is a Muslim, habitually speaks the Malay language, and follows
Malay adat, or customary law (Nagata 1974: 335)
Of the various subethnic categories (sukubangsa)of Malayness, peoples
stemming from different local places in Malaya and Indonesia differ
only minimally, though the diverse range of historical Indian and
Arabic influences on separate indigenous groups has not been totally
inconsequential. Two additional 'Malay' groups are treated at greater
length in Nagata's analysis: those who in some contexts consider them-

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selves either Arabs or 'Klings' (Indian or Pakistani Muslims), regardless
of generational depth of residence in Malaysia.
There is at first glance an apparent parallel between the subethnic
conceptualizations within the two major Malaysian ethnic groups.
'Chinese' as an inclusive term encompasses Hokkiens, Cantonese,
Hakkas, etc., and at finer levels of discrimination, Szeyap Cantonese, or
Toisan Szeyaps. 'Malays' include Kelantanese,
Minangkabau,
Javanese, etc., as well as Arabs and some Indians and Pakistanis (those
who are Muslim). The models differ, however, in two very significant
respects, the first relating to the conceptual structure of subethnicity,
and the second to the ineluctable role of political interest and power as
they inform ethnic processes.
Malayness in its broadest sense is ultimately defined in religious terms;
in Malaysia, Muslims are Malays. Thus Arabs and Klings are in one
sense, as Muslims, 'Malays.' But in another meaning, pertaining to lines
of descent, Arabs and Klings are not Malays, they are Arabs and Klings.
Nagata points out that Malaysian Muslims can and do situationally
choose to label themselves according to reference groups varying along
three dimensions: I) simple comparison (statements of social distance or
solidarity), 2) immediate expediency, and 3) normative statements
An
(claims regarding comparative values of social status) (I974:340).
Arab or a Kling can have his or her cake and eat it too. Nagata cites
examples of Arabs in a given situation claiming greater ritual purity by
explicitly contrasting themselves to 'those Malays,' while members of
several sukubangsa,including Arabs, when making claims on government largess, refer to themselves as 'we Malays.' Some individuals are
seen to oscillate freely back and forth between identities, with no apparent negative consequences psychologically or socially. On the contrary,
Nagata suggests that such oscillation may be adaptive both personally
and socially

(1974:333).

The Chinese case differs significantly. The inclusive category in the
Chinese model can never be contrasted against one of its subcategories
in any context: being Hakka or Cantonese never stands in opposition to
being Chinese, for one is always both simultaneously. A Chinese oscillating between higher and lower order categories of identification is not
likely to suffer psychological strains because for him, unlike a similarly
flexible Arab or Kling, there is in any case no real contradiction
involved. Increasingly, it appears, the lower order categories are more
vestigial than functionally meaningful, at least in rural communities
such as Sanchun. Personal familiarity within the community and the
stability of daily life have both grown over time, and the predictability

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that was once provided by tongxiang categories is now available in
equally reliable categories of 'Sanchun Chinese' versus, e.g., 'Ipoh
Chinese,' categories that imply simply 'we' versus 'they' rather than
differentiation that can legitimately be termed ethnic. Similar patterns
have not necessarily evolved in the urban setting, however, where life
holds greater social complexity. Recent work in Singapore indicates that
subethnic divisions there are as important now in determining social,
occupational and political affiliation as they were in earlier times (Hsieh
I977). But Singapore, being predominantly Chinese and politically
independent, lacks the impetus toward broader Chinese unity that is
inherent in Malaysia's communal politics.
The intimate connection between ethnic groups and formal political
groups in Malaysia persists by design rather than by accident. The
original tripartite Alliance government formed at independence comprised the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the
Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). There have been a few earnest attempts to organize
interethnic parties based on shared ideology rather than shared ethnicity, but these parties have either folded owing to lack of support, or
gradually come to be identified largely with one group or another,
fitting tacitly into the communally based political system. Some of them
have joined the government party expanded in 1974 and now known as
the National Front (Barisan Nasional).
The opposition Malay and Chinese parties, interestingly enough,
base their opposition on contrasting themes. The pro-Malay extremist
party, taking a very particularistic focus of dissent, criticizes UMNO for
not being sufficiently adamant in defending the faith, yielding too much
to the infidels in the government partnership. Chinese-based opposition
parties, both the legal socialists and the illegal communists, focus instead
on more universalistic issues of political representation and economic
distribution. Class divisions exist within both ethnic groups, but to date
at least, Malay leaders have been able to call on traditional loyalties to
Islam and to the Sultans as religious leaders to mute some of the
discontent that is growing between the rulers and the ruled. The ideological appeal of religious affiliation combines with the pragmatic political
advantage to be gained from identifying with the strong government
party both to unite diverse subethnic categories under the rubric of
'Malay' and to minimize the import of internal class divisions.
The Chinese leaders within the government, however, are caught in a
political dilemma, for they are asked to win unified support among their
ethnic constituency for government policies, yet are denied effective

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means of soliciting unity. Most Chinese leaders hold that by strength of
numbers a united Chinese community would be able to maintain a
stable balance vis-d-vis Malay political power, and both class and
subethnic divisions, some of which correspond to a certain extent, are
actively suppressed in favor of pan-Chinese solidarity. Hokkien leaders,
for example, who have long been educated in English and have represented Chinese capitalist interests in the MCA are now making an effort
to learn Mandarin, the language of the Chinese primary schools of
Malaysia, to strengthen their bid for support among Chinese workers and
villagers. The dilemma arises from the fact that the UMNO-dominated
government appears to be more interested in unquestioning allegiance
than in a real balance among constitutent parties, for the Barisan
Nasional is widely recognized to be a very unequal partnership. While
UMNO uses blatantly ethnic appeals to its Malay followers (see, e.g.
Rogers I975), Chinese leaders find that ethnic appeals to Chinese
solidarity bring Malay charges of Chinese chauvinism, which implicitly
encompass questions of national loyalty versus subversive communism
(see Strauch 1976, I978). Moreover, the presence within the government of several Chinese-based parties, who despite public claims to the
contrary are strong rivals rather than allies (Strauch 1980, Lee 1977),
inevitably undermines whatever potential there might be for Chinese
unity as such, and instead the Chinese community retreats in confusion
and internal dissension, held to the low political profile that is most
satisfactory in the eyes of its Malay 'partner'.

Conclusions
The social meanings of ethnicity, as the Malaysian case demonstrates,
are many and varied. Not all ethnic units are directly comparable. Some
are ethnic groups, implying a sense of shared interest or purpose, and
some are merely ethnic categories,implying a commonality of identity
that offers a measure of comfort and relaxation, perhaps, but little
concrete benefit beyond that. The behavioral boundaries that define an
entity that clearly acts as an ethnic group at one point in time may at
another time, with little or no change in shape or form, enclose not a
group but a category. As we have seen, the Chinese tongxianggroups of
the past have, in some situations at least, come to be tongxiangcategories
instead. Behavioral boundaries may, on the other hand, reconstitute
themselves to admit new categories to an inclusive group without
changing the label that is applied, as we see in the case of the most

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MULTIPLE

ETHNICITIES

IN MALAYSIA

259

inclusive order of Malay identity. Or totally new boundaries may come
into prominence as lower order categories/groupsjoin together to form a
higher order entity that is the sum of the parts, as in the inclusive Chinese
identity/category/group.

The building blocks of ethnicity may be givens, irreducibles, but the
combinations and permutations yielding meaningful forms with which
to structure personal and political lives that emerge in concrete situations ofinterethnic interaction display a versatility that belies the notion
of a 'given.' Nonetheless, there are limits. And in the final analysis the
limits are set by power and by group interests. In Malaysia, the ultimate
goal of a true 'Malaysian' identity that is either the sum of its parts or
a reconstitution of old boundaries into a more inclusive form acceptable
to all, along with a concomitant reduction of constitutent groups to
categories, remains for the present, at least, well beyond reach.

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