By Saiful Bahri Kamaruddin
Pix Shahiddan Saidi
BANGI, 13 June 2012 – There is a high-profile movement in Malaysia for the promotion of state-sponsored Chinese-language education unlike in many other countries with large Chinese minorities.
An American anthropologist who has been doing research on Malaysian Chinese since 1978, Prof Sharon Carstens said in other countries, such as the United States, the ethnic Chinese do not demand education in Chinese at the expense of tax-payers and would readily assimilate into the English-language public school system.
It would be interesting to study this phenomena as it seems to be unique to Malaysia, she said in a talk on New Questions, New Directions in Malaysian Chinese Studies organised by the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA) at The National University of Malaysia (UKM) here yesterday.
Prof Carstens said Malaysian Chinese do not want to be known as “overseas Chinese”, a phrase coined by the British colonialists as they consider Malaysia their home.
Thus any research on Malaysian Chinese should not harp on the stereotypes such as whether Malaysian Chinese have divided loyalties or that they tend to work in family businesses.
Prof Carstens is currently Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at Portland State University, where she has taught since 1978. Her classes include courses on South-East Asia, China and Asian Americans.
Malaysian Chinese, she said, no longer see themselves as a Diaspora or having ties to China, thus overused and hackneyed methods of anthropology, such as looking for family ties to the ancestral land and similarities in dialects are less relevant in a globalised World.
New parameters of research needed to be applied instead of harping on stereotypes and clichés.
Modalities of studying any large minority group cannot stick to the old cliches of deliberately trying to find differences or conflicts within the observed society. Neither should the research look for connections with the land where the ancestors came from, because Malaysian Chinese do not actively seek out family ties in China.
She said many of the well-worn clichés about Malaysian Chinese are inaccurate, even if they are meant to be positive. One of them is that the local Chinese have an advantage in doing business with China.
The facts, however, showed that most of the trade between Malaysia and China are done by large multi-ethnic corporations or government-linked companies that bear no resemblance to the old family business.
Another well-worn cliché is that Malaysian Chinese who speak Mandarin can fit in well when they study at universities in China.
Prof Carstens said she and other researchers had done a poll of Malaysian Chinese undergraduates in China and found that most of them felt misunderstood by the mainlanders, even with Hokkien speakers. Instead, the Malaysian Chinese got along better with Hong Kong Chinese who mostly spoke English and Cantonese.
Another factor which makes it necessary to use new parameters in research is the fact that since 1970, rural-urban migration in Malaysia had more than doubled. This means that any study on ethnic differences should be more cautious, as more Malays had migrated to the cities and taken on jobs traditionally held by the Chinese.
She said the contrast of space and place, the environment, within the last forty years had made it necessary to take a fresh look at how ethnicity should be studied.
Globalisation has also changed the cultural scene so much in Malaysia and other South-East Asian nations, that many Malaysians, regardless of ethnicity, tend to be interested in Westernised ideas and icons.
It has complicated the dynamics of a multi-ethnic society so much so that new ways of studying culture should be implemented.
She said even within the present generation, there are differences in the mind-set of children and grandchildren and recommends more comparative work, more collaborative projects and more careful attention to issues of audience.