Why are the Malaysian Chinese so rich

The Chinese "Bamboo Network"

Some Chinese families have lived in the region for centuries, while others came only a generation or two ago. In the 19th century in particular, many people left China. At that time the empire was in decline, plagued by uprisings and poverty. The British colonial rulers encouraged the settlement of the Chinese in the region, used them in mines and on plantations because they were considered to be particularly hardworking. Most of the immigrants from the Middle Kingdom were poverty-stricken. Many made a middle-class existence as traders or employees. Very few became very rich, but most of the region's billionaires are of Chinese descent. Robert Kuok, for example, currently Malaysia's richest man. His father emigrated south from the Chinese province of Fujian at the beginning of the 20th century. The Shangri-La Hotels belong to Kuok's empire, and he also makes his living in financial transactions, cane sugar, palm oil and petroleum.

To this day, Malaysia's Chinese mostly live in large cities, which also connects them with their distant relatives in the surrounding countries. And it explains, at least in part, their success. While the Malays are traditionally more at home as farmers in the country, the Chinese had an urban culture much earlier, and education is a high priority in families. In addition, common origins, language and clan affiliation connect across borders. This “bamboo network” spans the entire region, with connections to Europe, America and of course China, from whose economic recovery the diaspora also benefits.

For a long time Southeast Asian politicians saw the Chinese as the “fifth column” of Mao's communist dictatorship, but at the same time they seemed to embody the enemy of the greedy, ruthless capitalist. In Vietnam, after the reunification of the country in 1976, many were arrested and expropriated as "bourgeois elements", accompanied by rhetoric that the magazine "U.S.A. News & World Report “reminded of the anti-Jewish propaganda of the Nazis.

In 1998 almost 1200 people died in Indonesia

In 1997, many across the region blamed the Chinese for the Asian crisis. The situation was particularly dramatic in Indonesia, which suffered from mass unemployment and where food was becoming scarce. The market dominance of the Chinese minority is particularly pronounced there to this day. Although the Chinese make up only three percent of the population, according to the British magazine “Management Today” three quarters of the most important corporations are Chinese-owned - and the tycoons, for reasons of self-protection, got on well with dictator Mohamed Suharto, who in turn needed them to keep the economy of the island kingdom alive.

What happened in the capital Jakarta and elsewhere in Indonesia in May 1998 is reminiscent of Malaysia three decades earlier. Looters broke into shops and homes in the Chinese neighborhoods, suspected of having large reserves of food and valuables. Rioters raped women, set fire to buildings and demolished cars. Almost 1200 people died. Unlike in Kuala Lumpur, the majority of the dead were not Chinese, but the looters themselves, trapped in burning houses. In the months before the sinophobic riots, the country had already fallen into a deep political crisis, after which dictator Suharto had to resign for good. His son-in-law is said to have organized a pogrom beforehand.

Mahathir bin Mohammad in power

In Malaysia, too, the anti-Chinese riots in 1969 had political consequences. With the declaration of the state of emergency on May 14th, the situation calmed down, later there were more curfews, and it wasn't until 1971 that the country returned to normal. The government finally launched the “New Economic Policy”, which in principle still applies today. Malays are now even more favored. Quotas are designed to help them become more economically successful. At listed companies, for example, at least 30 percent of the employees must be indigenous, government contracts are often only awarded to them.

In 1981 Mahathir bin Mohammad came to power, a hardliner on the ethnic issue. He ran the country autocratically and economically successfully until 2003. It is his declared aim to instill ascension and pride in the Malays. To this day, Malaysia has never experienced a bloody conflict like the “May 13th Incident” again.

In 2018, the now 92-year-old Mahathir will again be premier. The role of the Chinese minority is not the topic, but the increasingly powerful empire in the neighborhood. One of Mahathir's first official acts: the halt of several major projects with Beijing.

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