By Rita Sim
Published in The New Straits Times, 1 December 2011.
Chinese in Sarawak trod a different path
SARAWAK and Sabah have always had a social and political landscape quite different from that of the peninsula. Rarely is their behaviour modelled upon racial or tribal divides. This includes the Chinese community there.
In Sarawak, the Chinese are the second largest ethnic group after the main Iban tribe.
Historically, trade and tribute relations between Sarawak and China can be traced to the Sui (581CE-618CE) and Tang (618CE-907CE) dynasties. But the Chinese only began establishing a settlement in the mid-18th century with the arrival of the Hakka gold-mining pioneers.
The numbers remained small until the beginning of the 20th century when Chinese immigrants were brought in to open up land for commercial agriculture. The first large Chinese settlement was in Sibu, known as New Fuzhou as the immigrants were mainly from China’s Fuzhou province.
Later, agents were appointed to recruit indentured Chinese labour for the coalmines and oilfields in Miri. These labourers were mainly Hakka and Cantonese, with a smaller number of Teochews and Hainanese.
Many Chinese also came to Sarawak as wage-earning workers, those looking for general business opportunities and those who wanted to venture into the mining industry. Thus wealth creation in the community had a head start, unlike in the Peninsula, where most Chinese came as indentured labour.
Class composition, and therefore priorities, differed vastly.
Also, being far removed from the politics of the Peninsula, Sarawak Chinese are much more focused on local politics.
But there are significant exceptions. When it comes to ethnic culture and education, the Sarawak Chinese behave protectively, as the Chinese-educated would in the Peninsula.
It is worth underscoring that the Brooke administration of Sarawak gave wide and open acknowledgement to the Chinese there for strengthening the state’s economy. Indeed, the Chinese pioneered most towns in Sarawak.
Comfortable with this recognition, the Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP) was formed in 1959 despite a slowing down of immigration in the 1950s in response to government policies.
Thereafter, the Chinese population in Sarawak grew only by natural increase. The 2008 census shows the population of Sarawak to be 2.45 million, of which 25 per cent is Chinese.
Founded mainly by leftists and working-class Chinese, the SUPP, a member of the ruling Barisan Nasional, evolved to being the main political entity representing Chinese interest in Sarawak.
Their visibility and clout was well known until the Sarawak state election of April 2011. BN made significant losses, while the DAP doubled the number of seats it held.
Worth noting is that the DAP used local figures in the election, not imported individuals from the Peninsula. This showed regard for the constituents and ensured that they were being addressed in a manner familiar to them.
The election changed the landscape of who represented the Chinese in Sarawak.
That said, all Sarawak Chinese are proud of their state, and do not necessarily identify fully with peninsular Chinese.
Commercially, it is worth noting that Sarawak Chinese are the biggest group next to the indigenous Iban, and significantly, are largely affluent.
It is also crucial to remember that some peninsular trends do not apply. One example is the concept of 1Malaysia. While all communities in the peninsula try to balance reality and ideology, all Sarawakians live 1Malaysia already.
Many are thoroughly flummoxed as to why a policy should be constructed to create belonging and an ability to see beyond ethnicity.
Being geographically apart from Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak and its people have developed a greater sense of state. For example, locals have more interest in the state’s politics.
However, increased travel between Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak has meant that there are more Sarawakians in the Peninsula today, bringing about greater interaction. According to Chua Hiong Kee in “Towards Building an Inclusive Malaysian Chinese Society: A Sarawak Perspective”, however, this interaction has a long way to go.
Still, for commercial purposes, it is worth noting that Sarawakian Chinese are the biggest group next to the indigenous Iban, and significantly, are largely affluent.
The above excerpt is from the writer’s book, Unmistakably Chinese, Genuinely Malaysian