Chinese of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines

Name: Overseas Chinese
Alternative names: Nanyang
Location: throughout South-East Asia
Population: Malaysia 4,816,000; Indonesia 3,922,000; Philippines 692,000 (1981)
% of population: Malaysia 34.5%; Indonesia 2.6%; Philippines 1.4%
Religion: Mahayana Buddhism; rituals connected with veneration of ancestors
Language: Mandarin, Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese

There are people of ethnic Chinese origin in all South-East Asian countries, most of whom are the descendants of those who migrated there in the nineteenth century, although some communities are considerably older. They are a minority in every country with the exception of the island state of Singapore where they form 77% of the population and are the dominant community, politically and economically. From 1979 the large-scale movement of “boat people”, many of them Chinese, into Malaysian and Indonesian waters has both heightened sensitivities on race relations there, especially in Malaysia, and created the genesis of a new underprivileged Chinese minority.


The Chinese have been migrating southward from China for centuries, driven from their homeland by economic necessity, political disturbance, flood and drought. As early as the fourth century AD Chinese traders were settling in Sumatra, and during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they were engaging in considerable maritime activity, travelling as farafield as East Africa. During the seventeenth century the Chinese population in Siam (Thailand) grew rapidly and many Chinese became highly assimilated, in some cases losing mastery of their own language.

The main wave of Chinese immigration into South-East Asia began just over a century ago at a time of colonial domination and economic development throughout the region, resulting in a demand for cheap imported labour — largely Chinese but also from the Indian sub-continent. For many Chinese, migration was not at first intended to be permanent, and many left their families in China. However, in most cases settlement did become permanent and there was frequent intermarriage with indigenous women. Most descendants of these immigrants did not speak Chinese and absorbed a high degree of the indigenous culture. The situation altered in the twentieth century when Chinese women began to migrate in significant numbers. Parity between the sexes was reached in 1930, and as a result mixed marriages became much less common and Chinese language and culture were preserved to a much greater extent. Large-scale Chinese immigration came to a halt in the early 1930s during the worldwide economic depression and the controls imposed at that time remained in place after it ended. The effect of war and independence restricted immigration still further. As a result the proportion of locally born Chinese has risen steadily and today is probably around 85% of the Chinese population in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Overseas Chinese have formed a number of voluntary associations such as speech-group associations, sports clubs, occupation groups and chambers of commerce, which provide their communities with schools, health and recreational facilities. Voluntary associations have replaced the powerful clans or descent groups of China which were often very wealthy and protected their members, caring for older members, mediating in disputes and paying burial expenses. The Chinese immigrant will usually be met on arrival in a new country by a representative of the appropriate group and will be helped to establish himself in work and to find accommodation. In the larger Chinese communities there is a temple or ancestral hall which becomes the focus for community life. Thus in areas with large Chinese communities and the minimum of intermarriage the Chinese community remains exclusive and traditional in outlook.

Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia are all new states established after World War II. All three shared the experience of Japanese invasion and occupation during the war, and although many factors divide the countries, the indigenous cultures and languages have much in common. Each country experienced different colonial regimes and different transitions to independence and as a result they have inherited different forms of government and different laws governing citizenship. The distinction between the Chinese born in South-East Asia and those born in China is important for reasons of nationality status, nationality being acquired either by birth or by naturalization.

In all three countries the Chinese have experienced a degree of economic success out of all proportion to their numbers, many of them being involved in commerce and many others being small traders. This success has aroused the antagonism of a large number of poor Indonesians, Filipinos and Malays. The loyalties of the Chinese have also been questioned, especially during the upheavals in China and the communist insurrections in South-East Asia. As a result South-East Asian nationalism has been directed against the Chinese as much as against Western capitalism, and Chinese have had to struggle for equal treatment and have not been granted citizenship as a right. In each country the laws governing citizenship have been altered several times during the past 50 years, usually in response to changing relations between the host country and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Whereas in Islamic Indonesia and Malaysia there was little inducement for the Chinese to assimilate into indigenous society, there was much assimilation in the Philippines.


Before 1960 dual nationality was legally accepted in Indonesia but by 1962 it had become established that an Indonesian Chinese could be either Indonesian or a Chinese national, but not both; the law was complicated by a regulation prohibiting aliens from retail trading in rural areas. At least two-thirds of the Chinese with dual nationality accepted Indonesian citizenship and between 1960 and 1962 600,000-800,000 Chinese became or were confirmed as Indonesian citizens. Perhaps as many as 100,000 others left Indonesia for China, but many were unable to secure a passage to China and were forced to remain in various Indonesian cities without jobs, since as aliens they were not permitted to work.

Following the attempted coup of 1965 the Chinese fell under suspicion once again. Thousands are reported to have been killed, although exact numbers are impossible to establish. (This however was only a small proportion of the total numbers killed, most of whom were Indonesians from Java and Bali. Chinese were not special targets.) Diplomatic relations between Indonesia and the PRC were broken in 1967, Chinese schools were closed and measures were taken to restrict Chinese businesses. Many thousands of Chinese left Indonesia for China or elsewhere. The treaty governing nationality was rescinded in 1969 and thereafter citizenship could only be acquired by naturalization, which was a much slower process.

In 1980 there was a new drive to naturalize the one million remaining alien Chinese — 900,000 of whom were PRC citizens and 120,000 classified as “stateless” — in a bid to eradicate the nationality problem and secure the loyalty of the Chinese community. The government has also espoused a policy of assimilation and Chinese are encouraged to adopt Indonesian names and to intermarry with indigenous Indonesians.

Assimilation has been easier in some Indonesian islands than in others. In strongly Islamic Sumatra and Kalimantan (Borneo), for instance, where a higher proportion of Chinese are China-born and where the prosperous Chinese communities of Singapore and Malaysia loom large, anti-Chinese prejudice remains strong. In Medan in Sumatra in 1972 there were about 5,000 Chinese refugees who were forcibly expelled from their homes in Banda Atjeh in northern Sumatra during army and Muslim-led violence in 1966 which resulted in several hundred deaths. Other Chinese returned to the Banda Atjeh area apparently without problems. There has also been considerable violence in West Kalimantan region, when Dayaks turned on a largely rural Chinese community in retaliation for the murder of Dayaks by ethnic Chinese communist guerrillas in 1967. About 1,000 Chinese were killed and over 60,000 were forced to flee to coastal centres. However these people have adapted to their new circumstances as did those 17,000 Chinese who were cleared from a remote region by the Indonesian army in 1971 in order to end guerrilla incursions from Sarawak.

The position of Indonesian Chinese has improved considerably in the last 20 years. They are a relatively prosperous community and a small number are very wealthy. Some private schools now teach Mandarin in addition to the standard Indonesian curriculum, many Chinese children attend private schools and Chinese students at one stage probably held about 10% of university places although the Chinese comprise less than 3% of the population. More preference has been given to ethnic Indonesian students recently, however, and as a result since the 1970s many more Chinese students enrolled at private universities such as the Protestant university in Djakarta, while others are educated at universities outside Indonesia.


Malaysia is multi-ethnic and has the second highest proportion of ethnic Chinese of any South-East Asian state. The main ethnic groups are Malays — about 50%, Chinese about 35% and Indians about 10%. In Malaysia any person born in the territory after September 1962 is entitled to citizenship provided he or she was not born the citizen of another country and provided at least one of his or her parents was at the time of the birth a citizen of the Federation of Malaya or permanently resident in it. By virtue of this law and previous citizenship legislation almost all Chinese in the Federation are Malaysian citizens.

Citizenship does not mean Chinese citizens have equal rights with indigenous Malayans, however. The high proportion of Chinese, their relative wealth as a community and the proximity of ethnic-Chinese Singapore have fuelled fears of the ethnic Malays of Chinese domination. There is also suspicion of Chinese loyalties and the role of thousands of Chinese communist sympathizers during the Malayan emergency in the 1950s has not been forgotten. The crucial point came after race riots in May 1969 in Kuala Lumpur in which over 100 people died and which led to the suspension of parliamentary government and the imposition of emergency rule for two years. The government, headed by the largest ethnic Malay party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), formulated its New Economic Policy (NEP), the professed target of which was to eliminate poverty, regardless of race, but which had as a target that 30% of equity capital in all businesses should be in Malay hands by 1990. The government was required to safeguard the special position of the Malays — bumiputras — and to ensure the reservation for Malays of what was considered to be a reasonable proportion of public service positions, scholarships, university places and trade or business permits and licences. Quotas limiting the proportion of non-Malays admitted to higher education have now driven many Chinese into study overseas, and Chinese voting-power, potentially considerable, has been curtailed by the redistribution of electoral boundaries in favour of rural constituencies — where Malays are better represented — rather than urban constituencies.

In the 1980s there were reports of growing ethnic tensions between the various communities, but to date these have not resulted in disturbances along the lines of 1969. Recession has increased unemployment and, therefore, competition between groups, while the growth of Islamic fundamentalism among some sections of the Malay community has led to fears among non-Muslims of the extension of Islamic personal laws to non-Muslims (presently personal Islamic law is applied only to Muslims). However, given the consensus nature of Malaysian parliamentary rule this seems unlikely. In 1987 an Education Ministry decision to promote non-Mandarin speakers to Chinese primary schools led to protests and a threatened school boycott by Chinese. The government responded by making over 100 arrests of opposition leaders under the Internal Security Act, including many ethnic Chinese, on the grounds that racial harmony was threatened; however critics maintain that this was not so and see the arrests as evidence of growing authoritarianism in Malaysia.

The Philippines

In the Philippines the Chinese community is much smaller in number, and proportionately, than in either Indonesia or Malaysia. Discrimination against Chinese is comparatively rare as they do not constitute any sort of threat to the indigenous community. In the nineteenth century, the Chinese of mixed ancestry (mestizos) were forced out of the wholesale and retail trade by the new Chinese immigrants and into landholding and the production of export crops. As a result their lifestyles became closer to those of indigenous Filipinos than to those of the ethnic Chinese. By the turn of the century the majority of Chinese mestizos had been absorbed into Filipino society, and many members of the country’s elite today can claim Chinese ancestry.

Under the constitution adopted in 1973 citizenship was granted to those who were Philippine-born and their descendants and to those who had been naturalized “by decree”. Over 38,000 applications (representing perhaps 120,000 people) for naturalization were received by mid-1976, the majority from Chinese. By 1978, 21,000 applicants had been naturalized.