Chinese Immigrant Society
Not many Malaysians today realise that the majority of the early Chinese immigrants to Malaya were the underclass of society then.
With no rights and no money to protect them, the Chinese immigrants were an extremely vulnerable section of society. They were not citizens and therefore it was easy to get away with abusing them or to take advantage of them, as they would get no legal recourse or protection from the government. Many of them arrived with only the clothes on their backs, having given their last copper coins or borrowed heavily to pay for passage to Malaya, so there was no way to get home if things turned sour – which it often did. It was a make or break, “get rich or die trying” choice for many of the Chinese who came to Malaya.
Chinese immigrants could be broadly divided into the educated classes and the uneducated classes. But the majority of the Chinese immigrants were from the uneducated classes, recruited to work mainly in the tin mines and construction sector.
A. THE UNEDUCATED CLASSES
It was a hard life for many of these people. Instead of rich prospects they expected, many were subject to the life of indentured labourers – little more than slaves. For the towkays and Tuans, the masses of desperate Chinese immigrants arriving on Malayan shores was a godsend because it ensured a never ending supply of cheap labour. And these people PAID FOR THEMSELVES to come to Malaya to work.
But instead of leading a better life, many Chinese lived a hard and dangerous life. Labour laws did not apply back then. You either did the work at whatever pay the boss wanted to give you, or you could find your own way and figure out a way how to get out of your massive immigration debts yourself. Safety was also the labourers own responsibility as the bosses had little economic incentive to safeguard their workers.
So instead of moving up in society, many Chinese found they had stumbled into another society where they remained at the bottom. Their situation was made worse since they were far from home and family support, and had no chance of turning back. This sense of uprootedness and helplessness gave rise to many social problems as many Chinese chose to take out their frustrations in various ways – fights, family abuse, opium addiction, gambling, drunkenness, prostitution, etc.
But there were also many who didn't give in to despair and continued to hope for a better life. These Chinese immigrants quickly learnt to practise the Confucian values of adaptation and quiet submission to minimise their society's negative impact on their lives. At the same time, they patiently and diligently did their work and kept a sharp eye out for any opportunity that might arise. When opportunity did arise, they were ready and quick to grab it. Several of these people would later rise to become the new tycoons of Malaya. Lim Goh Tong is one of the most notable among these people – he was nothing more than a mere construction worker when he arrived from China.
Despite the social problems, the Chinese community was still left to fend for themselves by the authorities. Being non-citizens, they were of no interest to them unless their unrest spilled outside of their own communities. So the task of maintaining order fell onto the shoulders of the Chinese themselves. Thus, the Chinese immigrants community was forced to evolve its own social structure.
But more on that topic later.
B. THE EDUCATED CLASSES
Many from the educated classes - scholars, teachers, artists, doctors, traders etc – also migrated to Malaya to escape the unrest in China. Some came on humanitarian grounds because they saw a need to support the immigrants who had come before. Some came to take advantage of the opportunities their skills would open up for them among the immigrant Chinese community.
Whatever their motives, this class of people played a major role in developing Chinese immigrant society. They provided education, healthcare, entertainment, employment opportunities and civic leadership, which helped bring about stability within the community.
Most of the uneducated immigrants held these people in high regard, especially teachers, as they saw that they were subject to a life of hardship because of their illiteracy. Back in China, education was an extremely valuable commodity that was out of reach of the peasants. Traditionally, an education would open the doors to 2 main career paths – business or civil service (and these two paths frequently intermingled). Whichever path one chose, it was a way to riches and success. And those who were illiterate were often intimidated by the educated classes, who cheated them with unfair contracts, kangaroo courts and such abuse that took advantage of their ignorance.
It was hard for most at the bottom-of-the-foodchain to afford an education in China. And most coolies and peasants had to have every available hand in the family working to survive – so few could afford to let go of their children to go to school. What made it more difficult was their social standing – the poor were very aware of their place in society and even if they could afford it, it would be extremely difficult to be enrolled in a school as they would be looked down upon. So societal rules effectively kept the poor uneducated in their place.
But in Malaya, the Chinese had a fighting chance to access education. Chinese societal rules were not so entrenched in the immigrant society. Many poor parents worked hard and sacrificed much in order to afford the school fees so that their children could have an education.
Because with even a basic education, their children could at least have a chance to access better opportunities. Even entry level employment such as becoming clerks or shop assistants was a a far better deal than what their parents had to accept. Although many children did not or could not complete their studies, it was a typical parents' dream to have their children study to as high a level as possible, so that they could access more opportunities.
To this day, education is still a major issue among Malaysian Chinese. The same attitude of their immigrant forefathers has been deeply driven into the psyche of many 2nd and 3rd generation of Malaysian Chinese (especially those from Chinese-stream schools). That's why many Malaysian Chinese parents will willingly sell or re-mortgage their homes, take up part-time jobs or businesses, or borrow money to pay for their children's education.
Ask any typical Malaysian Chinese parent - they will expect nothing less than excellent exam results from their children. And the rationale for this still remains the same – “study hard, get a good qualification so that you can have a better life than your parents, and your parents will do whatever it takes to support you”.