A scholar of the Chinese exodus chronicles a difficult journey that reshaped Southeast Asia
WANG GUNGWU was born in Indonesia in 1930 to migrant parents descended from “literati” families that had experienced trauma after the fall of the Qing dynasty, which coincided with the final dissolution of China’s empire. His father left to teach young Chinese in the maritime world of Nan Yang (“Southern Ocean”) – Southeast Asia. The parents first went to British Malaya and then Dutch Java, before moving with young Gungwu to British-controlled Ipoh, Malaysia, where his father worked as an inspector of Chinese schools.
Nan Yang (also called “The Great Golden Peninsula” by many) has experienced three waves of migrants from China, many floating down the Mekong river from Yunnan in search of a better life as traders and workers. The 17th-century fall of the Ming dynasty triggered the first wave, while the second wave fled the murderous oppression of the Manchu dynasty. The latest wave saw people from all over China escape 20th-century political disorder, economic stagnation, civil war and then communist rule.
Wang’s “Nanyang: Essays on Heritage” adapts talks he gave to mark special occasions, including memorial lectures celebrating giants of Asian scholarship and nation-building. Though accessible, the book will mainly interest scholars, journalists and civil-society actors. Its highlights help us understand the Chinese diaspora’s role in birthing of half a dozen nation-states and a city-state that still struggle toward affluence and modernisation, including coming to terms with internal minorities. Thailand gets barely a mention in the essays, despite its instructive history of Chinese migration, discrimination, adaptation and, finally, power.
The regionally respected historian is largely upbeat about Southeast Asia’s legal, social and economic progress, including growing respect and accommodation for the local Chinese communities that were once subject to personal and official prejudice, particularly in the early years of the newly independent states. The Chinese minority have proved themselves useful to the economic growth of the new nations and some are now facilitating investment and trade with the increasingly dominant regional power – China.
“Dividing empires into new nations was a major political gift of modernity in Southeast Asia,” the now octogenarian Wang writes in “Nanyang”, the 25th book written, edited or co-edited by him. “My parents talked about the Dutch, the British and the Japanese empires incessantly when I was a boy,” he says.
The essays reflect on Wang’s previous academic research and contributions, including China’s tribute-based and wide-ranging empire under five dynasties, the migration of Chinese to Southeast Asia and their attempt to fit in and excel among dominant local cultures while maintaining the core values of their own traditions, and the political and cultural transformation of the region as European empires receded and new states struggled into existence.
A book highlight details the build-up to the British exit from what is now Malaysia and Singapore and the ensuing different, but complementary paths taken by the resulting nation-state and city-state. After World War II, the British ramped up their plan for a durable united Malaya encompassing the Malay ethnic and religious heartland, along with the port of Singapore and the states of Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei on Borneo (Brunei eventually chose independent statehood).
The British, hoping to maintain commercial interests and influence post-independence, worked toward what Wang calls a “Malaya imaginary” – a democratic, capitalist, multicultural nation-state. They forged a three-pronged strategy for state-building. Economically, capital came mainly from abroad, while labour was divided among longstanding local communities and migrants. Sound management was reflected through law and order, infrastructure investment, peaceful communal relations, healthcare and literacy. Finally, centralisation saw Singapore and Kuala Lumpur controlling the people and property. This last dimension included legalising the use of force using local talent, slow and steady introduction of non-British and local participation in administration, and educating local elites in English-language schools and elite regional state schools.
Wang details the daring hopefulness and the probably inevitable dashing of the dream of a unified Malaya. The Chinese majority in Malayan Singapore, along with those in Penang and Malacca, watched developments closely as they hoped for a better deal, and a brighter future for coming generations after independence.
In unity negotiations, Singapore, with its large Chinese population, made explicit its vision for a nation anchored in power-sharing within a diverse multicultural state that treated all citizens as equal regardless of their ethic origins or communal identities. “Once stated baldly and with fervour, alarm bells began to ring in KL,” writes Wang of Singaporean ambitions. The Malay establishment had a counter-dream of Tanah Melayu, anchored in a Malay Islamic nation-state, reflecting the European model of dominance by a single ethnicity.
And so Chinese-majority Singapore in August 1965 left Malaysia’s orbit in search of prosperity for all its residents. We are familiar with its phenomenal economic success, relative internal harmony and respect from regional states. We also know of its lack of core rights to free speech, immature democracy and tight control by business interests – yet Wang avoids that discussion.
Wang argues that Singapore followed the British blueprint to success. Malaysia largely succeeded despite only partially adopting it, he also argues, due to early ethnic divisions, anti-Chinese prejudice and poor leadership – all of which can be overcome.
Fair enough, but recent demonstrations demanding more privileges for dominant Malay Muslims, combined with murderously violent Muslim extremism targeting Chinese and Christians in Indonesia, give pause.
And now, some the descendants of traders and merchants who fled China for Nanyang are coming full circle and throwing in their economic lot with the rising giant, an increasingly confident one-party state with a seductive and surging pace of economic growth.
Having re-engaged internationally through the United Nations and trade, Wang says, China has followed a moderate path and wants to be viewed as a responsible and great nation. To succeed, China must avoid mistakes made by many newly independent colonies, he writes, but must not duplicate the European national aggression of the 19th century and the more recent “revolutionary impulse to determine the regime changes of other nations”.
Wang’s view is that China is, overall, making the right choices: “My study of Chinese history suggests that the lesson has been learnt, that China’s acceptance of international norms comes not only from national interest but is also influenced by the system of political and social values that had shaped its relations with Southeast Asia for more than 2,000 years.”
Perhaps. But China’s neighbours can see past the seductive yuan to its increasingly nationalistic policies and bullying rhetoric, and it’s good to remember that Chinese citizens are denied the democratic rights that “Nanyang” countries offer to varying degrees.
For all the strengths Wang brings to his telling of history, the narrator wears rose-coloured spectacles when discussing his chosen homeland, Singapore, and as he looks to the emerging behemoth that has grown from the soil his ancestors once trod – and left.
Nanyang: Essays on Heritage
By Wang Gungwu
Published by Iseas Publishing, 2018
Available at major bookshops, Bt866