The designation Malaysians-Singaporeans reflects the common history shared by immigrants from what are now two independent states in southeast Asia, Malaysia and Singapore, which until 1965 formed one country of Malaysia. It is not uncommon to find residents of that region who were born in one of those two countries but who lived part of their life in the other. Thus, individuals who appear in Canadian census reports as Singaporean by citizenship or last place of residence may have been born in Malaysia or vice versa. Such commonality extends beyond demographics to a sense of single identity among many of the immigrants from Malaysia and Singapore and to shared institutions and associations, especially among students and religious groups.
Malaysia covers nearly 330,000 square kilometres and is divided into two distinct parts. West Malaysia – the heart of the country with its capital of Kuala Lumpur – is located on the southern half of the Malay peninsula. It is surrounded by the Straits of Malacca on the west and the South China Sea in the east. Beyond the South China Sea is East Malaysia, consisting of the states of Sarawak and Sabah along the northern shores of the island of Borneo. Because of its strategic location, Malaysia has traditionally commanded one of the major sea-lanes of the world.
Malaysia is an ethnically and linguistically diverse country. Of its 18.7 million inhabitants, only 8 million are Malays, 90 percent of whom live on the Malaysian peninsula in Malaysia itself as well as in extreme southern tip of neighbouring Thailand. The Malay language, which is now usually written in Roman script but still sometimes uses the Arabic script (Jawi), is close to Indonesian. The Malays are also distinguished by their adherence to Islam of the Sunni Muslim variety. Among the non-Malay inhabitants of Malaysia, the largest group include the Chinese (33 percent), who are concentrated in the country’s cities and towns.
Singapore is a small island state of only 618 square kilometres located off the southern coast of the Malaysian peninsula. Over three-quarters of its population of 3 million (1992) are ethnic Chinese, with the remainder consisting of Malays (14 percent) and South Asians (7 percent). Singapore’s religious composition is much more complex, with the vast majority of its people adhering to the variety of beliefs common among Chinese everywhere – Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Confucian philosophy, and Christianity (representing 18.7 percent of all of Singapore’s population). As well, about 16 percent of the inhabitants are Muslim (mostly Malays) and 4.9 percent Hindus (Tamils and other South Asian peoples).
Modern Malaysia came into being in the course of the nineteenth century, when Great Britain gradually gained control over several small states in the Malay peninsula (including Singapore). In 1909 these states were united to form the British protectorate of Malaya, with Singapore as its chief port and commercial centre. Under British rule, tin mining and rubber plantations were developed, and labourers were recruited to work in these enterprises. Chinese settlers were welcomed in the 1850s and several peoples from the Indian subcontinent between the 1880s and 1920. The indigenous population was largely divided between agricultural production and minor civil-service functions. The immigrants differed from the indigenous Malays not only by economic occupation but also in most aspects of culture, especially religion. The result was that intermarriage and even mixing in daily social life was minimal, so that each group lived a separate existence.
In 1957 the British granted independence to Malaysia, which initially included Singapore. In 1963 the states of Sabah and Sarawak in northern Borneo (East Malaysia) were added to the country. Despite the addition of these territories with their Malay and aboriginal (forestdwelling) inhabitants, and the secession of Singapore in 1965 with over 2 million Chinese, the Malays still only comprised just over half of the country’s population. The demographic situation made the Malays defensive about their political and economic status and highly conscious of their position as the “true” indigenous people, known locally as Bumiputra, or “sons of the soil.” In an attempt to increase their percentage of the population, the Malay-dominated government proscribed all further official immigration, including the Chinese refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia who landed in the 1970s and 1980s. The government has also tried to enhance the status of Malays.
Malaysia’s 1957 constitution guaranteed for the indigenous Malays a preferential political status, with Islam as the country’s official religion. The Malays are guaranteed preferential quotas in the political system and civil service, and they enjoy affirmative-action employment programs and access to training in universities at home and overseas. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1970s and 1980s has only reinforced religious and social divisions between Malays and non-Malays. The national language, Malay (Bahasa Malaysia), has since the 1970s been compulsory in state schools. Although Chinese and Indians are allowed to operate schools in their own vernaculars, this freedom does not equip their graduates to compete linguistically or socially with Malays for jobs in the public sector. Hence, at the same time that Malaysia’s economy was one of the fasting growing in mainland southeast Asia, government policy created a large number of educated Chinese and Indians whose career goals could not be fulfilled.
The result has been large-scale emigration abroad during the 1980s, with almost none of the emigrants being ethnic Malays. The Chinese from Malaysia go to nearby Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other countries in the region or to North America, Australia, and Europe. Most immigrants from Malaysia tend to take out citizenship in their new countries as soon as possible and show little interest in returning to Malaysia. For many Chinese, in particular, this represents a second or even third uprooting: from China to southeast Asia, and in some cases from Malaysia to a European country, before eventual settlement in Canada. Migration and marginality are thus built into the group’s recent historical experience, but place of birth usually provides the primary identity in most personal classifications.
Since Singapore seceded from Malaysia (1965), the small state has already managed to create a unique sense of national identity, while its economic growth has far outstripped that of its southeast Asian neighbours, giving it the status of a Newly Industrialising Country (NIC). In contrast to Malaysia, the social, political, and cultural tone of Singapore is set by the Chinese. Although the Malay minority in Singapore is allowed school instruction in its own language, communication in commerce and industry is in English and Mandarin Chinese. Since most young Singaporeans are bilingual in English and Chinese, they are linguistically equipped for several migration options to countries both east and west. Their language facility is enhanced by a sophisticated and technical educational background, although Singapore’s higher educational system is insufficient to satisfy local needs.
Singapore is also noted for its strong central government as well as its paternalist and conformist social environment, characteristics which have pushed some of its citizens to seek greater freedom elsewhere. For young males, another principal reason for emigrating is to avoid compulsory military service. Between 1983 and 1988, 543 Singaporeans of every 100,000 emigrated. Unlike most Malaysians, however, Singaporeans tend to retain their citizenship in anticipation of possible return. Many emigrants from both countries are students. Between 1987 and 1991 some 1,500 to 1,800 Singaporean students were living in Canada, the vast majority of whom were ethnically Chinese. From Malaysia have come two categories of students: several hundred in any given year attending high school or university on government scholarships, who are bonded to return home, and a larger cohort of self-financed non-Malays, mostly Chinese, the majority of whom will not do so.
The bulk of immigrants to Canada from both Malaysia and Singapore are ethnic Chinese, who have some common interests with other overseas Chinese. They may thus have a self-identity different from their birthplace. Because of the non-assimilationist policies of Malaysia and the Chinese character of Singapore, most can speak, if not write, a Chinese dialect or Mandarin and practise customs that allow them to communicate with other Chinese. The limitations of Canadian census records make cross tabulations between immigrants’ place of birth and their ethnic origin difficult. Some Malaysians and Singaporeans of Chinese or Indian background identify themselves by their ethnic descent, others by the country that they left and/or were born in, still others by indicating a multiple ethnic origin.
During the 1970s arrivals to Canada from Singapore numbered less than 100 per year, while those from Malaysia were between 100 and 200. In the following decade, immigrants born in Singapore averaged between 200 and 400 and those born in Malaysia between 400 and 800. In the years 1989–91 arrivals from Malaysia rose sharply to over 1,500 annually and those from Singapore approached 1,000.
In the 1980s approximately one-third were living in Ontario, and of these over 70 percent chose Toronto. Figures from 1981 recorded 2,855 persons born in Malaysia and living in Ontario, of whom 1,835 were of Chinese ethnic origin, 790 Malay, and 155 Indian. The province also had 1,255 persons born in Singapore, and although there was no indication of ethnic background, it is likely that most were ethnic Chinese. In 1991 Census Canada recorded 16,100 residents who indicated Malaysia as their birthplace and 6,285 Singapore. The same census recorded 3,720 persons who claimed they were wholly (1,720) or in part (2,000) of Malay ethnic origin. Over 90 percent of them lived in three provinces: Ontario (1,795), British Columbia (870), and Alberta (725).
The overwhelming presence of ethnic Chinese among Canada’s Malaysians is largely a response to the limited professional and educational opportunities open to them in Malaysia. In fact, as many as 20 percent of these immigrants have already worked in another Western country or in Singapore before coming to Canada, and many are willing to move again if necessary. In view of their English-language proficiency and technical expertise, they encounter few problems in economic integration. The gender ratio is approximately equal, and most women, single and married, are employed full-time. Many of the women who arrived in the late 1960s and early 1970s were nurses, but today the occupational range covers the professions, business, technical services, and the civil service, as well as semi-skilled trades.
Many Malaysians and Singaporeans are employed by non-Chinese Canadian companies or in the public sector, including universities; they also figure prominently among medical doctors, accountants, engineers, and architects. Approximately one-third are self-employed and have entered Canada under that category or as entrepreneurs. Most of their businesses are urban-based and often have a highly technical focus, such as computers or chemical and engineering products. Indians from Malaysia and Singapore show similar occupational characteristics, but those in small business are more often involved in the retail trade or motels. Most Malays in Canada are students or in trade missions or the diplomatic service. The Malaysian-Singaporean community as a whole is situated firmly within the middle or upper middle class, city-based, and relatively prosperous.
Most immigrants from Malaysia and Singapore who were not students arrived in family groups. Considerable emphasis is placed on family unity, discipline, and loyalty. A marked trend towards greater gender equality (including higher rates of employment for married women) is evident in Canada, although few women identify with feminism in the Western sense. Concern for their children’s education is a major preoccupation of most Malaysians-Singaporeans, and any sacrifices in income or job status that result from the move are considered an investment in the future. The children are frequently sent to private schools in Canada and also receive extra tuition. Canadian-born children, however, are often drawn more closely into non-ethnic peer networks and resist parental attempts to add heritage and other language classes to their studies. Intermarriage with other Canadians is uncommon, although, among younger members, marriages with Chinese of other origins appear to be on the increase.
The preference for most households in Canada is towards the nuclear family, even when they occupy a large suburban home. In most cases, grandparents are sponsored as family-class immigrants once the principal (usually male) income earner is established. They tend to be settled separately, despite the fact that working wives no longer enjoy the domestic help they were accustomed to in the homeland. Whether these residential arrangements are the cause or result of intergenerational tensions is not clear, but such friction is growing, despite family programs sponsored by the churches. The insularity of the family is offset somewhat by an informal network of other families from the home region. These groups provide crucial support, as well as recreational opportunities, by meeting frequently in each others’ homes or in restaurants.
The Malaysians-Singaporeans of Chinese background practise in Canada the religions historically associated with China. Some continue to participate in Buddhist rituals in Canada, but since that faith does not require exclusive affiliation or membership in a particular temple, such involvement is hard to measure. Others seek out Buddhist teachers and monks attached to Chinese temples and may contribute to their expenses. Events featuring sermons by prominent Buddhist leaders, including some from Taiwan, are well attended. Taoism, by contrast, is increasingly associated with the non-English-speaking working class. Attendance at Tao rituals is not a feature of middle-class Malaysian or Singaporean Chinese life overseas, although a neo-Taoist revival has recently emerged in Singapore. Much stronger is the neo-Confucianist movement, now fashionable in Singapore, as well as among overseas Chinese, particularly in North America. Confucianism has been popularized by some expatriate Chinese academics in a form that appeals to their middle-class compatriots, who see the discipline, industriousness, and commitment to education, family, and community it promotes as the recipe for prosperity.
The fastest growing religion among Chinese from Malaysia and Singapore is non-traditional Christianity. In Malaysia only about 3 percent of Chinese are Christian, but the proportion is as high as 15 or 20 percent among the immigrants from there in Canada. In Singapore various forms of Christianity are expanding faster than other religions; 27 percent of the English-educated and 7 percent of the Chinese-educated are Christian. The numbers are particularly high among the youth, who are also more likely to emigrate, and among the Chinese from Malaysia and Singapore in Canada as many as 50 percent are Christian. The choice of affiliation is often determined as much by ethnic, linguistic, or locational factors or friendships as by doctrinal considerations. Some Christian Malaysians-Singaporeans join Chinese congregations, while others attend mainstream Canadian churches.
In Toronto one non-denominational church caters specifically to the Malaysian-Singaporean community. Founded in 1981, it is known as the Malaysia-Singapore Bible Church (MSBC). Evangelical but not fundamentalist in orientation, it draws members from a variety of Protestant backgrounds, as well as some ex-Catholics. Its chief pastor was originally a Methodist from Singapore. He was sponsored as an immigrant by wealthy members of the congregation, on whom he is dependent for his position and who still make the major decisions.
Until the pastor arrived in 1986, the church was a voluntary organization run by a core of part-time elders. Adult membership is now as high as three hundred, a substantial increase from the approximately ten families and occasional student affiliates of the early 1980s. One function of the Malaysia-Singapore Bible Church is to bring families together in joint activities, even when not all are prepared to declare themselves believers. New immigrants from southeast Asia sometimes attend the church’s service even before they become Christians because of the social programs. English is the usual medium, but a service in Hokkien, one of the most widely spoken Chinese dialects in Malaysia and Singapore, was added recently, largely for older members. As well, the Bible Church joins in non-ethnic activities with other churches. Strong connections are maintained with believers in Malaysia and Singapore, and candidates for the pastorate attend the Ontario Theological Seminary, which now offers a special Chinese curriculum. Some of these stay on in Canada as pastors of other Chinese congregations.
The Malaysia-Singapore community in Canada is distinguished by its cultural diversity. Among the preponderantly English-educated Chinese middle classes, most ceremonial and social activities are in a Western mode. Having moved from one plural society to another, Malaysians and Singaporeans become easily aware of the different expressions of multiculturalism in Canada. Professional and economic interests are often as powerful as ethnic ones, and Malaysians and Singaporeans have many ties with other Canadians.
Some Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese find common interests with fellow Chinese from other places, particularly when they share the same dialect. They may join Chinese associations, although newer immigrants are less inclined to belong to the traditional clan organizations. Nevertheless, there is considerable sensitivity to the differences between Chinese from Malaysia and Singapore and other Chinese. Because of their sometimes imperfect command of a Chinese language, the Malaysians-Singaporeans may feel more comfortable with other southeast Asians. Further, since many are English-educated, they wish to be seen as culturally Canadian and to minimize differences with the host society. A subjective sentiment of being “more Southeast Asian” in many matters of local custom, hospitality patterns, lifestyle and even language also invades the identity of many of the ethnic Chinese from these areas and differentiates them from their cousins elsewhere.
In the over ninety Chinese Christian churches in the greater Toronto area, approximately 1 to 5 percent of the membership is of Malaysian-Singaporean origin, a significant ratio given their proportion in the overall Chinese population. A comparable number participate in Buddhist activities at temples run by other Chinese, and a few attend meetings of the Taiwanese-based Buddhist association, Fo Kwang Shan. Students tend to discover Chinese friends other than those from their birthplace, though they maintain ties with the Malaysian Singaporean Students Association. The very small number of South Asians from Malaysia and Singapore living in Canada interact with the various Indian and Sinhalese communities.
Malaysians-Singaporeans educated in English are increasingly active in non-ethnic organizations and interest groups, such as professional associations, charity groups, and school boards. Students have their own clubs, including the Nanyang Students Association for alumni of the former university of that name in Singapore. Few members of the community care to become involved in minority-rights or racial issues and tend to resist identification as a visible minority.
Despite their diversity, the sense of a distinct Malaysian-Singaporean community is affirmed by the content of a few periodicals. The monthly journal, ASEAN Reporter (Brampton Ont., 1993– ) is devoted to events both in the homeland and in Canada, as is a smaller occasional news bulletin with the Malay title Kampung (Community). Individuals may choose to identify themselves as Malaysian or Singaporean, but their institutions in Canada are invariably joint. Chinese New Year is one occasion that brings Malaysians and Singaporeans of Chinese, Indian, and Malay (Muslim) ethnic backgrounds together in a Toronto restaurant. The event is uniquely Malaysian-Singaporean in that it is distinguished by its linguistic melange and its concession to Muslim dietary requirements by offering a halal, that is, a religiously pure pork-free banquet. Similarly, at the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan, the four Muslims in the community invite Chinese and non-Muslim friends to their home, and such hospitality is also practised by the Malaysian consulate.
Two recent publications, Gordon Means, Malaysian Politics: The Second Generation (Singapore, 1991), and R.S. Milne and Diane Mauzy, Malaysia: Tradition, Modernity and Islam (Boulder, Colo., 1986), provide comprehensive and reliable accounts of recent Malaysian political, economic, religious, and general social developments mostly since independence, with substantial references to developments in Singapore. More specialized works like James Jesudason, Ethnicity and the Economy: The State, Chinese Business and Multinationals in Malaysia, (Singapore, 1989), deal with the economic situation; Judith Nagata, Malaysian Mosaic: Perspectives from a Polyethnic Society (Vancouver, 1980) and The Reflowering of Malaysian Islam (Vancouver, 1984), cover ethnic and religious conditions in Malaysia. Comprehensive discussions of Singaporean society since its political separation in 1965 are provided by John Clammer, Singapore: Ideology, Society, Culture (Singapore, 1985), and Chew Sock Foon, Ethnicity and Nationality in Singapore (Athens, Ohio, 1987).
An article by Judith Nagata, “Local and International Networks among Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia and Canada,” in The Quality of Life in Southeast Asia: Transforming Social, Political and Natural Environments, (Montreal, 1991), 251–88, discusses the dynamics of migration, while her study “The Role of Christian Churches in the Integration of Southeast Asian Immigrants in Toronto,” Contributions to Southeast Asian Ethnography, no.6 (1987), 41–60, deals with aspects of the religious life of Malaysians-Singaporeans in Canada.