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Being “Chinese” in Malaya: Changing social, economic, and geopolitical contexts

Organiser:

Ping Tjin Thum
University of Oxford
pingtjin.thum@history.ox.ac.uk

Chair:

Dr Jason Lim
University of Wollongong
jlim@uow.edu.au

 

Panel Abstract

The relationship between the Southeast Asian and Chinese governments has intensified, both multilaterally and bilaterally. While the political developments have been subject to numerous analyses, less attention has been paid to how societies and cultures in Southeast Asia have adapted to this new political and economic context. The numerous interconnections – some traditional, some new – between the two regions are ancient but constantly evolving. This panel addresses the changing society and cultural in Southeast Asia in response to China’s rise. In particular, it focuses on how identity, culture, and society in Southeast Asia have shifted, and the impact this has had on government policy, social norms, and historical understanding of Southeast Asia’s past.  Examples of this  include papers which study the changing meaning of identity in Southeast Asia; the evolution of traditional forms of organisation; the alteration of societal norms and expectations; and the rise of new aspirational or negative forms of culture.

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Paper 1: Geopolitics and Chinese Identity: Nationalism in Singapore and Ethnic Chinese from China Today

Dr Jason Lim
University of Wollongong
jlim@uow.edu.au

The Singapore government frequently makes statements that suggest a common cultural identity between the Chinese in Singapore and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) because 75 per cent of the island’s population is Chinese and there has been an influx of PRC citizens into Singapore mainly to work and study. However, public opinion captured even in the Singapore media among the Singapore Chinese is in stark contrast to these official statements. Why do the Chinese in Singapore consider themselves ethnically Chinese and yet ‘culturally distinct’ from the Chinese in the PRC? My presentation will look into this discrepancy by examining two related issues. First, I will examine the historical origins of the creation of an identity that the Chinese in Singapore regard as unique. Is this the result of nationalism in Singapore promoted by the Singapore government after self-government was obtained in 1959? Or had a Chinese identity in Singapore been created in the 1950s and 1960s due a combination of the promotion of Chinese culture by the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan and the image of economic and political chaos in the PRC? Second, I will look into contemporary relations between PRC citizens in Singapore and the Singapore Chinese and how the Singapore government tries to reconcile the two groups. Examples will be taken from Singapore in the last five years on Singapore Chinese reaction to PRC citizens’ behaviour in Singapore and the Singapore government’s reaction to the incidents.

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Paper 2: Culture as Ties and Tools: Contemporary Cultural Activities in Voluntary Associations of Singapore 

Qu Xiaolei
Nanyang Technological University
XQU001@e.ntu.edu.sg

Voluntary associations found by Chinese overseas in Southeast Asia are currently facing all kinds of challenges, such as self-renewal, fund raising. In order to confront these challenges, many associations took the initiative to change their organisations and promote various cultural activities suited for the new era. While a growing number of studies have been conducted that examine the institutional and mechanistic innovations and globalised tendencies of contemporary associations, few attempts have been made to investigate the role of cultural and recreational activities. Cultural activities have, in fact, been regular fixtures in the schedules of such associations in recent years. Through the lens of cultural studies, this paper focuses on the evolution and transformation of contemporary voluntary associations against the backdrop of the rising of China and new features of Singaporean society. Relying primarily on new-found archival data concerning Singapore Amoy Association, including letters, fax documents, invoices, posters, and in-depth interviews with leaders and members of voluntary associations, this paper examines the nature and mechanism of cultural activities held from 2003 to 2005 in Singapore. It is argued that culture and recreation are adopted by contemporary associations not only to form significant ties within and beyond the association, but also as indispensable tools to pass on Chinese culture and raise funds for the survival and preservation of Chinese cultural heritage. Furthermore, it is argued that the dynamic interplay between Singapore and China, directly or indirectly, strengthens the cooperation of voluntary associations in Singapore.

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Paper 3: Mapping the local land through travel writing by Chinese Migrant literati during the independence period (1955-1959) in Malaya

Ho Sok Fong
Nanyang Technological University
runrun1126@gmail.com

This paper aims to examine the writings of Chinese migrant literati related to their travel experience in Malaya during the independence period (1955-1959) which were largely published in newspaper and magazines. As these Chinese migrant were in the crisis of being denied by citizenship and were marginalised by local authority in Malaya, they strived to search for their identity and to foster a sense of belonging to Malaya. This process involved them becoming intimately connected to Malaya through their observation of their surrounding, understanding the local history and socio-cultural heritages and participating in the local politics. These local writings were important as they revealed their desire to foster a sense of regional subjectivity and to forge a bond with Malaya as they attempted to integrate into the local community. As they travelled around Malaya, theseChinese migrant literati experienced space and place substantially through their body experiences. It helped them to map the geographical landscape and later to construct the imaginative picture of the country.