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Wednesday, 29 August, 2001, 17:48 GMT 18:48 UK
Analysis: South-East Asia's Chinese
Ethnic Chinese family leaving Indonesia
Ethnic Chinese have been called "Jews of the East"
By Mangai Balasegaram in Kuala Lumpur

In most countries, Loh Yee Leng, a bright 21-year-old with a string of 'A' grades, would be a winning candidate for university. But in Malaysia, grades aren't the only criteria for entry into universities - race is as well.

Only a limited number of places at public universities are available for ethnic Chinese, who comprise 26% of Malaysia's population. Places are set aside for native Malays - even if their grades are lower.

South-East Asia's Chinese
Total number in region: About 20 million
Total number overseas: Nearly 60 million
This year, several hundred top-grade Chinese students - including Ms Loh - received rejections from public universities. Yet, some 10,000 university seats allocated for Malays remained empty.

The racial quota system at universities is part of a three-decade long policy to advance Malays, the "bumiputra" (sons of the soil). Malays also have special privileges in business and property, and dominate the civil service.

"The Chinese accept that many Malays deserve help. But these policies should now be structured according to need, not race," says Malaysian opposition politician Lim Guan Eng, adding that these policies have been misused and encourage cronyism.

A similar situation has existed for years in Indonesia, where the "pribumi" are accorded special rights in land ownership and business.

These policies were justified as affirmative action, to promote native populations against the economic muscle of the ethnic Chinese. The unwritten social contract across South-East Asia was that ethnic Chinese have to lose certain rights in return for citizenship.

'Jews of the East'

Ethnic Chinese have settled in South-East Asia for centuries, but most today are descendants of 19th century migrants from southern China.

Ethnic Chinese and Muslim students
Universities in Malaysia set a quota on places for ethnic Chinese students
Some 80 years ago, Thailand's King Rama VI called the Chinese the "Jews of the East". Across the region, they have faced much discrimination, often deeply resented for their wealth. In Manila, the community are often targeted by kidnappers.

Today, they are effectively the region's business class, controlling the bulk of listed companies in the region's stock markets - more than 80% in Thailand and Singapore, 62% in Malaysia, about 50% in the Philippines. In Indonesia, they control more than 70% of corporate wealth - although some dispute this figure.

The Chinese have faced similar segregation policies and laws controlling property to the Jews, notes south-east Asian expert Professor Amy Freedman, from the US Franklin and Marshall College.

Ms Freedman disputes the popular belief that the Chinese are naturally good businessman, looking instead to history for an explanation.

"The Chinese were kept from owning land and were used as middlemen by colonialists, leaving them in a position to own and operate business once colonialism ended," she says.

Divide and rule

Integration - and inter-marriage - of the community has been greatest in Thailand and Philippines, so much so that some are hardly recognisable as Chinese. Former Filipino leader Cory Aquino, for example, has Chinese blood.

Ethnic Chinese as a percentage of total population
Singapore - 80%
Malaysia - 26%
Thailand - 10%
Indonesia - 3%
Philippines - 2%
Assimilation has been actively encouraged - in Thailand, for example, ethnic Chinese must adopt local names in order to get citizenship.

The varying relations of ethnic Chinese with local populations are due to differences in religion as well as history. "The colonial powers treated the Chinese immigrants in different ways - the Dutch and the British used a divide and conquer method, the Spanish and the Americans worked on assimilating the whole population," Ms Freedman says.

Discrimination has been most acute in Indonesia, with the community the target of mob violence and riots. In May 1998, Chinese properties were looted and burnt and many people attacked. Nearly 170 Chinese women were also systematically raped, of whom 20 later died.

Many Chinese were also killed during Indonesia's 1965 anti-communist purge, in which some 500,000 lives were lost.

Muslim woman in Malaysia
Race is an important issue in South-east Asia
It was around then that Chinese script was banned, Chinese-language schools closed down, celebration of festivals forbidden, and even speaking Chinese in public was discouraged. Customs officials considered the Chinese language "as dangerous to the people of Indonesia" as weapons.

Many Chinese changed their names, but their identity cards would still mark their ethnicity.

However, such regulations have since gone, after former President Abdurrahman Wahid allowed the use of Chinese script and celebration of their festivals.

The community are now enjoying a cautious cultural revival - an indication that the culture has been as resilient as "bamboo", to quote one ethnic leader.

See also:

13 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Cupid takes aim at Malaysian Chinese
18 Aug 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Religious tolerance in Indonesia
04 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Malaysia
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