Cheers to Chinese contribution to Malaysia’s growth

I was glad to receive and watch a number of video clips of people singing the Chinese New Year song that we are so familiar with, or playing the tune on musical instruments. What’s so special about these? The people in the clips were from various Malaysian races or just Indians or Malays. There was also a clip showing a young Malay girl beating the drums for a lion dance.

I wish to thank those who shared it with me. This is the way to not only spread the joy of the celebration but also enhance racial harmony. The non-Chinese who made these clips and participated in them certainly deserve our praise.

The number of Malays who have come forward to wish the Chinese well should persuade the Chinese, and others, that only a few small-minded people consider them “pendatang” and that most Malays are wonderfully hospitable and friendly.

The Chinese New Year, I think, is a good time to remember the contributions of the Chinese community to the nation.

They came from China, many with hardly any money, to Malaya to mainly work in the tin mines in the 1800s and 1900s. It is a tribute to their dexterity and backbreaking work that they prospered, with some building fortunes for their descendants.

Tin and rubber are the foundations on which the Malayan, and later Malaysian, economy and progress were built. In fact, most of our towns and infrastructure, such as roads and railways, were built with tin and rubber money.

While Indians worked in the rubber estates, the Chinese worked in the mines.

In the very early days when there were no dredges, these miners had to dig the earth and descend about 25 to 30 metres on rough wooden ladders to mine tin ore. How many of us, sitting in comfortable air-conditioned houses today, have the ability, persistence or courage to do something like this?

Many of our major cities and towns were built around mines, with Kuala Lumpur as the classic example. Other well-known towns that tin mining built include Ipoh and Taiping in Perak and Bentong in Pahang.

Take Kuala Lumpur. Frank Swettenham, the first resident-general of the Federated Malay States who wrote extensively about Malaya, said that in 1872 Kuala Lumpur was “purely a Chinese village, consisting of two rows of adobe-built dwellings, thatched with palm leaves”.

Many Chinese played a role in its development, including the first Kapitan China Hui Siew and the better-known Yap Ah Loy, the third Kapitan China. I don’t have to say much about Yap Ah Loy, as everyone who has read Malaysian history should know about him.

Another big name is Loke Yew, whose mining activities gave rise to Bentong. He started his first mine in Kamunting, Taiping, but went on to establish mines in other parts of Perak and in Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang. He planted rubber and coffee and brought in some of the first cars in the country. In fact, the first motor car to travel in Pahang belonged to Loke Yew who drove it along the Tras-Bentong road, which he built, in 1900.

There were many other towkays who slogged to build their fortunes and in the process help build the country. They include Kapitan Chung Ah Quee and his son Kapitan Chung Thye Phin, who are better known in Perak and Penang.

Thye Phin was a Perak State Council member in the 1900s. In fact, he is probably one of the earliest persons to ask the British, at a State Council meeting, to publish all enactments in the languages spoken in the country, not just in English.

There were others too, such as Foo Choo Choon known as the tin king of Perak and reputed to be the richest Chinese in the world then.

Sure, they brought along their secret societies and triads, and their clan fights, to Malaya’s mines. But the Chinese, as a community, have matured. We no longer hear of secret society clashes or of, say, deadly fights between Hokkiens and Teochews, as happened in the past.

The Chinese also contributed to the growth of the rubber industry, led by such luminaries as Lee Kong Chian of the famous Lee Rubber group, and Tan Kah Kee. Many Chinese entrepreneurs owned rubber estates, and some still do today.

They also played, and continue to play, a key role in the palm oil industry. Names such as Ngan Chin Wen, Lee Loy Seng, Lee Shin Cheng and Lam Soon will be familiar to businessmen and those in the oil palm industry.

But the Chinese have contributed in other areas too, including education, sports and the arts. And we are, of course, familiar with the immense contribution of politicians such as Tan Cheng Lock, H S Lee, Tan Siew Sin and Lim Chong Eu.

Today, too, the Chinese continue to play a major role in the development of the nation, especially its economy. If all the Chinese were to leave the country tomorrow, Malaysia will be in deep trouble as many of the businesses are run by them and most of the government’s tax revenue comes from them. All government servants should bear this in mind, as should others, especially those who tell the Chinese to leave if they are not happy in Malaysia.

But it is not just the Chinese who have contributed to the nation’s peace and prosperity: Malaysians of all races and religious faiths have done so. If we remember this, we can learn to live in harmony.

As first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman used to say, this is a beautiful country. And if I may add: there is ample place for all of us here. We just have to learn to accept each other’s ways, enjoy the commonalities and respect the differences. Unity in diversity should be the watchword.

Gong Xi Fa Cai everyone.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.