The implications of diplomatic relations between Malaysia & China to the unity of races in Malaysia

Sharil Hamdam bin Ahamd


The events of 13th May 1949 are one of the darkest in Malaysian history, especially in terms of racial relations in Malaysia. This incident shows the strained relations between the Malays and Chinese in Malaysia and it was a turning point to the long-standing relationship between both races since the early days of the Malacca Sultanate.[1]

The grandeur of the Malacca Sultanate was to some extent influenced by good relations between Malacca and the Chinese government. The good relations between the two governments formed a multi-ethnic society in the Malay world. However, the shape of the relationship between the Malay world and China turned sour after the arrival of the British in Malaya.

In this regard, this article will detail the diplomatic relations between two governments, namely the Chinese government and the Malaysian government, which would eventually give effect to the race relations in Malaysia. Today China has become a world economic power that can be beneficial to the Malaysian economy. However, at the same time, Malaysia also needs to carefully consider this relationship in order to balance the geopolitical interests in the region.


A Multiracial Society During the Era of the Malacca Sultanate

Diplomatic relations between the Malaysian and the Chinese governments actually began in the 13th century through the Malacca government relations with the Chinese government.  The early stages of the relationship between Malacca and the Chinese government focused more on a diplomatic relationship that emphasised protection and safety because during that time the state government faced threats from the Majapahit and Siam empires. This gave the Malacca Sultanate the opportunity to develop and achieve their golden era.

This relationship was further strengthened by the arrival of the Chinese government representative, Admiral Yin Cing, to Melaka in 1404. At that time the Chinese government was under the rule of the Ming Dynasty. Then the Chinese government sent its representative to Melaka, namely Admiral Cheng Ho, in 1405 and 1409.

In the further stage, the two government relations were shaped by relationships of the royal family through marriage. This relationship can be seen when Melaka was ruled by Sultan Mansor Shah from 1459 to 1477. The governments of Melaka and China in their exchange resulted in the Chinese government awarding a princess from the Chinese kingdom named Princess Hang Lipo to Sultan Mansor, along with her escorts of 500 people in 1459.

With the influx of traders from China, India and Arab, there was an emergence of a plural society in the country. They could live together in their different races peacefully. In fact, there was intermarriage between the races, especially among traders from the Chinese and the local community which later formed a new community, namely the Baba and Nyonya. Most of their way of life assimilated much with the Malay culture such as clothes, food, beliefs, language, but they still maintained Buddhism as their religion.

A Multiracial Society During the British Colonial Era

However, the form of this plural society changed completely after the British colonial era in the early 19th and 20th centuries. The form of inter-racial relations during this time was not the same as in the era of Melaka before the arrival of the British. In the past, the Chinese participated voluntarily in the Malay world by engaging in commercial activities. During the British colonial era, the Chinese came to the Malays involuntarily and for the benefit of the British economy alone. Even the Baba and Nonya community looked down on the newly arrived Chinese immigrants brought by the British. The Baba and Nyonya felt that their status was better and admitted that they were British citizens.

There are push and pull factors of the arrival of the Chinese community in Malaya. Among the push, factors are the suffering and poor living conditions in China, economic pressure, high population density, hunger, and political instability such as the Taiping uprising in 1857.  The pull factors that attracted the Chinese community were job opportunities and encouragement from the British. Their intention to come to Malaya was only to make a living, but they could not forget their country and planned to return to their country of origin.

The Chinese community who came to Malaya were from various backgrounds and factions. For example, the majority of the Chinese of Hakka descent lived in Ipoh, Perak, while the Chinese of Hokkien descent lived in Penang, Selangor, and Lumut, Perak. In the early stages, their arrival was managed by the Chinese triads through a ticket credit system. This system caused the oppression of workers and the deduction of their salaries as payment for their fares to come to Malaya. These unlawful activities were eventually replaced by a system of personal recruitment by employers directly without going through agents or any Chinese triads.

During the Melaka era, the Chinese and Malays could live together peacefully but the situation was different during the British colonial era. Each race lived separately according to their occupation. Britain introduced a system of divide and rule policy in the Malay world to enable them to easily administer the country and to exploit the economy. For example, Malays lived in the village because of their involvement in the agricultural economy, fisheries and farmers. In contrast, the Chinese community majority live in the urban areas or in the mining areas because of their economic activities is relation to business and mining workers. This also applied to the Indian community who were also segregated according to occupation and place of residence.

The British divide and rule system also segregated education by race in Malaya. For instance, Malays would send their children to French schools or religious schools in villages or near their homes. Meanwhile, the Chinese would send their children to Chinese national-type schools in the urban areas. The syllabus taught to students was also different for each race because the textbooks and the teachers were brought from their country of origin. Similarly, schools for the Indian community were also segregated. Despite this, there were efforts to unify the school system in Malaya at that time but these efforts were not entirely successful because of the lack of determination of the British.[4] The Chinese people still maintained their education system through the Fen Wu report. After Tun Razak became the Minister of Education, efforts to unite students through education were successfully carried out through the Razak Statement followed by the Education Ordinance 1957 as well as several other national education policies after that.

Moreover, the notion of political ideology in Chinese society and the Malay community was very much different. There were two political parties of China that influenced the Chinese community in Malaya, namely the Communist Party and the Kuomintang party.

Even though racial relations during the colonial British era were tense, there were a few attempts to make sure these two communities cooperated with each other. For example, the co-operation that happened at an early stage between the Malay party Pertubuhan Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (PUTERA) and a Chinese party, the All Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA). After that, the name of All Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA) party was changed to the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) led by Tun Tan Cheng Lock who was descended from the Baba and Nyonya. The success of the cooperative relationship between the two parties finally formed the People’s Constitution. The cooperation between both parties showed that the Chinese and Malays could work together, but the effort was rejected by the British because both parties were regarded by the British as radical parties.[5]

However, the second attempt of the cooperation of both communities had its success in the end and this led to the establishment of the Alliance Party. This Alliance party consisted of the Malay party UMNO, the Chinese party MCA, and the Indian party namely MIC. This cooperation proved the readiness of the leaders of the different races in Malaysia who were willing to share the power of government and politics of this country through social contracts. Collaboration like this was quite foreign during the time as it had never been made prior to that era. Indirectly, it shaped the new politics during that time, but the ideology of each party is still the same today – focused on their own race.


A Multiracial Society After Achieving Independence

After independence, inter-racial relations in the country improved a lot through the implementation of several government policies. One example is the introduction of the National Cultural Policy to address the problem of cultural differences of the people in Malaysia. Through this policy, the culture of the multi-racial community in the country is combined to become a Malaysian cultural identity according to its own way. One of them is the celebration of festivals regardless of race, and holding open houses is a habit of the multiracial society in Malaysia today.

On 28 May 1974, Malaysia established diplomatic relations with the Chinese government for the first time after being disconnected for so long. Tun Abdul Razak paid a visit to China at that time even though China still strongly held to their Communist belief and ideology. A few criticisms were voiced because of the visit. It came mainly from the Malaysian community because of their hatred towards Communists during the Emergency due to the violence sparked by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). As a result of the visit, however, Malaysia and China were able to re-establish their diplomatic relations, economic, social, and educational cooperation. In order to strengthen ties between the Malaysian and Chinese government, Malaysia set up its embassy in Beijing in 1974,  followed by the opening of the Chinese Embassy in Malaysia in 1975.

After Tun Razak’s visit to China, bilateral relations also continued in the field of education. The Chinese government wanted to open educational centres in Malaysia, and several colleges and universities were established. Similarly, private secondary and primary schools were opened in Malaysia although there was opposition of the opening schools and colleges from China. In fact, most Chinese national type schools were considered disruptive to the unity of society in Malaysia. The involvement of the Chinese community in the field of education proved that they were committed to preserving their customs, culture and language despite being hsdopposed by the other races.

At the same time, the government had to focus on economic aspects because history had proven the differences in economic disparities and the segregation of economic sectors according to race, leading to the racial riots of 13 May 1969.[6] Several policies and plans for economic development and unity have been implemented, such as the New Economic Policy, the National Development Policy, the Privatisation Policy, and many others. At the same time, cooperation between Malaysia and China further boosted the economy of the community in Malaysia because China is known as the world’s largest economy today. Economic cooperation between Malaysia and China also affects ethnic relations between the Chinese and the local community in the country. Despite pressure from the Chinese government and the dominance of the Chinese in the economic field, racial peace in Malaysia is still preserved.



In conclusion, the long history of the diplomatic relations between these two countries, which began in the during Melaka Malay sultanate era have much affected the pattern of the multi-racial society in the country. Racial relations in Malaysia can be summarised in three phases. The first was the ethnic relations during the era of the Malay sultanate of Malacca. Secondly, the ethnic relations during the British colonial era, and lastly, post-independence ethnic relations.

After independence, the Malaysian government made various efforts towards nation-building. It is inaccurate to compare the process of nation-building in Malaysia with any other country because the process of nation-building in Malaysia is based on its own experiences and needs. Therefore, we can conclude that the element of tolerance and respect is the main crucial thing in Malaysia because this country is inhabited by a multi-racial society.

[1] Mohd Ridzuan Asli, 1993, Pemberontakan Bersenjata Komunis di Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, page 120-130.

[2] Haji Ishak Saat, 2011 “Sejarah Panjang Hubungan Diplomatik Malaysia-China: Impaknya terhadap Perpaduan Kaum di Malaysia” in Sejarah Diplomatik , Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Kuala Lumpur, page 209.

[3] Khoo Kay Kim, “Latar Belakang Sejarah Malaysia India dan China di tanah Melayu “ in. JEBAT1, Persatuan Sejarah, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Page. 2o, 1971/72

[4] Mok Soon Sang and Lee Shok Mee, 1988. Pendidikan di Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Kumpulan Budiman, pages. 43-44.

[5] Hasrom harom, “Barisan Nasional: Selayang PandangTentang Konsepdan Perkembangannya” in. JEBAT, Jabatan Sejarah, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, pages 99-102, 1973/74/75

[6] Mahathir Mohamad, 1982. Malay Dilemma. Singapura: Times Books International, pages 160- 138.

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