Malaysia is a multi-ethnic society composed of Malay as the majority ethnic group (50.1% of total population according to 2010 census)[1], followed by ethnic Chinese of various origins  (22.6%). Ethnic relations in Malaysia has been a contest of identity lasting for decades since British colonial rule.

The perception of Taiwan and China in Malaysia is divided along lines of ethnicity, influenced by cultural exposure and historical memory.

Malaysian ethnic Malay’s perception of China

Malaysian Malays consider China an important diplomatic ally dating back to the era of the Malacca Sultanate, when China was ruled by the Ming Dynasty. The Ming played a pivotal role in fending off threats from Sumatra and Siam. Malaysia is one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to switch diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the Republic of China (ROC) government ruling Taiwan.

Today, Malays in general welcome the benefits of diplomatic relations with China; nevertheless, they are remain largely unconcerned with Chinese strategic intentions [2,3]. Malays are generally more concerned with domestic politics.

The Malays reluctantly accepted ethnic Chinese as citizens of their own country as part of the social contract to form the independent nation of Malaysia from British colonial rule. Staunch Malay nationalists resent the presence of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, as they have regarded ethnic Chinese as foreign squatters on their land [4,5], further driven by the higher socioeconomic standing of Chinese than Malays at large [6].

Malaysian ethnic Chinese perception of China

Ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, on the other hand, has vehemently resisted acculturation by the Malay majority. They trace their ancestral origin from southern China. To escape political turmoil in the late Qing era and the early Republican era, they came to the Malay Archipelago in search for a new life, when Malaya and Malaysian Borneo were ruled as British colonies.

Despite settling on a new land, first-generation immigrants prefer to retain their identity as Chinese nationals. They retain the memory of Taiwan as part of China and the era of humiliation at the hands of Western powers.

The Second Sino-Japanese War spilt over to the ethnic Chinese in British Malaya. Ethnic Chinese were frequent victims of Japanese war atrocities, but Malays were treated better by the Japanese [7]. Up to a limited extent, distinct Malay and Chinese wartime experience influenced ethnic relations today.

Current Sentiments

Education in post-independence Malaysia is divided along vernacular lines, to meet the preference of various ethnic groups. The Chinese educationist, Lin Lian Yu (林连玉), is credited for his efforts to fight for the retention of Chinese vernacular schools from the hands of the Malaysian government.

Over time, ethnic Chinese in Malaysia become divided into distinct clusters according to their educational background and cultural influence. The 90% of the Chinese community who take heart in traditional Chinese values opted to send their children to Chinese vernacular schools, others choose to send their children to national schools which Malay is officially the medium of instruction. Schoolchildren attending Chinese vernacular schools are exposed to elements of history of China. Reading Chinese ancient texts is taught at the secondary level. With their knowledge of the Chinese language, they went on to receiving Chinese propaganda through local Chinese language newspapers and Chinese TV channels available via satellite and internet [8]. This cultural cluster is breeding ground for Greater Chinese nationalists.

It is reported that up to 10% of Malaysian Chinese are English speaking, concentrated in affluent Malaysian urban areas of Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Penang, Ipoh and Malacca [9]. They lack Chinese education, and do not hold cultural affinity for China. Instead, they are exposed to Western thought through reading in the English language, and likely to receive Christian influence. They are unlikely to subscribe to the narrative of China’s humiliation at the hands of Western imperialists, and do not consider Taiwan as part of Chinese territory.

In the hearts of Greater Chinese nationalists, however, China holds an important emotional place of identity rather than their actual country of citizenship. They place greater emphasis on their ethnic Chinese identity over their civic Malaysian identity, and take notice of their ancestral identity to the provincial and city level in China.

After World War II, Greater Chinese nationalists in Malaysia considered that Taiwan has been returned to Chinese rule, regardless of the actual reality of separate rule. The Chinese Civil War was a division within China between the Nationalist and the Communist factions, resulting in the retreat of Chinese Nationalists to Taiwan, with the ill-informed assumption that Taiwan has reverted to Chinese identity.

Furthermore, Taiwan is considered to share cultural roots with China, notwithstanding the political division. According to this group of people, Taiwan independence is treated as a traitorous attempt to cause permanent division to the Chinese nation, especially with  the association of the movement with Japanese influence. Prejudice and grudge against the Japanese, part of their harrowing memories of Japanese occupation of British Malaya, in part shaped their anti-separatist stance.  

Greater Chinese nationalists take pride in the rise of China. Given the vast population of China, they see this as an economic opportunity especially after reform and opening up by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s. They value the newfound strength of China, having chosen to largely ignore humanitarian concerns posed by the current Chinese government, even gone as far as discrediting the success of democratic transformation in Taiwan, citing that Taiwan’s influence is waning despite its successes.

Despite this, they are very likely to have grown up listening to Taiwanese pop music in the 80s and 90s!


  1. Malaysian 2010 Census, Department of Statistics Malaysia,
  2. (Malay) It’s Dangerous being an economic slave to China, Sinar Harian, 21 May 2017.
  3. Wan Saiful Wan Jan, “Is China a good investor?”, The Edge The Edge is a English publication aimed at urban businesspeople. Most Malays habitually use Malay for communication and less confident of speaking English, despite learning English in schools.
  4. ISMA Chief fined RM 2000 for sedition, The Malay Mail Online
  5. Like it or not, Chinese are ‘pendatang’, says PERKASA, Malaysiakini
  6. Sources of income grow and inequality across ethnic groups in Malaysia, World Bank
  7. The Japanese Occupation and Post-War Interregnum
  8. For news involving China, Malaysian Chinese newspapers carry news syndicated from Mainland Chinese scripts without rewriting. Taiwanese pro-unification TVBS-Asia, Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television and Mainland China’s CCTV4 are listed on Astro, Malaysia’s satellite TV service. Otherwise, Mainland Chinese channels are available using apps downloaded for Internet set top boxes in high quality, free of charge.
  9. Chinese, and truly Malaysian, The Star



Boon Kheng Chai

Boon Kheng Chai was brought up in Kuala Lumpur. He majored in biotechnology at the University of Melbourne from 2009 to 2012, and was involved in the Malaysian Aspiration Program. Currently he is pursuing postgraduate studies in biomedical science at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.

Latest posts by Boon Kheng Chai (see all)