A politician reaches for the race card once again, misrepresenting facts and risking causing hatred towards an ethnic group that has contributed a lot to Malaysia.
DO Chinese Malaysians need to apologise for being rich and owning property in cities and towns? Is it a sin for them to become wealthy? To anyone who is sane and reasonable, the obvious answer to these questions is “no”.
But Chinese wealth has become a hot issue after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad told Hong Kong-based Asia Times in an interview last week that Malaysian Chinese are a “wealthy lot”, with most of them living in urban centres, and that this represented an “unhealthy trend”. This suggestive statement by Malaysia’s former Prime Minister sends out a discomforting message that it is wrong for Chinese people to lead comfortable lives in cities that they helped to build alongside the other ethnic groups in Malaysia.
Naturally, the statement sparked anger in Malaysia’s Chinese community. In social media, unpleasant remarks have been made about the “old horse” who unexpectedly quit his premiership in February and threw Malaysia into unprecedented political chaos.
Personally, his statement brought back memories of my encounters with many Chinese tycoons in the course of my career as a journalist. I admire these men who are fighters and who give back to society when they make it big. One memorable interview was my session with Penang’s richest man at the time, the only media interview he granted.
This immigrant, who was collecting pig dung to be sold as fuel in Fujian Province, China, was fleeing famine and political chaos when he came to Penang penniless at the age of 12 in 1927.
As he had no formal education, he began working as a trishaw puller earning a few cents a day. But realising he must have a skill, he became an apprentice in a mechanic’s shop.
To save money, the young coolie moonlighted as a bus cleaner at night. In those days, buses were filthy with the droppings of chickens and pigs that were often “passengers” alongside their human owners. But this did not deter the tough teenager from washing four buses a night, earning 10 cents per vehicle. To save on rent, he slept in the buses.
When his savings hit $2,000 (Straits dollars in those days) at 18, Loh bought 11 buses and kept adding more as he could afford them, becoming a bus company owner. But he really struck it big after winning the sole dealership for Honda motorcycles and then ventured into property development after buying cheap land in Penang, Langkawi and other places.
By the time his Boon Siew empire straddled motor dealerships, manufacturing and hotel and property development, the billionaire had already given huge donations to charities, hospitals, schools and education. Due to his well-known philanthropic work, even kidnapping gangs targeting tycoons then had an agreement among themselves that they would leave him alone to continue to give back to society, Loh told this writer.
Loh’s success, achieved through diligence, ingenuity and acumen, is a classic tale of how poor Chinese people struggled to survive and eventually amassed wealth.
The other rags-to-riches story that I never tire of hearing and recounting is the development of Genting Highlands by the late Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong. His Genting group has often been one of the top five taxpayers in the country.
In most parts of South-East Asia as well as in other corners of the world where Chinese people live, similar stories are aplenty, as recounted in the memoir of 96-year-old Robert Kuok, the richest man in Malaysia. His Robert Kuok: A Memoir, co-written with Andrew Tanzer, was book of the year on many lists when it came out in 2018.
Today, the descendants of these immigrants from China continue to cherish the important virtues of their ancestors and they work hard to be achievers – though, as in any other ethnic group, not all can make it in life.
From small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that form the backbone of most economies, many Chinese have built up corporations creating jobs and adding value to economic activities.
In fact, Loh’s story and contributions are not unique to the Chinese. The Malays, Indians and other groups have nurtured respected tycoons and grown SMEs into bigger and more valuable additions to the Malaysian economy.
This is why Dr Mahathir’s statement about how the Chinese becoming rich is an “unhealthy trend” has not been well-received even among some non-Chinese, particularly those who have earned honest livings independent of handouts.
His statement is dangerous, as it can cause unease in a multiracial society, where Malays account for almost 70% of the population, Chinese just over 22% and Indians under 7%, according to 2019 Department of Statistics figures.
And in fact, the Chinese do not “own” any town in Malaysia although early immigrants helped to build settlements that have evolved into towns and cities. Yap Ah Loy, for instance, had a key role in the birth of Kuala Lumpur. Towns and cities now come under the jurisdiction of state governments, no one owns them.
MCA President Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong questioned if the 95-year-old politician “deliberately omitted” the latest statistics on wealth distribution among ethnic groups in Malaysia.
A survey by the Statistics Department in 2016 showed that 70% of Chinese Malaysians were working class compared with 72% of Malays/bumiputra and 83% Indians. As the differential between the Chinese and bumiputras is only 2%, Dr Mahathir’s generalisation that “the Malaysian-Chinese are extremely rich” is a stark misrepresentation.
“Mahathir should stop perpetuating the myth that Chinese Malaysians are rich, as such stereotyping is harmful to racial harmony, ” said Dr Wee, currently also Transport Minister.
He noted tens of thousands of local Chinese cross over to Singapore before dawn every day to earn a living to support their families in Johor Baru, and countless are small traders at pasar malam.
“I am not sure if Dr Mahathir is pretending not to know about the latest statistics or whether he is merely playing the racial card, ” Wee said in a statement.
Dr Mahathir wants to become Prime Minister again – for the third time – and Malay support is crucial for him as Chinese voters in general are disappointed with his past performance and policies many saw as racist.
In fact, Chinese sentiment towards Dr Mahathir can be seen from Nanyang Siang Pau’s sharp editorial on June 27 that suggested “Dr Mahathir should be discarded” from the political scene just like “throwing away heavy old clothes”.
And Tan Sri Goh Tian Chuan, president of the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia, has this advice for Dr Mahathir: “Politicians should refrain from making such inflammatory remarks. It may incite hatred and animosity towards Chinese businesses and rip the nation apart.”
The Chinese attainment of wealth, Goh pointed out, is largely attributed to hard work and a strong determination to improve their lives.
He summed up the Chinese predicament in Malaysia: “Due to the limited opportunities in the public sector, the Chinese were left with few choices but to venture into private sector.
“Yet all these years, the community has had to endure unfair and discriminatory remarks such as ‘the Chinese are rich’, ‘the Chinese are outsiders’, ‘balik tongsan’ and ‘Chinese are squatters’ hurled at them by unscrupulous politicians looking for political mileage at the expense of racial unity and harmony.”
Tan Sri Ter Leong Yap, president of the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia, warned that calling the Chinese a “wealthy lot” could lead to anti-Chinese sentiment and resentment towards the rich in the ethnic group.
“It is extremely dangerous to label the rich or poor by ethnicity. Other communities will only be misled into believing that the Chinese are in control of the country’s economy, causing them to be biased against the Chinese and Chinese businessmen, ” he said.
This recent comment from Dr Mahathir actually goes against the grain of previous complimentary remarks he has made about the Chinese in the past. When the situation suited him, he has praised the Chinese for their contributions toward national development and social stability.
In past speeches, he acknowledged that the Chinese have played an important role in trading, commerce, mining, plantations and manufacturing. And most recently, they have helped to bring in investments from China amidst reduced inflows from the West. In fact, on several occasions, Dr Mahathir delighted the community by stressing that Chinese corporations were among the biggest tax contributors to the treasury.
He has also shown appreciation for eventual Chinese support for the New Economic Policy (1971 to 1990). When the NEP was implemented in 1971 as a form of affirmative action for Malays, non-bumiputras were blocked from many opportunities yet most Chinese supported the key objectives of the NEP.
The NEP was aimed at achieving equitable income distribution and eradicating poverty but, unfortunately, it has only widened the wealth disparity within the Malay community, and has not eradicated poverty totally.
Whatever the situation, the country and politicians have to be fair to the Chinese. This community should not be demonised for the wealth they have generated through hard work, frugality, entrepreneurship and intelligence.