Oct 17, 2010
Malaysian Chinese a boon to S'pore
But their inflow may be on the wane, the latest population census shows
Ms Yvonne Low came to Singapore from Ipoh in 1989, and recently became a citizen. She recalled how, in her initial months here, she would watch the television news in Chinese religiously, to pick up local phrases and intonation. Chinese immigrants from Malaysia are generally more accepted by Singaporeans. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
For over a year, she held down two jobs.
During the day, Ms Yvonne Low worked as a clerk at a building materials company in Toa Payoh. Come evening, she would rush to catch a bus to a club in Havelock Road, where she worked as a waitress by night.
Usually home only by 4am, she had to wake up a mere three hours later to go to work again.
'I was eager to make more money and save up for my future. I was overworked, and my body was very weak,' said the 38-year-old, recounting those frenetic days of the early 1990s. She had come from Ipoh two decades ago.
And yet, speak to more Malaysian-born Chinese in Singapore, and her story begins to sound familiar.
Interviewing Ms Low, now a Singapore citizen and a financial services consultant, reminded me of a friend I had met when I was studying in the United States. TS - let's just call him that - was another Malaysian-born Chinese who headed south in search of greener pastures.
Two decades ago, fresh out of college, he arrived in Singapore on a bus one night, to attend a job interview the next morning.
Not having a lot of money on him, he slept at the bus stop that night, to avoid forking out extra cash for a room.
Fortunately, he nailed the job.
'Of course, I took it. I would have said 'yes' to any offer back then,' he told me, with a laugh.
For decades, Malaysian Chinese have immigrated here and been a boon to Singapore. A hardworking and enterprising lot, they are known never to take things for granted.
Many were educated in Chinese schools and are effectively bilingual, or even trilingual - in English, Chinese and Malay.
But perhaps their most attractive trait, from Singapore's perspective, is their ability to integrate into society.
This is important, since the Government has repeatedly emphasised that one of its main criteria for granting permanent residency is the applicant's ability to blend in.
Many new Chinese arrivals from Malaysia would form informal groups to 'correct' one another's accents, so they could sound more Singaporean, said Mr Robin Chee, 28.
The National University of Singapore graduate gleaned this - from his interviews with 100 Malaysian Chinese living here - for his master's thesis in sociology, which he completed last year.
'That's how determined they are to not be seen as foreigners,' he said.
Social worker Carmen Lok, 25, arrived here from Penang just six months ago, in search of better wages. She said it did not take her long to integrate.
'I do make it a point to try to make more Singaporean friends, rather than just stick to Malaysians. I also found myself changing my accent unconsciously,' she said.
Ms Low recalled how, in her initial months here, she would watch the television news in Chinese religiously to pick up local phrases and intonation.
Of course, Singaporeans also tend to be more accepting of Malaysians than people of other nationalities, scholars say.
That may explain why even though Malaysian-born Chinese residents outnumber those born elsewhere, Singaporeans are not perturbed because they view Malaysians as their close cultural cousins.
'They are not considered foreigners in the same way as Chinese from elsewhere. There is a historical bond to Singapore that places them in a special category,' said Dr Ooi Kee Beng, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
However, the latest population census suggests a potentially worrying trend: The inflow of Malaysian-born Chinese to Singapore may be on the wane.
There are 339,000 Malaysian-born, ethnic Chinese residents who are defined as citizens and permanent residents.
However, since 2000, the net increase to their ranks has declined to 81,000 from 106,000 in the previous decade - a 24 per cent drop.
This has occurred despite the fact that the Chinese population in Malaysia jumped by 30 per cent to 6.4 million over the same 20-year period.
To be sure, those born in Malaysia still make up the largest proportion - 58 per cent - of the 587,000 ethnic Chinese residents not born in Singapore, according to this year's census, released last month.
However, their share of the increase in foreign-born Chinese residents here has fallen to 63 per cent in the past decade, from 77 per cent in the previous decade.
This shortfall has been filled by Chinese from other countries, including China, Indonesia and other Asian nations.
Observers say that as Malaysian Chinese become more affluent, their options for countries to emigrate to have increased. At the same time, prospects in Malaysia have also improved, prompting some to stay put rather than head across the Causeway.
When Ms Low graduated from a Chinese high school in Ipoh in 1989, nine in 10 of her classmates not entering university wanted to come to Singapore to work.
'The pay in Malaysia then was quite low. But things have improved, and if you go back to that same school and ask them now, I think only half would want to come to Singapore,' she said.
Between 1990 and 2002, the average monthly income of Chinese Malaysians jumped 2.62 times, to RM4,280 (S$1,800), according to official figures.
The absolute increase of RM2,650 was the biggest among the three major ethnic groups - the Indians saw wages grow by RM1,840, and bumiputeras by RM1,440.
A 35 per cent hike in Malaysian public sector salaries in 2007 is also encouraging more Chinese to take up government jobs, which they have traditionally shunned. Their applications to the civil service have doubled from 2007 to this year.
Said Chinese Heritage Centre director Leo Suryadinata: 'When economic prospects in Malaysia improve, some who have not taken up citizenship here will choose to go back, and others who were planning on coming may stay put.'
With more money to spare, Malaysian Chinese may now also see Australia, Britain or the United States as preferable destinations for university studies - a choice that, for many, eventually leads to a decision to settle in one of those countries.
Even as the net increase in Malaysian-born Chinese residents here fell 24 per cent in the past decade, Australian Customs data shows that the number of Malaysians moving Down Under has doubled over the same period - with ethnic Chinese forming two-thirds of the group.
And back here, the two Malaysian student groups at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) told The Sunday Times that the number of incoming Malaysian Chinese students in each undergraduate batch has declined markedly in recent years, from 375 in 2007 to 200 this year.
'One of the reasons for this is that the Malaysian government has been giving more overseas university scholarships to Chinese students,' said Mr Nicholas Lee, a final-year accountancy student who was president of the NTU Malaysian Students' Association last year.
Unfortunately, the fact remains that Singaporeans are not hitting the fertility rate required to replace themselves. This makes immigration necessary, in order to avoid a population decline and its attendant problems - such as not being able to support the increased number of elderly, who are also living longer.
If Malaysian-born Chinese are an ideal source of immigrants for Singapore, and their inflow has begun to fall, then perhaps efforts to make Singapore more attractive to them need to be stepped up.