Malaysian Chinese

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Malaysians of Chinese origin
马来西亚华人 or 馬來西亞華人
Yap Ah Loy.jpg
Lim Kit Siang1.jpg
Michelle Yeoh Cannes 2.jpg
Fish Leong @Chengdu-3.JPG
Yonex IFB 2013 - Quarterfinal - Lee Chong Wei vs Boonsak Ponsana 11.jpg
Josiah Ng.jpg
Statue of Lim goh Tong.jpg
Zairil Khir Johari.jpg
Total population
24.6% of the Malaysian population (2010)[2]
Regions with significant populations
Malaysia Malaysia
Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Johor, Perak, Selangor
Australia Australia
Christmas Island
Mandarin, Malay, Cantonese, Foochow, Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew, English,
Predominantly Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism (Chinese folk religion), significant Christianity, minorities Islam and Hinduism [3]
Related ethnic groups
Singaporean Chinese, Peranakan, Han Chinese, Southern Chinese, Overseas Chinese

The Malaysian Chinese or Chinese Malaysian (Chinese: trad 馬來西亞華人, simp 马来西亚华人, pin Mǎláixīyà Huárén) consists of people of full or partial Chinese – particularly Han Chinese ancestry who were born in or immigrated to Malaysia. Most are the descendants who arrived between the early and the mid-20th century.[4][5]

In 2010, there were nearly 6,960,900 people self-identifying as "Chinese" who hold Malaysian nationality (including Malaysian-born and foreign-born people of Chinese descent).[6] This number excludes those who do not have Malaysian citizenship (MyKad): permanent residents and non-citizens.

Malaysia is the home to the second largest community of Overseas Chinese in the world, after Thailand. Within Malaysia, they are usually simply referred to as "Chinese" and represent the second largest ethnic group in Malaysia after the ethnic Malay majority.

Malaysian Chinese are a socioeconomically well-established middle-class ethnic group and make up a highly disproportionate percentage of Malaysia's upper middle class, with a record of high educational achievement, and one of the highest household incomes among minority demographic groups in Malaysia.[7] Malaysian Chinese are dominant in both the business and commerce sectors, controlling an estimated 70% of the Malaysian economy.[8][9][10]


First wave[edit]

The first wave of Han Chinese settlers came during the Malacca Empire in the early 15th century. The friendly diplomatic relations between China and Malacca culminated during the reign of Sultan Mansur Syah, who married the Chinese princess Hang Li Po. A senior minister of state and five hundred youths and maids of noble birth accompanied the princess to Malacca.[11]

Admiral Zheng He had also brought along 100 bachelors to Malacca.[12]

The descendants of these two groups of people, mostly from Fujian province, are called the Baba (men) and Nyonya (women).

Second Wave[edit]

The second wave was caused by the massacre in Fujian in 1651-52 when the Manchus took over China. The Fujian refugees of Zhangzhou resettled on the northern part of the Malay peninsula while those of Amoy and Quanzhou resettled on the southern part of the peninsula. This group forms the majority of the Straits Chinese who were English-educated.[13][14]

Third Wave[edit]

Chinese immigrants, mainly from the controlled ports of Fujian and Guangdong provinces, were attracted by the prospect of work in the tin mines, rubber plantations or the possibility of opening up new farmlands at the beginning of the 19th century until the 1930s in British Malaya.[15]

Between the period of 1927 - 1949, some Republic of China citizens were forced to emigrate because of insecurity, lack of food and lack of business opportunity due to Chinese Civil War. Some Nationalist refugees also fled to Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo and Malaya after the Nationalists lost the civil war to avoid persecution or execution by the Communist party of China.[16]

This wave from the Qing dynasty and Republic of China period represented the largest wave. Their immigration to Malaya and Straits Settlements was encouraged by the British.[17] This group was responsible for establishing the many Chinese-medium schools in Malaya and are mostly Chinese-educated.[18]

Fourth Wave[edit]

A much smaller wave came after the 1990s, holding the citizenship of the People's Republic of China and mostly Mandarin speaking Chinese from northern China. These were mostly foreign spouses married to Malaysian Chinese.[19]

Some national sports coaches such as badminton coach Han Jiang could only obtain permanent residency after repeated rejections of their citizenship applications.[20] However, diving coach Huang Qiang managed to obtain his Malaysian citizenship.[21]

Ancestral origin[edit]

Almost all Malaysian Chinese are Han Chinese and the great majority can be grouped into four main sub-ethnic groups: Min, Hakka, Cantonese and Wu.

Min people[edit]

The Min people are those whose ancestors came from Fujian province and speak one of the Min languages and form the largest language group in Malaysia.


Main article: Hokkien people

The Hokkien (福建人) are the largest Chinese language group in Malaysia. Chinese settlers from the southern regions of Fujian constitute the largest group and generally identify as Hokkien. The bulk of Chinese settlers in Malaya before the 18th century came from Quanzhou, Amoy, and Zhangzhou and settled primarily in Penang and Malacca, where they formed the bulk of the local Chinese populace. More Hokkien settled in Malaya from the 19th century onwards and dominated the rubber plantation and financial sectors of the Malayan economy.[22] The bulk of the Hokkien-speaking Chinese settled in the Malay Peninsula and formed the largest language group in many states, specifically Penang, Malacca, Kelantan, Terengganu,[23] Kedah, and Perlis.[24] In Malaysian Borneo, the Hokkien make up a sizeable proportion within the Chinese community and are primarily found in larger towns, notably Kuching and Sibu.[25] The Zhangzhou Hokkien migrated to the northern part of the peninsula and the Quanzhou Hokkien migrated to the southern part of the peninsula, including Singapore.


Main article: Teochew people

Teochew immigrants (潮州人) from the Chaoshan region began to settle in Malaya in large numbers from the 18th century onwards, mainly in Province Wellesley and Kedah around Kuala Muda. These immigrants were chiefly responsible for setting up gambier and pepper plantations in Malaya. More Teochew immigrated to Johor at the encouragement of Temenggong Ibrahim in the 19th century, and many new towns were established and populated by plantation workers from the Chaoshan region. The Teochew constitute a substantial percentage within the Chinese communities in Johor Bahru[26] and principal towns along the coasts of Western Johor (notably Pontian, Muar, and – to a lesser extent – Batu Pahat) as well as selected hinterland towns in the central regions of the state.[24] Many of them are the descendants of plantation workers who came to set up gambier and pepper plantations, following the administrative pattern of their countrymen in Johor.[27] Smaller communities of Teochew can also be found in other states, notably in Sabak Bernam in Selangor, where many Teochew settled down as rice agriculturalists,[24] as well as in the hinterlands of Malacca.[28]


Main article: Hainan people

Chinese immigrants from Hainan (海南人) began to migrate to Malaya and North Borneo from the 19th century onwards, albeit in much smaller numbers than the aforementioned speech groups. The Hainanese were employed as cooks by wealthy Straits Chinese families, while others were engaged in food catering business or the fishery business and formed the largest language group in Kemaman district of Terengganu[29] and Pulau Ketam (Selangor) as well as sizeable communities in Penang and Johor Bahru.[30] Smaller communities of Hainanese are also found in Sarawak and Sabah, where they work as coffee shop owners and are mainly found in large towns and cities.[31]

Heng Hua[edit]

Main article: Putian people

The Henghua (莆仙人), part of the Hokkien people, came from Putian. Their numbers were much smaller than the other Min Chinese from Fujian and they were mostly involved in the bicycle, motorcycle, and automobile spare parts industries.

Min Dong[edit]

Main article: Fuzhou people

Min Dong (闽东人) settlers from Fuzhou and Fuqing (福清) also came in sizeable numbers during the 19th century and have left a major impact on the corporate industry in the 20th century. They speak a distinct language and are classified separately from the Hokkiens. A large number of Min Dongs in Malaysia are Christians. The Min Dongs form the largest language group in Sarawak – specifically in areas around the Rajang River,[32] namely the towns of Sibu. They also settled in large numbers in a few towns in Peninsular Malaysia, notably Sitiawan in Perak, Yong Peng in Johor and Sepang, Selangor.[33][34]


Main article: Hakka people

The Hakka people (客家人), literally "Guest people", came from both Guangdong and Fujian provinces. They form the second largest group of people after the Min people. Large numbers of Hakka settled in the western parts of Malaya and North Borneo and worked as miners in the 19th century as valuable metals such as gold and tin were discovered. Descendants of these miners formed the largest community among the Chinese in Selangor[35] and very large communities in Perak (specifically Taiping and Ipoh),[36] Sarawak, Sabah, and Negeri Sembilan.[37] As the gold and tin mining industries declined in economic importance in the 20th century, many turned to the rubber industry, and large numbers of Hakka settled in Kedah and Johor (principally in Kulai and Kluang).[38] In Sabah, where the majority of ethnic Chinese are of Hakka descent, many of them were involved in agriculture. They cut down the forests to make way for tobacco, rubber, and coconut plantations. In time, the Hakka community also dominated the state's industry and economy. However, even today, many Sabahan Hakkas are still involved in agriculture, especially those living in rural towns such as Tenom and Kudat, where they are often the backbone of the local industry.


Main article: Cantonese people

The Cantonese people, who speak Cantonese, came from both Guangdong and Guangxi provinces and they can be subdivided into the following three subgroups. They form the third largest group of people after the Hakkas. They are found predominantly in Malaysia's capital city Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding Klang Valley region.


The Guangfu (广府人) came from the area around Guangzhou. They settled down in Kuala Lumpur of the Klang Valley, Ipoh of the Kinta Valley in Perak, Pahang as well as Seremban in Negeri Sembilan and Sandakan of Sabah. They started development and turned these early settlements into principal towns. Most of the early Cantonese worked as tin miners. From the late 19th century onwards, as the tin mining industry declined in economic importance, the Cantonese as well as other Malaysian Chinese gradually shifted their focus to business and contributed much to social and economic development in Malaya.

Sei Yap[edit]

The Sei Yap (四邑人) people came from Sei Yap and speak the Sei Yap dialect. Sei Yap districts include Taishan, Kaiping, Enping and Xinhui. Sometimes Heshan county is included.


The Guangxi people from Guangxi came in much smaller numbers than those from Guangdong. The largest concentration settled in Bentong, Mentakab and Raub, Pahang.[18]

Wu people[edit]

Main article: Wu Chinese

The smallest group of people who came during the third wave are the Wu people from Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai. They were mostly involved in Chinese education, tailoring and construction.[18]


Whole country[edit]

An early census of ethnic groups in the British Malay states, conducted by the British in 1835, showed that ethnic Chinese constituted 8 percent of the population and were mainly found in the Straits Settlements, while the Malays and Indians made up 88 percent and 4 percent of the population respectively.[39]

Malaya's population quickly increased during the 19th and 20th centuries, although the majority of Chinese immigrants were males rather than females.[40] By 1921, Malaya's population had swollen to nearly three million, and the Chinese constituted 30 percent while the Malays constituted 54.7%, the population growth being fuelled by immigrants from neighbouring Indonesia (the Indians made up most of the remainder). While the Chinese population was largely transient, and many coolies returned to China on a frequent basis, 29 percent of the Chinese population were local-born, most of whom were the offspring of first-generation Chinese immigrants.[41]

The British government began to impose restrictions on migration during the 1930s, but the difference between the number of Chinese and Malays continued to decrease even after World War II. The 1947 census indicated that the Malays constituted 49.5% of the population, compared to the Chinese at 38.4%, out of a total population of 4.9 million.[42]

Malaysian Chinese historical demographics (%)
1835 1921 1947 1957[43] 1961
(8.0%) (30.0%) (38.4%) (45.0%) (36%)
1970 1980 1991 2000[44] 2010[45][46]
3,564,400(37%) (33.9%) 4,623,900 (28.1%) 5,691,900(26.1%) 6,960,900(24.6%)

By state & territory[edit]

The 2010 Population and Demography Census Report gives the following statistics (excluding non citizens):[47]

Selangor is the state with the most number of Chinese in terms of absolute numbers whereas Penang is the state with the most number of Chinese in terms of percentage.

State Chinese Population % of Population
Johor 柔佛 1,034,713 33.6%
Kedah 吉打 255,628 13.6%
Kelantan 吉兰丹 51,614 3.4%
Malacca 马六甲 207,401 26.4%
Negeri Sembilan 森美兰 223,271 23.2%
Pahang 彭亨 230,798 16.2%
Perak 霹雳 693,397 30.4%
Perlis 玻璃市 17,985 8.0%
Penang 槟城 670,400 45.6%
Sabah 沙巴 295,674 12.8%
Sarawak 砂拉越 577,645 24.5%
Selangor 雪兰莪 1,441,774 28.6%
Terengganu 登嘉楼 26,429 2.6%
Kuala Lumpur 吉隆坡 655,413 43.2%
Labuan 纳闽 10,014 13.4%
Putrajaya 布城 479 0.7%

States with large Chinese population[edit]

As of 2012, the majority of Chinese people are concentrated in the west coast states of west Malaysia with significant percentage of Chinese (30% and above) such as Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Johor, Perak and Selangor.

Areas with significant Chinese populations

Penang island, Bukit Mertajam

Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1812[48] 26,107 9,854 37.7% 7,558 28.9%
1820 35,035 14,080 40.2% 8,595 24.5%
1860 124,772 71,723 57.4% 36,222 29.0%
1891 232,003 92,681 39.9% 86.988 37.5%
1970[49] 775,000 247,000 30.6% 436,000 56.3%
1990[50] 1,150,000 399,200 34.5% 607,400 52.9%
2000 1,313,449 48.5% 40.9%
2005[51] 1,511,000 624,000 41.3% 650,000 43%
2010 1,561,383 642,286 43.6% 670,400 45.6%

Kuala Lumpur
Kepong, Cheras, Bukit Bintang, Old Klang Road, Sri Petaling, Pudu, Segambut.

Johor Bahru, Skudai, Batu Pahat, Kluang, Muar, Kulaijaya, Segamat, Yong Peng, Labis, Ledang, Pontian.

Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1931[52] 505,311 46.4% 41.4%
1947[52] 738,251 43.8% 48.1%
2000 2,740,625 57.1% 35.4%
2010 3,348,283 1,811,139 58.9% 1,034,713 33.6%

Ipoh, Taiping, Batu Gajah, Sitiawan, Teluk Intan, Gopeng, Gunung Rapat, Kampar

Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1891[53] 94,345 44.0%
1901[53] 329,665 150,239 45.6%
2000 2,051,236 54.7% 32.0%
2010 2,352,743 1,302,166 57.0% 693,397 30.4%

Subang Jaya/USJ, Puchong, Petaling Jaya, Damansara Jaya/Utama, Bandar Utama, Serdang, Klang, Kuala Kubu Bharu.

Year Total population Malay Percentage Chinese Percentage
1891[54] 81,592 23,750 50,844
1931 [52] 533,197 23.1% 45.3%
1947[52] 710,788 26.4% 51%
2000 4,188,876 53.5% 30.7%
2010 5,462,141 2,877,254 57.1% 1,441,774 28.6%
2011[55] 5.46 Million 1.45 Million 29 %

States with medium Chinese population[edit]

These are states where the Chinese are a significant minority (10% - 29.9%) such as Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Sarawak and Sabah.

The following are areas in these states with significant Chinese populations:


Negeri Sembilan




  • Chinese Sabahans are concentrated in the main cities and towns, which are Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Tawau, Lahad Datu and Kudat. However, several rural regions in the south (most notably Beaufort and Keningau) also have sizeable Chinese communities.

Predominant languages by region[edit]

Although their ancestral origins are different, due to intermarriages between the different linguistic groups and also due to regional influences, different regions have formed within Malaysia, each with its own de facto lingua franca to facilitate communication between the different Chinese varieties in the same region.

Furthermore, the younger generations have generally lost command of their own languages (e.g. Hainanese, Hing Hua) and prefer to speak the lingua franca in each region.


Northern Peninsular Malaysia Penang,[56] Kedah, Perlis, East Coast, Taiping are predominantly Penang Hokkien speaking, which has a similar accent with Medan Hokkien

Klang, Malacca and Johor groups are also predominantly Hokkien-speaking but the variant spoken is Southern Malaysian Hokkien, which has a similar accent to Singaporean Hokkien and Riau Hokkien. Likewise, Sarawak Chinese speak their own accent of Hokkien in various places in Kuching.

In Sibu and Sitiawan, Fuzhou (or Foochow) is widely spoken but it is not a lingua franca.


Hakka, specifically the Huiyang (惠阳, Hakka: Fui Yong) variant, is the main Chinese variety in the East Malaysian state of Sabah. According to the 1991 census, 113,000 Sabahans identified themselves as being of Hakka descent. This is a clear majority over the Cantonese, of whom there were 28,000, making them a distant second.[57] This makes Sabah the only state in Malaysia where Hakka is the predominantly spoken Chinese variety among the local Chinese.

The Chinese in Ipoh and to a lesser extent the Chinese in certain other parts of Perak, are largely Hakka-speaking at home, but use Cantonese as a lingua franca when doing business and eating out, due in part to the dominance of Cantonese cuisine. This is also true in many other Hakka-populated areas throughout Malaysia, meaning that, even in the many predominantly ethnic Hakka areas, Hakka Chinese is rarely heard on the streets.

In other regions of Malaysia, there are significant numbers of Hakka people, for example in the town of Miri in Sarawak and in major cities in Peninsular Malaysia. However, many do not speak Hakka due to the stronger influence of Hokkien and Cantonese in Peninsular Malaysia. The variants of Hakka most widely spoken in Malaysian states other than Sabah are the Ho Poh and Moiyan (Meixian) variants, which are very seldom spoken in Sabah itself.


The Chinese population in the central region of Peninsular Malaysia, including Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Subang Jaya, Seremban, Ipoh, Kampar & Kuantan are predominantly Cantonese speakers. Cantonese is also the lingua franca spoken among the Chinese in Sandakan. The only district dominated by Cantonese in Johor is Mersing.

Many Chinese who speak other varieties are able to understand and/or speak Cantonese at various levels due to the influence of movies and television programs from Hong Kong, which are aired on the local cinemas, on the TVB and various Cantonese-based channels through the Astro pay television service.


The Teochew dialect was the lingua franca of the Chinese community in Johor Bahru until the 1970s.[58]


As a result of influence from the Mandarin-dominant media from Singapore and proximity of Johor to Singapore (Johor and parts of Malacca are able to receive Singapore's free-to-air TV). Johor Bahru has become predominantly Mandarin-speaking.

In the whole of Malaysia, Mandarin is increasingly used as a lingua franca among the younger generation Chinese who are Chinese-educated. The younger generation Chinese who are English-educated and Malay-educated still use non-Mandarin Chinese dialects to communicate among strangers depending on regions.


Baba Malay which is a creole based on Malay and Hokkien was predominantly spoken in Malacca among the Baba/Nyonya in the past.

There is no other towns in Malaysia where the Chinese use Baba Malay or Standard Malay as the lingua franca to communicate among themselves.

Education system and languages literacy[edit]

Most Malaysian Chinese are multilingual in his own Chinese dialect, English and Bahasa Malaysia. However, the level of proficiency in each language is different and depends on which education stream and education level they have received.

Education stream[edit]

Malaysian Chinese can be categorised to be educated in three different streams of education: English-educated, Chinese-educated and Malay-educated.

English educated[edit]

During the British colonial period (before 1957) and for years after independence (1957-1969), English schools originally established by the British colonial government were regarded as more prestigious than the different vernacular schools. As a result, a significant number of older Malaysian Chinese who attended school before the 1970s are English-educated.[59]

All classes, including Maths, Science, Geography and History were conducted in the English medium of instruction. Most Malaysian Chinese of older generations are English-educated and has the highest English language proficiency of all three groups. However, they can't read Chinese characters or speak any Chinese dialects proficiently. Most of them can't write or speak Malay as proficiently as the Malay-educated.

Beginning in the 1970s, English-medium teaching were gradually replaced with Malay-medium teaching in English national-type schools, which became Malay-medium national schools.[60] Since then, most parents send their children to Chinese primary schools.

However, there are mainly two options for a small percentage of Malaysian Chinese to get a complete English education post 1970. Some send their children to private English international schools in Malaysia which teach a syllabus to sit for the IGCSE exam, while others send their children to Singapore where all the courses are conducted in English except for mother tongue language.

As of 2012, it was reported that up to 10% of Malaysian Chinese were primarily English-speaking.[61]

Chinese educated[edit]

Chinese-educated Malaysians are those who attended Chinese schools for at least the primary school level who can at least read and write Chinese simplified characters. In Chinese schools, Mandarin Chinese is a compulsory subject for all students with Chinese primary school background. This group has the highest Chinese language proficiency of all three groups.

Due to many lexical and grammatical similarities between Mandarin and Chinese dialects, some of them might also be proficient in their own ancestral Chinese dialect and/or Chinese lingua franca in the region they grew up in.

The older generation were completely educated in traditional Chinese characters, that is, they can read and write traditional Chinese characters, because the simplified characters were only introduced in the 1980s. The older generation Chinese educated might not be well versed in simplified Chinese characters.

In 2003 to 2011, the Malaysian government introduced an experimental policy of using English as the language of instruction for science and mathematics at primary and secondary schools. A compromise was reached that Chinese primary schools would teach science and mathematics in both Chinese and English. In July 2009, the education minister announced that the medium of instruction for science and mathematics would revert to the original languages of instruction starting from 2012.[60]

Malay educated[edit]

Those who attend Malay-language national-type schools are Malay-educated and have the highest proficiency in the Malay language of all three groups after 11 years of Malay language education. Those who attend Malay national schools speak very little Mandarin Chinese though most are able to converse in other varieties of Chinese like Hokkien and Cantonese at the elementary level and not proficiently.[62]

All courses are conducted in Malay except for the English language. Those who started their standard one education in government schools after the year 1970 have poorer command of English proficiency on average due to the lower standard of English as compared to the British colonial period. The English proficiency level of the Malay-educated and Chinese-educated Chinese is generally lower and they speak a form of English-based creole called Manglish. English is also not a compulsory subject to pass for the secondary school public exam Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia.

Education level[edit]


Today, about 90%-95% [63][64][65] of Malaysian Chinese children in Malaysia go to Mandarin-medium primary schools, while only a small group of 10% (or more) attend Malay-medium primary schools. There are 1293 Chinese primary schools in Malaysia as at year 2012.[61]


About 95% [64] of the Malaysian Chinese switch to Malay-medium schools for their secondary education. The reason is that Malay-medium secondary schools are free while Chinese independent high schools are not.[66]

Only 5% [64] of Malaysian Chinese attend either the Chinese national-type schools like Chung Ling High School ,Jit Sin High School, Heng Ee High School and Catholic High School, Malaysia or the Chinese independent high schools like Foon Yew High School and Sabah Tshung Tsin Secondary School, where all (if not 90%) of the students are Chinese after attending the Chinese primary schools.

There are 61 Chinese private independent schools and 78 SMJK (C) Chinese secondary schools in Malaysia as at year 2012.[61]


At the tertiary level, most bachelor's degree courses offered at public universities are taught in the national language, that is, Malay, while post-graduate studies are usually conducted in English.

English is used as the primary medium of instruction at most private higher educational institutions.[62] Many Malaysian Chinese also do twinning programs with overseas universities in UK, USA, Australia and Canada where all the courses are conducted in English.

For those who chose to have their tertiary education in Chinese, there are three private Chinese colleges as at year 2012.[61] There are those who do their Chinese tertiary education in Taiwan or China.

However, there are no statistics conducted to determine what percentage goes to which of these three different medium of instructions for their tertiary education.


Name format[edit]

Main article: Chinese name

Before Mandarin gained popularity among Malaysian Chinese in the late 20th century, Malaysian Chinese romanised their names according to the their respective Chinese varieties. For example, the Hakka name would be written "Yap Ah Loy", and the Hokkien name 林梧桐 would be written as "Lim Goh Tong".


In line with the rise of Mandarin as a lingua franca among Malaysian Chinese in the later half of the 20th century, younger Malaysian Chinese tend to retain the pronunciation of their surname in their mother tongue while using the Mandarin pronunciation for their given name.

For example, the Cantonese name 陳永聰 (s 陈永聪, p Chen Yongcong) is romanised as Chan Weng Choong.

Still more recently, the given name will be written in the official pinyin romanisation, although often retaining the Malaysian Chinese tendency to treat each character as a separate word. Chan Yung Choong might start writing his name as Chan Yong Cong.

Some people do not adhere strictly to particular pronunciations and choose to modify the spelling. For example, a Mandarin pronunciation of a name can be "Chen", but some people like to spell it differently. Others also have surnames misspelt since colonial times.


Some Malaysian Chinese also adopt an English given name. English given names are normally written before the Chinese name. For example, goes by the name Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng.


Non-Muslims who marry a Muslim in Malaysia must convert to Islam. Such converts normally adopt a Muslim name to use in addition to their original name. These are not usually the long Arabic names but just a shorter one – e.g., Abdullah Tan Yew Leong.


Religions of Chinese Malaysians[67]
Religion Percent
No religion

Chinese Buddhism[edit]

Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang

The largest group and majority of Chinese Malaysians identify themselves as Buddhists, Taoists or practitioners of the Chinese folk religion and ancestor worship. Chinese Buddhism was brought over from China and has been traditionally embraced by Chinese and handed down over the generations in Malaysia.

Chinese Buddhism incorporates both Buddhism and Taoism which includes praying with incense, paying respect to dead ancestors and Taoist deities. Taoist deities don't contradict Buddhism because Buddhist believe in many deities which are called devas and reside in the heavens. Offering to dead ancestors which are thought to be Taoism can be seen in the hungry ghost festival which is Buddhist in origin.


The second largest group are Christian (Protestants and Catholics). They are mostly converted by people who went to western countries for their university education.


The Malacca Chinese Mosque, the third mosque built in a Chinese-style in Malaysia.

The third largest group professes Islam, primarily as a result of conversion through marriage to Muslims. There are a number of Chinese Malaysians who were born Muslims, meaning born to Muslim family of Chinese blood and whose ancestors are Muslims by faith, because Indonesians and Malays came to know about Islam from South Indians, and not through Arab missionaries.


A very small percentage are Hindus and they visit and pray in Hindu temples, and even participate in Thaipusam.


Malaysian Chinese eat all types of food, including Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western cuisines. Few Malaysian Chinese are vegetarians, and those who do are usually devout adherents of Buddhism. Malaysian Chinese food contains similarities and differences with the Chinese food in China.

Traditional Chinese cuisine[edit]

Malaysian Chinese food is similar to the food in Southern China as it is primarily derived from the Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew cuisines. This includes Wonton noodles, Dim Sum, Taufu Fa and Hainanese chicken rice which can be found in southern China.

Bak Kut Teh from Klang

Localised Chinese cuisine[edit]

A number of traditional Chinese dishes have been developed, either by the use of local ingredients or through fresh invention, into local speciality without spicy Malay ingredients.

  • Penang Char kway teow was invented in Penang and is the most popular version with cockles, beansprout and chives. This localised dish is quite different from the one in China.[68]
  • Klang Valley Hokkien mee (dry dark thick noodles) and Loh Mee (滷面) (thick noodles in clear gravy), was reputedly created by the owner of a stall named Kim Lien Kee (金連記) in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur.[69]
  • During Chinese New Year, Malaysian Chinese will also eat Yu Sang which is unique to Singapore and Malaysia. The origin of this dish is still under debate; it was reportedly created in Singapore in 1964,[citation needed] then a part of the Federation of Malaysia.
  • Klang Bak Kut Teh, said to have been invented by the owner of a stall named Seng Huat (盛發) in Klang, Selangor.[69][70]

Malay-Chinese cuisine[edit]

The confluence of different cultures in Malaysia have produced food which showed elements from the different communities. Influences from the spicy Malay cuisine can be found in local inventions such as Curry Mee, Curry Chicken and Chili Crab. A particular well-known Malay-Chinese fusion cuisine is the food of the Nonya or Peranakan. The influence of the Peranakan cuisine can be found in dishes such as Laksa and Mee Siam.

Chinese associations[edit]

There are Chinese associations that help to promote Chinese culture or promote ancestral clan tie.

Northern region[edit]

  • Penang Hokkien Association [71]

Central region[edit]

  • Chinwoo Athletic Association Selangor and Kuala Lumpur promotes Shaolin Kungfu and other cultural activities.


  • Selangor and Kuala Lumpur Hokkien Association promotes kinship among Hokkien.[73]
  • Selangor And Kuala Lumpur Kwang Tung Association promotes kinship among Cantonese.


Southern region[edit]

  • Johor Bahru Hokkien Association [75][76]



Relatively many Chinese Malaysian students in each cohort obtain at least five ‘O’ level passes, enabling them to progress to higher education. The proportion has increased steadily from 44% in 1980 to 84% in 2005 compared to a national average of 81% and was the highest out of the three major ethnic groups in Malaysia.[77]

Similarly, the proportion of Chinese Malaysian ‘A’ level students who obtained at least two ‘A’ and two ‘AO’ level passes in the GCE ‘A’ Level examination (including General Paper) has increased from 68% in 1980 to 92% in 2005 compared to a national average of 91% and was the highest out of the three major ethnic groups in Malaysia.[77]

The proportion of a Chinese P1 cohort admitted to post-secondary institutions (Institutes of Technical Education, Polytechnics, Junior Colleges/Centralised Institutes) has more than doubled, from 65% in 1990 to 96% in 2005.[77] In addition, the proportion of Chinese P1 cohort entering local publicly funded tertiary institutions (polytechnics or universities) has increased from 13% in 1980 to 69% in 2005. Both percentages were above the national average and were the highest out of the three major ethnic groups in Malaysia.

The switch from Mandarin-medium primary school to Malay-medium secondary school for the majority of Malaysian Chinese has resulted in many school drop-outs as students are unable to cope with the differences in the medium of instruction. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) pointed out an estimated 25% of Chinese students drop out before reaching the age of 18; the annual drop-out rate is estimated to be over 100,000 and worsening. Certain drop-outs become apprentices in workshops, picking up skills like plumbing or motor repair. Others eager to make a quick buck find themselves involved in illicit trades, such as peddling pirated DVDs or collecting debts for loan sharks.[78]

However, in October 2011, Deputy Education Minister Wee Ka Siong indicated that the 25% drop-out rate may not be accurate as many Chinese students choose to pursue their studies at private schools (including Chinese independent high schools) or overseas such as in Singapore, while the Malaysian government only collates student data from the national school system, giving a false impression of a high drop-out rate.[79]

The number of Chinese Malaysian primary school drop-outs has decreased steadily over the years.[77] Out of every 1,000 Malay primary school students, there were just 0.1 Chinese Malaysian drop-outs in 2005, compared to 0.3 nationally.[77]


Overall ethnic share of total employment in Malaysia is roughly proportionate to the number of Chinese in the Malaysian population.[80] The Chinese are more likely to be involved in commerce and the modern sectors of the Malaysian economy. Between 1970 to 1995, Malaysian Chinese share of the white-collar labour force fell from 62.9% to 54.7% in the administrative and managerial category.[81]

Despite comprising nearly a quarter of the Malaysian population, 54.7% of Malaysian Chinese work in administrative and managerial jobs, while their presence in professional and technical fields was proportionate to the percentage of Chinese in the Malaysian population.[82] In 1988, Chinese Malaysians made up 58% of the Malaysian white-collar workforce, providing a disproportionate percentage of Malaysia's doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, accountants, and engineers well exceeding their respective population ratios compared to Bumiputera, however this is not the case anymore as Bumiputera do currently accommodate a proportionate amount of the white-collar workforce as do the Chinese today.[7] According to a February 2011 study, by Albert Cheng, in 2000, 25.8% of Chinese Malaysians worked as registered professionals compared to 63.9% for Bumiputera following close with proportion to their respective population rates.[83]


While the national home ownership rate in Malaysia was 91.7% in 2005, 92.9% of Chinese Malaysian households owned the home they lived in, which is an insignificant difference.[77] In terms of housing affordability, Chinese Malaysians could afford houses priced between 120,000 RM and 180,000 RM.[84]

In 2012, Chinese Malaysians had the lowest poverty rates among major ethnic groups in Malaysia, with a rate of 0.3% compared with the Bumiputera rate of 2.2%.[85] For the Malaysian Chinese community, the mean income rose from 394 RM in 1970 to 4,279 RM in 2002, a figure that was an increase of 90.8% and was 80.0% above Bumiputera (2,376 RM) and 40.5% above Malaysian Indians.[86][87] In 2005, Chinese Malaysian household income remained the highest out of all three major ethnic groups in Malaysia, with a monthly household income of 4,570 RM compared to the monthly national average of 4,320 RM.[77] Income distributions show dramatic differences among the three main ethnic groups in Peninsular Malaysia (Malays, Chinese, and Indians) and between the rural and urban subgroups. Chinese incomes are larger, on the average or median, and are more unequally distributed than those of Malays or Indians. However, because relatively more of Chinese income is received from market activities, broadening the definition of income reduces the relative difference between Chinese households and the other two ethnic groups. Mean Chinese business income is almost five times as large as mean Malay business income, but median business income for Malay households exceeds median Chinese business income from business ventures.[85] Malaysian Chinese have the highest household income among the three major ethnic groups in Malaysia. According to Sulaiman Mahbob, as of December 2007, the monthly average household income was at 4,437 RM.[88][89][90][91]

Since early settlement during the 15th century, Chinese Malaysians are considered one of the wealthiest ethnic groups in Malaysia and have been more prosperous than other ethnic communities in Malaysia.[92] In February 2001, Malaysian Business released its list of the 20 richest Malaysians. Sixteen of the 20 and 9 of the top 10 were ethnic Chinese. A number of other wealthy Chinese outside the top 20 also control well-managed corporations.[93] According to a 2011 Forbes magazine list, eight out of the top ten richest Malaysians are ethnic Chinese.[94][95][96] According to economic data compiled by the Malaysian daily Nanyang Siang Pau in 2012, ethnic Chinese make up 80 percent of Malaysia's top 40 richest people.[97] In 2014, Forbes magazine reported that 8 out of 10 of the ten richest person in Malaysia are ethnic Chinese.[98]


Chinese are the largest taxpayers among the three ethnic groups in Malaysia. Only 10 percent of the total workforce pay any income tax.[99] Out of these 10 percent, Chinese make up 80 to 90% of the taxpayers.[100]

Trade and industry[edit]

Chinese Malaysians played a major role in the development of the tin, petroleum, and rubber industries and also continue to own 85 percent of Malaysian retail outlets. Chinese-owned mines produced nearly two-thirds of the tin in Malaysia. Many used their savings to open small businesses, where some grew into large enterprises. Typically, many of their enterprises have been family-controlled and family-run.[101] In 1964, Sino-Malaysians accounted for 91.7% of the private corporate holdings in Malaysia and ownership of the Malaysian gravel pump and small-scale tin mines were completely placed in the hands of ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs.[102] By 1970, glaring economic disparity between the Malays and Chinese was wide as Malaysian Chinese entrepreneurs were estimated to control 26% of the assets in the corporate sector, 26.2% of the manufacturing and 92.2% of the non-corporate sector.[103] Malaysian Chinese entrepreneurs operate as a more urban business community, dominating trade and commerce, primarily tin mining and agriculture.[86] Back in 1990, Chinese in Malaysia are estimated to control 50% of the construction sector, 82% of wholesale trade, 58% of retail trade, 40% of the manufacturing sector, and 70% of the small-scale enterprises.[104]

In 2002, the Chinese Malaysian share of the overall Malaysian economy stood at 40% since the implementation of the Malaysian New Economic Policy and the Chinese share in the non-agricultural sector fell from 51.3% to 45.9% from 1970 to 1980.[105][106][107] Chinese Malaysian businessmen are estimated to occupy 34.9% of Malaysia's LLC companies, the highest percentage of ownership among the three major ethnic groups in Malaysia.[82][83] To seek extra funding and seed money for potential business start-ups, many Malaysian Chinese entrepreneurs have turned to the Malaysian Stock Exchange for business expansion and potential IPOs.[108] In 1995, the seven biggest investors in the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange were all ethnic Chinese, with 90 percent of the smaller and younger companies on the second exchange of the KLSE are also Chinese controlled.[109] Malaysian Chinese businesses are part of the larger bamboo network, a network of overseas Chinese businesses operating in the markets of Southeast Asia that share common family and cultural ties.[110]

Home ownership and the utilisation of property as an investment is also prevalent in the Malaysian Chinese community.[105] Real estate investing is a common business and a source of wealth for Malaysian Chinese as it not only provides a steady source of monthly income from rental proceeds and a hedge against inflation, but also raises the standard of living for Malaysians who are not in the right economic position to purchase a home for themselves. In 2005, Malaysian Chinese owned 69.4% of the business complexes, 71.9% of all commercial and industrial real estate, as well as 69.3% of all the hotels in Malaysia, reflecting Chinese control over the various business and commercial establishments around the nation.[105]

However, the underprivileged section of the Malaysian Chinese continue to be excluded from affirmative-action programmes despite their genuine need for support in obtaining employment, government subsidised education, and housing. This perception of a zero-sum game amongst the races has unfortunately fuelled protests by frustrated sections of the hitherto quiescent community – who consequently faced a heavy-handed response from the authorities. Recently, the Malaysian government has at least pledged to change this by increasing assistance to needy Malaysians regardless of race, creed, or national origin.[111]


The Chinese in Malaysia maintain a distinct communal identity and rarely intermarry with Muslim Malays for religious and cultural reasons. According to Muslim laws, the Chinese partner would be required by law to renounce their religion and adopt the Muslim religion. Most Malaysian Chinese consider their being "Chinese" at once an ethnic, cultural and political identity.

However, there are many who have intermarried with Malaysian Indians, who are predominantly Hindu. The children of such marriages are known as Chindians.[112] Chindians tend to speak English as their mother tongue.

In the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak, Malaysians of mixed Chinese–Native parentage ("Native" referring to the indigenous tribes in those states; for example, Iban and Melanau in Sarawak and Kadazan and Murut in Sabah) are referred to as "Sino" (e.g., Sino–Iban, Sino–Kadazan). Depending entirely on their upbringing, they follow either native customs or Chinese traditions. A small minority forgo both native and Chinese traditions, instead opting for a sort of cultural anonymity by speaking only English and/or Malay and not practising either Chinese or tribal customs. Offspring of such an intermarriage may or may not be considered Native, and those granted Native status may also have the status revoked at any time, as seen by the Sabah state government revoking the Native certificate of state opposition leader Jimmy Wong Sze Phin despite his grandmother being a native.[113]


Main article: Malaysian diaspora

Among emigrants, Chinese Malaysians form the largest outflow or brain drain amongst all ethnic groups in Malaysia. More than two million Malaysians have emigrated since the year 1957.[114]

Singapore received the highest percentage of Malaysian Chinese due to the similarities between the language and culture of both countries and also the very close distance.

Australians of Malaysian Chinese descent make up the majority (65%) of the population of the Australian external territory of Christmas Island.[115] They also make up the largest ethnic group of all Malaysians in Australia with 70.2% of Malaysian-born Australians claiming Chinese ancestry in the 2006 census.

Other favorite destinations include the English-speaking countries the UK, the USA, Canada and New Zealand.[citation needed]

In recent years, there is a small number of emigration back to China and Taiwan due to the rise of China's economic power.[citation needed]



The political scene in Malaysia is strongly divided along racial lines, with people of different ethnic origin generally supporting politicians of their own racial origin. The Chinese population is represented in the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional mainly by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), although the support for the party among the Malaysia Chinese varies and at times weak. A smaller number support Gerakan. Other Chinese-dominated parties in the coalition include Sarawak United Peoples' Party. A large number of Malaysian Chinese support the opposition Democratic Action Party which is particularly strong in the Chinese urban areas of Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Perak, Selangor, Johor and Negeri Sembilan. There are however recent attempts at multiracial approach to politics with Keadilan.[116]


Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia grants the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King of Malaysia) responsibility for “safeguard[ing] the special position of the ‘Malays’ and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities” and goes on to specify ways to do this, such as establishing quotas for entry into the civil service, public scholarships and public education.[117]

Partly in line with the constitution, Malaysia has devised a long-standing policy of providing affirmative action to Bumiputeras (ethnic Malays and indigenous people of East Malaysia) which spans over four decades. Affirmative action is provided in the form of the Malaysian New Economic Policy or what is now known as the National Development Policy[118] Under such affirmative action, various concessions are made to Bumiputeras. Amongst many other concessions, 70% of seats in public universities are to be allocated to Bumiputeras, all initial public offerings (IPOs) must set aside a 30% share for Bumiputera investors and monetary support is provided to Bumiputeras for entrepreneurial development.[7]

Notable Malaysian Chinese[edit]

See also[edit]


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