Oct 30, 2011

Is Singapore Taking Away Malaysia’s Peranakan Heritage?

An old (but interesting) article found on the Internet about the state of the Peranakan Culture in Malaysia.
Category: Articles
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Is Singapore Taking Away Malaysia’s Peranakan Heritage?

The opening of Singapore’s Asian Civilisational Museum was greeted with mixed feelings in Malaysia. Some letter writers to The Star and the New Straits Times lamented that all things Peranakan were being “hijacked” by Singapore. Many exhibits at the museum, they claimed, came from Malaysia. Furthermore, Malaysian donors were very generous to the Singapore-based museum.

This is not so much envy as a lament. Many Malaysians of Peranakan ancestry feel unappreciated, their contribution to nationhood ignored.


Are we losing our heritage to Singapore or giving it away? Crockery at a home in Muntri Street, the traditional Straits Chinese enclave in George Town, Penang.

In the grip of ethnic politics

Malaysia is still in the grip of ethnic politics, our national identity is highly contested. There are those who see national identity as predicated upon the indigenous culture. In Malaysia’s case, Malay culture and language are promoted as national culture and national language.

Other Malaysians feel that national identity should be based upon the reality of the multi-racial nation state. They believe in being Malaysian first.

Not Fitting in

Peranakans did not fit into any ethno-nationalist moulds. Neither Chinese nor Malay, Peranakans were tolerated as anomalies. Until recently, Peranakan culture was anathema to some Chinese Malaysians. They, like their Malay counterparts, view “Chineseness” as some sort of ideal purity. To them, the Peranakan Chinese were derascinated. Luckily, in an increasingly globalised world, such views are fast losing their currency.

On the other hand, the Peranakan Chinese resisted assimilationist policies promoted by Malay ethno-nationalists. Even if they wanted to assimilate, religion stood in their way. A Malay was defined as a Muslim who practices a Malay way of life. Jawi Peranakans and Arab Peranakans easily assimilated but not the Peranakan Chinese or Chitty Peranakans, most of whom were not Muslims.

Even in Singapore, only recently, with a new national emphasis on being a multicultural global city was Peranakan culture actively promoted by the government. Previously, the Singapore government held firmly to the “Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others” formula, allowing very little blurring of those ethnic categories that went on to define Singaporean national identity. Ethnicity was strictly regulated leaving commerce the only “glue” to hold the people together.


PM Lee Hsien Loong: “I am a Baba”

“Riding an Old identity”

One explanation for the “Peranakan revival” we are witnessing in both our countries is the material success of our community. In an increasingly globalised world, communities with a history of quick adaptation and openness to different ideas are those that will succeed. Communities that continue “riding an old identity”, to quote the Singaporean poet Arthur Yap, will become historical curiosities. So, a combination of high consumerism and new national aspirations, as in the case of Singapore, has resulted in celebration of all things Peranakan.

The Singaporean government is to be congratulated for having the determination to re-brand their country, making that nation state more relevant to its new global context. If Malaysians are unhappy about all their “heritage” moving down south, it is up to us to take a stand. Let us take the reins into our own hands and make our own futures.


Posted by Neil Khor