Malaysian Voices in the Malaysia-China Relationship

Researchers Dr TehDr WooDr Ng


The relationship between China and Malaysia has a history that spans two centuries. Discounting the voyages of Admiral Zheng He through the Straits of Malacca, large-scale Chinese migration to Malaya (Peninsular Malaysia) and Singapore began in the 19th century, driven by the new development frontier that the Nanyang offered and both political turmoil and agricultural adversities in China. That phase, which reached its height early in the early 20th Century, was curtailed by the onset of the Pacific War in 1941.

The relationship entered a new phase when the war ended. Migration had ceased, while political changes both in China and Malaya, together with geopolitical developments saw the two countries face off as adversaries. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China and decolonization in Malaya put each country in opposite camps in the Cold War. The uprising by the Malayan Communist Party in Malaya made things worse. Thus, even as Malaysia, formed in 1963, became the first Southeast country to establish full diplomatic relations with China in 1974, normal relations were not restored until 1990 under Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

1990 marked the beginning of the third phase which is characterized by warming economic relations. China became Malaysia’s largest trade partner in 2009, a situation that has been unchanged since. Also beginning about 2013, Chinese foreign direct investment began its significant rise and by 2016/17, China has also become Malaysia’s largest FDI partner. Beyond this, Chinese enterprises are having an increasing presence in Malaysia, with its state banks, Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the China Construction Bank having outlets here, while enterprises like Huawei, ZTE, Cherry, are becoming significant market players in Malaysia. Now, as China embarks on its latest and most far-reaching initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative, bilateral relations between the two countries will almost certainly intensify.

Rationale for the Project

This intensification has the potential to benefit both countries but also poses challenges. These challenges arise because greater interaction increases the possibility of misunderstanding between the countries. It is therefore incumbent for China and Malaysia to strive towards better understanding of each other’s positions.

A general assumption for improving understanding is through state-to-state ties. However, even in principle, this leaves out other major stakeholders who can shape public attitudes regarding bilateral relations. Further, as interactions between Chinese and Malaysian entities become more complex and diverse, the role of non-state stakeholders become even more important. Despite the government’s best efforts at regulation, social media in Malaysia is alive and well and its ability to sway public opinion a proven fact. Malaysia’s situation is also complicated by the fact that it is a multi-ethnic society in which ethnic markers are embedded in the country’s politics.

Identifying and understand the perceptions of key stakeholders in the China-Malaysia relationship is therefore vital to its success. While this is clearly the case for Malaysia, it is no less important for China, despite its size advantage, since the success of initiatives like the BRI that involves many countries require proper understanding of each. In addition, China’s interface with its neighbors in modern times really only began in 1978.

Thus, the first step to understanding this relationship through the eyes of Malaysia’s key stakeholders is the overarching objective of the proposed project.