WHILE all ethnic groups in Malaysia have contributed greatly to its economic development, the Chinese contribution to nation-building was given recognition by the British as long ago as the early 1900s.
The colonial government acknowledged that the prosperity of British Malaya was partly built upon the labour and enterprise of the Chinese from China in the early days. British administrator Sir Frank Swettenham wrote at the beginning of the 20th century:
“Under the present [tough] conditions, the Chinese are the bone and sinew of the Malay states. They are the labourers, the miners, the principal shopkeepers, the capitalists, the holders of the revenue farms, the contributors to almost the whole of the revenue; we cannot do without them.”
In the late 1800s, opening up the forests to plant rubber and mine for tin was done by the Chinese. Tin and rubber were the two pillars of the economy in the 19th century and a large part of the 20th century.
And after independence from British rule in 1957, the descendants of these Chinese immigrants followed their parents’ footsteps. Their combined efforts had laid the foundation for modern Malaysia.
According to the book The Chinese Malaysian Contribution published in 2006 and launched by former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, it was the Chinese who developed the early tin mining industry.
More than 1.5 million Chinese arrived from China in between 1881 and 1900 to open up tin mines in Perak, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan. The later active involvement of the British made Malaya the largest tin producer in the world.
But behind the early success of the tin industry lay the blood, sweat and tears of tin miners, who led a rough and unpredictable life. Very often, a tin mine worker lived only two to three years due to unbearable living conditions.
The influx of Chinese immigrants in the 1850s to open up thick primary forests of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak saw the cultivation of tapioca, gambier, tobacco, sugar cane, pepper, and other spices. Rubber came later.
History records that in 1896, Tan Chay Yan from China pioneered the commercial planting of rubber in Malacca. Other prominent Chinese such as Tan Kah Kee and Lee Kong Chian turned rubber into a key export commodity.
Enterprise, hard work, diligence, frugality, adaptability, and risk taking had served the Chinese well, although similar traits are also seen in successful individuals in other ethnic groups.
After 1957, with most of the locally-born Chinese choosing to become citizens of the newly independent country, the contribution of these Chinese Malayans (and later Malaysians) widened to new sectors.
In the rubber sector, many local Chinese ventured into rubber-based industries. Local Chinese made the first rubber wood furniture in the world. Today, Malaysia is the world’s largest manufacturer of rubber gloves and condoms.
In the palm oil sector, Chinese were among the first planters in the 1960s. The late Tan Sri Ngan Chin Wen from Sitiawan was one of them. The other major players in the sector include Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd’s Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng and IOI Group’s Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng.
In addition, Chinese entrepreneurs have also played a vital role in the downstream activity of palm oil. Lam Soon built the first palm oil refinery in the 1960s. In 1980, Chan Yit Meng built the first Malaysian oleochemical plant in Penang. And since the 1980s, the Kuok Group has been a huge international trader for palm oil. Today, Malaysia is the world’s largest palm oil exporter.
Chinese have also played an important role in the development of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which accounts for over 90% of all businesses in the manufacturing, services and the agricultural sectors. And 37 out of 50 top tycoons are ethnic Chinese, according to the Forbes’ list of richest Malaysians.
The country has also benefited from the success of Chinese businessmen. Apart from creating jobs, their companies pay huge taxes. In early 2006, Dr Mahathir disclosed that the Chinese were the biggest contributors to government tax revenue.
Many Chinese tycoons are also prepared to share their wealth by donating generously to charities, education and support medical and cultural causes to benefit all races.
One of the most outstanding philanthropists was Tan Kah Kee (1874-1961), who donated all profits from his rice trading, pineapple plantations and canning factories, rubber estates, shipping and food manufacturing to schools, education and other causes in 1925.
His nephew, rubber magnate Tan Lark Sye (1897-1972) followed suit. He was also noted for mobilising the people to set up the Nanyang University of Singapore, which bred many entrepreneurs in the 1960s and 1970s.
Likewise, founder of Lee Rubber Group Lee Kong Chian (1893-1967) gave large donations to universities and schools. The Lee Foundation dishes out RM200 million annually to charities and needy students of all races, according to a director.
The other notable philanthropists include the late Tan Sri Lee Yan Lian, Tan Sri Loh Boon Siew and Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng; Robert Kuok, Tan Sri Vincent Tan, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah and Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay.
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on December 8, 2014.