Making Malaysian Chinese: War Memory, Histories and Identities

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Frances Tay


This thesis proposes a new perspective on Malaysian Chinese studies by exploring issues of identity formation refracted through the lens of contestations of war memory, communal history and state-sponsored national history. In multiethnic Malaysia, despite persistent nation-building programs towards inculcating a shared Malaysian national identity, the question as to whether the Chinese are foremost Chinese or Malaysian remains at the heart of Malaysian socio-political debates. Existing scholarship on the Malaysian Chinese is often framed within post-independent development discourses, inevitably juxtaposing the Chinese minority condition against Malay political and cultural supremacy. Similarly, explorations of war memory and history echo familiar Malay-Chinese, dominant-marginalised or national-communal binary tropes. This thesis reveals that prevailing contestations of memory and history are, at their core, struggles for cultural inclusion and belonging. It further maps the overlapping intersections between individual (personal/familial), communal and official histories in the shaping of Malaysian Chinese identities. In tracing the historical trajectory of this community from migrants to its current status as 'not-quite-citizens,' the thesis references a longue durée perspective to expose the motif of Otherness embedded within Chinese experience. The distinctiveness of the Japanese occupation of British Malaya between 1941-1945 is prioritised as a historical watershed which compounded the Chinese as a distinct and separate Other. This historical period has also perpetuated simplifying myths of Malay collaboration and Chinese victimhood; these continue to cast their shadows over interethnic relations and influence Chinese representations of self within Malaysian society. In the interstices between Malay-centric national history and marginalised Chinese war memory lie war memory silences. These silences reveal that obfuscation of Malaysia's wartime past is not only the purview of the state; Chinese complicity is evident in memory-work which selectively (mis)remembers, rejects and rehabilitates war memory. In excavating these silences, the hitherto unexplored issue of intergenerational memory transmission is addressed to discern how reverberations of the wartime past may colour Chinese self-image in the present. The thesis further demonstrates that the marginalisation of Chinese war memory from official historiography complicates the ongoing project of reconciling the Malaysian Chinese to a Malay-dominated nationalist dogma.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date31 Dec 2015