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Nation, Race, and Language: Discussing transnational identities in colonial Singapore, circa 1930

  • CHUA AI LIN (a1)

Abstract

Around 1930, at a time of rising nationalisms in China and India, English-educated Chinese and Indians in the British colony of Singapore debated with great intensity the issue of national identity. They sought to clarify their own position as members of ethnic communities of immigrant origin, while remaining individuals who identified the territory of British Malaya as their home. Readers' letters published in the Malaya Tribune, an English-medium newspaper founded to serve the interests of Anglophone Asians, questioned prevailing assumptions of how to define a nation from the perspectives of territory, political loyalty, race, and language. Lived circumstances in Malaya proved that being Chinese or Indian could encompass a range of political, cultural, and linguistic characteristics, rather than a homogenous identity as promoted by nationalist movements of the time. Through these debates, Chinese and Indians in Malaya found ways to simultaneously reaffirm their ethnic pride as well as their sense of being ‘Malayan’.

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References

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1 Vlieland, C. A., British Malaya (the Colony of the Straits Settlements and the Malay States Under British Protection, Namely the Federated States of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang and the States of Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Trengganu, Perlis and Brunei): A Report on the 1931 Census and on Certain Problems of Vital Statistics (London: Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1932), Table 1.

2 Under British colonial administration, the Malayan peninsula was known as ‘Malaya’. The present-day sovereign state of Malaysia was formed in 1963, combining Malaya with two other former British territories on Borneo Island – Sabah and Sarawak.

3 The term ‘Straits Chinese’ is explained in a later section.

4 Malaya Tribune, Special Supplement, 18 January 1935, p. 1; Silver Jubilee Supplement, 16 January 1939, pp. 2, 6; Peter Laurie Burns, ‘The English Language Newspapers of Singapore, 1915–1951’, Academic Exercise, University of Malaya, 1957, p. 28.

5 From May 1934 onwards, the daily slogan underneath the paper's name on the front page read, ‘Largest Circulation of Any Daily Newspaper in Malaya’. Circulation figures for the paper were professionally audited by the chartered accountants, Messrs. Derrick and Co., and the figures were open to inspection by the public. Malaya Tribune, Special Supplement, 18 January 1935, p. 1; and 3 February 1937, p. 10.

6 Malaya Tribune, Silver Jubilee Supplement, 16 January 1939, p. 2; 29 May 1933, p. 8; 28 February 1935, p. 8; 29 January 1936, p. 14; and 1 November 1938, p. 14.

7 See letters in Malaya Tribune, 14 September 1929, p. 11; 9 October 1929, p. 10; 27 September 1929, p. 11; 10 October 1929, p. 11; 11 October 1929, p. 11; 12 October 1929, p. 10; 14 October 1929, p. 12; 10 October 1929, p. 11; and 12 October 1929, p. 10.

8 Malaya Tribune, 27 September 1929, p. 11.

9 Malaya Tribune, 4 October 1929, p. 11.

10 Malaya Tribune, 9 October 1929, p. 10.

11 Most contemporary definitions of the Straits Chinese include characteristics of a Malay-influenced hybrid culture in terms of language, dress, and food. However, during the interwar period, ‘Straits Chinese’ also included those who were born in the Straits Settlements and whose families may have been in Malaya for generations but did not exhibit a Malay-influenced culture. For more detailed discussion of the definition of Straits Chinese, see Seng, Png Poh, ‘The Straits Chinese in Singapore: A Case of Local Identity and Socio-Cultural Accommodation’, Journal of Southeast Asian History, 10 (1), March 1965, pp. 9699; Clammer, John, Straits Chinese Society: Studies in the Sociology of the Baba Communities of Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1980), pp. 211; and Rudolph, Jürgen, Reconstructing Identities: A Social History of the Babas in Singapore (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), pp. 2573.

12 For an economic perspective on dual nationality, see Lin, Man-Houng, ‘Overseas Chinese Merchants and Multiple Nationality: A Means for Reducing Commercial Risk (1895–1935)’, Modern Asian Studies, 35 (4), 2001.

13 From the available statistics, it is possible to arrive at a general idea of the numbers of Straits Chinese, as distinct from nominally Straits Settlements-born Chinese in Singapore, if we assume that (a) a Straits Chinese was born in the Straits Settlements; (b) was literate in English (although this artificially presumes that all Straits Chinese were able to pay the school fees at English schools); and (c) that almost all English-literate Chinese in Singapore received their education in British Malaya. By calculating the percentage of English-literate Chinese over the total number of Straits Settlements-born Chinese in Singapore, we arrive at a figure of 40.22 per cent (Census of British Malaya 1931, Tables 149 and 100). Given that Straits Settlements-born Chinese made up 35.11 per cent of the Singapore population, the English-speaking, permanently settled Straits Chinese would have comprised about 14 per cent of the total Chinese population in Singapore.

14 Straits Echo editorial, 10 January 1931, p. 8. Reprinted in the Malaya Tribune, 16 January 1931, p. 4.

15 Malaya Tribune, 12 February 1931, p. 12. The Hu Yew Seah (League of Helping Friends) was started in 1915 in Penang to promote the study of Chinese language and literature among the Straits Chinese, and by the late 1930s was noted to be ‘the cultural centre for Penang Chinese’. One of the society's trustees, Heah Joo Seang, described its members as, ‘Leaders of thought, lovers of truth, champions of the cause of justice, democracy and liberty’: see Malaya Tribune, 14 December 1940, p. 6.

16 Colonial Office (CO) file series CO 273/606/50055/3, Monthly Review of Chinese Affairs (MRCA) 57 (May 1935), p. 26; CO 273/628/50055/1, MRCA 77 (January 1937), p. 16. On conditions for joining the Straits Settlements Civil Service, see CO273/584/92144, encl. 3, Clementi to Cunliffe-Lister, 14 October 1932.

17 CO 273/628/50055/2, MRCA 82 (June 1937), p. 32.

18 Singapore Chinese Mandarin School, First Anniversary Special Magazine (Singapore: Hwa Nan Press, 1930).

19 Malaya Tribune, 12 February 1931, p. 12.

20 See, for example, Malaya Tribune, 27 May 1929, p. 4; 28 February 1930, p. 3; 6 March 1930, p. 3. However, Straits Chinese concern for China did increase. By December 1936, aid to China had reached a level which the colonial government found worrying and legislation was introduced to stop donations to military causes. Proceedings of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements (PLCSS), [6]7 December 1936, B131–132. Following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, public concern for the situation in China among the Straits Chinese became more marked, with correspondingly more donations.

21 Malaya Tribune, 23 September 1931, p. 11.

22 Malaya Tribune, 13 January 1930, p. 11; 15 January 1930, p. 11; 16 January 1930, p. 11; and 24 September 1932, p. 4.

23 With Tamils comprising 60.8 per cent of the total Indian population in Singapore, and 83 per cent of the total Indian population of the Straits Settlements (Census of British Malaya 1931, Table 62), it can be taken that, unless explicitly stated, the ‘Indian’ activity described in this paper reflected a largely Tamil perspective.

24 Rajeswary Ampalavanar, ‘Social and Political Developments in the Indian Community of Malaya 1920–41’, MA thesis, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, 1969, pp. 63–65.

25 Malaya Tribune, 24 December 1936, p. 14; 7 January 1937, p. 7; and 12, 10 March 1937, p. 10. Stenson, Michael, Class, Race and Colonialism in West Malaysia: The Indian Case (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1980), p. 46. As early as 1930, Sastri had already been discouraging overseas Indians from involving themselves in India's politics. His view was supported by J. M. Sen Gupta, the mayor of Calcutta, who gave an interview to the Malaya Tribune entitled, ‘Indians Overseas: How they can Help the Motherland’, Malaya Tribune, 21 February 1930, p. 11.

26 Malaya Tribune, 26 May 1937, p. 11. See also Ampalavanar, ‘Social and Political Developments’, pp. 60–61.

27 The Indian, 5 June 1937, quoted in Ampalavanar, ‘Social and Political Developments’, p. 69.

28 Stenson, Class, Race, pp. 40–46.

29 The Malaya Tribune stated its policy repeatedly, for example in 6 March 1931, p. 8 and 21 April 1932, p. 11.

30 Hobsbawm, E. J., Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) pp. 107–09.

31 CO 273/585/13008/4, MRCA 37 (September 1933), p. 15.

32 Letters on this issue appeared in Malaya Tribune, 15 October 1929, p. 5; 16 October 1929, p. 11; 25 October 1929, p. 11; 4 November 1929, p. 4; 6 November 1929, p. 12; 13 November 1929, p. 2; 16 November 1929, p. 3; 19 November 1929, p. 7; 21 November 1929, p. 11; 22 November 1929, p. 11; 23 November 1929, p. 5; 26 November 1929, p. 3; 27 November 1929, p. 2; and 28 November 1929, p. 2.

33 Malaya Tribune, 26 November 1929, p. 3.

34 Malaya Tribune, 16 November 1929, p. 3.

35 Malaya Tribune, 16 November 1929, p. 3; see also 28 September 1929, p. 11; and 26 November 1929, p. 3.

36 Malaya Tribune, 19 November 1929, p. 7.

37 Malaya Tribune, 29 September 1929, p. 11.

38 Malaya Tribune, 10 October 1929, p. 11; 7 December 1929, p. 3; 25 April 1930, p. 13.

39 See, for example, Malaya Tribune, 25 October 1929, p. 11; 26 November 1929, p. 3; 16 November 1929, p. 3; 27 November 1929, p. 2; and 17 December 1929, p. 4.

40 In 1913, the Conference on Unification of Pronunciation held in Peking adopted Mandarin as a standard language, calling it Guoyu (national language), with the intention that it would be used not just in official communication, but also as a replacement for regional dialects in daily life. The Kuomintang-dominated government, which was established in Nanking in 1927, extended the nationalistic significance of Guoyu when it became the standard language (Biaozhunyu) of the Chinese minzu (translated variously as ‘nation’, ‘nationality’ or ‘ethnic group’)—envisaged as a single people inhabiting a unitary state which had as its ideal a single language spoken by all. See DeFrancis, John, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984), pp. 224–25; for fuller discussion, see DeFrancis, John, Nationalism and Language Reform in China (New York: Octagon Books, 1972).

41 For example, see letters in Malaya Tribune, 27 September 1929, p. 11; Malaya Tribune, 4 October 1929, p. 11; Malaya Tribune, 10 October 1929, p. 11; and 9 October 1929, p. 10.

42 Letters on the debate were published in Malaya Tribune, 17 May 1929, p. 11; 27 May 1929, p. 4; 28 May 1929, p. 12; 29 May 1929, p. 11; 31 May 1929, p. 4; 1 June 1929, p. 12; 3 June 1929, p. 12; 4 June 1929, p. 12; 5 June 1929, p. 11; 26 August 1929, p. 11; 11 September 1929, p. 11; 12 September 1929, p. 11; 16 September 1929, p. 11; 19 September 1929, p. 11; 20 September 1929, p. 5; 21 September 1929, p. 10; 25 September 1929, p. 11; 26 September 1929, p. 11; 28 September 1929, p. 11; 1 October 1929, p. 11; 2 October 1929, p. 11; and 3 October 1929, p. 11.

43 Malaya Tribune, 16 September 1929, p. 11.

44 Malaya Tribune, 15 June 1929, p. 9.

45 For an account of the Hindi language movement in Kuala Lumpur, see Ampalavanar, ‘Social and Political Developments’, pp. 66–67.

46 Readers' letters on the Tamil language were published in Malaya Tribune, 17 February 1930, p. 11; 20 February 1930, p. 11; 26 February 1930, p. 3; 28 February 1930, p. 3; 3 March 1930, p. 2; 4 March 1930, p. 11; 8 March 1930, p. 4; and 11 March 1930, p. 11.

47 Ampalavanar, Rajeswary, ‘Tamil Journalism and the Indian Community in Malaya, 1920–1941’, Journal of Tamil Studies, 2 (2), 1970, pp. 5153; Vasandakumari Nair, ‘Tamils Reform Association, Singapore (1932–61)’, Academic Exercise, University of Singapore, 1972, pp. 15–18; Arasaratnam, S., ‘Social Reform and Reformist Pressure Groups Among the Indians of Malaya and Singapore 1930–1955’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 40 (2), December 1967, p. 59; Stenson, Class, Race, p. 40.

48 Malaya Tribune, 27 May 1929, p. 4.

49 Malaya Tribune, 20 September 1929, p. 5.

50 Malaya Tribune, 10 April 1930, p. 11; 26 April 1930, p. 4; and 30 April 1930, p. 11.

51 Qian Xuantong was among the most extreme of the central leaders of the New Culture Movement during the May Fourth Movement period in China. His ideas on Chinese language reform were expounded in his essay ‘Zhongguo jinhou de wenzi wenti’ (, ‘The Problem of Present-Day China's Writing System’), in Xin qingnian () 4 (4), 15 April 1918, pp. 350–55.

52 Malaya Tribune, 25 October 1932, p. 4.

53 Straits Echo, 22 March 1926, p. 8; Jasbir Kaur Dhaliwal, ‘English Education in the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States, 1896–1941’, Academic Exercise, University of Malaya, Singapore, 1961, pp. 14–15.

54 Malaya Tribune, 14 February 1931, p. 13; and 24 April 1931, p. 11.

55 Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism, pp. 112–18.

56 The formal inauguration of the Singapore Chinese Mandarin School took place on 4 January 1930 and classes began two days later; see Malaya Tribune, 6 January 1930, p. 8. Classes for the Chinese National Language School began on 15 February 1930; see Malaya Tribune, 9 January 1930, p. 11; and 25 January 1930, p.11. Other organizations such as the Nanyang Chinese Students' Society also offered language classes; see Malaya Tribune, 27 March 1930, p. 2.

57 Malaya Tribune, 20 November 1929, p. 11; 29 November 1929, p. 2; 9 December 1929, p. 11; 13 December 1929, p. 11; 11 January 1930, p. 11; 24 January 1930, p. 2; and 24 February 1930, p. 11.

58 Malaya Tribune, 11 March 1930, p. 11; and 25 March 1930, p. 11.

59 Malaya Tribune, 17 May 1929, p. 11; 27 May 1929, p. 4; 29 May 1929, p. 11; 11 September 1929, p. 11; 16 September 1929, p. 11; and 26 September 1929, p. 11.

60 Malaya Tribune, 21 September 1929, p. 10.

61 Malaya Tribune, 21 September 1929, p. 10; and 1 October 1929, p. 11.

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