Friday, January 8, 2016

A Cultural Revolution in Malaysia

By TASH AW JAN. 7, 2016, New York Times [original article contains links]

Shila Amzah image from

KUALA LUMPUR — Shila Amzah is a Malaysian pop star famed as much for
her fashion sense as for her powerful voice. Her vast collection of striking,
multicolored hijabs has made her a style icon and a role model for young
Muslim women across the country. These days, though, she sings primarily in
Mandarin, and — as her 2.5 million followers on the Chinese microblogging
site Weibo suggest — a majority of her fans are from mainland China.

In a country wary of Islam — the Chinese government has a fractious
relationship with its ethnic Uighur minority in the western province of
Xinjiang — Ms. Amzah’s popularity, which verges on superstardom, is
remarkable. Xila, as she is known to her fans in China, is affable and relaxed in
front of the cameras, conducting interviews in impeccable Mandarin after
living only two years in China.

Yet her rise is attributable not just to her beauty, charm or wardrobe, or
even to her mastery of the love ballads adored by Chinese of all ages, but to a
rapidly evolving cultural relationship between China and Malaysia.

As China seeks to extend its influence in Southeast Asia, its presence is no
longer confined to its economic power and military bases in the disputed
South China Sea, but is expanding into the fields of culture, language and
education. In so doing, China is reviving centuries-­old links between the
mainland and its network of ancient trading partners like Malaysia.

Malaysia’s sizable ethnic Chinese population makes it a natural cultural
ally for China. About a quarter of Malaysians — nearly seven million people —
are of Chinese descent, offspring of a long­-established diaspora. The Chinese
began to arrive in great numbers in the 19th century as part of the British
colonial government’s policy of importing indentured laborers to work in the
country’s tin mines and rubber estates.

Last year brought the conclusion of the Malacca­-Guangdong development
agreement, designed to secure future cooperation between the Malaysian state
and China’s most populous province across virtually every domain — from
trade and investment to land reclamation to green technology and museums
and educational institutions. Although China’s primary interest is in Malacca’s
potential as a maritime partner — the state occupies an enviable position
halfway along the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes
— the agreement also reflects how China’s interests are broadening beyond the
traditional realms of trade, into those of culture and education.

The partnership is also calculated to appeal to Malaysia’s sense of history
and identity: Malacca was the stage for China’s first significant commercial
and cultural exchanges with Malaysia in the 15th century, when the Ming
emperors forged alliances with the sultans of Malacca. More recently,
Guangdong has been the province that has provided Malaysia with its largest
number of Chinese immigrants, after the southern province of Fujian.

North of Malacca, in the city of Salak Tinggi in the state of Selangor, the
Malaysian branch of China’s Xiamen University has just been completed. This
is the first time a Chinese university has established a campus abroad and
provides a clear sense of China’s ambitions. But the choice of Xiamen
University, the seat of higher education in Fujian, also symbolizes the two
countries’ entwined relationship, given that the university was founded in 1921
with funds sent to China from Malaya (as the country was then called) by Tan
Kah Kee, an immigrant from Fujian who had made his fortune in the rubber

Among Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese population, China’s influence on local
tastes is perhaps most noticeable in the growing use and appreciation of
Mandarin as a language of everyday usage, as well as a vehicle for popular
culture among the young. In Kuala Lumpur, a city whose ethnic Chinese
population is drawn heavily from a centuries-­old Cantonese-­speaking
community with roots in Guangdong Province, Mandarin TV series from
mainland China like “Red Sorghum” and “Reunion Dinner” are rapidly gaining
in popularity at the expense of Hong Kong­-produced Cantonese dramas that,
until recently, dominated Chinese-­language viewing in Malaysia. These shows,
together with news and entertainment programs, which are available on a
range of channels broadcast by CCTV, China’s official network, are often
included in Malaysian cable and satellite subscriptions.

Most striking of all have been the inroads — principally through pop
music — that Mandarin is making with Malaysia’s Malay­-Muslim majority.
Until now, this community had little engagement with Chinese culture and
language since Malaysia gained independence in 1957. Primed over the last
decade by the universal appeal of Mandarin­speaking singers from Taiwan like
Wang Leehom and Jay Chou, young Malaysians of all backgrounds now
enthusiastically follow popular mainland Chinese talent shows like “Asian
Wave” and “I Am a Singer.”

Both featured Ms. Amzah: Singing principally in Mandarin, she won one
and placed third in the other. As further proof of how important pop music is
to the way China’s image is changing in Malaysia, Xila — resplendent in her
trademark hijab — was invited to perform for China’s president, Xi Jinping,
during his last visit to the country.

Keen to foster relationships with its partners in the region, China is even
encouraging a two­-way flow of culture. Tuning into local radio stations
recently, I discovered China Radio International’s Malay­-language channel,
which broadcasts programs about both China and Malaysia, including a
current series on Islamic culture in China. These programs were all delivered
by Chinese presenters — in flawless Malay.

Tash Aw is the author of three novels, including, most recently,
“Five Star Billionaire,” and a contributing opinion writer.

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