Story: Malaysians and Singaporeans

When Malaysians and Singaporeans first came to New Zealand as students in the 1950s, few found the country lively enough to want to stay. But after immigration regulations changed in the late 1980s, many others arrived with the intention of staying permanently, hoping to make the most of the clean air and opportunities for enterprise.

Story by Carl Walrond
Main image: Malaysian food at an international food festival, University of Otago, 1998

Story summary

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The histories of Malaysia and Singapore were intertwined in the 20th century, and both countries are ethnically diverse, with Chinese, Malay, Indian and indigenous groups. Communities of Malaysians and Singaporeans in New Zealand have sometimes banded together for support.

In 2013, 16,350 New Zealand residents were born in Malaysia, and 5,270 in Singapore.

Malaysian arrivals

Malaysian students began coming to New Zealand in the 1950s because of a lack of places at Malaysian universities. Most returned home after studying, but some stayed in New Zealand for work or marriage. By the mid-1970s Malaysian students were a large proportion of overseas students in New Zealand universities. Significant numbers kept coming until the 2000s.

In 1987 immigration laws changed to encourage migrants with business skills. Thousands of Malaysians – especially Chinese Malaysians – moved to New Zealand, and many set up businesses.

Malaysian culture

Migrants from Malaysia often speak several languages, including English, Malay (for ethnic Malays) and Mandarin (Chinese Malaysians). The most common religions for Malaysians in New Zealand are Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

There are Malaysian societies in Auckland and Canterbury, and Malaysian students’ associations at universities. Malaysians celebrate their national day on 31 August. Annual Malaysian student sport tournaments began in the 1970s.

Malaysian restaurants have become popular, serving dishes such as curry laksa and roti canai (Malaysian flatbread).


Singaporean students, mostly Chinese, have come to New Zealand since the 1960s, due to a lack of places at universities in Singapore. Many found New Zealand too quiet and returned home after completing their studies. After the 1987 immigration law changes, more Singaporeans arrived in New Zealand. Some invested heavily in businesses and property.

In 2013 about half of Singaporeans in New Zealand are ethnically Chinese. Most speak English, Malay and Chinese dialects, sometimes mixing them in ‘Singlish’. The majority are Christians, and most live in Auckland. Singaporean clubs and student groups celebrate events such as Singapore National Day on 9 August.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Malaysians and Singaporeans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 February 2005, reviewed & revised 1 October 2015