Story: Malaysians and Singaporeans

Page 1. Similarities and differences

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Although relations between the countries were sometimes tense, the histories of Malaysia and Singapore were intertwined in the 19th and 20th centuries. Distinct communities of Malaysians and Singaporeans developed in New Zealand, but they shared some features in common and sometimes banded together for mutual support.

From British control to independence

In the early 19th century the Malay trade centres of Malacca, Dinding, Penang and Singapore were controlled by the British East India Company, and in 1867 these so-called ‘Straits Settlements’ came under direct British control as a Crown colony. By 1916, 42 people born in the Straits Settlements were resident in New Zealand – most of them probably British settlers.

Other Malay kingdoms also became British protectorates, and those on Peninsular Malaysia formed the Malayan Union in 1946, which became the Malayan Federation in 1948. The federation achieved independence in 1957, while continuing to belong to the British Commonwealth. Meanwhile Singapore became a self-governing state within the Commonwealth in 1959. More people from the Malayan Federation and Singapore arrived in New Zealand from this time – many of them students. By 1961 there were 470 people born in the Malayan Federation and 326 born in Singapore living in New Zealand.

Malaysia and Singapore

The name Malaysia was adopted in 1963 when the Malayan Federation joined with Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak. However, in 1965, after ideological disagreements, Singapore was expelled from the federation. In New Zealand the Malaysian–Singapore Students Association was formed at the University of Otago in 1963. Universities in other centres also set up joint associations. These continued for some years after Singapore left the Malayan Federation, suggesting that familiar languages, religious beliefs and customs were more important to those making their way in New Zealand than political differences back home.

Ethnicities and religion

Both Malaysia and Singapore are ethnically diverse. Most of the Malaysian population are Bumiputra – ethnic Malay Muslims and non-Malay indigenous peoples. About a quarter of the population are Malaysian Chinese, and there are smaller groups of Indians (mainly of Tamil origin) and various other South Asian peoples.

Singapore is home to similar ethnic groups, in different proportions. The majority are Singaporean Chinese, and there are significant Malay and Indian minorities.

New Zealand communities

In the 2013 New Zealand census, 16,350 people were born in Malaysia. Of these, more than five-eighths gave their ethnicity as Chinese or Malaysian Chinese. The next most numerous were Malays, with smaller groups of Indians and other Asian peoples.

New Zealand people born in Singapore numbered 5,370 in 2013. Around half identified as Chinese or Singaporean Chinese, and there were small groups of Indians, Malays and other Asian peoples. Nearly a quarter gave their ethnicity as New Zealand European, and there were several hundred Māori, reflecting the fact that Singapore has been a base for New Zealand armed services, banks and companies.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Malaysians and Singaporeans - Similarities and differences', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/malaysians-and-singaporeans/page-1 (accessed 16 November 2018)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 Feb 2005, reviewed & revised 1 Oct 2015