Students have been the most significant group of Malaysians to arrive since they first started coming in the 1950s, because of a shortage of places at their local universities. Typically, Chinese Malaysians were funded by their parents, while Malays often came on Colombo Plan scholarships. After completing their education most Malaysian students returned home, but some remained in New Zealand to take up employment or get married, gaining permanent resident status or New Zealand citizenship.
By the late 1960s there were hundreds of Malaysian students throughout New Zealand. Racial riots in Malaysia in 1969 encouraged even more students to seek an education in New Zealand. Following the riots, Malaysia introduced affirmative action policies to help the Bumiputra (Malays and indigenous people) achieve economic equality with the wealthier Chinese. Preferential university entry for Bumiputra made it harder for ethnic Chinese to enter Malaysian institutions of higher learning, so many came to New Zealand universities.
By the mid-1970s Malaysians formed a large proportion of overseas students at New Zealand universities. In 1977 the government introduced a quota of 300 new Malaysian university students per year, and a substantial fee was imposed on all overseas students three years later. In response, the New Zealand Union of Malaysian Students was formed to lobby for the interests of overseas students.
Malaysian students continued to arrive in significant numbers in the 1980s and 1990s. By 1996 there were 2,320 Malaysian university students and 322 school students in New Zealand. However, in the 2000s numbers dropped as Malaysia began to implement reforms in its education sector. In 2013 there were 1,788 Malaysian tertiary students and 90 school students in New Zealand.
Food for thought
Like many 1960s students, Yee Fong Chun found holiday work to help get him through university. ‘One of my workmates, a tough looking Maori, used to call me “chop suey”. I have yet to find out why the Chinese were identified with “chop suey” because, as a dish, chop suey is probably not known in any restaurants in … Kuala Lumpur … However, I accepted the friendly teasing and reciprocated by calling him “Hangi”, and having established our respective identities we became the best of friends’.1
From 1987 thousands of Malaysians arrived following changes to immigration regulations. New rules abandoned the traditional preference for migrants from the United Kingdom and allowed entry to any person who could fulfil criteria based on skills and income. Long-standing educational, trade and military links between New Zealand and Malaysia made New Zealand an attractive destination.
Chinese Malaysians were especially quick to take up new opportunities to emigrate, often coming to New Zealand (usually Auckland) to establish business ventures. Of the 8,820 Malaysian-born people resident in New Zealand in 1991, only 1,383 were Malay; most of the rest were Chinese Malaysians.
However, it became evident by the late 1990s that not all migrants settled well. About a third of some 16,000 Chinese Malaysians who had arrived in the decade ending 1998 subsequently left. Many younger people looked overseas, as New Zealand was seen as too slow-paced and lacking a wide range of career opportunities.
In spite of this, the Malaysian-born population grew steadily in the 2000s. Many Malaysians work in business or the professions, and some are employees of Malaysia-based multinational corporations or joint Malaysia-New Zealand enterprises.