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Malaysians and Singaporeans

by Carl Walrond

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.

Similarities and differences

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 forces, banks and companies.

Malaysian arrivals


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

Recent immigrants

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.

    • Yee Fong Chun, ‘Home thoughts from abroad.’ In People like us, edited by Anthony Haas and others. Wellington: Asia Pacific Books and the Government Printer, 1982, p. 91. Back

Malaysian culture

Languages and religions

As Malaysia is a multicultural society, migrants often speak several languages. Among Malays and Malaysian Chinese, English is the most frequently spoken language. The second most common language for Malays is Malay, while Northern Chinese (Mandarin) is often spoken by Chinese Malaysians.

Religions are also diverse. In Malaysia the state religion is Islam, but Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and traditional Chinese religions are also practised. In New Zealand, the most common religions are Buddhism and Christianity for Malaysian Chinese, and Islam for Malays.


In the 2010s there were Malaysian societies in Auckland and Canterbury, as well as Malaysian students’ associations in universities. All provided support for new arrivals and celebrated major cultural festivals such as Deepavali (or Diwali, the beginning of the Hindu New Year) and Chinese New Year.

Another focus for the Malaysian community is the High Commission in Wellington, which was set up in 1969, 12 years after New Zealand and Malaysia established diplomatic relations.

Malaysians gather annually to celebrate their national day on 31 August.

Sepak takraw

The first student sports tournament featured the Malay game sepak takraw (like volleyball, but using feet instead of hands to propel the ball). In the 2000s the Malaysian High Commission in Wellington set up a sepak takraw court in its car park.


Sport is a favoured recreation, for young people in particular. Most 1960s students had little time for activities outside study, but some excelled at sports such as badminton. Raymond Yap, a Malaysian at Massey University in the early 1970s, was instrumental in introducing and popularising the martial art taekwondo in New Zealand. In 1974 Malaysian students also organised their first sports tournament. These became annual fixtures and typically ended with a malam kebudayaan (cultural night), which included dancing, singing and musical renditions. In the 2010s Malaysian students’ associations take turns to host the annual Bersatu Games.


Malaysian cuisine has become perhaps the most prolific and visible aspect of the culture in New Zealand. Dishes such as curry laksa and roti canai (Malay bread) have proven very popular, and Malaysian restaurants thrive nationwide.


New Zealand has long-standing links with Singapore and established diplomatic relations in 1965. There is a Singapore High Commission in Wellington.

Student visitors

Singaporean students, mostly Chinese, have been coming to New Zealand since the 1960s. It was common for young people to study overseas, as there were few places available at local universities. Initially, many found New Zealand boring and unbelievably quiet. Although students tended to return after completing their studies, their travels blazed a trail for future migrants.

Less money, nicer air

Shih Liang Chye left Singapore for New Zealand in 1984. He was joined by his partner two years later, and they had two children. He explained that he took a pay cut of more than 50% so the family could live in a country with fresh air, clean water and greenery, and an open, egalitarian society.

Chinese Singaporean immigrants

In 1981 the Singapore-born population in New Zealand was 1,884. Changes to the immigration system in 1987, which encouraged people with business skills to come to New Zealand, stimulated migration. By 1996 the number of people born in Singapore had reached 3,477.

Life in Singapore, the ‘Lion City’, could be highly stressful, and many migrants who arrived during the 1990s were in search of quieter times. Singaporeans invested heavily in businesses and residential property. But not all stayed – over the 1990s some left as they found New Zealand’s economy too small to support their enterprises.

Languages and religions

While around half of Singaporeans in New Zealand in 2013 were ethnically Chinese, many were culturally Malay. Some Baba or Straits Chinese speak only Malay. For the most part, however, migrants are multilingual, speaking English, Malay and Chinese dialects. Sometimes words are mixed into a hybrid tongue dubbed ‘Singlish’.

In Singapore, Buddhism is the most widely practised religion, with Christianity, Taoism and Islam next most common. In 2013 the most common religion for Singaporean Chinese in New Zealand was Christianity, with Catholic and Pentecostal denominations most prominent.


Most Singaporeans have settled in Auckland, which supports a national club. There are also clubs in Wellington and Christchurch, and student groups at universities.

Christchurch’s Singapore Club, formed in 1993, published quarterly newsletters in the early years. In the 2010s it uses its website and social media to communicate with members. It continues to help new migrants settle, and provides information about local matters, including reconstruction efforts following the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. It is also forging links with other organisations that support migrants. Singapore’s diverse ethnicities are reflected in the club’s events, which include celebrations of the Chinese Lantern Festival and Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights.

Auckland’s Singapore Club website has details about its social activities, and invites new members to ‘come and join us and we can create our own kampong [village] right here in this beautiful country’.1

Clubs often celebrate key dates, including Singapore National Day on 9 August. At such events, authentic fare is served, including chicken rice, buah keluak (blacknuts) and chap chye (mixed vegetables).


Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in countries now called Malaysia and Singapore.


  • 1951 census: 165


  • 1976 census: 4,101
  • 2001 census: 11,463
  • 2006 census: 14,547
  • 2013 census: 16,350


  • 1881 census: 4
  • 1951 census: 94
  • 1976 census: 1,672
  • 2001 census: 3,912
  • 2006 census: 4,857
  • 2013 census: 5,370

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Malay: 3,540 (2006); 4,794 (2013)
  • Malaysian Chinese: 1,353 (2006); 1,848 (2013)
  • Singaporean Chinese: 603 (2006); 741 (2013)

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Malaysians and Singaporeans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

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