Seri Kembangan, Selangor, is 22km to the south of Kuala Lumpur and just 20 minutes away from Putrajaya, Malaysia’s gaudy administrative centre.
Sixty years ago, this would have been scrubland dotted by tin mines, rubber plantations and small market gardens. The area is home to a patchwork of predominantly Chinese Malaysian communities with a large Hakka contingent, hardened wayfarers from Southern China – a people accustomed to living on marginal land.
In the early 1950s, most of the inhabitants were corralled into euphemistically named “New Villages” such as Sekinchan and Jinjang as the British colonial authorities sought to quell a nagging communist insurgency.
But what was formerly a no-man’s-land has long since been transformed into choice real estate. There is the iconic Commonwealth sports complex, a Turf Club, that bizarre Mahathir-era hostelry the Palace of the Golden Horses and countless small factories, townships, shopping centres and housing estates.
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Such pleasant surroundings mask somewhat gloomier statistics. According to the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) think-tank, the Chinese Malaysian community’s numbers are plummetting.
The ASLI warns Chinese Malaysians will constitute just 19.6 per cent of the country’s population by 2030 if migration trends continue as they are, down from 37.2 per cent in 1957.
The ASLI’s findings chime with a 2011 World Bank study that found 57 per cent of Chinese Malaysian emigres ended up in Singapore.
Yet some young Chinese Malaysian families are upbeat about the future, particularly as the Lunar New Year celebrations approach, and say they have no plans to migrate.
Among them are Charlyn Lee and Steven Chan, both in their 30s, who live with their two young daughters in a semi-detached house on a quiet cul-de-sac removed from the everyday clatter.
Snug behind a security checkpoint, they live next door to Steven’s parents with a convenient connection on the first floor.
Melaka-born Charlyn is very much looking forward to the festivities for the Year of the Rooster. Coming from a large family, she enjoys Lunar New Year reunions and sees them as an opportunity for her children to experience their culture, from the lion dance to lai see envelopes.
The pair say they are well aware of their good fortune.
Steven, who runs a successful steel fabrication business that exports well over 50 per cent of its production, says that economic challenges such as a declining ringgit and softening domestic demand have not impacted his factory.
“Malaysia is still the best place in the region to manufacture,” he says. “Costs are reasonable and it’s efficient. In other countries, there are just too many ‘politicians’.”
For Steven, the word “politicians” is a shorthand for unnecessary bureaucratic meddling.
As with most businessmen, he does not appreciate political uncertainty, and says of the upcoming general election,which must be held before mid-2018 but is widely expected to be called much earlier, that “they should get [it] over and done with, then we can all get back to work”.
Steven is very proud of his Hakka roots: “My father has always taught me the importance of our independent spirit and resilience.” Charlyn’s mother is also Hakka.
Steven has leveraged off clan networks in Balakong to deepen his ties with the neighbourhood, especially in terms of hiring, imbuing the business with a strong family and community ethos.
However, the couple’s upbeat demeanour changes when the talk turns to crime. It is clear that for both of them, law and order is a fundamental problem, something that could push them elsewhere. With two young children, they are reluctant to take chances.
“We contribute 150-200 ringgit (HK$260-350) per month for the local security to ensure that our girls are safe,” says Steven.
“I personally send Zo Yee to the kindergarten and pick her up every day. Nurseries and kindergartens in the area have also introduced strict procedures and kids aren’t allowed to play outside on the streets”, adds Charlyn.
Despite all the hallmarks of a conventional Chinese Malaysian family existence, Mandarin-educated Charlyn, who studied for two years at the prestigious Nanjing University, is not totally enamoured by the system she was brought up with.
“There’s just too much rote learning. I want our children to learn through play and to spend time outdoors. You can’t just study and have no life at all.”
She eventually switched to law and transferred to Leeds University in Britain, where she was happier.
However, the experience was to prove frustrating when she was unable to practise as a lawyer because the authorities refused to accept her qualifications: “I appealed three times. I feel it was very unfair for them to reject the [Unified Examination Certificate], my private Chinese High School diploma.”
Charlyn does not view China through rose-coloured glasses: “I found that the students at Nanjing were too obsessed about their studies. Having worked so hard to get in to what was one of China’s top universities, they did nothing else. And the one child policy meant that they could be very aggressive and spoilt. We’re not like them.”
While the couple are concerned about possible moves to make sharia law applicable to non-Muslims, they are relatively optimistic about the country’s often-testy race relations: “Race issues are just politics. I believe that Malaysians of all races can coexist harmoniously”.
In an era of globalisation, Steven and Charlyn reveal the underlying hybridity of the Southeast Asian Chinese experience – adapting to different social, cultural and educational realities. So while they identify strongly with their Hakka Chinese roots, they are unafraid of innovation.
If learning through “play” in the English language is more stimulating for their children’s long-term development, then that’s what they willl do.
Charlyn stresses with all the resoluteness of her Hakka ancestry: “We have never seriously thought about migrating. Our family is here.”