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Overseas Chinese Commerce, Decolonization, and the Cold War in Southeast Asia  

Jason Lim

The term “overseas Chinese” refers to people who left the Qing Empire (and later on, the Republic of China or ROC) for a better life in Southeast Asia. Some of them arrived in Southeast Asia as merchants. They were either involved in retail or wholesale trade, or importing and exporting goods between the Qing Empire/ROC and Southeast Asia. With the decolonization of Southeast Asia from the end of World War II in 1945, overseas Chinese commerce was targeted by nationalists because the merchants were seen to have been working together with the colonial authorities and to have enriched themselves at the expense of locals. New nationalist regimes in Southeast Asia introduced anti-Chinese legislation in order to reduce the overseas Chinese presence in economic activities. Chinese merchants were banned from certain trades and trade monopolies were broken down. Several Southeast Asian states also attempted to assimilate the overseas Chinese by forcing them to adopt local-sounding names. However, the overseas Chinese continued to be dominant in the economies of Malaya (later Malaysia) and Singapore. Malaysia introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which has an anti-Chinese agenda, in 1970. The decolonization process also occurred during the Cold War, and Chinese merchants sought to continue trade with China at a time when governments in Southeast Asia were suspicious of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Attempts by merchants from Malaya and Singapore to trade with the PRC in 1956 were considered to have failed, as the PRC had other political concerns. By the time Singapore had gained independence in 1965, the door to investment and trade with the PRC was shut, and the Chinese in Southeast Asia turned their backs on China by taking on citizenship in their countries of residence.