Reconfiguring Chineseness at Independent Chinese Schools

An Ethnographic Study of Malaysian Chinese Students’ Educational Migration to Taiwan and Mainland China

Written by Dr Ting-Fai Yu, School of Arts & Social Sciences

What is your Research About?

Going overseas for higher education has long been an upward mobility strategy of students from the 60 independent Chinese high schools in Malaysia, partly due to their qualifications not being recognised for entry into public universities under Malay-centric policies. Different from most other educational migration patterns previously observed (e.g. from Asia to the West), many of these students have been attending universities in Taiwan rather than established destinations for foreign students such as Australia or the United Kingdom. This is largely due to Taiwan’s welcoming education policy for Chinese overseas students since the 1950s and long-established transnational networks of Chinese Malaysian students and graduates. In recent years, more and more of these students have turned to Mainland China, especially metropolitan cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, for university due to its rapid economic development and intensifying global presence. Some major Chinese universities have moreover been active in recruiting Chinese Malaysians; their strategies include organising week-long visits to university campuses and providing scholarships for high-achieving students.

My research engages ethnographically with former, current and future Chinese Malaysian students in Taiwan and Mainland China, in order to understand how Malaysia’s independent Chinese schools, as a site of political and ideological contestation, are transformed, and how Chineseness is reconfigured, amid changing geopolitics in the region.

Why is it important?

Existing scholarship has approached the institutionalisation of Chinese language education in Malaysia from historical and policy perspectives. Some studies have examined independent Chinese schools vis-à-vis the formation of the multi-ethnic nation, while others have focused on how they safeguard the inter-generational continuity of Chinese culture. To date, however, none of these works have foregrounded the distinctiveness of students’ educational migration across the Chinese-speaking world, or addressed the wider question of how this transnational cultural practice transforms their Chinese identities, and vice versa. Without a current examination of the independent Chinese schools in a transnational frame, we undervalue the significance of students’ educational mobility and aspiration, leading to an obsolete conceptualisation of Malaysia’s Chinese language education.

What are the outcomes or potential outcomes?

Since 2019, I have published an article in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and secured a grant from the Association for Asian Studies for organising a workshop on Chinese mobilities to and from Southeast Asia.

Is there Global and Societial Impact?

I hope this study will generate relevance not only to the scholarly theorisation of Chineseness but also more generally to the study of Asia-specific racism and migration.