The novel human coronavirus disease COVID-19, first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and subsequently spread worldwide, has evolved into a global health and socioeconomic crisis so serious it has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. As governments of the world are battling the pandemic and the rising number of COVID-19 cases, it is at this critical juncture that such a humanitarian catastrophe of unprecedented scale and impact has put charities and philanthropy under the spotlight. In Malaysia, the Chinese community has long been known for its philanthropic contributions. From the second half of the 19th century to Malaya’s independence in 1957, the country witnessed the active philanthropic roles played by a considerable number of key businessmen and influential leaders in the local Chinese community, such as Yap Ah Loy, Chan Sow Lin, Cheong Fatt Tze, Tan Kah Kee, Loh Boon Siew, Robert Kuok Hock Nien, and Lim Goh Tong. Post-independence Malaya (Malaysia in 1963) too saw the likes of Teh Hong Piow, Tiong Hiew King, Jeffrey Cheah Fook Ling, and Vincent Tan Chee Yioun in the pursuance of various philanthropic endeavours. In the past years, several Chinese Malaysians from different business sectors have been listed by Forbes Magazine as the “Heroes of Philanthropy”; many of these figures own corporations and businesses that make financial contributions to charitable organisations as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives. Meanwhile, since the outbreak of the first cases of COVID-19 in the country, many local Chinese individuals, businesses, and organisations have remained committed to philanthropic efforts to fight the coronavirus and help those affected by it, regardless of ethnicity and religion in multiracial Malaysia. It is within the aforementioned context that this paper aims to explore Chinese philanthropy in Malaysia, by taking as a point of departure its response to the COVID-19 crisis. By using the content analysis technique, the researchers examined various news sources in the period between March and December 2020 for data on local philanthropic activities aimed at battling the coronavirus. The research outcome shows that although various philanthropic efforts rendered during the COVID-19 period cannot be directly comparable to those done in the past in terms of value, Chinese Malaysians’ passion for and commitment to philanthropy remain evident.
Chinese Diaspora in Philanthropic Hybridization: Flexible Identities, Multiple Loyalties, Motivations of Heart and Head
The largest diasporic exodus fanning out of mainland China took place in the context of the immense turmoil, turbulence, suffering, and pauperization of the masses from late 19th to early 20th centuries. Today, over 24 million diasporic Chinese and ethnic Chinese are spread across Southeast Asia in Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, Indonesia, and Timor-Lester. The first generation (G1) diasporic Chinese came to Southeast Asia with the mentality of sojourners because their emigration was self-imposed and for survival, fueled by the astounding historical, social, political, and economic circumstances of the times. Giving and generosity naturally follows back to motherland; it was focused on “giving back to China and loyalty to motherland”. The longstanding heritage in these cultures holds strength in the ethos of the “heart” when it comes to beneficence and philanthropy.
The next generation (G2 now born outside of China) began to recognize that the success of their family businesses was dependent on resources, access to networks, and social norms of these local communities, outside of China. We begin to see flexibility in identifying with local communities since their stakes as Nationals are now becoming evident. After WWII, and the realities of a closed-door policy in China from 1949-1978, their vision of retiring back in China became less and less viable. It forced many already outside of China to shed their sojourner mentality.
Impulses of the “heart” are soon quickly checked by rational prudence of the “head”. In the lands they have just adopted as their new homes, they quickly assimilate, advocate, and find resources for their own survival – including continued re-migration until families found the most suitable location to settle. Naturally, this leads to multiple loyalties over a lifetime. To assimilate and optically appear to be “local”, their philanthropy is often used as a platform to affirm their identity as Nationals. Without the “motherland memory” to fall back on, future generations will likely reduce their giving to their parents’ country of origin.
More recently, globalization, information/digital age, social media have all converged to redefine human connectivity, ease of travel, social-political dynamics, and more. Entities in the diasporic world are now hybridized – thriving on flexible identities and multiple loyalties. Current generations from the original diasporic Chinese are now more “transnational” Chinese than diasporic.
However, this hybridity is contextual or versatile in different social settings. As they become westernized or secular in lifestyle, education, ethos, and religion, there will come the time when they cease to “give back” to their parents’ or grandparents’ homeland. Their choices in philanthropy follows the contextual mutation of their own Chineseness and evolution of flexible identities and multiple loyalties through religion, lifestyles, ethics, worldviews, and localized social norms.