Yearning to Belong: Malaysia's Indian Muslims, Chitties, Portuguese Eurasians, Peranakan Chinese and Baweanese

Yearning to Belong: Malaysia's Indian Muslims, Chitties, Portuguese Eurasians, Peranakan Chinese and Baweanese
Patrick Pillai, author
Date of publication:  2015
Publisher:  ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute
Number of pages:  259
Code:  BM507
Soft Cover
ISBN: 9789814519670
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Koh Keng We, Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde 174, 2018, 81-139.

"Malaysian society and politics have long been framed by race and broad racial categories. These ideologies underpinning the British colonial system created in the peninsula have continued to anchor the ideologies and policies of nation-building. ... Pillai's book emerges from this changing public sphere and increased questioning of older categories and national precepts over the last two decades. 

Yearning to Belong is a comparative study of selected minorities in Malaysia. They are chosen in a way that questions the older categories of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others, emphasizing not only the diversity within each category, but also their mixing across categories. Each chapter studies how the different groups, from Indian Muslims, to Chitties, Trengganu Chinese Peranakan, and Baweanese negotiate the cosmopolitan and multicultural environments in Malaysia, their straddling of different cultures and identities in the context of the politics of bumiputra and race in the country. 

Pillai uses both secondary literature for the history of these different communities, and oral history interviews for the contemporary situations and recent developments over the last few decades, although his analysis relies primarily on the latter, which he appends to each chapter. 

Ultimately, as his conclusion and introduction shows, Pillai's book is not just an academic exercise, but broader effort to transcend the existing racial politics in Malaysia. Emphasizing hybridity and mixing, as evidenced by these communities, reflects the need to "embrace diversity through more inclusive policies" (p.208); and this, as Professor Shad Saleem Faruqi puts it in the appendix, may pave the way towards "a shared Malaysian Destiny." 

Li Yi, Southeast Asian Studies Vol. 7, No. 1, 2018.

"Patrick Pillai, drawing on years of fieldwork in different locations in Peninsular Malaysia and long-term interactions with ethnic communities, provides valuable observations on not one, but five cases of less-studied minority communities in Yearning to Belong: Malaysia's Indian Muslims, Chitties, Portuguese Eurasians, Peranakan Chinese and Baweanese. This book investigates Indian Muslims in Penang, Chitties and Portuguese Eurasians in Malacca, Peranankan-type Chinese in Terengganu, and Indonesians from Bawean Island, all in one volume. This itself is an admirable achievement as such a variety often comes from an edited volume by multiple contributors, yet Pillai manages to pull them all together, assembling historical backgrounds, second literatures, and firsthand data to create a panoramic picture of ethnic relationships in Malaysia today.

.... Perhaps the most unique story amongst all is of an Indonesian-origin group, the Baweanese, and their migration and settlement in Peninsular Malaysia. The last chapter is based on Pillai's 2005 doctoral thesis, with detailed fieldwork supplemented by follow-up visits in later years. 

.... Such an amalgamation is a result of years of painstaking fieldwork, long-term relationships with the communities, a deep understanding of their challenges, and firsthand experience of the country's ethnic polices. As a journalist-turned-sociologist, Pillai is well positioned to bring these pieces together, often from an insider's vantage point. In addition, his narrative interweaves a wide range of opinions from observers and actors on the ground, including scholars, politicians, community leaders, stakeholders, and members of the community. The rich information and easy-to-read style make the book a good read not only for academics who seek-up-to-date case studies, but also the general public within and outside of the region who want to know more about intermingled communities in a multiethnic country and their shared experiences, past and present."

About the publication

Malaysia is among the most ethnically diverse and culturally rich nations on earth. Yet much of its cultural wealth lies buried beneath the rubric of its main Malay, Chinese and Indian "race" categories; the dazzling diversity within and outside these groups remains largely unexplored. This book uncovers some of this fascinating diversity through the stories of five little-known acculturated ethnic groups in Peninsula Malaysia. The author, a Malaysian sociologist, delivers an insightful and lucid study of these groups, with some surprising findings. These communities illustrate how much more cross-cultural mingling, sharing and co-dependence there is within Malaysian society than we care to recognize, admit or celebrate. This raises various questions: Is a similar process of spontaneous inter-ethnic interaction possible between larger ethnic groups today? How can we foster such acculturation, and can it by itself contribute to ethnic harmony? The author also discovers that despite their long settlement and deep acculturation, segments of these groups are anxious about their future, and pine for an indigenous identity. What are the implications of this trend for ethnic relations, and how can it be resolved?

This book traces the acculturation journey of these communities and draws lessons for ethnic relations in one of the most complex multi-ethnic nations in the world. It will appeal to scholars, students, laymen and visitors interested in migration, history, culture, ethnicity and heritage in Malaysia and the region.


  • Yearning to Belong: Malaysia's Indian Muslims, Chitties, Portuguese Eurasians, Peranakan Chinese and Baweanese
    [Whole Publication, ISBN: 9789814519687], by Patrick Pillai, author
  • Preliminary pages with Introduction
  • 1. "Mamak" and Malaysian: The Indian Muslim Quest for Identity
  • 2. The Chitty of Malacca: An Epitome of Cross-Cultural Influences
  • 3. Bumiquest: Malacca's Portuguese Eurasians and the Search for Identity
  • 4. Between "Cina-Kampung" and "Cheng-Ho" Chinese: Terengganu's Peranakans
  • 5. "Mereka Sayang Kita": The Malay Journey of the Baweanese
  • 6. Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • Bibliography
  • Glossary
  • Index
  • About the Author
  • Photo plates

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