We’re not descendants of coolies!

We can understand why minister Teresa Kok wants Malaysians to respect foreign workers, but we must not belittle our own ancestors just because we need to respect the migrant workers.

Tay Tian Yan, Sin Chew Daily

Early Chinese migrants in Malaya were not all coolies, and we are not the descendants of coolies, either.

On the contrary, our forefathers were the pioneering nation builders of this country, and today we are all Chinese Malaysian citizens with full dignity.

Forced labour refers to those who were exploited by agents and were coerced to do menial work in Southeast Asia, Australia and the Americas

Upon arriving in a foreign land, they had to work to pay off the debts owed to the agents as well as for transport, boarding and food. Due to the nature of their work, many suffered poor physical health and some were even killed on the job.

Coolie is a derogatory term that reflects the tragic destiny of some early migrants from China, but that does not mean all early Chinese migrants were coolies!

First of all, a derogatory term popular in the olden days must not be abused to label a modern-day people.

If we don’t rectify the degrading terms, they will become politically correct labels that will be permanently stamped onto our foreheads.

In the past, American whites used to called the Africans niggers, and indeed many African Americans referred to themselves as niggers, too. It was a degrading word but during those years of racial inequality, public discrimination was universally accepted in the American society and no one would think there was any problem with that.

However, when civic right awareness became stronger, African Americans began to fight for their deserved rights, rejecting the word “nigger” outright for “black Americans”. They later found “black Americans” equally unacceptable and started to call themselves the more politically correct “African Americans”.

If anyone happens to call an African American a “nigger” today, he can expect a bullet put through his head in no time!

Similarly, calling Chinese Malaysians “descendants of coolies” constitutes a grave insult, especially against the backdrop of chronic unequal treatment accorded to ethnic Chinese in this country.

If we look at ourselves as descendants of coolies and think we are not much better than coolies, how do we expect other people to respect us and treat us as equals?

Secondly, not all early Chinese migrants came here as coolies. Majority of early Chinese migrants here were free men. They booked their boat tickets and sailed across the seas to Malaya to look for better job prospects and new life.

They worked in different industries. Some were farm workers while others were businessmen, some returning to China after several years to marry and then relocating their families here.

Contract workers only made up an insignificant part of the population, and even their contracts made up a small part of their whole lifespans.

It was highly unbecoming for our minister to excessively magnify the ratio of early Chinese coolies and made the generalised statement that all our forefathers were once coolies here.

Thirdly, when these Chinese migrants came to Southeast Asia, Malaya was still very much a British colony, not an independent state.

The early Chinese migrants conscientiously took part in the country’s development and were an integral part of the country’s nation-building history. They were later granted citizenship and were entitled to full citizenship status and protection under the country’s Constitution.

They were not the same as the ubiquitous migrant workers we have here today, some legal, some illegal. These people have never taken part in our nation-building and are not citizens of this country.

How on earth can anyone compare them with the early Chinese migrants in Malaya?