A television station in Malaysia was recently the focus of outrage by members of the country’s Chinese and Malaysian Muslim populations. The station aired an advertisement intended to inform about respectful Ramadan practices, but soon experienced heated backlash against the anti-Chinese racism interpreted from the ads. The ad used a female Chinese actress who displayed ignorance about how to conduct herself around Muslim Malaysians during Ramadan. Chinese viewers were offended that a Chinese person was singled out as a symbol of ignorance, while some Malaysians thought the ad implied that Muslims are not tolerant.
The video can be viewed here.
The indignation that eventually caused the television station to withdraw the ad speaks to the racial tension between ethnic Malays and Chinese Malaysians, which has colored the past and present. Chinese in Malaysia make up a larger percentage of the population than Chinese in Thailand. Chinese that have lived in Malaysia for several generations are still largely considered Chinese by the ethnic Malay majority, which has been criticized for portraying Chinese negatively in books, movies, and media. In the late 1970s, the Malaysian government put laws in place that amounted to affirmative action for the ethnic Malay majority to curb the economic dominance of Chinese Malaysians.
Chinese in Thailand have also experienced discrimination, but seem to be better assimilated into the population. The assimilation of Chinese into Thai society could be for three reasons: valued Chinese contributions to Thailand’s economy; Thai nationalism; and culture and religion.
Chinese merchants were some of the main traders in rice in Thailand in the early 1900s. They made up a significant amount of the labor force, and were depended upon in Thailand for rice and other goods. The Chinese later gained prominence in industries like banking, finance, and manufacturing, where they are still major players today. Chinese traders eventually learned the language and customs of Thailand and were accepted as an essential force in Thailand’s economic growth. Where Chinese contributions to the economy in Malaysia caused hostility that led to changes in the constitution, Chinese involvement in Thailand’s economy was and continues to be regarded as vital.
Thailand underwent a strong period of nationalism around the time of World War II. During this time, the Chinese in Thailand started to change their last names to Thai names and become Thai citizens. By law, Chinese had to use Thai names in order to become citizens. Once the Chinese became citizens of Thailand, they experienced less racial-based discrimination and started to self-assimilate even more into Thai society. Thailand also started promoting Thai education in language and history in schools and began limiting the Chinese language studies. As a result, Thai Chinese pupils communicated mostly in Thai outside of home and became further integrated in Thai society.
Chinese presence in Thailand dates all the way back to Rama I, who was part Chinese. Thais and Chinese have intermarried over the years, celebrated Buddhist holidays together, and influenced each other’s cuisine. Thais are accustomed to celebrating Chinese religious holidays and have never protested against Chinese religious observances. It is even desired by some Thai women to “look Chinese” by having fairer complexions.
Chinese in Thailand have long established their roots, shown their willingness to assimilate, and been largely accepted into Thai society. Their influence is palpable and there are currently no significant signs that racism will blemish Thai Chinese life in Thailand as it has in Malaysia.
 Chantavanich, Supang, “From Siamese-Chinese to Chinese Thai: Political Conditions and Identity Shifts among the Chinese in Thailand,” in Suryadinata, Leo (ed.), Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1997.