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  • Schooling Diaspora: Women, Education, and the Overseas Chinese in British Malaya and Singapore, 1850s–1960s by Karen M. Teoh
  • Ngu Ik Tien
Schooling Diaspora: Women, Education, and the Overseas Chinese in British Malaya and Singapore, 1850s–1960s, by Karen M. Teoh. Oxford University Press, 2018, ISBN-13: 9780190495619

The history of female education in Southeast Asia has long been an under-researched topic. Karen Teoh's book has filled this gap by presenting the schooling experiences of the daughters of an immigrant community in Malaya and Singapore from the 1850s to 1960s, and with a focus on a politically turbulent period in the middle of the twentieth century. These women became the first batch among their community to receive a modern education, which then exposed them to modern Asian politics characterized by anti-colonialism and ethno-nationalism. Some of them, through education, became involved in the socio-political struggle of their times, which changed them forever. As such, we can conclude that this book is more than an account of modern female education, but also a sophisticated analysis of how multiple socio-political forces of the time constructed people's identity and determined their destiny. In this case, the people are female members of the diaspora who lived among Southeast Asians.

Teoh locates her research subject against a complex background where British colonial officers, Western Christian missionaries, and communal intellectual leaders came onto the scene at a time of ideological battles, depicted by her as 'a century of British Imperialism, Chinese and Southeast Asian nationalism, and patriarch'. She dug into this time period by tracing the moral and ideological origins of two types of girls' schools in Malaya and Singapore. One was founded by Western Christian missionaries and the other by ethnic Chinese leaders who were highly Anglicized in terms of their cultural preferences. The two types of schools make a good comparison given their proximity, founders, distinctive curriculum and student demographics; this gives readers a glance at the historical development of two typical girls' schools in the region.

Teoh's research indicates that ethnic identity could be so entrenched that it could overshadow gender identity. This pattern is not particular to the educated overseas Chinese women in the middle of the twentieth century. It has been replicated in many societies, including advanced democracies like the United States. Her research shows that classroom or modern formal education was mostly responsible for constructing these women's identities. The Chinese-medium schools, in particular, were primarily responsible for promoting ethnic-nationalism and political participation among their female students. The establishment of these girls' schools reflects the ideological base of the founders' quest for modern Chinese female education. Rather than training the young female students to become better mothers, the schools' founders showed more interest in nurturing modern female citizens similar to their male counterparts. Both were entrusted with the same responsibilities for saving their nation from Western imperialism. That explains why the schoolteachers and teaching materials from China contained less gender-specific knowledge than the curriculum of the mission girls' schools.

With significant numbers of politicians and scholars, Teoh also acknowledges the rise of ethno-nationalism among Chinese students and agrees that it posed a threat to political stability and the British government. However, Teoh does not simply label the trend as evil development as many have done. Instead, she reviews the colonial education policy through a contemporary cosmopolitan perspective [End Page 174] which acknowledges the importance of pluralism in cultural policy, especially the cultural rights of immigrants. Her research reminds us that the cultural tension between natives versus immigrants, and between the ethnic majority and minority is an old issue which has not yet been resolved. The problem will continue to haunt us who are living in the twenty-first century, where the world has become more culturally diverse than in the twentieth century.

The book also recognizes a nuance in the ethnic politics of Malaya and Singapore, the intra-ethnic tensions among the Chinese as a result of attending schools with different mediums of instruction and cultural orientation. Prominent scholars such as Wang Gungwu, Tan Chee Beng and Heng Pek Koon have also captured the division among Chinese...


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pp. 174-175
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