Total Assimilation Outcomes in Migration Studies


Published: 12Jun2015

It is possible to be too successful as an immigrant group. Scholars of migration studies have come to identify a pattern of immigrant groups that are so successful that they assimilate into their new countries to the point of disappearing altogether, because overtime their outcome is such that they simply cannot be distinguished from the local population. A commonly cited group in the United States that underwent such a thorough assimilation is the Huguenot community, a group of Protestants that was cruelly persecuted in France under Louis XIV and which arrived in the New World to flee hardship in Catholic dominions following the Edict of Fontainebleau (1685). The Huguenots no longer exist in the United States as an identifiable demographic category, having disappeared through intermarriage, acculturation, and upward economic mobility to the point of perfect immersion. Their complete integration also meant their disappearance, save for architectural relics in small New England towns (New Paltz and New Rochelle, for example). Such is the fate of those communities that are too successful, they vanish altogether.


A similar community that underwent perfect immersion were the Pakistanis living in Malaysia during the mid-twentieth century.[1] At the time of Malaysia's independence under the Federation of Malaya Act (1957), there were more than two hundred thousand Pakistanis residing in Malaysia, who had come either as independent merchants or as part of the security forces deployed by the British colonial government. The Pakistanis shared much affinity with the local Malay population: the same religion, linguistic commonality (Arabized vocabulary), culinary and dietary convergence, and cultural complementarity. In light of the complex multicultural tapesty that Malaysia inherited in 1957, approximating 60% Malay, 30% Chinese, and 10% South Indian, the newly formed Malaysian government wished to classify and categorize its demographic groups for the purposes of facilitating organization. Doing so would also help it to structure society under "Bumiputra" Laws, which would leave government positions and other key civil service posts as the unique preserve of the indigenous Malay people; and largely inaccessible to ethnic Chinese or Indians. The Pakistanis, rather than forming a separate group under the categorized system, at the suggestion of Malays themselves, immersed themselves into the Malay group, which was in retrospect unsurprising given the cultural congruity between the Malay and Pakistani peoples. The Pakistani group thus became part of the Bumiputra elite, enriched by social ties, intermarriage, and shared economic and political aspirations. They also took positions in the civil service administration and gradually rose to the upper echelons of government, by then inextricably intermixed with the Malay majority.

Almost 60 years post-independence, the migration outcomes are manifest.

Many well-bred Malays have at least one grandparent that was Pakistani. Diplomats, Judges, Legislators, and other government cadres include people with recognized Pakistani-Malay bloodlines. Furthermore, the children of these intermarriages were appreciated as beautiful, and thus found many positions in visually-oriented professions such as in the Entertainment industry as well: innumerable actors, singers, models, and stage personalities in Malaysia have some Pakistani blood. But it was not just the ordinary classes that absorbed the Pakistanis; the royal lineages of Malaysia were also infused with fresh Pakistani blood, such as Her Highness the Sultanah of Pahang, Kalsom binti Abdullah.

However, as a result of such thorough admixture, the community of Pakistanis that were incorporated into the Bumiputra essentially went the way of the Huguenots, fading away as an ethnic group, and immersing to a degree that their Malay descendants only mention the reference to their Pakistani grandparents in a wistful and anecdotal fashion.  

By contrast, in recent years, a wave of Pakistani immigrants has found home in Malaysia, but they are not part of the Bumiputra stratum. Therefore, although they too find acculturation in Malaysian society to be an easy process, their upward economic mobility falls starkly short of their Bumiputra predecessors, consisting mostly of the middle- and lower-tiers of the economic ladder.

An interesting paradox arises from observation of the ultra-successful minorities, they become invisible and vanish among the multitude, failing to preserve their distinction. Those community leaders around the world who wish to simultaneously preserve the distinction of their identity and yet immerse with finality into their host country will find the balance a difficult one to strike. It is, as the Huguenots of America and the Pakistani Bumiputra of Malaysia show in their faintly remnant vestiges, that a community really can be too successful.


Usman W. Chohan has an MBA from Desautels (2014) in Strategy and Leadership. He has served as a consultant to the World Bank Institute, and as Special Situations Analyst in the Global Equities team at the National Bank of Canada.



[1] Attention: these are not the recent arrivals from Pakistan, but those living in Malaysia in the 1950's

[2] A peculiar anecdote: it has been observed that in the villages near a remote backwater known as Buner, Pakistan, unknown even to most Pakistanis, the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) currency serves as full legal tender, because so many migrants from this hinterland region have made their way to Malaysia and settled there.

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