Becoming a Commercial Marriage Broker in Malaysia

Memo #133 (The fourth Memo from the Theme, Labour Migration from Southeast Asia)

By Chee Heng Leng (right) arichl [at] and                                                               Brenda S.A. Yeoh (left) geoysa [at]

In the last two decades, East Asian countries have experienced a dramatic rise in international marriages. Much of it is between men in the wealthier countries of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, and women from poorer countries in the region. Among Chinese Malaysians, the number of marriages between the men and Vietnamese women increased from 28 in 2001 to 1,185 in 2005. To explain this increase, the media began to cover the proliferation of commercial matchmaking agencies in the early 2000s. But the role that Vietnamese wives play in the matchmaking business has attracted little attention.

Because there is no registry or licensing system for marriage brokers in Malaysia, it is difficult to determine just how many are in operation. But we find that many of the couples that run commercial matchmaking and marriage brokerages were themselves “matched” by a broker. And, often, it is the Vietnamese wives who are in charge. Clearly some Vietnamese women have transformed the experience of marrying through a brokerage into social and economic capital.

The Vietnamese wife and Chinese Malaysian husband have a clear advantage in this business because they occupy a central position in three areas. First, they are able to access local social networks to procure male clients. Second, they are able to interface with the network of Vietnamese agents to bring in potential brides. Third, the couple is familiar with and able to navigate the bureaucracy of Malaysian state immigration and marriage registration authorities.

The Vietnamese bride who comes to Malaysia finds herself, at least initially, with limited access to economic resources and social networks. The one social network that may be readily accessible to her is that of her marriage broker, which she herself used to migrate. The other network is, of course, her new family. Both of these networks constitute valuable social capital. To be able to deploy them, she has to put in time, effort, and persistent hard work. By slowly cultivating and expanding these social networks, eventually she is able to establish herself as a marriage broker and thereby increase her own autonomy and access to economic resources.

CHEE Heng Leng, Senior Research Fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Brenda S.A. Yeoh – Professor, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore.

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  • Match Made (A documentary by Mirabelle Ang), 2006.

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