China and South-East Asia are today vastly differentfrom when Dr Sun Yat-sen made his first visit toMalaya a hundred years ago, this month.Dr LEE KAM HING reports.
DR Sun Yat-sen, leader of the 1911 Chinese revolution, first came to Malaya on July 17, 1906.
A subsequent trip in 1910 took him to Penang, where he stayed for nearly six months. While there, he planned the Wuchang uprising.
This event precipitated the collapse of Manchu rule, and with that, China emerged as Asia’s first modern republic.
Overseas Chinese support for China’s revolution was so significant that Dr Sun, who became China’s first president, described the Chinese overseas as the “mother of the revolution”.
Today, there is scant recollection of Dr Sun’s first visit here and the centenary is likely to pass with hardly any notice. Yet, in the context of evolving relations between a rising China and emerging South-East Asia, it merits mention.
Singapore recently marked its association with Dr Sun by holding an international conference to mark 100 years of the founding there of a branch of his revolutionary party, the Tungminghui or Urban League (Tung Meng Hui in old spelling).
Lien Chan, Taiwan’s former Vice-President and the Kuomintang’s honorary chairman, gave the keynote address.
The Kuomintang was founded by Dr Sun when he merged the Tungminghui with four smaller organisations. The conference noted how every major event in China in the first half of the 20th century, including the 1911 revolution, had impacted South-East Asia.
Dr Sun in Malaya
Certainly, Malaya did not escape the 20th century revolutionary politics of China. When Dr Sun first came here in 1906, he visited Seremban, Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh.
These were then pioneering mining towns settled mainly by Chinese (predominantly Cantonese), who had come from impoverished southern China.
Most were poor miners and traders, but there were also some very rich tin miners whom Dr Sun had hoped would contribute generously to his cause.
The local Chinese were divided about Dr Sun, a response that reflected their class and dialect. Few of the rich merchants and miners supported him because they were reluctant to be associated with revolutionary politics.
The colonial authorities in charge then were vigilant about Dr Sun’s activities, while the Manchu officials were competing for the allegiance of the merchants with offers of honorary positions and prestigious titles.
The few merchants sympathetic to calls for political change in China preferred the reformist Kang You-wei who, like Dr Sun, was also a Cantonese.
But in Kuala Lumpur, a few merchants, including Loke Chow Thye (brother of Chow Kit), Too Nam, and Chan Chin Mooi, backed Dr Sun. Too Nam had taught Chinese to Dr Sun when both were in Honolulu.
During his visit, Dr Sun spoke at a meeting at a Sultan Street cinema hall, to a largely working class audience. It was the largest gathering he had ever addressed in South-East Asia.
Over in Singapore, enthusiasm for Dr Sun’s cause was on the decline. So, in July 1910, he shifted his focus to Penang. It was there that funds were raised and preparations completed for the Canton Uprising on March 29, 1911.
In Penang, Dr Sun’s supporters also started the Kwong Wah Yit Poh, Malaysia’s oldest surviving Chinese newspaper.
He is credited with the calligraphy used on its masthead. The Canton Uprising failed, but supporters in that state persevered with the groundwork for the more successful Wuchang Uprising of Oct 10, 1911, which led to the end of the Qing Dynasty.
Dr Sun and South-East Asia
Dr Sun’s Malayan visit ought to be viewed beyond the narrow scope of overseas Chinese nationalism and Chinese politics.
The emergence of political consciousness among overseas Chinese was part of a wider nationalism in the region. As things were, his evolutionary politics captured the political imagination of other nationalists.
In Dr Sun’s time, China was weak while South-East Asia, with the exception of Thailand, had come under colonial rule. For Dr Sun, the struggle was more than just freeing China from foreign rule; he wanted to create a new political order.
His hopes and political vision were encapsulated in Sanminzhu-i (Three Principles of the People), in which he advocated nationalism, democracy and the welfare of the people.
During his brief term as president, Dr Sun tried to integrate the ethnic minorities, enhance the welfare of the poor, promote women’s rights, solve farmers’ land problems, introduce Western democratic institutions, and create a free press.
Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, and Vietnam’s nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh were influenced by Dr Sun and his writings. Sukarno would have been about 11 years old then and he could have witnessed the Chinese communities in his hometown enthusiastically greeting news of the 1911 revolution.
Years later, on June 1, 1945, he specifically referred to Dr Sun’s nationalism when introducing the Panca Sila (Five Principles) for his country.
Dr Leo Suryadinata, an Indonesian scholar with the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, suggested that Sukarno’s five principles of Panca Sila took off from Sun’s Sanminzhu-i. In turn, the Panca Sila is said to have inspired Malaysia’s Rukun Negara.
On a broader level, South-East Asia helped influence the course of events in China. Indonesian political activists H. Sneevliet and Tan Malaka went to China, in 1921 and 1923, respectively, to assist the newly-formed Chinese Communist Party. Apart from that, they held consultations with Dr Sun.
General Emilio Aquinaldo, leader of the Filipino nationalists, reportedly contributed 100,000 Japanese yen to Dr Sun at a time when he himself was fighting a war of independence against Spain. It is believed that Dr Sun arranged for two shiploads of arms from Japan for Filipino nationalists who had sought his help.
Despite attempts by the colonial rulers to separate the various nationalist groups in the early 20th century, Asian political activists managed to establish contact with one another.
Thus, the start of a sense of solidarity among Asian nationalists. This connectedness of the region’s early leaders is one theme that deserves further attention.
Growing trade and investments between China and South-East Asia are strengthening relations between the two today. But beyond economics, both have common historical experiences.
The centenary of Dr Sun’s 1906 visit to Malaya is an occasion to look back on past struggles in the region to break free from foreign rule and create states that are strong but democratic, fair and just.
There were dramatic turning points in the flow of global history in which our country played a significant part. The 1911 revolution is one example.
Yet, often, these have become mere footnotes in our history. The fuller narratives need to be retrieved so that we can appreciate the historical forces of globalisation.