Friends throughout the ages

WHEN the great Malay admiral Hang Tuah first set foot in ancient China, he observed the wealth of the country through the thousands of lanes in the city of Hainam paved in white stones “smooth as cotton”, fortified by a mighty fortress of layered white stone decked with gates of copper and pinchbeck.

The centre of the city was festive with hundreds of temples adorned with beautiful artwork that looked so real the animals in them could be alive.

When meeting the great King, the admiral saw his magnificent throne in the shape of a golden dragon with scales made of nine types of precious stones. The seat was decorated with a glorious gem overhung with ropes of pearls and shone like a “moon on the 14th night”.

The magnificence of the great empire was also documented in the same narrative, as the King generously rewarded the Malay envoy. And when the delegation was bullied and threatened by the Portuguese at the port, the King’s ministers issued a warning to the aggressors.

Thus are the words in the Epic of Hang Tuah written some 400 years ago.

Last month, our Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad visited China and returned with so many good news for Malaysia. The RM44bil East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project was revived but with much friendlier terms, including more than 30% cost savings for Malaysia, and a slightly modified route to bypass sensitive environmental areas such as the Klang Gates Quartz Ridge, the longest quartz dyke in the world.

Such diplomatic esprit de corps has been a characteristic of China throughout most of its history. At a time when the world yearns for greater peace and prosperity, I believe there is an important lesson to be learnt from this approach.

As we anticipate a shared future, let us first look into Malaysia and China’s shared past.

One thousand five hundred years ago, the Sui Dynasty emissary Chang Jun visited a rich city state on the upper Kelantan River, Chi Tu Guo or the Red Earth Kingdom. His visit was greeted with grand ceremony. Three years later, the princes of Chi Tu Guo went to China to honour the Sui emperor Yang Di.

Thus began three quarters of two millennia of diplomatic relations between our two countries.

It is a relationship of mutual respect despite the difference in size and strength. In the words of Dr Mahathir, “we have had China as a neighbour for 2,000 years, we were never conquered by them. But the Europeans came in 1509, in two years, they conquered Malaysia.”

In other words, China was powerful but essentially peaceful.

By the 15th century, at least three kings of the Malay Sultanate of Melaka had visited the imperial Ming court of China, reciprocating the famous visit of Admiral Zheng He.

Zheng He himself admired, adored, and sometimes even worshipped in our country, and is credited with the spread and development of Islam in South-East Asia, including Malaysia.

When the European traveller Lewis Westermanns visited Melaka in 1503, he observed how the Melaka Sultan was in friendly diplomatic relations with the “great Sultan of China” and that the construction of the city of Melaka was financed in part by the Chinese Emperor. There, if you like, is the precursor of the Belt and Road infrastructure project in Malaysia.

The old friendship was never broken, especially with the settling down of itinerant Chinese who first came as traders and then migrant workers. Eventually, some of them decided to make Malaysia their home and fellow Malaysians their compatriots.

Hang Tuah himself attributed his understanding of Chinese customs to the exchanges he had with the Chinese community who settled in Melaka. In fact, he even had a foster father among the Chinese elders there.

In the modern era, the born-again Confucian Gu Hong Ming, who introduced to the world The Spirit of the Chinese People, was born in Penang. He travelled and studied in Europe and eventually returned to his ancestral homeland of China to become the last great Qing scholar. He counted among his friends Leo Tolstoy and Rabindranath Tagore.

Reformists such as Kang You Wei made Malaysia their place of refuge, perhaps to think and rethink philosophies which would change the world at the turn of the century. From Malaysia, Kang would plan and raise funds for his reformist Hankou Uprising in 1900.

Revolutionist Dr Sun Yat-Sen found some of the strongest supporters to his cause from among our ancestors in Malaysia, in particular Penang. After numerous failed attempts to overthrow the Qing government, Dr Sun, like Kang a decade before him, convened an emergency meeting in late 1910 of the South-East Asian Tong Meng Hui at 120, Armenian Street, Penang to raise funds for the fateful Canton Uprising in April 1911, where the blood of 72 martyrs would eventually seed the successful Wuchang Uprising six months later in October 1911.

It must be pointed out that during that November 1910 meeting, Dr Sun would raise 8,000 Straits Dollars in one evening. One of his Malayan friends, Goh Say Eng, even sold his house to support the Chinese revolution.

So important was the contribution of the Chinese in this region that Dr Sun, at his inauguration as provisional president, paid tribute to them as the “mother of the revolution”.

Indeed, this ancient friendship has seen each other through thick and thin. No side, however, claimed ownership of each other’s successes and, more importantly, unlike our colonial experience, no side exploited each other for the narrow interests of one party alone.

The meeting of our civilisations was not characterised by hegemony but by harmony. This is the perhaps the concept of “Global Chorus” advocated by President Xi Jinping when he unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative in March 2015.

Like the sage Confucius, Xi also extols music as a reflection of propriety in politics and personal development. But what is the future song we will sing?

When Jack Ma of Alibaba came to Malaysia two years ago to announce his electronic World Trade Platform, he galvanised the imagination of many entrepreneurs, especially young Malaysians who were keen to take part in Industry 4.0.

The Malaysian government at that time took on the challenge to create the first ever Digital Free Trade Zone in the world.

Although we had a regime change a year ago, the Digital Free Trade Zone project continues. In fact, Ma would fly in about one month after the change of government to launch his first Alibaba office in South-East Asia. He also reportedly said that Alibaba drew inspiration from Dr Mahathir’s Multimedia Super Corridor in the 90s.

Last month, Malaysia and China signed a memorandum of understanding to increase the supply of Malaysian palm oil to China. According to industry observers, Malaysian palm oil exports to China are expected to jump by about 2.26 million tonnes in 2019 compared with 1.86 million tonnes recorded in 2018. Over the next five years, palm oil trade between our countries is estimated to hit RM4.56bil based on an average price of US$600 per tonne.

China has been Malaysia’s top trading partner for the past 10 years. Total bilateral trade last year stood at US$108.6bil (RM445bil). But given the current trajectory, we can confidently expect an even brighter future.

Nevertheless, let us be extremely clear that this future must have the following elements:

1. It must be based on good governance. Both our leaders, Dr Mahathir and Xi, are crusaders against corruption and abuse of power. It is on this term that we must envision our shared future. A future without integrity and moral compass especially on the part of those in power will be one where the powerless is vulnerable against the powerful.

2. It must be based on our past experience of harmony and not hegemony. Countries must come together in the great Global Chorus instead of a one-man show. Both history and globalisation must awaken us to the fact that there is but one planet Earth and relationships between countries are best manifested in a non-zero sum manner. We must seek mutual prosperity instead of exploitation.

3. The great Global Chorus must invite young people to take part in its songs. The World Economic Forum puts youths as 42% of the world’s population. With better education and access to information, young people today are more informed and intelligent compared to youths in the past. It is therefore highly illogical and even undemocratic to exclude them from being involved in shaping the future.

When our legendary admirals, Hang Tuah and Zheng He, travelled across the South China Sea, they were young, perhaps not even 40 years of age. The generally cosmopolitan nature of youth enabled our young admirals to explore and embrace different cultures without losing their own.

In the same spirit, we should galvanise the youthful energy of this generation to shape our shared future.


Deputy Minister for Youth and Sports

(This is the abridged text of the speech delivered by the writer at the inaugural Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations in Beijing, China on May 15 2019.)