Asian Civilization Dialogue Conference, Beijing 17 May 2019
When the great Malay admiral Hang Tuah first set foot in ancient China, he observed the wealth of this 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 by beautiful arts, so real they looked almost alive as though the animals in the paintings could speak and breathe and dance.
When met with the great King, the admiral saw his magnificent throne of golden dragon with scales made of nine sorts of precious stones, the throne itself stud with glorious gem, overhung with ropes of pearls, shining as “moon on the fourteenth night.”
The magnanimity 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 is the record of the largest Malay classic, the Epic of Hang Tuah written some 400 years ago.
First of all, I would like to thank the organisers for hosting Malaysia to be part of this event. It truly is an honour for me to represent the country in my capacity as Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports. As my ancient predecessors before me, I too marvel at the achievement and the camaraderie expressed by your country.
I intend to utilize this visit as best as possible in order to attain the greatest benefits for my country and for the friendship between us.
Just last month, our Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad visited China and returned with so many good news for Malaysia. The RM44 billion East Coast Railway Link (ECRL) 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 corp has been a characteristic of China throughout most of your 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 in the title given to me by the organiser, I want to invite us to first look into our shared past.
Malaysia-China relation: Friendship through thick and thin
1500 years ago, the Sui Dynasty emissary Chang Jun visited a rich city state at the upper river of Kelantan, Chi Tu Guo or the Red Earth Kingdom. His visit was greeted with grand ceremony and three years later, the princes of Chi Tu Guo went to China to honour the Emperor YangDi of Sui.
Thus sealed three quarter of two millennium of diplomatic relation between our two countries.
It is a relation of mutual respect, despite the difference in size and strength. In the words of Tun 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, is credited for the spread and development of Islam in Southeast Asia including Malaysia.
When the European traveler Lewis Westermanns visited Melaka in 1503, he observed how the Melaka Sultan was in friendly diplomatic relation 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, the precursor of the Belt and Road infrastructure project in Malaysia, more than 500 years ago.
When the Portuguese later attacked and occupied Malacca in 1511, distance restricted China’s response. It could do little more than watch the capture of a tributary state; later, however, it exacted some retribution by destroying Portuguese ships at Goa.
The old friendship was never broken, especially with the settling down of Chinese diaspora who first came as traders, and then migrant workers. Eventually, some of these decided to make Malaysia their home and fellow Malaysians their compatriots.
In the Epic of Hang Tuah I cited at the beginning of this speech, Hang Tuah himself attributed his understanding of Chinese customs to the exchanges he had with the Chinese community who settled in the port city of Melaka. In fact, he even had a foster father from among the Chinese elders there.
By the modern era, the born-again Confucian Gu Hong Ming who introduced to the world, The Spirit of of the Chinese People, was born in my hometown Penang, a small state in northern Malaysia. He traveled 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.
Towards the other end of the spectrum, reformists such as Kang You Wei made Malaysia their place of refuge, perhaps to think and rethink philosophies which will change the world
at the turn of the century. From Malaysia, Kang You Wei would plan and raise fund for his reformist Hankou Uprising in 1900.
And yet further to the other end of the spectrum, revolutionist Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, found some of the strongest supporters to his cause from among our ancestors here in Malaysia, in particular my home state of Penang. After numerous failed attempts to overthrow the Qing government, Dr. Sun, like Kang You Wei a decade before him, would in late 1910 convened an emergency meeting of the Southeast Asian Tong Meng Hui in house no. 120, Armenian Street, Penang to raise fund 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 the November 1910 meeting, Dr. Sun would raise 8,000 Strait Dollars in an evening. One of his Malayan friends, Goh Say Eng even sold his house to support the Chinese Revolution.
So important was the contribution of Chinese in this region that Dr Sun Yat Sen would at his inauguration as provisional president paid tribute to them as “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 only camaraderie, and more importantly, unlike during 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 a “Global Chorus” advocated by President Xi Jinping when he unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative in March 2015.
The way forward
Like President Xi, the sage Confucius too extolled 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 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 just about a year ago, the Digital Free Trade Zone project continues. In fact Jack Ma would fly in about one month after the change of government to launch his first Alibaba office in Southeast Asia. He was also reported to say that Alibaba drew inspiration from Dr Mahathir’s Multimedia Super Corridor in the 90s.
Last month, Malaysia and China signed an MoU 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 RM4.56 billion 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:
One, it must be based on good governance. Both our leaders, Tun Dr Mahathir and President Xi Jin Ping 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 mean a future where the powerless is vulnerable against the powerful.
Two, it must be based on our past friendship experience of harmony and not hegemony. Countries must come together in the great Global Chorus instead of a one-man show Solo. 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.
Three and finally, the great Global Chorus must invite young people to take part in its songs. The World Economic Forum puts youth as 42% of the world’s population. With better education and access to information, young people today are more informed and intelligent compared to young people 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 traveled 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.