Monday, 1 June 2009

Game for diplomatic ties

Stories by SIMRIT KAUR , The Star

With Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak making his first official visit to China on Tuesday in conjunction with the 35th anniversary of his father’s historic visit to the Middle Kingdom, former Dewan Negara speaker Tan Sri Michael Chen, who played a pivotal role in organising Tun Razak's trip in 1974.

IT was the game of table tennis that paved the way for Malaysia to set up diplomatic ties with China, which was a reclusive nation back in the 1970s.

China used the globally-popular game to improve its links with several foreign nations and journalists quickly named that strategy “ping pong diplomacy” which led to Richard Nixon becoming the first American president to visit China in 1972. Malaysia too was invited to China for a game in 1971 and the chance to make the first serve was given to former Dewan Negara speaker Tan Sri Michael Chen who was then president of the Malaysian Table Tennis Association and Alliance executive-secretary.

Historical moment: The famous handshake between Mao and Razak during the latter’s visit to China in 1974 paved the way for diplomatic ties between the two countries.

He was asked by then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein to look into the possibility of establishing a closer relationship with China.

“Razak gave me a letter, written in his capacity as President of the Olympic Council of Malaysia, to pass to Zhou Enlai (then premier of China) , thanking Zhou for the invitation to the Malaysian team,” he recalls.

Historic ties

The letter and the invitation signalled the start of informal talks between the two countries on establishing diplomatic relations, with Chen acting as the “ping pong diplomat” in the negotiations. This culminated with Razak’s historic visit to China on May 28, 1974.

Malaysia was the first Asean country to establish diplomatic relations with China. One issue that threatened to derail the talks was the fate of “stateless” Chinese in Malaysia, numbering about 300,000, who held red identity cards.

According to China’s constitution, people of Chinese origin who do not hold the citizenship of another country are considered its citizens. Malaysia felt that China’s stand on the issue could affect stability.

After countless meetings, both countries could not resolve their differences and finally agreed to disagree. Chen said that to break the impasse, Malaysia proposed that once diplomatic ties were established and a Chinese embassy opened in Malaysia, these stateless Malaysians would be free to seek citizenship. However, very few took up the opportunity.

Razak landed in Beijing on May 28 on a Malaysia Airlines (then known as Malaysian Airline Systems) chartered plane and was given a grand welcome by the Chinese. Chen was part of the Malaysian delegation which numbered over 40 people and became an eyewitness to history.

He was present during the first face-to-face meeting between Zhou Enlai and Razak and can attest to the personal chemistry that these two great leaders shared. During the state dinner, Zhou remarked that he had been waiting a long time for Razak to come. He told Razak that he had to seek permission from his doctor to host the dinner held in his honour.

“Zhou told Razak that the future of the world belonged to young leaders like him. Razak replied with the rejoinder that Zhou was even younger when he became the Chinese premier!” recalled Chen, in the interview at the Kuala Lumpur office of his law firm, located in Menara Yayasan Tun Abdul Razak.

Razak’s humour also came through when he met Chairman Mao Zedong for the first time. According to Chen, Razak asked for Mao’s advice on dealing with the communists in Malaysia as Mao was an expert on guerilla warfare!

During his five-day trip, Razak also visited Shanghai where rapturous crowds lined the streets to greet him.

Razak’s visit to China was considered an overwhelming success.

A mammoth rally was organised in Selangor Padang (now called Dataran Merdeka) on June 2, 1974, the day he returned to Kuala Lumpur. He chose the occasion to make his historic announcement on the formation of Barisan Nasional, replacing the Alliance. Three months later, Barisan Nasional won a landslide victory in the general election.

Chen said that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has always been aware of the significance of his father’s trip 35 years ago.

He has accompanied Najib twice to China.

“In the first trip we made in the 1990s, he retraced the places his father had been to while on another trip he contacted people who had met his father and invited them to visit Malaysia.”

Chen’s entry into politics is a remarkable story in its own right. His bilingualism – Chen was from a Chinese school but did his law studies in Britain – was one of the reasons MCA president Tun Tan Siew Sin asked him to enter politics. He and then Alliance secretary-general Tan Sri T.H. Tan persuaded Chen to contest the Damansara parliamentary seat in the 1964 general election.

Against all odds, Chen won the seat by a margin of over 500 votes even though “the betting in the market was that the opposition would win by more than 5,000 votes,” he recalled.

A few months after the general election, Chen was asked by Razak, who was then Deputy Prime Minister, to become his parliamentary secretary. Chen declined as he felt there were candidates who were more experienced than him.

“Razak was disappointed with my answer and lectured me. He said that young people like me were only interested in making money and didn’t care for the nation. He asked me, ‘What happens if the nation collapses? You won’t be able to enjoy whatever money you earn?’”

Razak then tried a different tack and approached Chen’s father-in-law, Khoo Chong Eng, who owned the Hock Lee mini-market, and was his regular golf partner.

Thus, when Razak summoned him a second time, Chen found it difficult to say no. Razak wanted him as he felt Chen had proven his credentials by winning the Damansara seat where the Chinese made up over 80% of the electorate. Razak also wanted a Chinese parliamentary secretary to shore up his image among the community.

Chen lost his seat in the 1969 general election. After the May 13 riots, he assisted Razak to rebuild ties between the Malays, Chinese and Indians.

“It was a big challenge trying to instil confidence between the three races. Over the years, we devised different strategies. Razak was the first to start the open-house concept where the public was invited to visit VIPs, which has become a tradition in Malaysia.”

Razak was the chief architect of the New Economic Policy and was also responsibe for establishing the Felda scheme and Bank Bumiputra.

“The implementation of the NEP then was different. It was successful because the Chinese, Malays and Indians accepted it. The abuse of the NEP only occurred in recent times,” Chen remarked.

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