Monday, 1 June 2009

I Remember When...: It started with a ping-pong match

Tun Abdul Razak Hussein visiting the Great Wall accompanied by Malaysian and Chinese officials. Tan Sri Michael Chen is fourth from left.
Tun Abdul Razak Hussein visiting the Great Wall accompanied by Malaysian and Chinese officials. Tan Sri Michael Chen is fourth from left.

In 1974, then prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein dramatically altered the political landscape in Southeast Asia by forging diplomatic ties with China. Former minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Michael Chen, who will be visiting China again with current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, tells ARMAN AHMAD about the trip Najib’s father made 35 years ago


The Straits Times reporting Razak’s meeting with chairman Mao Zedong." width="199" border="1" height="188">
The Straits Times reporting Razak’s meeting with chairman Mao Zedong.
Tun Abdul Razak Hussein sparring with a student at Tainghun University, Beijing.
Tun Abdul Razak Hussein sparring with a student at Tainghun University, Beijing.
NOT many people know it, but a ping-pong (table tennis) match paved the way for Malaysia to forge diplomatic ties with China. The year was 1971, and China had embarked on a campaign known as "Ping-Pong Diplomacy".

(From the early years of the republic, sport had played a crucial role in promoting diplomacy with the slogan "Friendship First, Competition Second".)

I received instructions from Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein to lead a Malaysian team to China for the Afro-Asian-Latin American Table Tennis Championship.

He told me to find out if diplomatic ties could be established with China.
Razak gave me a letter that was addressed to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

It was a simple letter, and was signed by Razak in his capacity as the president of the Olympic Council of Malaysia, instead of prime minister.

Those were the days of the Cold War between the United States and its Western European allies on one side, and the USSR and Eastern Bloc countries on the other.

It was also the time when China, after being largely ignored by the West, was being actively courted by several countries to establish diplomatic relations.

During the championship, I managed to quietly pass the letter to Zhou through the Chinese liaison officer in charge of the Malaysia team.

Being the brilliant leader and diplomat that he was, Zhou immediately sniffed out the true intention of the letter.

Three days after the letter was delivered, the Chinese foreign minister at the time came over to have morning tea with me.

During a 45-minute conversation, I received indications from the minister that they were responding positively and would like to upgrade the cooperation between our two countries.

The table tennis team and I returned and I immediately informed Razak about China's intentions.

It took some time, but on May 28, 1974, a 44-man Malaysian delegation was onboard a MAS aircraft headed for Beijing.

We were received by a huge entourage. As Razak stepped onto Chinese soil, he was followed closely by Temenggong Jugah, Raja Tan Sri Mohar, Tan Sri Zaiton and myself.

China's vice-premier, Li Hsien-Nien, greeted Razak with an outstretched hand, and the Chinese military band played Negaraku, followed by the Chinese national anthem.

There was a giant banner proclaiming Selamat Datang Perdana Menteri Tun Abdul Razak.

Dancing girls, with bouquets of flowers in their hands, welcomed the Malaysians.

That night, we went to a state banquet hosted by Zhou.

It was a very sentimental meeting between Zhou and Razak. The 78-year old Zhou was at the time ill with cancer, and was hospitalised.

He told Razak that he had received "special permission" from his doctor to attend the banquet.

He added that he had waited a long time for this meeting.

I still remember how touching his words were.

I was lucky enough to sit next to Razak and could overhear bits of their conversation.

It was a very impressive and elevated discourse between two excellent diplomats.

I overheard Zhou say he could not differentiate the Malays from the Chinese in the entourage.

Hearing this, I jokingly said that there were two people in the delegation that easily stood out -- Temenggong Jugah and MIC deputy president Datuk Athi Nahapan.

The next few days were quite hectic. The following day, Razak met chairman Mao Zedong for a 90-minute discussion in Mao's study.

Later, Razak told us that he had jokingly told Mao about the small problem at home with the communists.

"You are an expert in guerilla warfare. Do you know how we can solve our little problem?" Razak had asked.

Mao replied: "Be patient."

He said Razak led the legitimate government in the country.

"The problem may naturally be solved by itself," said Mao.

We later spent hours trying to analyse what he meant.

Did he mean that the movement was not supported by the people? Did he mean the leaders would grow older and eventually fade away?

Whether Mao knew something we did not know, 15 years later, the communists finally discontinued their struggle in Malaysia, just like he had said.

The following day, a joint communique was ready to be signed between the two countries. It was signed at 7.30pm on May 31 in the Great Hall of the People.

An early exchange of envoys was also agreed upon.

Once this was settled, a trip to the Great Wall of China was arranged for our entourage.

(In a Bernama report written by Salleh Daud, it was reported that Razak broke the "records" of US President Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka.

("Nixon had only reached Fort No 2 while Tanaka reached Fort No 3 at the beginning of the wall.

(Razak managed to climb 4.6m more than Tanaka, to which two European tourists climbing the wall exclaimed in French, Formidable!

(He was only surpassed on this expedition by Temenggong Jugah, who reached Fort No 4, which is 780m above sea level)

Our delegation returned to Malaysia on June 2.

Razak received a rousing welcome from a 50,000-strong crowd in front of the Selangor Club that night.

He began his speech by declaring that the next day would be a public holiday.

He said that he was "overwhelmed" by the reception he had received in China.

Razak's trip to China was a breakthrough for our country.

Malaysia was the first Asean country to make contact with China. At the time, there was no significant trade with China, and it began after Razak's visit.

His diplomatic relations with China stabilised the political situation in Southeast Asia.

NEW STRAITS TIMES

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