China and the modern Kapitans

Josh Hong
Oct 22, 10


How would, let’s say, the Perdana Leadership Foundation, feel if the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur called to register its protest over a forum on violations of human rights at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp?

Or would any Chinese Malaysian association not go berserk had the Japanese embassy sought to thwart a talk on exposing Japan’s war crimes during WWII?

The reactions would be rather similar, outrage that is. Then again, these two diplomatic missions would be shrewd enough to avoid being seen as interfering in the autonomy of an organisation in a sovereign country. Such a move would in fact violate Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961. They may, however, attempt to influence public opinion in their host country by other means.

For instance, the US embassy, instead of making private phone calls to various press rooms in Malaysia with a view to halting an event against the unjustified and illegal war on Iraq in 2003, actually had some Washington-friendly writers and columnists argue its case on its behalf.

When necessary, officials would be dispatched to engage the opponents at public forums. Outstanding social and political elites were even sent on everything-paid-for trips to the US to experience the freedoms enjoyed by the Muslim community there.

liu xiao bo 02One may call it a fine art of propaganda, but any democracy knows full well overt interference almost always ends in a PR disaster. A seasoned diplomat would see his/her career take off with a bit of finesse and subtlety.

Not so for the Chinese embassy in KL. Recently, Su Qiang, a counselor, found himself compelled to express his displeasure with the KL Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (KLSCAH) over a planned forum on the decision of the Norwegian Nobel Institute to confer Liu Xiaobo (left), a prominent Chinese dissident, with the Nobel Peace Prize.

Hint of cold shoulder treatment

It later transpired that the counselor had hinted at cold shoulder treatment should the Civic Rights Committee (CRC), a subordinate group under KLSCAH, pressed ahead with the event. To its credit, the CRC stood firm, albeit agreeing to postpone the event by more than a week in order to accommodate one Beijing-friendly speaker – Tan Kai Hee, who is the founder of the Malaysia-China Friendship Association.

Two speakers have since pulled out in protest not only over outside interference but also the compromise by the CRC, but I, the remaining speaker originally scheduled for the talk, have chosen to stay on.

On Wednesday, Chai Xi, the Chinese ambassador, dismissed claims of involvement by the embassy. His denial has now put the KLSCAH in a deep dilemma. Would its leaders come out to rebut the ambassador in order to salvage the organisation’s good name from being tarnished?

raymond yeap blog 201010 protest china interfere liu xiaobo forumI am rather pessimistic simply because most of those who run the 7,000 or so Chinese clan associations and guilds are businesspeople. With China’s growing economic clout and lucrative business opportunities, Malaysia’s so-called Chinese community leaders are more likely to trade democracy for contracts and guan xi (connections).

Like it or not, the impression of interference by the Chinese embassy has sunk into the minds of Chinese Malaysians who uphold jealously the ideals of democracy and human rights, as evidenced in the voluminous messages by Facebook users.

To be fair, it is the duty of all diplomatic missions to pay close attention to the views of the local populaces in regard to the countries that they represent, but the way they handle criticisms may differ, and often sharply. It is just unfortunate that the Chinese embassy has been rather tactless in this.

But the incident also exposes the outmoded mentality of the Chinese. For years, Chinese diplomats have treated the Chinese community leaders in Malaysia as if they were Kapitans of the modern days and, by extension, the Chinese Malaysian population as ‘overseas compatriots’.

This attitude, while rooted in historical reasons and understandable, fails to take into account the reality that, in tandem with political developments in the country, vast changes have been happening within the Chinese Malaysian community over the past few years.

For one, Charter 08, drafted by Liu Xiaobo and other constitutionalists in China, largely echoes the desires of Malaysians for a liberal, fair and democratic future, to be achieved through peaceful means.

Championing reform, not revolution

If anything, Liu is championing a constitutional reform, not a bloody revolution. Is it really so surprising that his winning the peace prize is a huge boost for Chinese dissidents and even resonates among Chinese Malaysians who value democracy and human rights more than race and nationality?

In the same vein, it is the democratic process in Taiwan that appeals more to the young generation of Chinese Malaysians, just like the increasingly diverse and democratic Indonesia that gives hope to South-East Asia.

free liu xiao bo protest hongkongLittle wonder then that the more the Chinese authorities resort to clamping down on dissent and censoring the media, the more they remind Malaysians of the underhanded tactics by Umno. Mahathir Mohamad’s remarks that dictatorship à la China is worthy of emulation only serve to heighten the fear that the Najib government may take a leaf out of his book and impose tighter control.

But the Kapitans, either out of business interests or pro-China sentiments, appear to be oblivious to the winds of change. Pheng Yin Huah, president of the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia (Hua Zong), and the United Chinese School Committees Association (Dong Zong), together with several others, condemned the peace prize as part of a western conspiracy to ‘undermine China’s rise as a global power’.

In their view, this ‘once prestigious’ award was not meant to be given to a ‘convicted criminal’ working to subvert the Chinese state.

I can easily think of a bunch of prominent Chinese Malaysians who sacrificed their personal freedom in the past decades: Yow Lee Fung, Goh Kean Seng, Lee Ban Chen, Lim Fong Seng, Sim Mow-yu Yee and Kua Kia Soong, all of whom were detained under the draconian Internal Security Act for championing the right to mother-tongue education.

Most important of all, Lim Lian Geok, a veteran Chinese educationist and a multiculturalist, had his citizenship revoked by the Malayan government in 1961. Like other Malayans/Malaysians fighting for the country’s democracy, they have won the hearts and minds of many.

If one were to apply the logic employed by the Chinese government and the Kapitans, the abovementioned names would appear on the wanted list again and be found guilty as charged.

Neither would the conspiracy theory popularised by Beijing and parroted by the Kapitans stand the test. Let’s face it, the peace prize is political in nature, and to label the awarding process as being “politicised” only betrays one’s shallow-mindedness as comparable to that of Rais Yatim, the ‘minister of misinformation’ who sees it as his divine call to warn the public not to “politicise” certain issues.

So tell me, who else if not Liu that deserved the prize? Ng Yen Yen who flies around the world on taxpayers’ money to improve Malaysia’s rotting image?

martin luther kingIf there had been any conspiracy by the Norwegians in acknowledging Martin Luther King Jr (left) in 1964, it only became instrumental in dismantling racial segregation in the United States. Something celebrated worldwide, including in China and Malaysia, no?

Lest we forget, Umno constantly plays up the fear of a conspiracy theory in an attempt to frighten Malaysians from voting for the opposition. Now we know why Mahathir looks up to China and why Umno is in fact a sister party to the Chinese Communist Party!

In short, the modern Kapitans must realise that the Chinese Malaysian community has become more diverse and no longer homogenous, and they should cease to see themselves as the only legitimate voice. Similarly, it is in the interest of the Chinese embassy to prove to Malaysians that it does have the generosity to listen to different opinions, however unpalatable they may be.



JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.

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