Lessons in Sino-Malay Relations
Eric Liu, the man in the above video, had earned his name from, reputedly, writing speeches for former US President Bill Clinton. In the video, the most relevant part to this article lasts about 6 minutes from around the time stamp at 00:27:00. Although Liu speaks in terms primarily of Chinese-White American relations, those parts are equally relevant to Sino-Malays in Malaysia. And the wonder of it is that political parties, the Barisan National in particular, had never adopted those ideas in order to better the country and the Malays, given especially that Liu’s remarks are not new and would be in favor of the Malays. A Taiwanese academic (Harvard, Peking universities) named Tu Weiming 杜维明 was among the earliest, modern-day advocates calling for the revival of neo-Confucianism (see video below, for example, Tu Weiming versus Francis Fukuyama). Indeed Tu and Anwar Ibrahim had met (briefly) when the latter was deputy prime minister while Singapore, regretful of its Charlie Lee-Anglophile ways, had brought him in to advice on national policies. Here, instead, we spent time and effort beating up each other.
It is not only among the Chinese in Malaysia. Elsewhere as well (in America for example) there has been one of the most vexing questions raised by the children and descendants of immigrants; children and descendants because the first generation Chinese seems to face no such problem. Until the advent of modern communications and the rise of nationalism, there was never a need of the latter to ask those questions: Who are the Chinese? What makes a Chinese?
A standard answer is this, the Chinese is an ethnicity with a hanzi name and a lineage traceable to mainland China. Another but typical, Helen Ang answer copies the Constitution that had (unfortunately) given the Malay a pigeon-hole, tautological definition: A Chinese is a Chinese in identity, in culture and in language. There is a third answer to the questions; it is an evasive one provided by the incredibly naive and ignorant DAP Christian politicians such as Hannah Yeoh: she says, somewhat rhetorically, there are no Chinese, only Malaysians.
The first two answers are both inadequate and misleading, hence erroneous.
In China, a Chinese is never defined by ethnic classification. Manchu rulers in Qing China were considered Chinese, indeed ‘more Chinese’ than the commoner Chinese. The former, for example, made sure, through law that children formally mourn their dead parents for no fewer than three years. Confucian classical text were mandatory reading and these were required passing subjects in order to get government appointments, even at the lowest magistrate level, the first of nine ranks. Nor is geography nor religion a point in classification. Li Bai, considered one of the three best Chinese poets of all time was born in what is today Kazakhstan. Hui Muslims (a Han ethnicity converted to Islam) are no less Chinese than the godless Han and it would be an affront to the former if you were to say they aren’t Chinese. All of which suggests that ethnic identity is fused into nationality (although Tibetans domiciled in India try to make a distinction between the two, Chineseness and Chinese citizenry).
In ‘Malaysian First’, Lim Kit Siang had attempted the opposite of the ethnic-nationality fusion, taking out the ethnicity then subsuming its separate parts into the whole, one that would end up, he had hoped, without their individual cultural and ethnic qualities. This would be called integration.
Kit Siang’s idea was, in essence, a copycat though adulterated version of Mahathir Mohamad’s own Bangsa Malaysia, which like Malaysian First, acknowledges no single, not even a dominant, ethnic group once everybody is made more or less the same. All would be Malaysians by constitutional default: primarily speaking one language, Malay, and observing for the most part Malay customs, albeit without the Islam. This would be called assimilation; it’s the way the Chinese were made in Indonesia.
Those two notions, integration and assimilation, are highly presumptuous:
- (a) plurality is necessarily a bad thing and there is such a thing as equality in plurality,
- (b) Malaysia’s constitution has the last word for being what’s to be Malay,
- (c) all know what it’s to be Malay, it’s there on paper; so Malays (and the Chinese) also assume they know what it is to be Chinese,
- (d) ethnicity is reduced to an absurdity that is pure law, constitutional law,
- (e) China, like Malaysia, but as a people, a civilization and a country, also has the last word for being Chinese or what’s to be Chinese.
Most of the assumptions need not detain us whereas Point (e) in particular needs some clarification, sieving out the elements of truth from common perceptions. This would be an arduous, historical task. So, for brevity’s sake, let’s say China’s doesn’t have the last word because, for example, the May Fourth Movement attempted during the last days of Qing rule to erase every aspect of Confucianism from the personal and social lives of the Chinese, an attempt repeated again during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Both failed.
So deeply entrenched are Confucianist tenets and creeds in the Chinese being that nobody notices they are there. To name two…
One, the middle path. This superb quality emanates from not being bound by an Abrahamic, monotheistic conduct code of morality because, how could Hannah Yeoh be tolerant if her Bible instructs her — and she obeys — to stay away from idols and submit to only one God and no other? Result? The Chinese cell phone street peddler is far, far more ‘liberal’ than Hannah, although it’s the latter who has far more education and experiences, things that, to the Chinese, give people wisdom.
This is to mean that the qualities of Chinese godlessness are being ‘liberal’, being accommodating, being tolerant. A Chinese is, by definition, a moderate. And, by extension, amenable to compromise and accept to concessions. In short, to parley and reason. Taking the middle ground (to avoid disputes) is a banality in the spectrum of Confucian ethics. When Cheras Umno’s Syed Ali Alhabshee suggested to the Chinese to take up the Malay give-and-take attitude, his advice was offered to the wrong group of people; it should be to PAS Malays because, unlike them, Chinese ethical traditions are not tyrannical, iron clad rules written on stone tablets as if they were the Ten Commandments or Middle-Eastern Islamic law.
Sino-Malay relations is a history of such compromises, most tellingly in the creation of Malaysia when no Chinese disputed the Malay aboriginal — hence hereditary — claims on a land they called Tanah Melayu even if, among numerous Malays, this is plainly false (consider Petra Kamarudin).
Two, knowledge, which isn’t just formal schooling. The purpose in the Chinese devotion to learning is knowledge. By knowledge, Chinese traditions take it to mean knowing, understanding and awareness to a body of facts (historical facts in particular), truth and principles. In sum, intelligence.
Daxue 大学 or Great Learning is one of the Four Books on Confucianism (four because these were Song era selected text that were required reading for the civil service examinations) to have survived and passed on four centuries before Christ. Here’s another quote from the Analects (論語), which is really common place to the Chinese-educated: “He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.” (論語 Lunyu 2:15).
Reflection is an ingredient of learning: absence of it means that ideas — absolute ideas unfiltered by thought and by the intellect; communism, liberalism, and so on — are inherently dangerous. This point, carried over to the ‘holy’ books, suggests why (the Abrahamic) religions are in equal measure inflammatory and benign; intended to serve some divinity, they exist merely to instruct and to be obeyed, not to be argued over. Dogmatism is a western creature; learning and moderation are Confucianist, Chinese inventions.
Three people are indispensable to the Chinese consciousness. While the first Qin emperor Shi Huang 秦始皇 gave the Chinese a single, unified nation and Sima Qian 司马迁 (c.145 or 135BC-86BC) wrote the history of the Chinese, Kongzi or Confucius singularly created the Chinese identity, not on terms of ethnicity – skin type or physiological traits — but of ethics. Racism is a western invention.
The Chinese live, therefore, on a set of creeds or tenets (for example, ‘middle path’) sourced from and derived from knowledge because learning, to be useful, has to have an end or purpose. The end of this learning is ethics, that is, how to live, how to cultivate oneself, how to make of oneself, not alone but always in relation to the family, friends, colleagues and others.
It is with this accumulation of ethics, created individually and derived from learning, explains why Chinese societies everywhere have cultivated a highly ‘liberal’ environment, with no qualms about absorbing foreign ideas or even tolerating gays and lesbians or sex workers who could walk down the neighborhood street without being stoned. A man answers to himself and to those around him: deeds and words are those that defined a Chinese. It is an open ended ethical quality: ‘all are born the same but, in time, they grow to be apart‘, is another popular Confucianist quotation Chinese school students recite by heart. Expand that notion, and in a forward sort of way, we reach the core of the Chinese being: What is a Chinese? Who is a Chinese?
A Chinese, therefore, are a people who, because they refused god, have always taught and learned the history in which their ethics are written. It is an open-ended Confucianist, identity definition but one that works well and explains why the May Fourth and the Cultural Revolution all failed in their attempts to eradicate Confucianism: they were, in effect, self-immolating.
There is a Dao saying that the greater is the insistence, the lesser is the chance one gets to your demand: try to slice the water, it simply comes round to a more determined flow. The Chinese is the cumulative traits a person exhibits: wisdom, balance, virtues and values (see sidebar below, Death of a Chief Executive) when acted out in relation to others, family included.
Now, take that definition of Chineseness, which is broadly a cultural definition that includes into it the elements of language, customs, rituals and ethics, and placed it alongside the popular idea of the Chinese, say, Helen’s tautology: A Chinese is a Chinese in identity, in culture and in language. But, what’s the Chinese identity? What’s Chinese culture? Answer those questions, it is easy to see why, legal recognition excepting, Hannah Yeoh is hardly a Chinese nor is Ridhuan Tee nor Helen herself. Many ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, imbued by and suffused in western thoughts and sense of being then acting them out, are in their underlying reality bastardized versions of an orang putih, Helen included.
Tu Weiming versus Francis Fukuyama. Neo-Confucianism versus Liberalism
Death of a Chief Executive
Only the Confucianist in the Chinese could have produced this kind of protest art: a coffin intended for CY Leung, the Hong Kong chief executive, who, having failed to live up to his human role as ruler, might as well end his life. This is to suggest he is no longer useful, whether as human or ruler, neither to himself nor to the society.
Near that coffin is another protest banner that reads in English, ‘We’re made in Hong Kong. HK exports values and virtues.‘ This might seem queer to Anglophiles like Helen Ang or Lim Guan Eng. But, that statement underscores the foundation of the current protests, now stretching to its seventh week: the values and virtues held by the Chinese in Hong Kong are those different from the mainland; Hong Kong was the bastion of a Confucian Chinese culture when China was in tumult. China does not have the last word on what’s to be Chinese — overseas Chinese do — and it’s a point the Chinese there repeatedly and inadvertently make, beginning with the attempt at eradicating Confucianism during May Fourth and now with the introduction of a hedonistic culture devoted to material well-being, absent the ethical foundations of the Chinese, cultivated the last three thousand years.
黃玫瑰 Ode to the Yellow Rose – a People
Here, used to beat up on the Chinese, are popular lines that essentially say, identity determines morality: Petra Kamarudin‘s favorite, ‘the Chinese are greedy and selfish’. Helen Ang: ‘Everybody else are willing to integrate, but never the Chinese’. Lisa Ng: ‘The Chinese-educated have a ghetto mentality and this is why they are chauvinist’.
But, here’s another way to think: It’s morality that determines who we are. Morality makes the self so that whether a person is Chinese or Malay is derived from the sum of a man’s words and deeds. Confucius had preceded this philosophy of the mind that now, 2,500 years later, say:
…we’ve been thinking about the problem precisely backwards. It’s not that identity is centred around morality. It’s that morality necessitates the concept of identity, breathes life into it, provides its raison d’être. If we had no scruples, we’d have precious little need for identities.