We were standing at the doorway, wondering, from our common expression and mutual reticence, if we should shake hands. Instead, as a parting word, I asked: “How shall I address you?” I had actually forgotten her surname, Zhou, which she had told me two years ago.
Here, forgetting is easy because we, the Chinese, rarely use given names. And, if we knew, we seldom use names. We think of persons or friends or enemies in terms of position and honorifics or titles, and mostly call each other by nicknames usually associated with an occupation. How had this come about? I have no idea. Nor in those years have I been able to extract a cell phone number from Zhou, a peculiarity of privacy that has nothing to do with fearing openness and treasuring anonymity; it’s about keeping discretion above all else and about keeping to ourselves.
Then I repeat the mistake: What’s your phone number? She hesitated, I apologized, wrote my number on the page of a notebook, rip it off and handed it to her. This immediately deflected my question. Few people carry around name cards or, if they have them, the cards are almost always designed as an advertisement, filled with short proverbs or slogans and tiny photos of things one sells.
I doubt if Najib Razak got a name card out of Xi Jiping, even if they are in the best of terms. No relationships are equal. The Chinese understand this too well. But the West, who once thought of relationships on layered, hierarchical terms, could never get a handle of people existing in concentric circles, as if like a spider’s web. No matter how much the West banged on the notion of equal rights, which might seem self-evident to them, no Chinese will listen.
Malays? They have no philosophy intrinsic to either their society or culture. Nothing they know belongs to them. Even a person as learned as Zaid Ibrahim can only know what the Englishmen had taught him. Malay Anglophiles feel strongly for equal rights and hope to stand China-Malaysia relations on those terms. Then, when the lollipop is denied them, they kick around like spoiled kids, bawling out banal, old-school tripe about ‘selling out’ (Kadir Jasin), and ‘vassal state‘ and ‘Mah-lah-sia province’ (Mariam Mokhtar), and ‘hegemony and supremacy‘ (Dennis Ignatius).
They can see no other relationship other than on tribal Malay coconut terms that they overlay with Western notions of hunter-hunted, colonizer-colonized, master-slave. Thus, all banks are, to them, like Goldman Sachs (the rapacious and greedy over the hapless), all international relations are Westphalian (territorial and land grabbing), and global affairs are matters of Morgenthau power (we win, you are finished).
If they believe China is out to rule Tanah Melayu, Malaiyoos are welcomed to say, ‘No’ to us. Let’s see, without them, this bunch of Nusantara tree dwellers, if we are going to be impoverished as a result. Better yet, don’t even ask us to build your rails and ports; shut the fuck up, stay in your coconut tree houses and make babies out of monkeys.
More to the point, though, if Najib were on the side of Mahathir’s ‘Save Malaysia’ campaign, Kadir and Zaid would be among the first to sing the wonders of China-Malaysia relations. If, indeed, Kadir was concerned about Malaysian, he actually means Malay, welfare he’d be asking, instead of grand standing over land and sovereignty, When will China start building? How shall China find for Malays something to eat meanwhile?
Mahathir committed the same mistake and trolled out the same hypocrisy in his heydays when two-thirds of usable land was controlled by the English and Dutch plantations. He cried Malaiyoo! Sovereignty! nationalized the plantations which, in turn, became neglected, while Malays continued to starve and, ultimately became no better off. Kadir’s kinds of arguments — but then he’s just a fucking reporter — beats even the perversity of seeing him shit on his mother’s tombstone.
On the other, opposite side of Umno, Ahi Attan is as quiet as when he pisses into his rocky potty.
Everything about the Melayu today is down to whose side you are on. Small wonder third rate Malaiyoo — and Anglophile — intellectual thought has delivered nothing but shit in New Zealand, good at swinging assholes at people’s doorsteps, shout Allahuakbar, beat up defenseless Banglas and steal from Chinese phone shops while shouting maruah. Some pendatang from Java named Zahid Hamidi needed two generations to even think, hopefully, of some Malaiyoo going for the Nobel Lit.
The Chinese as a proxy for domestic Malay fights is as historical as Melayu political psychology and just as legendary in scope as Malay girls going nuts in their boarding schools. It is all that Malaiyoos can do when the chips are down: one side piss quietly, the other farts a boom.
Najib in China is, especially for Mahathir’s side, a two-in-one treat: to serve their pathological hatred of Chinese and feasting on the Bugis Thief. They stir themselves into a frenzy. So ridiculous are the arguments on Mahathir’s side that they have made themselves looked more worked up than even the US — or Japan. Other than the welcoming ceremony, there has been little to show Najib on CCTV, unusual in the circumstances but not exceptional. There is reticence.
Because of Najib and 1MDB, one of Europe’s oldest banks was shut down, Singapore’s financial system fallen into disrepute, and the American financial market disgraced. Like it or not Najib is still top dog: What do you do with such a dog? Cancel all deals or pretend and hope that none of the money is wolfed down by some Arabian or Malay pig? But hope is never a foreign policy position. No, you strapped up that Bugis in a cement drum and give him as little space as possible to launder the machinery we supply to him at a discount.
Past the local library you arrive at the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of __ City. Its building is at one end of Bei_lu that resembles a court house. In China most government buildings look alike although, technically, the People’s Congress is a specie onto itself, a cross between parliament and a political party.
Zhou occupies a single room up one flight of steps from the door. By appearances, her position （单位）– something like an ombudsman — is innocuous but looks are deceptive. Over the past years I have learned she could make or break cases.
Her work reminds of the Chinese institution where people visit to find a way out of a mess in their lives, an institution residing mostly in temples that naive Anglophile worshipers of a voodoo Jesus (Malaysiakini motherfuckers Steve Oh and Stephen Ng) regard as idolatory.
Papers stack up on one side of her desk. The in-tray is full. The problems of modern-day governance are not unique, at least not to China and and not in this era. Du Fu, the Tang poet and a minor official 1,500 years ago:
wearing the robes and belts of office
I sit at work and want to scream
and my subordinates
just pile up more paperwork
An hour later, I forget what it is I have come to see her about. A world like China is an artifact; it was made and shall be remade. Zhou sees herself in that role.
How do the Taiwanese see China? she asked. Answer: As a force of modernity for China to follow. The Chinese are good builders — roads, rails, ports, space stations — but China is paying too much attention on artifice, on things rather than on people although Kongzi has taught us about the latter. It is slower to build the culture in people but the results from them — those things we desire, a better life for one — are far more durable. Society is more stable as a result. John Stuart Mill was wrong about how far utilitarianism can go; Kongzi is a far better guide.
Here, we don’t talk about Malaysia nor Najib nor Mahathir. Malays like to pretend they have things other people hanker over, the Chinese in particular. Even the land on which Chinese engineers and labor will build for Malays are useless to us. Land we have; a whole continent, available in varied colors, according to the seasons, and consequently so much more conducive to life. What have Malays to teach us, or the world? We are glad to see the back of a Malay pendatang. Return only if you have the money to pay us back. Otherwise, stay the fuck out.
Winter has been raining non-stop three days. Zhou’s silk scarf catches the wind, trailing. She invites me to lunch on another day, and I invite her to dinner after that. No, no dinner, she replied in an instant; she must be home to cook for the family. She likes cooking, beef in stew, marinated in a tonne of chilli.
“About your problem,” she said before closing the door of her Buick, “we have written to the department. They must sort it out within a month then give us an answer and tell us what they have done.”
“What if they don’t?”
“They will. They always will. It’s their duty.”
I have come to expect nothing from China, say nothing, breathe not a word, reveal nothing, complain less, pretend everything. Yet, most of the time, China delivers even when pretending. I am recovering the skill, somehow: keep silent, pretend. Growing up in Malaysia leaves you inept, like a shrieking monkey with neither flair nor finesse, like the Jamals, the Najibs and the Petra Kamarudins. Living in China, you re-learn things, you re-learn to live, and to learn especially not to be like those Nusantara tree dwellers.