“PRIME Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is in Beijing and Hangzhou to hold talks with top Chinese officials,” my former classmate quips when we bumped into each other at a product launch in Penang recently.
His excitement is understandable as the People’s Republic of China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for the past nine years and this visit comes at a crucial time when Dr Mahathir seeks to reduce our nation’s burgeoning debt by reviewing lopsided agreements made by the previous government.
On the side-lines of this important official visit, Dr Mahathir will meet and interact with entrepreneurs in Beijing as well as head over to the headquarters of the Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group in Hangzhou.
There is definitely vast collaborative potential in the fields of digital economy, agriculture, automobile technology and precision technology for Malaysia. Dr Mahathir’s presence cannot come at a better time as this year marks the 44th anniversary since our second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak made history by becoming the first Malaysian head of government to visit China and officially establish Sino-Malaysian diplomatic relations.
During the demonstration session, I couldn’t help but recall some of the items in my possession that that tell the story of Malaysia’s attempt to strengthen ties with China in the past.
Apart from two rare special publications commemorating American president Richard Nixon and Malaysian prime minister Tun Abdul Razak’s separate inaugural visits to China, several newspaper cuttings from the early 1970s also provide ample proof that Malaysia was the first Southeast Asian nation to take steps to normalise ties with the developing socialist nation.
MALAYSIA FORGES AHEAD
Despite the ongoing cold war, which was a state of geopolitical tensions that began after World War II between the Eastern Bloc nations headed by the Soviet Union and the Western Bloc powers which centred around the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) allies, Malaysia bravely took the initial step to improve commerce with China by sending its first official trade delegation to the Guangzhou Trade Fair in May 1971.
That inaugural visit, headed by the-then president of the Malay Chamber of Commerce, Tengku RazaleighTengku Hamzah, took place two months earlier than American national security advisor Henry Kissinger’s first trip to confide with the Chinese Premier at that time, Zhou Enlai on ways to apply diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union. Kissinger’s subsequent visit in October 1971pavedthewayfor the ground-breaking 1972 summit between Nixon,Zhou and the Communist Party of China chairman, Mao Zedong.
AMERICA CEMENT TIES
That week-long visit, from Feb 21 to 28, 1972, formalised relations between America and China. It marked the first visit of a sitting American president as well as an end to 23 years of diplomatic isolation and mutual hostility.
In response to the successful Malaysian trade visit, the Chinese government promptly announced a reciprocal gesture. News of the impending visit of the Chinese trade delegation and their intention to take part in Malaysia’s 14th National Day celebrations made headlines in Berita Harian on Aug 4, 1971.
According to my copy of the Malay daily, bought several years ago at the Penang flea market, the Chinese delegation’s visit, a first since the end of the 1949 civil war in their country, was made possible by a special welcoming committee made up of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the National Cooperative (Pernas), the Natural Rubber Research Institute and the Malay, Indian and Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
CHINESE TRADE MISSION ARRIVES
The trade mission was headed by Zhang Guangdou, the general manager of China National Chemicals Import and Export Corporation. Their arrival on Aug 22, 1971 was welcomed by Tengku Razaleigh and a large crowd at Subang International Airport.
After receiving gifts in the form of long-sleeve batik shirts, the visitors were feted to a satay dinner attended by cabinet ministers, senior government officials and members of the business community.
Apart from visits to the Natural Rubber Research Institute in Sungai Buloh and several projects that came under the purview of the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda), the Chinese delegation also made a one day trip to Penang during their stay in Malaysia.
On the afternoon of Aug 24, the delegates were received by Tun Abdul Razak who,among other things, expressed gratitude to the Chinese Red Cross Society for providing up to RMB500,000 worth of relief assistance to Malaysia during the late 1970 and early 1971 floods that crippled many parts of the country including Kuala Lumpur.
A day before their departure on Aug 28, the Chinese delegation was hosted to a farewell dinner by the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Everyone present could feel that it was truly a night of unbridled friendship and goodwill among friends.
LAYING THE GROUND WORK
The 1971 bilateral trade visits laid the ground work for further negotiations on the establishment of diplomatic ties. Between June 1973 and April 1974, the Chinese representative to the United Nations, Huang Hua and his Malaysian counterpart Zakaria Ali met over a series of talks in New York to agree on the terms of a joint communique which eventually led to Tun Abdul Razak’s first official visit to China.
I remember the contents of my book commemorating that historic 1974 event clearly. Apart from featuring a wide selection of black and white as well as colour photographs of Tun Abdul Razak visiting various places in China, the book also contains a series of speeches made by the Malaysian prime minister and top Chinese leaders.
At a press conference held on the eve of his departure, Tun Abdul Razak reiterated that his visit to both Beijing and Shanghai not only represented a fresh start in relations between Malaysia and China but also the beginning of a new pattern in international relations in Southeast Asia as a whole.
When concluding his meeting with the media, Tun Abdul Razak said that he was on a journey of goodwill and expressed hope that his trip would result in an enduring friendship between the two nations.
RAZAK HEADS TO CHINA
The next day, on May 28, the Malaysian prime minister and his entourage boarded a specially chartered Malaysia Airline System (MAS) flight bound for Beijing.
At a state banquet held that same evening in Tun Abdul Razak’s honour, Zhou paid a glowing tribute to all Malaysians for successfully opposing imperialism and colonialism. \
While acknowledging the shared traditional friendship that went back to the time of the Melaka Sultanate, the Chinese premier congratulated all Malaysians for being both industrious and valiant through the ages.
During his time at the podium at the Great Hall of the People that night, Tun Abdul Razak reaffirmed Malaysia’s ancient ties with China. Recognising the almost unsurmountable physical barriers that separated the two nations in the distant past, the Malaysian premier said that the present challenge came in the form of barriers of the mind and spirit which had to be conquered before success can be achieved.
The next day, on May 29, Tun Abdul Razak held separate talks with Zhou and Mao in the spirit of sincerity and frankness. Their discussions ranged over a wide area and covered the challenges as well as opportunities that lay ahead for the two nations.
DIPLOMATIC RELATIONSHIP SEALED
The communique on the establishment of diplomatic relationship between Malaysia and China was signed between Zhou and Tun Abdul Razak at the Great Hall of the People on May 31.
The inking of the agreement made Malaysia the first Southeast Asian nation to normalise relationship with China. Tun Abdul Razak was so touched by China’s gracious hospitality that he began writing an in-flight message to his Chinese counterpart as soon as the MAS aircraft took off from the Shanghai Airport on June 2, 1974.
In his note, Tun Abdul Razak described his visit as both memorable and fruitful. While mentioning deep admiration for the many historical monuments that he visited, Tun Abdul Razak also congratulated the Chinese people for their vitality and discipline in taking their economy and culture to greater heights.
Upon his return to Kuala Lumpur, Tun Abdul Razak told reporters of his happiness in establishing full diplomatic relations with China and announced that the exchange of ambassadors would take place soon. He also commented on the signing of the joint communique saying that it embodied various agreements and general principles that would guide Sino-Malaysian relations for many years to come.
Pertinent to this was Malaysia’s view that the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China and acknowledged that Taiwan remained an inalienable part of the country.
TERRORISTS AND CITIZENSHIP
Among the other main points covered were those concerning the ongoing guerrilla war with the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and the question of nationality of the people of Chinese origin residing in Malaysia.
Tun Abdul Razak announced that Zhou and Mao had categorically assured him that they were of the view that the terrorists were Malaysia’s internal problem that should be dealt with in the way that the government thought best.
Turning to matters related to citizenship, Tun Abdul Razak said that China recognised Malaysia as a multiracial country and supported its attempts to forge a united nation from a very diverse group of races.
Tun Abdul Razak also mentioned that China illustrated this endorsement by agreeing to several far-reaching commitments with regards to the overseas Chinese who were resident in Malaysia.
China maintained its stand that the destiny of the overseas Chinese were intertwined with their home countries and that they should make every attempt to integrate themselves into the local social fabric and no longer consider themselves separate from it.
According to Clause 5 of the joint communique, both governments of China and Malaysia declared that they didn’t recognise dual nationality and that the people of Chinese origin who’d taken up Malaysian citizenship were automatically not Chinese nationals. Upon saying that, Tun Abdul Razak made it absolutely clear that there was no future in Malaysia for fence sitters — people whose loyalties were still divided.
While summing up his press statement, Tun Abdul Razak looked at everyone and said in a grim manner: “We’re all Malaysians and our future and those of our children as well as our children’s children, lie here in our beloved country. Malaysia is engaged in an exciting adventure to build a united country on the basis of equality, dignity and welfare for all. We must, on all fronts, dedicate ourselves to those values.”
“Still here? The demonstration is already over. Let’s go adjourn next door for some refreshments,” my friend’s voice nudges me out of my deep musing. His last few words make me suddenly conscious of the delicious aroma of freshly made curry puffs wafting in the air.
Almost immediately, my saunter turns into a slight jog as I shadow his footsteps. While enjoying the snacks, our conversation inevitably drifts back to Dr Mahathir’s presence in China. Although his objectives are worlds apart from those of Tun Abdul Razak, we have every confidence in Dr Mahathir’s negotiating capabilities and know for certain that he will only commit to deals that are best for our country.