Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Tortoise and The Hare

Two recent talks I attended kindle my desire to share this piece with friends.

The first was given by retired professor Michael Heng on the need for Cultural-Intellectual Rejuvenation in Asia at the HEAD Foundation and the second, which was a dialogue organised by SMU (Singapore Management University) in collaboration with Stratagem Group on China’s new Belt & Road initiatives at Carlton Hotel, Singapore.

Michael was a long-lost friend; we got reconnected only quite recently, thanks to WhatsApp. He and I were classmates in our Junior high school days. I left for Kuala Lumpur and later Penang to do my upper secondary; he continued his at High School Muar. We met again at the University of Malaya – he did Science and I, Engineering. After a teaching stint in Malaysia, he left for UK to do his master’s and the Netherlands for his PhD. He has held academic positions in many countries – the Netherlands of course, but also Australia, Taiwan, China and Singapore, amongst others. He has also worked with one of the most eminent scholars of the day, the venerated Prof Wang Gungwu of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

But Asia is such a huge and diverse continent; when he accepted my invitation to speak, what I actually had in mind was simply this: If China wants to lead the world, it has to go through some form of rejuvenation, culturally and intellectually. Or a form of Renaissance really. Michael spoke much more than China. 

Sure, not every would agree with this. Present in the audience were some very distinguished scholars and thinkers. But there was one voice that made me very uncomfortable. A young man who hails from China and who has spent many good years stood up to opine in Mandarin that what Michael had lectured and what we had been discussing were no longer relevant! Under President Xi, he seemed to say, China was already on its way to be No 1 in the world. The arrogance was disturbing! Unfortunately, we did not have time to debate with him.

The keynote address in the dialogue at Carlton Hotel was delivered by a Chinese bureaucrat. He gave the impression that he had just woken from a deep slumber. He was just parroting China’s official lines on the Belt & Road initiative. There was hardly any soul in his speech. Of the four panelists, except for a certain Dr Xu, who apparently is a director at Beijing’s National Institute of International Strategy, the others are not unlike the Chinese scholars and thinkers you see in CCTV’s Dialogue programmes – officious, shallow and what-have-you. The substance of what had been given by one of them appeared to be a complete regurgitation of what he had learned in his MBA classes.

The kay-por (Fujian Ming-nan slang, meaning ‘busy-body’) lost no time in writing to this Dr Xu.

Dear Liping,

I did introduce myself to you at the end of the session. I am the head of The HEAD Foundation ( but I am giving you this feedback in my personal capacity.

Most bureaucrats from China tend to parrot your government's line. The chap who was giving the keynote address is a typical example. Moreover, he spoke with little conviction!

The danger I see with China is its sense of 'self-exultation'. Many of your thinkers and policy makers are really quite ignorant of your neighbours' true feelings. You cited the flag incident in Indonesia. If I may help explain:

The more educated natives in Southeast and South Asia during the Second World War saw the Japanese as liberators!!! The Japanese were able to win their empathy and hearts even during that short period of occupation. Chinese on the other hand were largely aligned with the colonial powers then. They had always been perceived as economic exploiters by the locals. That feeling persists today.

China does not know how to project soft power even today. It is too self-centric in its dealings with the world. Chinese officials are generally poor communicators. I live in three cities - Melbourne where I call 'home', Kuala Lumpur where I have a second home and Singapore where my office is. There was this Beijing-based Australia journalist called John Gannault who kept bashing China unnecessarily. I wrote to Ambassador Fu Yin to alert her. You know what, I didn't even receive an acknowledgement from her office! Your tourists are swarming the world, but your government has made little effort to teach them social etiquette. You protested each time a Japanese prime minister visited Yasukuni Shrine but people in the West would ask, "What's the big deal?". Look at the way the Jews tell their Holocaust stories; they can
 teach the Chinese a lesson or two in Public Relations! (Do check out museums and see for yourself!)

Chinese museums and historical sights are generally poorly maintained; the English translations found there (even in Beijing) are atrocious! I feel embarrassed to be a Chinese!!!

But your Silk Road initiative is indeed visionary. President Xi is a great leader. But China and he need much more in terms of true philosophy instead of strategy, strategy and strategy to succeed. (The speaker from Cosco was just regurgitating what he had learned in his MBA classes!)

Incidentally, Prof Victor Feng of the University of Macao is going around to help explain China's BRI to the world. My question is: How many of you have heard of his good work?

Hope you don't feel offended by my ranting!

Kind regards,
Lim /YuBook
And this reply came promptly from him:

My Respected MR. Lim,
                       Thank you very much for your constructive comments to our presentations yesterday in Carlton Hotel. Indeed, I appreciate your frankness
and your honesty. Although China is already the world's second largest economy, we still have a lot of shortcomings. To our neigbours including Malaysia,
 Indonesia and Singapore, China should more listen to their voices, pay attention to how they feel. So, we have a lot of work to do in the near future.
                       I am looking forward to hearing your more voices and making more cooperation between us for promoting mutual understanding China-
                      Tomorrow morning, I will leave Singapore to Beijing, I hope we can meet in Beijing or Singapore in the near future.
Best Regards,
Xu Liping/Director of Center of South East Asia Studies, National Institute of International Strategy, CASS, Beijing, China.

China has a future!!!

The latest issue of The Economist runs an article entitled China and America: Tortoise v hare. The leader reads: Is China challenging the United States for global leadership? 

The tortoise will win the race, isn’t this what the fable has taught us?
Forever the tortoise?

I beg to differ somewhat, though. This is not a great outcome in my eyes.

Of course, with Trump’s “I know better than you” sense of superiority, the hare will lose. But if China’s win is a result of America’s complacency, this is not good for China!

Another animal besides the tortoise would have won the race if it could participate!

To me, China must shed off that heavy cultural and intellectual shell if it wants to lead the world! Notwithstanding the hare’s arrogance or stupidity, it should transform itself complete with a new mindset - culturally and intellectually, I repeat - to speed forward. 

Unless China can produce a Rolex or Mercedes totally on its own, it is still not "THERE" yet, let alone to lead the world. 

Friends are free to disagree, though.

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