Of US debts, Major's fate, Lincoln sleepovers and Dolly - by Abdullah Ahmad

20 April 1997

I met him only once but the impact of that meeting in the spring of 1974 has not diminished. Zhou Enlai was a great leader, a gentlemen, a diplomat and prime minister extraordinaire. He was a doyen of the Chinese world of etiquette and a picture of everything that is good about Chinese. Despite the "Long March", he lost none of the mandarin social graces. A communist to the manner born.

China under Zhou made pragmatic adjustments in international relations. In an increasingly interactive world, China does not pursue provocative policies that could jeopardise its particular interests, as well as Chinese economic progress and political long term objectives. A wise and practical people.

Three weeks ago I was at Cornell, an Ivy League institution. I noted several Singaporean Chinese students took part in the Malaysian Night. I was delighted, and greatly impressed. Nazri Omar, the likable and able president of the Malaysian Students Association (MSA), told me that students from the Asean countries got on very well witheach other.

I spoke to one Singaporean student, who shall remain unidentified to protect her. She is definitely not one of the "MacManners" generation of the world. Clare is urbane, dainty and delicate. She commented: "Malaysians are the most friendly people I know. They work hard and yet know how to enjoy life effortlessly. I feel safe among them whether in Ithaca, Johor Baru or anywhere else." But then Clare is one Singaporean who is not boorish, one who will be welcomed in polite circles anywhere.

She spoke quite freely about politics and with considerable skill: "I speak freely only because I'm in Ithaca." She said, smiling broadly, producing beautiful dimples, then adjusting her Hermes scarves, tied delicately around her beautiful long neck as a cravat. She told me that she has many relatives in Johor Baru and farther north.

"I would like Singaporeans to acquire social graces and skills not to hurt other people's feeling: money is one thing, finesse and friends are an asset," she insisted. Like Zhou Enlai I suppose. Clare appeared a bit bothered about Singapore's past and ugliness.

Singapore has long been a controversial issue. The British knew what to do with it. When the Malayan Union was formed, they excluded Singapore. Somehow 23 years later, they managed to delude Tunku Abdul Rahman into accepting Singapore into Malaysia in 1963. The result was a disaster.

Singapore withdrew from Malaysia in 1965. Since then it has been (most of the time) very unsolicitous about the interests of Malaysia and rather hyper-insensitive about Malaysian feelings.

Good neighbours as a rule avoid making sensitive remarks about each other which might arouse passions. Big fish in a small pond sometimes forgets good manners. As Malaysians are more refined, they accept the twice offered "unreserved apologies" of an ageing neighbour who in one breath talks about reunification and in another spews self-serving falsehood about Johor Baru.

I was brought up, like all good Malaysians, to believe that accepting an apology or apologies, even from an opponent or an enemy, is not a sign of weakness; but rather a sign of strength, good breeding as well as magnanimity! I'm not being smug. Far from it. With great humility, I say Malaysians are happy. Our economy is flourishing, there are no overt racial tensions and we, as a people, are as happy as a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation can expect to be.