Cultures of diplomacy

IT’S a treat to build on old friendships after years of absence. Nowadays people who were once best mates in the same class can be working across the globe, so it’s a rare treat when they are able to converge in a single location for a good time. Sometimes, such gatherings are unexpectedly facilitated by diplomatic functions. I was glad to partake in two such events in the past week.

In a fabulous combination of sports and military diplomacy, the squash team of the British Royal Navy returned to the Royal Lake Club in a repeat of their worldwide tour that they did two years ago. Back in 2015, I lost 2-3 against my opponent in a memorably gruelling match, and last Sunday in a happy coincidence of seeding, I exacted revenge in a 3-2 victory against the same sailor, contributing to an overall win for the club. Over ice cold coconuts, people whose main interactions occurred in a competitive atmosphere in an enclosed court learnt much about other aspects of fellow players’ lives. It was a reminder of the powerful role of sport in bringing people of vastly different backgrounds together: a phenomenon I have also seen in national tournaments, in our schools and universities and other sports events open to the public I’ve had the pleasure of participating in.

The other diplomatic event was on paper more conventional: a reception honouring the visit of New Zealand’s Minister for Maori Development. I was glad to see members of the organisation of which I’m patron that promotes links between Malay, Maori and Polynesian worlds – not just the ancient shared maritime, linguistic and cultural heritage helped along by surprising personal relationships among soldiers who fought together fighting Communists in Malaya – but also to develop future links in academia and trade (the minister specifically mentioned Manuka honey, kiwi fruit and dairy products as sectors which enjoy high Maori participation).

At the event some other Malaysians in the audience were curious about the position of the Maori: if there is a Minister for Maori Development, one attendee argued, it must imply that they receive some special treatment from the government. This in turn generated questions about how they are defined and to what extent intervention and special assistance is granted to those so defined.  The questioner was trying to draw parallels to Malaysia, but we could not agree if the Maori experience was more analogous to that of the Malays or of the Orang Asli (assuming that such labels could collectively apply to the vast numbers of people represented by them).

Though a cursory search about Maori issues online shows that the familiar problems of racism, discrimination and victimhood common to marginalised communities all over the world do crop up, I remember from my trip to Waitangi three years ago that the Maori experience of European contact was rather unique: comprising an internationally recognised Declaration of Independence followed by a treaty with the British Crown that confirmed a new nation and resulted in a degree of Maori political autonomy and representation not experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia.

This conversation was brought to a halt when the minister led his delegation in a haka, the traditional Maori war cry that is known all over the world (largely thanks to the All Blacks). Amidst the synchronised bodily percussion and intimidating gestures, I realised that there are few other examples of a national culture that has so fully integrated an aspect of a minority indigenous culture as part of its own, to the extent that Kiwis are often assumed to know how to do the most popular haka (Ka Mate). It would be as if Datuk Lee Chong Wei danced a ngajat to celebrate beating Lin Dan.

Or would it? Because the other way to perceive the adoption of another (especially minority) traditions as one’s own is the negatively-laden charge of cultural appropriation, and one recently made against Chanel for selling an RM6,000 boomerang. The wish to define cultural products as belonging to a specific nation is also the basis of the arguments we have with Indonesians and Singaporeans about who ‘owns’ ‘Rasa Sayang’ or Hainanese chicken rice (what about the Hainanese?).

Our most talked-about bilateral relationship right now though is that with China, with a lot of speculation about what has been agreed by leaders in recent visits. Some of these have to do with investments worth billions that will affect the lives of Malaysians (possibly for generations), while others point to unprecedented cooperation between political parties. But we can be sure that apart from economic and political questions, those of sport and culture will no doubt be scrutinised as well.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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