Saturday November 26, 2011
Meeting the man
By Alexandra Wong
At the invitation of a reader, our columnist gets a rare chance to meet a historical figure who now resides in Bangkok.
WHEN I arrive at Lord Jim’s, my host is already there. At his table is an old man in a wheelchair. He has soft grey hair, gentle features and a round tummy, like a portly sage.
This is him, I know instinctively.
“Alex, meet Mr Ong,” my host introduces him by his birth-given name.
I put on my warmest smile and extend my hand. “I would have liked to bring you kung piah (a kind of biscuit),” I say.
The mention of this delicacy from his hometown Sitiawan brings on a smile. I sit down awkwardly, unsure of what to say after that confident ice-breaker.When we read about someone in history books, they tend to focus on and magnify certain aspects of his life that invariably lionise or vilify him. I had imagined someone fiery and unrepentant.
But now that I see him in a wheelchair, looking like somebody’s grandfather, I realise that he’s human too, not immune to ageing, like all of us. Asked to meet him in person, I couldn’t have said no. Now that I’m finally here, I’m wondering how we’ll proceed with the “interview”, as my host put it.
There’s the problem of language, for starters. My two fellow interviewers, two accomplished linguists and social activists who have lived most of their lives overseas, don’t speak Chinese. Mr Lee – Mr Ong’s personal assistant and de facto interpreter – confesses to only speaking Cantonese and a smattering of English. Our guest of honour professes that his English isn’t that good any more.
“Let’s speak in Bahasa,” Mr Ong suggests unexpectedly.
We exchange startled glances, but this choice of lingua franca, in fact, makes the most sense.
I observe him quietly while he answers the other girls’ questions with clearly laboured effort.
“Internet sources say you joined the party at the tender age of 13,” I say. “Is that true?”
He laughs. “I was a little older, not that young.”
It is almost like he is aware of, and amused by, all that fuss accorded him in history books.
“Do you have any regrets?” one of the girls asks.
His reply mirrors the one he gave a reporter who interviewed him in Bangkok, where he now resides, years ago. “No regrets,” he says firmly.
It’s challenging to get more complex answers from him, aside from one-liners. “I cannot remember a lot of things,” he keeps saying at regular intervals, as if to apologise for the lack of detail or clarity.
“What were you like as a young man? Were you fiery?” I ask.
He answers in a clear voice, “Moderate.”
“What do you hope for the future of Malaysia?” another asks.
“Good leaders. A more progressive government.”
Playing devil’s advocate, one of the girls says coyly, “Even the best leaders can turn bad too!”
To which he concedes lightning fast, “Yes, yes, that can happen.”
“What are your deepest wishes?” I ask.
His eyes darken before he embarks on the longest train of speech for the day. In halting but lucid sentences, he expresses his yearning to come back to visit his family and friends whom he hadn’t seen in years.
An awkward silence descends.
Much of the myth and controversy we know are related to his political persona, I realise. We know so little about the man himself.
On impulse, I change tack.
“Mr Ong, the Chinese believe that a man who has long ears like Buddha is also patient like Buddha. I notice you have very long ears, so does that mean you are a very patient man too?”
In response, Ong Boon Hwa, a.k.a. Chin Peng puts his hand to his ear and cups it with a quizzical expression, as if to measure its length. As his lips curve into a wide grin, wiping decades from his nearly 88 years, the stories he has shared today about how his life in the jungle involved swapping stories with his buddies seem believable.
Who is the real Chin Peng?
Eleven months after that meeting in Bangkok, I’m still undecided. How are we, as outsiders, to know the truth? History is like looking into the rear view mirror whilst driving forward. Perceptions change as perspectives morph with the passage of time. It isn’t my place, or any of my business, to judge him. As far as I’m concerned, moral judgment is between a person and his God. Then again, does it even matter?
Alexandra Wong (www.bunny sprints.com) is a chronicler of life stories who aspires to document events and people as truthfully as she see them. She understands that Chin Peng continues to be an emotional issue for many.