ANALYSIS After his controversial Petaling Street visit last year, China’s ambassador to Malaysia Huang Huikang's donation of RM40,000 to eight national-type Chinese Primary Schools (SRJK Cina) has raised eyebrows.
The schools are in the Sembrong parliamentary constituency in Johor and the gift was made during his visit to Paloh, a small town nearby.
According to Chinese dailies, Huang was invited by Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who is also the Sembrong MP, to attend a local Chinese New Year open house there last Sunday.
Huang handed over the cheque for the schools to Paloh MCA assemblyperson Teoh Yap Kun, witnessed by Hishammuddin and MCA deputy chief Wee Ka Siong. Both welcomed the donation with applause and smiles.
However, some think that this "unprecedented" donation by a foreign envoy to local Chinese schools may be tied to strategic considerations by a foreign power.
For political analyst Tang Ah Chai, the envoy's high-profile donation was a friendly gesture to "wow" the Chinese community and perhaps even a "suggestion" to the Malaysian government to follow suit.
In the wake of China's rise as an economic power, Tang said, China faces stiff competition from the United States and Japan, and has responded by actively participating in the activities of overseas Chinese communities through its embassies.
Knowing that the Chinese communities are very concerned with education but lack government support, Huang made the donations to the SJKCs in a bid to win their hearts, he said.
“After the Petaling Street visit, the envoy went to Penang. Not only current Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng met him, but also the former chief minister Koh Tsu Koon. This shows that Huang is keeping in touch with both sides.
"He has also paid visits to Chinese independent schools nationwide. In his visit to Chong Hwa High School in Kuala Lumpur, Huang said China could provide support for students who study in China.
"This can be seen as a subtle reminder that the government should give fair treatment to Chinese education.
"He uses a soft way to remind them, while strengthening the connection between China and Malaysian Chinese community," Tang ( photo ) asserted.
Gaining support for China's policies
After Huang was appointed as China’s ambassador to Malaysia in 2014, he made several moves to move in with the local Chinese community in a high-profile manner, in sharp contrast to previous envoys.
He has attended banquets of Chinese chambers and congresses of political parties and visited a number of Chinese independent schools and primary schools, in Kuala Lumpur, Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and Johor.
Huang's intention is to gain support for China's policies from the local Chinese community, Tang said.
"For China's policies, such as One Belt One Road, the response from Malaysian Chinese communities was rather positive compared to the Chinese in Indonesia, where they are more cautious," he said.
However, it was Huang’s visit to Petaling Street last year, on the eve of the Red Shirt rally, that threw the spotlight on him.
He issued a strongly-worded statement that underlined his concern for the Chinese community in Malaysia, resulting in the government calling Huang in to clarify his statement.
Will this act of donation stir another controversy? Unlikely, Tang said, adding that Malaysia needs China more than China needs Malaysia.
He pointed out that when Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak was enmeshed in the1MDB and RM2.6 billion 'donation' scandals, it was China's investment in Bandar Malaysia that came to Najib’s rescue.
"It means China has showed its friendliness to the government and saved Najib from embarrassment. The government will also water down the reaction (regarding the donation to the SRJK Cina), which can also be seen as intervening in Malaysia's internal affairs."
'Giving face' can result in 'losing face'
A senior fellow with non-profit Research For Social Advancement (Refsa), Lam Choong Wah, is of the view that Huang's intention was to "give face" to Hishammuddin, but he also pointed out that the action could actually make Malaysia "lose face".
"Why didn't he choose to visit other ministers' constituencies, but picked the defence minister's constituency of Sembrong?
"This is because some ministries have direct links with China, namely Defence, Home, Foreign, International Trade and Industry, as well as the Prime Minister’s Department.
"For China, it's vital to foster good relations with these ministers.
"The political implication of the ambassador's donation is to acknowledge the contribution of the SRJK-Cs in advocating Chinese language and Chinese culture. This is the positive side.
"On the other hand, this donation indicates that this country has been neglecting Chinese education. When a country needs a foreign envoy to donate to their schools, it can be seen as a shameful matter," Lam ( photo ) said.
He said while Huang did not breach any diplomatic convention by donating to Chinese education, it is a sensitive issue in Malaysia and Umno could make a fuss over it, if it chooses to do so.
"They (Umno) may interpret it (SJKCs receiving money from China) to mean that the country has opened its doors to the Chinese in Malaysia and they can now easily 'balik Cina' (Go back to China)," Lam warned.
For DAP assistant publicity secretary and Kulai MP Teo Nie Ching, Hishammuddin's smile was a big slap to the Malaysian government.
That Hishammuddin accepted the donation happily only shows the foreign envoy knows the predicament of Chinese schools better than our minister, Teo lamented.
"Donations are usually for massive tragedies. But these SRJK-Cs did not go through any tragic incident, but are in a similar situation as other SJKCs. This shows that even the ambassador knows that Chinese primary schools have been treated unfairly."
Teo urged the government not to take the donation for granted but rather, to correct the system as it now stands.
MCA, Dong Zong give thumbs-up
Nevertheless, the United Chinese School Committees' Association (Dong Zong) welcomed the donation.
Its secretary-general, Poh Chin Chuan, described the RM40,000 as a gift from China for the local Chinese education this Chinese New Year. The donation was unconditional and therefore highly appreciated.
"China has been helping Chinese independent schools. Now they also help government schools (SRJK-C). It's a good start," Poh said.
Paloh assemblyperson Teoh Yap Kun, who is from the MCA, also said that he saw nothing wrong in Huang's donation, and that it was well-intentioned.
"Each school there will get RM5,000. It's not a huge sum. What is more important is the kindness. As the Chinese saying goes, 'more gifts cause no harm," Teoh said.
Malaysiakini has attempted to contact MCA secretary-general Ong Ka Chuan and MCA Youth chief-cum-Deputy Education Minister Chong Sin Woon for their comments on this issue, but to no avail so far.
ADRIAN WONG is a member of the Malaysiakini Team.