Gary Ngai Mei Cheong: Where’re the people to make Macau International?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Issue 900, Page 10 – 12
Word count: 2938
Published in: Macau Daily Times

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

He is probably one of the very few, or even the only one in Macau, who knows as many as seven foreign languages, besides his mother tongues Indonesian and Chinese.

Gary Ngai Mei Cheong, who is of Chinese origin but was born in Indonesia in 1932, learned his first foreign language, Dutch, when he went to a Dutch primary school. After finishing high school in Jakarta where he also learned English, French and German, he went to Beijing in 1950 to continue higher education at the People’s University majoring in Chinese modern history, philosophy, economics and international relations.

After leaving the university in 1956, Mr Ngai worked as a researcher and a translator/interpreter for Chinese top leaders including Chairman Mao Zedong. During his life in China, he picked up two more foreign languages, Italian and Swedish.

However, being a multilingual intellectual made him in the labour camp during the Cultural Revolution that took place between 1966 and 1976. “Almost all intellectuals from overseas were suspected as agents from purist countries. At that time it was crazy, everything was upside down,” Mr Ngai recalled.

Mr Ngai and his wife, also a Chinese Indonesian, moved from China to Macau in 1978 for family reunion, since his mother-in-law was expelled from Indonesia where an anti-Chinese movement took place. After over 30 years of living in this territory, Mr Ngai, who has four grandchildren in Australia and one grandson in Macau, also managed to master Portuguese and Cantonese.

Now being the president of the Executive Board for the Macao Association for the Promotion of Exchange between Asia-Pacific and Latin America (MAPEAL), he resigned from the government as the vice president of the Macau Cultural Institute in July 1997 at 65 years of age.

He was also once the senior advisor on Chinese Affairs to Governor Carlos Melancia between 1987 and 1990.

At 77 years old, the father of two sons (one in Australia and one in Macau) is still very dedicated to promoting Sino-Latin exchange, especially to building Macau into a strong platform between China and the Latin speaking countries.

In a recent interview with the Macau Daily Times, Mr Ngai said he is particularly upset with the absence of an international studies course in local universities, and also the SAR government’s lack of vision and effort to make Macau a special bridge between China and the rest of the world.

Reporter: Do you think Macau is a special place, and in what ways?

Gary Ngai Mei Cheong: This was one of the main issues that were discussed not only during this conference [The International Academic Conference on BRIC in Macau held from November 26 to 28] but also one year ahead before this conference when academics from Brazil, Russia, India and China – which was myself – met in New Delhi in India last December and talked about BRIC’s role and the creation of a new system in the world order. Chinese give a lot of attention to this BRIC, the emerging of new world powers. Therefore, we also got strong support from the Macau SAR Government and also the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Macau. We’re also beginning to cooperate with the IIUM [now the University of St. Joseph] because it’s a research university.

In the past, these countries [BRIC] were not so close to each other and there were a lot of conflicts between them. But nowadays they began to realise they have more things in common than things that separate us from each other.

And why in Macau [was the place to hold the conference]? Why not in Beijing, New Delhi or Moscow? Because Macau has a long history of contacts with the BRIC countries even before the 16th century, and because of the ‘one country, two system’ principle Macau is part of China but not completely China. There is a lot of openness in Macau which China is still lacking at the moment. We’ve the hardware here too, so many casinos and top star hotels that can accommodate these people and people like to come. So the hardware and software is all here. The SAR government of course has a lot of money to support us in the financial terms. We presented our budget to the Macao Foundation [for the organisation of the conference] and it gave us a lot of support in this. There was a reason behind this – internationally speaking it was a very important conference.

We came to a conclusion at the end of the conference that we can in Macau establish a centre of research [Macau Multi-Disciplinary Centre for BRIC Research]. Fortunately we already talked to Florinda Chan [Secretary for Administration and Justice] and she was quite positive about this proposal. My own prediction is we will get the [financial] support from the government to establish this centre. The IIUM already has a Russian Centre which is very good. The research centre is important for Macau to show to the world Macau is not only the place for gambling or casinos, but also a place for culture, for academics to meet and for international conferences of this kind which could benefit the world. The image of Macau should gradually be improved from gambling to something positive. Macau should spend the money in the right way to make Macau really a good platform for international exchange.

Macau has always been free and neutral. It was neutral in the Second World War and never entered into a war. We keep ourselves open to the world and everybody can express their opinions.

The conference stressed the role of Macau as a historical pluri-continental [connects Europe, Asia and the Americas in history] platform linking world civilizations, cultures and economies – as a trans-cultural and transnational meeting point of Latin America, Asia and Europe; and as a special multicultural environment in which differences can identify synergies and common plural opportunities.

Therefore, Macau providing independent [‘one country, two systems’ policy and high degree of autonomy from China], impartial and multi-disciplinary [there are so many disciplines already established among local universities] capabilities could support a BRIC Research Network Centre to enhance intellectual and collaborative resources among Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Finally, the organising institutions, the Macao Association for the Promotion of Exchange between Asia-Pacific and Latin-America (MAPEAL) and the IIUM, and the participants’ coordinators agree to create a Macau Multi-Disciplinary Centre for BRIC Research aiming to organising studies, publications, conference, seminars and become a depositary research database on BRIC studies. If people want to know about BRIC, they will come to Macau.

Yet, the Portuguese element of Macau is of course also playing a role in making the territory a special bridge between Asia-Pacific and Latin America

R: After the 1999 handover, do you think the use of Portuguese language has been diminishing in Macau?

Mr Ngai: No, on the contrary it’s increasing. There are many more students learning Portuguese nowadays than before the handover. There is a big demand among the population to learn Portuguese but there are not enough teachers and space. This is something that the Macau government has to invest, to invite more Portuguese teachers and give more space for universities and schools for people to learn the language.

In mainland China, there are no enough translators and all translation students are already booked before they graduate. In Macau, the situation is the same. Chinese companies are looking for translators in Macau but there are not enough. Why does the Macau government not invest more in training people? It’s not only Mandarin but also Portuguese and then further to Spanish.

The government doesn’t have the vision to make Macau a bridge between China and the Latin countries. I was very disappointed and so I went away from Macau to Australia. [There is] nothing, no investment, no support at all in the first two to three years after the handover.

How many people are working in this office? Myself, and two “half people” because they are part-timers. How can we work on such a big project if we don’t have enough people an[d money from the government to invite more people to come? I had three secretaries who all went away less than one year to the casinos, where the salaries are three times higher than here. How little support we get from the government? MAPEAL doesn’t even have an office of its own yet. We’re always short of things, short of space and short of people. The government should channel the funds in the correct way.

R: Are you saying the Macau government isn’t paying much effort to make itself become such a platform?

Mr Ngai: I was in the Portuguese government at that time and I know there is a lot of bureaucracy we need to cut. It’s a small government with a big civil society. You can do a lot of things through the civil associations, there are so many in Macau. But where are the resources going? Or they are only distributed to the old traditional associations like “Kung Luan” [Federation of Trade Unions], “Fu Luan” [Women’s General Association] or “Kai Fong Hui” [General Union of Neighbourhood Associations].

The Chinese central government has again and again urged the Macau government to diversify from the gaming industry to other sectors. But where are the other sectors? This is the most important. There are a lot of things to do here in terms of academics, research, culture and technologies.

The University of Macau has no courses ever established for green technology. And is there any course specializing in international relations in Macau? No. I’ve proposed that long before the handover to the Rector of the university. He knew very well I was the first one proposed that to him – Please, establish a course for international relations studies. But it never happened until now there is still no such a thing. Why? Is it not important? Did Macau say that it has to become an international city? But where are the people who can speak so many languages? I’m the one who can speak seven or eight languages, but where are the others? One is not enough. I spoke to the students from the Polytechnic Institute and the University of Macau many times many years ago – Please, study more foreign languages. One more foreign language means one more eye in your head. You can see the world better if you know more languages. Open your vision and you can see more. But nobody listens to me, they just don’t care about it.

R: Do you think it is because Macau is paying more attention to the relationship with China after the handover than with other countries?

Mr Ngai: Of course China is important, but apart from that you should create a course in international studies and encourage students to take this kind of courses, and create jobs for them. It’s not easy to build a bridge, you need to have expertise in different areas not just in business but also in culture and international relations. And so now we have to bring it in from mainland China but the door in Macau is still closed for this. Hong Kong has already opened the door, but why not in Macau? We need all kinds of specialists. Mainland China has trained a lot of people in international relations and to speak different languages. Their English is much better than the people in Macau. But can these people come and work in Macau? They cannot because it’s so difficult to get a permit to work here. We need a think tank in Macau but where is it? Where is the think tank to make Macau a strong bridge between China and the rest of the world?

I’m very angry and upset with some local professors from the University of Macau who wrote articles in the Chinese journals and said now is the time to shift from ‘one country, two systems’ to ‘one country, one system’. It’s crazy. You will kill Macau. How can they say that? It’s against the will of China. If you do that, Macau will become just a small appendix of Zhuhai and nothing else than that.

People in Macau should be trained in such a way to have a world vision. You base in Macau but you have to think about the interests of China and what we can contribute to China. How can Macau contribute to China in a better way? You [have to] link yourself with the rest of the world. If you close yourself up, then it’s finished. You will only be a casino hub of Chinese gamblers, is this what you want? No, of course [it’s] not.

R: How do you see all this cooperation between Macau and Zhuhai or Hengqin Island?

Mr Ngai: It’s good for Macau of course to have more space. But how are you going to use the space? For casinos? No. We need it for other industries, the cultural industry. We need to have an institution to train people in fine arts, music, dance, performing art and so forth. If we have to be a city of culture, where are the specialists in culture? We don’t see them. Not only Chinese culture we also want to know the world culture. There were so many civilizations in the world. Macau has a long tradition of harmony between different kinds of civilizations and cultures. But can you explain this? Nobody can explain it because there is no historian in Macau.

I can tell you a very good story: in the University of Macau there are some professors who said the history of Macau started after the Opium War. It’s a bluff, Hong Kong was from the Opium War. Our history is 300 years earlier than Hong Kong and those 300 years were more important than after the Opium War. Why don’t they study that part of the history? And how many Macau students now from primary schools to universities know the history of Macau? If you want to preserve the world heritage listed on UNESCO, you need people to explain that to tourists. Nobody can explain because they never learn it. This is no good at all. Macau students should learn their own history.

If you want to become a city of culture, you need the people who know the culture of Macau. Macau has given such a big contribution to the world in terms of culture and exchange between East and West. But nobody knows. Nobody makes it known among their own younger generation. Every Macau citizen who wants to stay here should be proud of themselves and being a Macau citizen because of the glorious history behind them, not because of gambling or prostitution, not in that sense but in a positive sense of contributing ourselves to the world.

R: Is the Portuguese language being well maintained in Macau?

Mr Ngai: No, not so well indeed. There are many errors in the government notifications; there is something wrong in the Portuguese translation, not being well put. It’s not Portuguese, it’s more like [a] “Chinese-Portuguese” [language]. The translators are not well trained. Long time before the handover I had already proposed that we have to train our own top level Portuguese to Chinese and Chinese to Portuguese translators, and not just from Cantonese but also Mandarin. If you want to make friends with the Latin countries, for sure you will have to know their history and languages. You have to be trilingual at least – Mandarin as the national language, English as an international language and Portuguese as one of our heritage languages and our link to the Latin speaking communities. These are the three languages that we, every Macau citizen, should learn and master. I was educated in a Dutch school when I was young and I had to learn four languages in the high school. Why? It’s very important for communications. The Netherlands was at that time a very small country in Europe, but it had become very strong in the 17th to the 19th centuries before the Second World War. The people there could communicate in so many languages with their neighbours, Europe and the rest of the world. It was the nation of navigation at that time.

Some people in Macau say to learn a foreign language is too much a burden for children. How can you say that? You have to learn English when you’re in the primary school and you can learn Portuguese in the kindergarten, it’s easier for the children. My grandson, only at five years old, speaks four languages easily. His father is a Chinese from Macau who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, while his mother is a Korean and she speaks Cantonese and Korean. I and my wife also speak several languages and Indonesian as well. This is what you can learn if you have the ambience to learn a language, then you can easily catch it.

Children in China also start to learn foreign languages in kindergartens. I only learned Portuguese when I came to Macau and I could translate the governor’s speech from Portuguese to Chinese in three months’ time. This was not a miracle. I learned Italian and French already before I came to Macau and that’s why for me is easy [to pick up Portuguese].

When I talk to the children here in Macau, I always encourage them to learn more foreign languages. Don’t limit yourself just to English, you have to learn Portuguese, French, Japanese or whatever you like. You can do it if you have the will, why not?

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