RIP. I hope I learn from you and not walk the same path.
By Rehman Rashid.
We met in 1987, soon after I returned from a year in the UK as the New Straits Times’s London correspondent. I was at the zenith of my newspaper career (yes, I peaked early) and she was an associate at the law firm of Rashid & Lee, involved, inter alia, in the legal representation of rural folk and Orang Asli. Her father was Brig.-Gen. Dato’ Chen Kwee Fong, one of “Templer’s Twelve” (the first Malaysian army staff to attend Sandhurst), who had retired from the Malaysian Armed Forces as Chief Engineer. Rosemarie was the sweetest little thing, bright as a button, with such dignity and grace, and a ready, pretty laugh. “Every time I see you,” I spontaneously blurted out early in our acquaintance, “it’s like seeing you for the first time.”
But those were harsh times for our country. I had requested the London stint for breathing space after the 1986 general election, during which I had seen the disease of money politics first-hand for the first time, for a total and instant loss of innocence and idealism. A year later, things were even worse. Team A/B, Chinese education; Operation Lallang loomed. Throughout that troubling period, Rosemarie was a beacon of stability and calm; au courant with the issues and au fait with the law. The night before I was to go to Bukit Aman to be intimidated by the Special Branch with our Internal Security Act, I went to see her in her family home in Damansara Heights. This could all be taken away just like that, I thought. She stood on her front step in the forebodingly dark and quiet night, looking up at me with such concern and understanding, I cupped her chin in my fingers, tilted her face to mine and placed upon her delicate lips the lightest and softest kiss; our first. (She subsequently called it our “ISA kiss”, and requested it frequently.)
The upshot of Operation Lallang was that I quit the newspaper. I was 32 and already a proven writer & award-winning journalist; no problem. Quite fortuitously, Asiaweek magazine in Hong Kong offered me a job and I took it. Rosemarie left Rashid & Lee to accompany me there. For a couple of months I supported us while she looked through the classifieds for lawyer jobs. She found a position with the Bermuda firm of Conyers, Dill & Pearman, then busy expatriating Hong Kong corporate residencies to the mid-Atlantic in anticipation of the 1997 handover to China. They adored her. (As did everyone, no surprise.) After a year of happily building our careers with our respective new employers, Rosemarie and I were married in the spring of 1989, at the Bishop’s Chapel in Macau.
I would never have asked her to “convert”. I always felt it was too much to ask of religion that it be swappable for any reason other than personal epiphany or revelation. The Jesuits of Macau asked only that I agree to a “Dispensation of Cult”, whereby I pledged never to compel my wife to raise our children in any way she did not approve or wish. That would have been my way anyway. (And we did not think children would arrive too soon; both our careers were opening vast new possibilities and potential.) For the next three years we were blissful as a couple; living well and comfortably, and operating at globe-girding levels. But I was not happy professionally, and Rosemarie understood why. “Your heart is in Malaysia,” she said.
“My heart is with you,” I said. “But Malaysia is my area of expertise.” And writing a book about it all became a notion, then an obsession. Asiaweek’s publisher and editor-in-chief Michael O’Neill understood it too, and let me have a year’s sabbatical to “get that bee out of your bonnet, and come back to us.” Rosemarie said she just wanted me to be happy, and if I needed to do this for that, she would back me completely. And so I went back to Malaysia to finish that book. Which process went so well, by the end of it I felt my place was here and I didn’t want to leave again. I might do the most good here, I thought. Malaysia could use me. Indeed, Malaysia *needed* me, whether it knew it or not. But our marriage would not have been recognized here as it was everywhere else in the world, and there was no way my lawyer wife & I would have transgressed that. So Rosemarie, who always thought so well of me and what I did, let me go.
Of course, I should have gone back to her as soon as the book was published. But then it took off so successfully, and she and I both knew me well enough to know that, wherever else we were in the world, I would only feel all the more that I belonged in Malaysia and nowhere else. So I feel now that our separation would have been inevitable, if for reasons very different from those for which marriages ordinarily end. And so Rosemarie went on, up & out into the world, while I…
…I, the biggest, saddest fool, gave up my angel for this country. Which is as much to say, for this hatred and contempt; this mediocrity and ignorance; this incompetence, cynicism and corruption. This religious arrogance and racial chauvinism; this vile mediaevalist barbarism.
I paid for my loyalty to Malaysia with everything good and decent that I had, only to be mocked and despised; to watch my profession usurped by “the right kind of Malay” regardless of literacy; to have my name smeared and reputation destroyed; and in the end to be hounded back to the very redoubt in the hills where I had written that book 23 years ago now, never again to write. Rosemarie never saw this place where I may now languish forgotten and ignored for the rest of my own days, and now she never will. I chose my love for my country over my love for her. Bad choice. Big mistake. My punishment has been a life of regret and insuperable loneliness.
See la, how beautiful was my bride.
RIP Rosemarie P.Y. Chen, 1961-2015