Saturday, February 17, 2007


Of those who say nothing, few are silent. ~Thomas Neiel

It’s Chinese New Year, and some of our clients want us to wrap things up, what with a long leave looming ahead (we’re closed for a whole week!). So some of us have been putting in a lot of extra hours to make sure there’ll be no loose ends until we come back 26 February.

Just yesterday we made a second presentation to a prospective client, a fifty-year old establishment in the heart of Segambut’s industrial park. It’s a typical family-run Chinese distribution company, one of many in Malaysia, that has become the backbone of the economy. I was told that we would be presenting to owners who understood English, but speak little of the western tongue. Could we also speak in Cantonese, Hokkien or Mandarin, they asked. Er, ok. We had Mandarin speakers in the team, so all’s well.

I suppose we didn’t quite know what to expect, but there he was, the Boss. He was dressed in a plain collared t-shirt (unbuttoned), shorts, and slippers. He shook our hands and asked us to start. It was a cordial meeting, very casual, very down-to-earth. But the Boss sat though the whole meeting without uttering a word. No, actually he did speak – in Mandarin. Pointed, with economy of words. Very few words! He smiled, with restraint, which put our team at ease.

One of our team commented that the Boss, by keeping his cards close to his chest and in saying no more than a few words, was ‘smart.’ Very smart man, my colleague said again, and we agreed with bemusement. So did the man buy our proposal? “Good thing, none of us came in jacket and tie,” someone quipped. Even a fool is considered wise when he holds his tongue, I replied, referring to that familiar verse in Proverbs, as well as to that inscrutable Chinese manner of holding one’s tongue. Anyway, as someone said, silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute.

I have been reading Yiyun Li’s 'A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.' (Thanks, Arthur, for the recommendation) It’s the author’s first book of short stories and the winner of Guardian First Book Award 2006. What a commendable first book it is! In one poignant story, a gay son who now resides in the US meets up with his devout Christian mother. She comments that her once quiet son has become garrulous, opinionated. It’s America, he tells her: “It’s not easy to shut up in America. They value you not by what’s inside you, but by what’s pouring out of your mouth.”

Silence makes a lot of us uneasy. Think of a conversation that ends up a monologue. You turn interrogator or teller of tales to a reticent listener, and the conversation withers in discomfort. Think of church, where silence has been practically programmed out of our worship experience. We seem to fear silence. “But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him," says Habakkuk. Or as Qohelet advises, God is in heaven and we are on earth, “…so let your words be few.”

There is a time to speak, and a time to keep silent for sure. God, help me to know the difference.

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