Beijing tapping into Singapore’s Chinese-ness
In a region with 30 million Southeast Asian citizens of Chinese descent, Singapore is the only nation with an ethnic Chinese majority. With this demographic fact, the city-state often markets itself as a bridge between East and West – uniquely positioned to help the world understand China.
The (re)emergence of China as a world power has put Singapore’s ethnic Chinese majority under the spotlight, with neighbouring nations keenly watching how the Chinese population will react to China’s rise.
Rise and assertiveness
Since General Secretary Xi Jinping became the People’s Republic’s paramount leader in 2012, China has taken an increasingly confident stance in conducting its foreign policy. Xi has taken China out of its ‘hide and bide’ era, propelling Beijing’s political and military assertiveness to levels unseen.
Part of the upped ante is China’s overt and covert efforts to appeal to the vast Chinese diaspora abroad. Campaigns were launched to convince the diaspora to align with the Chinese Communist Party’s political stances, participate in its influence operations, and for the diaspora to forward China’s national interests. For instance, there is considerable discourse on Beijing’s efforts to push traditional culture and benign views of China through Confucius Institutes, advertising, travelling exhibits, and through Hollywood blockbusters.
Already, there has been strong evidence linking the Party’s attempt to manipulate political activities and elections in countries such as Australia, the United States, and recently, Canada. Of course, with 76 percent of its population identifying as ethnically Han Chinese, Singapore is doubly vulnerable.
A “Chinese country”
With over three quarters of Singapore having ancestral ties to China, Singapore is the only place outside of the Mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to have a Chinese majority population. As such, Beijing has imposed certain expectations on the city-state’s political stance towards China and China-related issues.
Bilahari Kausikan, Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 2010 and 2013, identifies China’s approach toward Singapore as one of expectation and assumption. Mr Kausikan states that as a “Chinese country,” Beijing assumes Singapore would naturally take China’s position, irrespective of its own national interests.
Singapore’s stance on the South China Sea dispute caught Beijing off guard, given the city’s longstanding policy of de facto neutrality and Cold War positioning with the Non-Aligned Movement. China had anticipated Singapore’s support for its claim, or at the very least, its silence on the matter.
This expectation, stemming from Singapore’s “Chinese country” fallacy, was particularly strong as Singapore was designated as the ASEAN country coordinator for China in 2015, conferring on it the responsibility to communicate the various positions of ASEAN member states on issues concerning China. China mistakenly perceives Singapore as “kith and kin”, viewing Singpaoreans as fellow Chinese and as such, have a better understanding of China’s policies than other ASEAN countries.
Contrary to Beijing’s expectations, Singapore asserted its stance for the South China Sea dispute to be resolved in accordance with international law, while reaffirming that it remains neutral in the dispute given its non-claimant status. In 2016, following the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in the Philippines’ favour, Singapore issued a statement endorsing the “peaceful resolution of disputes among claimants in accordance with universally-recognised principles of international law.”
Singapore’s support of international law aligns with the country’s longstanding commitment to the principles of the rules-based order and its neutral foreign policy. As a small state, Singapore recognises the adherence to international law is essential for promoting its interests and maintaining sovereignty in the face of larger and more powerful states. Singapore’s advocacy of international law in this instance squarely represents a challenge to Beijing’s approach to the dispute and its broader geopolitical aspirations.
Crafting the appeal
As a civilisational state, the People’s Republic of China is the modern embodiment of thousands of years of Chinese culture, tradition, and history. A 2018 United States Congressional study concluded that Beijing has utilised China’s history to effectively appeal to the “ethnic pride” of millions of Chinese people outside the mainland.
In the past, Xi Jinping and senior officials have called for overseas Chinese to promote Beijing’s interests abroad. “The realisation of the great Chinese nation requires the joint effort of Chinese sons and daughters at home and abroad,” Xi is quoted in China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
This foreign policy approach was institutionalised in early 2018, when the United Front Work Department – the Party organisation assigned with gathering intelligence on, managing relations with, and influencing overseas Chinese – was tasked with furthering China’s position in diaspora communities, including Singapore.
Chinese officials have also identified ethnic Chinese academics abroad, particularly in Singapore, as potentially more sympathetic to the Party’s agenda. Zhuang Guotu, associate professor at Xiamen University, labelled this supposedly vulnerable demographic as the “new migrants” that are “highly educated, wealthy, and willing to forge close relations with mainland China.”
Dr. Ian Chong, political scientist at the National University of Singapore notes that, “reaching out to Singapore domestically can be a means to soften Singapore’s stance [on issues like the South China Sea] and make it more amenable to accepting PRC positions on these matters.”
Chinese vs Singaporean-Chinese
A groundbreaking and revealing Jamestown Foundation report on the Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations in Singapore identified that Beijing’s “fundamental purpose…is to impose a Chinese identity on Singapore so that it will more closely align with the PRC’s ‘expanding interests’.”
In recent years, China has stepped up exchanges between itself and Singapore; arranging visits for Singaporean-Chinese to visit their ancestral villages and coordinating study programmes and “roots-seeking camps” for young Singaporeans. Dr. Ian Chong states, “a more generous reading is that these are people-to-people exchanges,” referring to the camps and conferences, “and a more sceptical reading is that it’s an effort by China to exert soft-power influence.”
Activities organised by the United Front Work Department and other bodies in mainland China have the effect of blurring the distinction between “huaqiao” (華僑: Chinese citizens overseas) and “huaren” (華人: ethnic Chinese of all nationalities).
On one hand, Singapore’s close cultural and ethnic ties to China has been an attracting factor in its international status, as it could provide a commonality for closer economic and political cooperation while providing insights into the mainland. On the other hand, Singapore’s vulnerability to Chinese influence may undermine its sovereignty and independence.
“When you start reaching out to people on the basis of race and blood, it becomes unacceptable to other governments,” states Wang Gungwu, chairman of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. “On the other hand, Beijing thinks it is natural to do so. And that is where the conflict lies, however unintended the consequences may be.”
As a result, Singapore finds itself needing to continually remind Beijing that it is not a Chinese country. Singaporean-Chinese do not blindly follow China, and have grown a distinct and separate identity after centuries apart.
For instance, Chairman Xi Jinping personally opened a new centre to promote Chinese culture in Singapore’s downtown. As an indirect response, Singapore countered by opening a gleaming 11-storey Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre at the heart of the city. Singapore’s message was clear: Singaporean-Chinese are not the same as Chinese.
But what is uncertain is how much of this Singaporean identity remains tied to China, how China views it, and how China may manipulate it to advance its political interests.
As a pluralist and multicultural nation, Singapore’s success is strongly dependent on societal cohesion. China’s efforts to appeal to Singaporean-Chinese ethnic pride undermines and challenges the sovereignty of Singapore and threatens the social fabric of the city-state.
However, such lobbying and influence efforts should not cause alarm if they are transparent, well-regulated, and the population is informed and aware. The issue currently is that organisations perpetrating the influence efforts are far from upfront regarding their goals and purposes.
The ethnic Chinese majority in Singapore is both an asset and a liability in the nations’ bilateral relationship. It serves as an asset as both peoples can draw on the same language, same script, similar foods, similar cultural and familial values, among many others. It also serves as a liability as Singapore’s ethnicity has formented a rise in unreasonable expectations in Beijing towards the city-state.
With its Chinese majority, the global city of Singapore is at the centre of attention. Nations around the world, including its ASEAN neighbours, are keen to observe how Singapore’s Chinese population and its government will react to China’s growing assertiveness and how it impacts Singapore’s unity and sovereignty. The situation in Singapore can potentially shape the response of other nations with large populations of Chinese descent.
Samuel Ng is currently in his final year of a dual Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Bachelor of International Business at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He is also a Westpac Asian Exchange Scholar for Taiwan, previously studying at the National Chengchi University having undertaken units in Taiwanese international relations, diplomacy, and political history.