What you need to know
China's efforts to conflate race and national identity could have dangerous ramifications.
By Kirsten Han
About 76 percent of Singapore’s population are ethnically Chinese, making it the only majority-Chinese country outside of China, Taiwan, and the cities of Hong Kong and Macau. But as Amy Qin’s New York Times article on Chinese influence creeping into Singapore began circulating on social media, some Chinese Singaporeans reacted with disbelief or even scorn, claiming that they see themselves more as Singaporeans than as Chinese, and that they’d never be taken in by China.
This is likely true, particularly among Anglophone Chinese Singaporeans such as myself. But it would be a mistake to assume that we’re representative of all Chinese Singaporeans, and to center on our own perspectives too much.
Singapore’s model of racial categorization – Chinese, Malay, Indian, and others – tends to flatten differences within the ethnic groups, creating the impression that each is a monolith to which generalized assumptions apply.
But there are many ways to be Chinese Singaporean.
Just within my own family, we have the Malaysian-born, the English-educated Peranakan (Straits Chinese), the first-generation immigrant from mainland China, and the Singaporean-born brought up on a diet of Western pop culture. All of us are Chinese Singaporeans, but all of us would respond differently to Beijing’s attempts to exert influence.
Chinese Singaporeans who come from English-speaking households, many of whom now struggle to attain fluency in Mandarin, may not be very susceptible to appeals of shared origins. But older Chinese Singaporeans, brought up at a time when Singapore didn’t even exist as a nation state (the island only became an independent country in 1965), might feel a greater sense of identification with their places of ancestry.
Singapore also has a significant population of first-generation immigrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC); according to data from 2013, China was the second largest country of origin for immigrants to the island, after neighboring Malaysia.
China’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, now brought under the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, partially funds or arranges trips targeted at 12- to 18-year-old Chinese Singaporeans to “find their roots”, where they take part in Chinese calligraphy lessons, visit museums, and make dumplings.
“The great spirit of the Chinese nation is rooted in fine cultural traditions that have lasted thousands of years,” says the Hua Yuan Association, a group described in 2016, in a report about one such youth trip, as comprising mostly new Singapore citizens and permanent residents from China. The rhetoric used in such communications tend to treat concepts of “race” and “nation” as synonymous: "Hua Yuan hopes that, by going through such ‘root-seeking’ activities, the young Chinese who have grown up overseas will strengthen their pride in their race and their understanding of their roots. Let us work hard together to become the promoters and builders of the national spirit to write a new chapter."
To exert its influence and defend its interests, China doesn’t need to reach every Chinese Singaporean, it only needs to sway some towards sympathy for its position and a willingness to fight in its corner.
“Reaching out to Singapore domestically can be a means to soften Singapore’s stance on [issues such as the South China Sea] and make it more amenable to accepting PRC positions on these matters,” says political scientist Dr Ian Chong.
Such efforts, Chong says, differ from the soft power initiatives of other countries, such as European- or American-funded community outreach activities: "These EU, U.S., UK, Japanese and other programs tend to focus on informing an intended recipient about a particular country or issue. The expectation is that the individuals who participate in these programs can help explain and bridge differences. There is no expectation that participants need to defend or forward the policies of their hosts in any way, much less act as proxies."
It’s a risky game, and one whose consequences are far more likely to be borne by Singapore than by China. Immigration is a controversial issue in Singapore, and there’s already friction between native Singaporeans and newer arrivals from mainland China. The idea that shared roots require (or should lead to) shared sympathies for China’s position could widen social divisions in more ways than one.
Dr Chong points out: "Efforts to mobilize along ethnic and cultural lines, especially for segments of the ethnic Chinese majority, may reinforce discrimination toward and marginalization of ethnic and other minorities. Such mobilization may also invite backlash against newly arrived immigrant communities. Creating an impression, even if misplaced, that Singapore is a Chinese proxy of sorts in the region can also invite animosity and acrimony from parts of the populations in neighboring areas."
These are not concerns that will unduly worry China, but could have serious consequences for Singaporeans.
That said, such lobbying efforts need not be a cause for alarm if they are well-regulated and transparent. They could even form the basis for further debate and discussion, giving Singaporeans opportunities to come to their own conclusions. The issue now, though, is that the organizations undertaking the alleged influence efforts don’t appear to be upfront about what they’re doing.
Chong emphasizes the importance of informed consent: "It’s possible that Singapore may decide it wants to loosen its position on rules, revisit its relationship with the U.S., or acquiesce and accept PRC domination at some point. However, as any such decision can affect all citizens for possibly a few generations, there needs to be a process of participation that allows deliberate, informed consent to minimize any fallout."