What you need to know
Singapore has had robust economic, societal, and cultural ties with Taiwan, but its trepidation at offending the PRC may prompt it to pull back.
By Ja Ian Chong
Singapore-Taiwan relations are multifaceted and complex. The Singapore state has never had official diplomatic relations with the government in Taipei, even though economic, societal, and cultural ties are robust. Impressions of Taiwan among Singapore’s population are also varied, with some viewing Taiwan through the lens of cultural “Greater China” and others treating its maturing democracy with some apprehension. Some also view Taiwan’s openness and vibrant democracy with some admiration. Singapore is also unique in having a longstanding practice of conducting unilateral military training in Taiwan, on space managed and overseen by the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense. Further complicating ties are concerns that a strong relationship with Taiwan may negatively affect interactions with the PRC and economic opportunities that accommodating Beijing can offer to Singapore.
A key challenge for ties between Taiwan and Singapore is mounting opposition from Beijing. Taiwan-Singapore relations were able to flourish as the PRC did not generally seek to curtail interactions between the two sides in the past, except for on areas it deemed politically symbolic. As the PRC tries to intensify efforts at isolating Taiwan in a bid to weaken popular Taiwanese rejection of Beijing’s rule in line with its expanding capabilities, Beijing may grow less tolerant of Taipei’s ability to maintain and build substantive unofficial ties. Given the PRC’s tendency to put pressure on smaller and weaker interlocutors first, Singapore may begin to feel the force of Beijing’s active discouragement of ties with Taiwan. Singapore’s trepidation at offending the PRC may prompt it to pull back or limit more substantive contact with Taiwan, the benefits from these exchanges notwithstanding.
A Long History of Relations
Singapore and Taiwan have intertwined histories. Taiwan is supposedly a major site for outward Malayo-Polynesian migration, with the Māori of New Zealand/Aotearoa being linguistically similar with Amis. The predominant population in maritime Southeast Asia is Austronesian, including pre-colonial Singapore’s Malay population. A significant number of pre-20th century Han migrants to Taiwan and Singapore—whose descendants form most of the Han population in both locations—come from what are today the Southeastern Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. As a result, versions of the Southern Min language (Hokkien) are common in Taiwan and Singapore. Both places share popular religions, such as the worship of Mazu, the patron of seafarers, Southern Min-style opera and puppetry, and nanguan music. There are even historically familial and business networks linking Taiwan, Fujian, and Singapore.
Extensive interactions continued into the colonial eras of both Singapore and Taiwan. Taiwanese lived, worked, and died in Singapore as Japanese subjects during the first half of the twentieth century. Some even served as spies, secret police, and interpreters for the occupying Japanese Army during World War II, given their fluency in Hokkien. Taiwanese were party to Japanese efforts to have the ethnic Chinese community in Singapore’s forced contribution to the Japanese war effort at the start of the occupation. A result of the role Taiwanese played in supporting the brutal Japanese occupation was that an older generation of ethnic Chinese Singaporeans who lived through the war years had a lingering dislike for and suspicion of Taiwanese. With the Kuomintang (KMT) retreat to Taiwan, some ethnic Chinese in Singapore regarded the Republic of China state in Taiwan as the true inheritor of Chinese culture, especially as the Cultural Revolution raged in the PRC.
Taiwan unsurprisingly became an important cultural reference point for many ethnic Chinese in Singapore as contact with the PRC shrunk in the first decades of the Cold War. At the elite level, there was the bringing in of Chinese academics from Taiwan who escaped Communist rule, the most famous perhaps being Lin Yutang (林語堂) who served as Nanyang University’s first president. From the 1970s onward, there was significant importing of popular culture from Taiwan, ranging from music to movies, literature to television programs. There was some state support for such exchanges as Singapore sought to replace other Sinophone languages, including Hokkien, with Mandarin—the same language that the KMT foisted on Taiwan’s population in its pursuit of Chinese nationalism. At the unofficial level, Hokkien popular music and television shows from Taiwan—as well as Cantonese ones from Hong Kong—were well-received by Singapore’s ethnic Chinese population too, even if cultural and political elites view such cultural products as “crass.”
Such exchanges created a perception of familiarity of Taiwan among ethnic Chinese in Singapore. Taiwan remains one of the most popular tourist destinations for Singaporeans, ranking the second most desired place to visit post-Covid, just after Japan. Some Singaporeans take Taiwan’s vibrant, generally progressive politics after democratization in the late 1980s as inspiration. That said, these tendencies also create apprehension among the large number of cultural and political conservatives in Singapore familiar and comfortable with the stability of soft authoritarianism. Skepticism and criticism of Taiwan’s democracy, politics, and stand on human rights along with PRC influence are particularly prevalent in Singapore’s state-affiliated media, especially given the authoritarian PRC’s material economic success. Nonetheless, Taiwan becomes a reference point for popular politics in Singapore, for good or ill.
Economic Partner and Competitor
Accompanying the social, cultural, and historical links between Taiwan and Singapore is a robust economic relationship. Taiwan remains Singapore’s fifth largest trading partner and eighteenth largest investor, while Singapore is Taiwan’s sixth largest trading partner and seventh largest investor. Some of this is unsurprising since both economies are deeply enmeshed in globalized value and supply chains. Singapore is a major financial hub, while Taiwan remains a key manufacturer of crucial electronic components, especially the highest end semi-conductors. Pre-Covid, Taiwan was among most popular destinations for Singapore travelers and where they spend their tourist dollars. Of course, given the promise of the PRC market, underestimation of the importance of Taiwan-Singapore economic relationship is commonplace both among policymakers as well as the public.
Commercial competition is understandably part of the dynamic of Singapore-Taiwan interactions as well. Singapore tried but was unable to fully emulate Taiwan’s success in becoming a major hub for semiconductor development, for instance. Singapore still seeks to invest in the industry and entice Taiwanese firms to invest in Singapore and engage in technology transfers. Singapore and Taiwan businesses also competed to enter the China market during the earlier phases of the PRC’s “Opening and Reform.” Some of this rivalry is a vestige of Singapore and Taiwan’s former positions as two of Asia’s four newly industrialized “tiger” economies that led the way in economic and industrial success in the 1970s and 1980s—the other two being Hong Kong and South Korea.
Ambivalent Diplomatic Partners
Having gained independence after KMT’s withdrawal to Taiwan, Singapore never formally recognized the ROC. They also did not recognize the PRC. That said, the KMT regime’s Cold War anti-Communism sat well with Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), especially after the purge and repression of leftists, as did its developmentalist approach to economic development. Both were keen to eradicate opponents whom they labelled as Communist even as they worked with the United States. In this respect, the PAP and KMT were ideological kindred spirits during the Cold War even if the PAP kept the ROC at arm’s length as it did not wish to get embroiled in cross-Strait rivalries and held out the hope of future cooperation with the much larger PRC. A result of this ideological convergence was a flurry of interactions among ruling elites in Taiwan and Singapore, albeit on an unofficial basis.
Militarily, Singapore gained substantial support from Taiwan. Along with Israel, Taiwan was among the governments newly independent Singapore reached out to as it sought to build its military as the British, the former guarantors of the city-state’s security, sought to withdraw east of the Suez by the early 1970s. Taiwan’s assistance was especially useful as Singapore built its fledgling air force and navy, with trainers from Taiwan being sent to Singapore and Singaporean officers and enlisted personnel sent to Taiwan for training. The Singapore army still conducts unilateral military exercises in Taiwan, owing in part to the suitability of terrain. Imperial Japanese forces trained in Taiwan during the early 1940s as they prepared to invade Malaya and Singapore. An early chief of Singapore’s navy was an ethnic Chinese from Malaya who served at senior levels the ROC Navy.
The China Complication
Despite the deep and wide-ranging ties between Taiwan and Singapore, the relationship remains unofficial due to Singapore’s desire to enjoy the economic opportunities the PRC offers and its fears of inciting Beijing’s ire. Being able to partake in the PRC’s economic success remains a goal of Singapore’s long ruling PAP. Despite not publicly mentioning its stance regarding Taiwan when it first established formal diplomatic ties with the PRC in 1990, it took on a “one China” policy that saw Taiwan as part of China when it sought to upgrade ties with Beijing in 2000. A consideration for Singapore’s relatively late formal recognition of the PRC was to avoid its Indonesian and Malaysian neighbors from perceiving it as a proxy for Beijing, given its ethnic Chinese majority and longstanding regional inter-ethnic tensions.
Beijing initially tolerated Singapore’s unofficial ties with Taiwan but would at times express displeasure at unofficial government-to-government exchanges. Following the disclosure of a visit by Lee Hsien Loong to Taiwan before he ascended the Singapore prime ministership, Beijing limited high level contact and publicly admonished the Singapore leadership. For their part, the Singapore government’s playing down of the visit and expression of unhappiness toward Taiwan for disclosing the visit led to some friction with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration of Chen Shui-Bian in Taiwan. Singapore’s open stance supporting the rule of law on the South China Sea despite Beijing’s rejection of a Philippines-initiated arbitral tribunal and its ruling saw the detention of Singapore armored vehicles in Hong Kong. The vehicles were on their way back to Singapore from exercises in Taiwan via a commercial shipper. Beijing would also express unhappiness at Singapore’s continued, but scaled-down, military training in Taiwan, at times offering space on Hainan as an alternative.
Stress on the Taiwan-Singapore relationship is likely to grow going forward, despite the multiple complementarities both sides share. Much of this has to do with decreasing PRC tolerance for Taiwan’s international space. Beijing’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership harbors fears of Taiwan drifting away from its grasp, a concern borne out by repeated polls from Taiwan that indicate the declining political appeal of the PRC and its political system. CCP concerns have become acute in the wake of the Sunflower Movement resisting economic domination by the PRC, the election of President Tsai Ing-Wen, and her administration’s focus on consolidating Taiwan’s democracy and international standing. Coupled with Beijing’s growing willingness to use its economic heft and diplomatic clout to force interlocutors to accept its preferences, the PRC has increased pressure on Taiwan and its partners. Deference to Beijing likely meant less official attention in Singapore toward the Tsai administration’s New Southbound Policy.
Singapore’s interactions with Taiwan are unlikely to escape Beijing’s comprehensive efforts to curtail Taipei’s freedom of action. Indeed, Singapore itself is very wary of crossing the PRC. Following the diplomatic spat over Singapore’s position over the South China Sea, Beijing not only detained Singapore’s armored vehicles but also limited high-level exchanges. A result is that Singapore has become increasingly wary of taking stands that it perceives could offend Beijing. Despite cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and an influence operation that likely involve the PRC as well as an espionage case US law enforcement and courts determined Beijing directed, the Singapore government avoided naming those responsible. Facing PRC pressure regarding ties with Taiwan, Singapore is may well seek some level of further accommodation rather than to risk Beijing’s displeasure even if it would ideally prefer to maintain high levels of engagement with Taiwan. The future of Singapore-Taiwan relations will rest on how Singapore and Taipei, navigate the increasingly tricky political landscape created by a strident PRC.
Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation has recently published a report on Taiwan-Southeast Asia relations.
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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