Go with a smile!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Rise of China (and its impact on Singapore)

Like many other people, some of us have been viewing the rise of China with quite a bit of consternation. At first, we welcomed it, because China had suffered so greatly under Mao. Then China entered the WTO. This was the world that Bill Clinton built, and we were under the spell of neo-liberalism and “globalisation” back then, thinking that this would make a better world for us all. (It didn't.) Well at least, Singapore stood to benefit from a world where trade was growing at a very rapid pace. Things looked very very rosy for us for a while: We were in a way China's gateway to the West, and we were the West's gateway to China.

I don't know if it was a high watermark, but Singapore was chosen to host a talk between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-Jeou. Maybe it was arranged before Xi Jinping took over.

In the years since Xi Jinping took over, China's views of the world has darkened considerably. In the past, it has bided its time, and you could say that it has tried to fit into Pax Americana. Pax Americana is a international political system that has existed in East Asia since the end of WWII and victory over Japan. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan (latter two are not really countries) will be brought into the international trade system. Open economies would be promoted.

In 1984, there was a meeting where China and the UK met up and it was agreed that Hong Kong would revert to China in 1997 and the political system would stay in place until 2047, and after that – well who knows.

Then something strange happened. The pro-democracy movements in South Korea and Taiwan gained traction, and both countries became democratic. Philippines became democratic – well at least in form. Singapore and Malaysia have always been nominally democratic. Back then when Hong Kong saw that both China and the rest of Asia were authoritarian, they were probably like “well what the hell”. Then, one by one, all the countries started liberalising politically and they realised that China was the only one who was hell bent on remaining authoritarian. That infamous vigil in the wake of Tiananmen served to set the tone between China and Hong Kong.

So for Singapore over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk on the Chinese internet about how Singapore was some kind of a traitor. There was the detention of the Terrex vehicles in Hong Kong, in transit while being shipped back from Taiwan. There was the non-invitation to the recent Belt and Road conference.

It's quite possible that this hostility has been building up towards Singapore and many of the overseas Chinese for quite some time, and that no action was taken by China until the successor to Hu Jintao was found. As you may recall, they were trying to choose between Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai, and probably they didn't want to act until they had chosen the next leader.

Singapore has never had an easy relationship with the mainland. In the Qing dynasty, people who migrated out of China to the south would face execution when they got caught. Singapore was an overseas base for Sun Yat Sen when he was trying to set up a successor to the Qing dynasty. Singapore, together with the rest of the Nanyang, helped to fund China's war effort against the Japanese, and got the brunt of the Japanese wrath when it was the Nanyang's turn to be invaded. Then there was the Malayan emergency, where the side that was allied with Communist China – the leftists in the PAP and the Malayan Communist Party – lost the struggle for supremacy in the 50s.

Lately there has been a debate between Bilahari Kausikan and Kishore Mahbubani. Kishore Mahbubani criticised recent acts by Singapore that put it on a collision course with China, citing the cautionary tale of Qatar, who meddled too much in peoples' affairs for their own good. Bilahari Kausikan replied and said that power has a “use it or lose it” nature, and that Singapore has always played a role larger than its size suggests, and should continue doing it in the future.

Without commenting on which side of this debate I'm on, it's good to ask ourselves, what is Singapore's place in a sino-centric world? Rather than think about how to deal with conflict with China, how do we find our place in a world that revolves around China?

For that, we have to look into our past. Singapore was formed as a colony as a means for the British to wrest away some influence from the Dutch. That means, in spite of its status as a Chinese majority country, Singapore has always been an agent of western influence in Southeast Asia. Singapore can be seen as a giant Chinatown, in the sense of a Chinese enclave in a foreign part of the world, but it is also it is some kind of British Council.

Chinese people in Southeast Asia have this reputation as being the Jews of the East, not only because Chinese people have this big business network, are traders, are more erudite, have a reputation for sticking to themselves, are foreigners, have this reputation for being miserly. But also because we form a symbiosis with westerners in that we act as some kind of middlemen in dealing with the natives.

In part, Singapore's western orientation was a very convenient way to deal with the issue of getting Malays, Chinese and Indians to get together, and very effective. If everybody speaks in English, we won't need Malays to learn Chinese or Chinese to learn Malay or whatever combination. The Indians had already taken to communicating to each other in English, so why not Singapore?

So Singapore has always been some kind of a cultural Trojan Horse. The British used it as their Southeast Asia base. Japan made it the headquaters of their Southeast Asia operations. After World War II, it was always one of the places most amenable to Western influences, and it was no surprise that the US built their Changi Air Base here.

And herein lies the problem. Lee Hsien Loong once gave an interview where he spoke on a variety of issues, and he was asked about the relationship with China. As I recall, he said something to the effect of “China doesn't like it that we run a US base on our island. But we are a sovereign nation.”

So I guess, there are three aspects of Singapore that China doesn't really like.

First, China doesn't like that Singapore is allied with the West, (never mind that this has always been the case since before 1949). Second, China doesn't like that Singapore is a part of “greater China” that operates independently from the mainland. (For the same reason, it doesn't like this about Hong Kong and Taiwan.) And third, China doesn't like that Singapore is moving towards western ideals like freedom and democracy, because this is a threat to the mainland.

China has always favoured the old system of imperialism, where it extracts tributary from the surrounding countries. In the “world system” theory of Immanuel Wallerstein, the world is divided into strong states (“core”) and weak states (“periphery”). Cities grow more powerful in relation to the rest of the world. It used to be that Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore were the core, and mainland China was the periphery. Now what they desire is an inversion of this.

Singapore has always had an influence out of proportion to its size, but even that is an accident of history. It has always aligned itself with the dominant superpower of the period. That meant the British from founding to WWII. Then the Americans thereafter. In fact, in order for life to continue as it was, you'd have to align yourself with China.

This has been its greatest strength and weakness. Singapore has been a reliable ally of the United States. Even up till now, especially from the 90s onwards, when the power of the British really started to wane, the US cultural influence on Singapore has been growing and growing. But now it is at its apogee, and there isn't anywhere to go but down. Suddenly things are different.

I've always felt that our biggest weakness was that we never truly got along with the other southeast Asian countries. Yes, we're friends. Yes, there is some form of kinship with them. Yes, we will never have the relationship with them that the Israelis have with the Palestinian Arabs. But there's always this feeling that we're always treating them as flyover territory, that we're not completely invested in helping them move up in this world, that we're looking down on them, that we're always SMH at how venal and inefficient their governments are, that we're not that keen to be associated with them culturally. This was a mistake that we made over the last 50 years, and it will come back to bite us in the ass. If we were to let go of the American ties and switch over to the Chinese ties, it'll be good to have the Malay ties to hang on to in the meantime. Now, I'm not entirely sure that we have that.

China – it's hard to love China. But even more than that, it's even harder to get a grasp on who they are. I'm not sure I ever want to paint all of them with the same brush. Every thing that you could ever say about them, there will be an exception. For every brazen huckster, there is an act of uncommon gentlemanliness. For every xenophobe, there is another who's truly curious about what's going on in the rest of the world. For every ruthless thug, there is an idealistic do gooder.

The relationship between mainlanders – or PRCs as the Singapore government likes to call them, or Ah Tiongs, the derogatory term we've coined to add to our collection of keleng, angmoh and huangkia. They form the largest group of immigrants. They've flooded our schools, our universities, our workplaces. And worst of all, they've driven property prices through the roof. They've killed our factories. Yes, many of us are still doing fine in spite of this, but they generate a sense of unease. Of course, they've helped to grow our economy, they've helped Singapore become a great city, they've won us olympic medals, and most importantly, they've filled in on many jobs that Singaporeans are not willing to do. But the relationship with the natives is pretty tense.

Add to that, there is already a sense of unease about the schism between the sinophone Chinese Singaporeans and the anglophones. The flood of Chinese nationals has just seemed to exacerbate the problem. The sinophones are the most conflicted ones. They are fiercely proud of our shared cultural heritage, but at the same time they have the most to lose from being displaced by the newcomers. They are proud of the rise of China, but wonder about its implications on Singapore. And I'm not surprised if they are the ones who coined the term “Ah Tiong”.

And this is the reason why in spite of what has been a mutually beneficial relationship so far, for more than 20 years since we resumed diplomatic relations with them in 1990, this is something that's fraught with peril.

I guess many of us would be wondering – we've made a lot of sacrifices together, and we've given up a lot to the mainlanders. (Of course the mainlanders have also sacrificed a lot to the Singaporeans but each side only cares about what they've lost). Then how could it be that after this shared journey together, China still feels that we haven't given them enough? Could it be that nothing will ever be enough?

Singapore has never had to balance its relationships with so many other people before. It used to be that you made sure that you had a good relationship with the western alliance – US, UK, Australia, New Zealand – everything would turn out fine. Now, we have to balance our relationship with the western alliance, with India, with China, with SE Asia.

Even the things that we think are unbiased are not really unbiased. The US has basing rights in Singapore, but China doesn't. That's not unbiased. English is the official working language. That's not unbiased. Our legal system is based on what the British handed down to us – also not unbiased. Even our whole-hearted support of the current Bretton Woods system of running the world is not unbiased. The WTO is based on norms established mainly by the western powers. Our deference to international law is deference to international norms. If China wants to upend these norms, or even if they want to operate with a parallel set of norms, we're going to be in their way.

Furthermore, the way that China operates is not something that favours small but more liberal states. There's still a lot of centralised planning, and there's this emphasis on cookie-cutter projects where Chinese companies can earn a lot of money and hopefully bring development to other parts of the world.

China likes the idea of dictatorial strongmen with big projects. In a way it's the anti-America, who doesn't like to spread democracy to the rest of the world. To be sure, very often America pays only lip service to democracy and ends up endorsing dictators. But that is still very pro-democracy.

And sometimes we wonder if one road one belt weren't just a lot more predatory foreign investment, predatory lending in the service of making China even richer. I don't know the answer to this, but you only have to read the infamous book, “Confessions of an Economic hit man” in order to get the answer to this question.