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Thinking Aloud

3 myths about Singapore-China ties

Singapore's policy on China hasn't changed, but China's expectation of Singapore has

Much chatter online and off has taken place on why Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did not attend the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in Beijing last weekend.

The event organised by China had heads of state and government from 29 countries attending, including seven out of 10 from Asean. Singapore was represented by National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

Two schools of thought prevailed: China snubbed Singapore. No, it was Singapore that didn't want to take part.

Mr Wong clarified the issue when asked about this. He told reporters on May 16, a day after the event, that the invitation was decided by the Chinese - which meant PM Lee wasn't invited.

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The snub was on the Chinese side, not Singapore's. I'm glad Mr Wong set the record straight. Nature - and gossip - abhors a vacuum, so when there is scant information on a noteworthy event, citizens are wont to rush in with speculation that heats things up but sheds little light. Worse, a climate of opacity surrounding foreign policy issues allows others to manipulate perceptions.

Former permanent secretary of foreign affairs Bilahari Kausikan, who has a wide Facebook following these days, thanks to his candid, often caustic posts, warned against Singaporeans falling for "psy ops" or psychological operations of foreign powers.

Even as some Singaporeans worked themselves into a lather that Singapore wasn't at the coming-out ball of the richest debutante, PM Lee was meeting a senior Chinese Politburo leader in Singapore. That meeting yielded positive statements on Singapore-China ties.

Sharing a Facebook post on the meeting, Mr Kausikan commented: "The moral of the story is remain calm. Psy ops succeed only when one is not calm."

If the veteran diplomat - who read foreign policy tea leaves for a living for decades - is right, what are some psy ops going on right now that Singaporeans need to be aware of?

I'm not a foreign policy guru, but when I put on my hat as a journalist, I can discern three myths floating out there that merit being plucked from the ocean of misinformation and tossed into the incinerator.

Myth 1: Singapore has changed its stance on China and now aligns itself more overtly with the United States

THE CASE: Singapore sided with Western powers when it spoke out on the recent tribunal ruling on the South China Sea that ruled against China's "historic rights" claims over vast swathes of the sea. American ships patrolling the region call at Changi Naval Base, demonstrating Singapore's pro-US stance. Singapore is ramping up defence and security cooperation with America and Australia, among others.

THE REALITY: Freedom of navigation matters a lot to Singapore and it wants to see maritime disputes resolved according to international law. As a small, open nation, it also has a vested interest in upholding and speaking up for the rule of international law in disputes. Singapore leaders routinely drive home such home truths to its domestic audience and at regional events. It wasn't taking sides; but it can't help it if speaking the truth offends the losing party in the dispute.

As for being pro- or anti-China, Singapore leaders point out that ties between the two countries go back decades. Singapore stood by China and continued investing after Tiananmen, when China was an international pariah. Recently, Singapore was an early and enthusiastic adopter of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Singapore is China's top foreign investor, and China is Singapore's largest trading partner.

On the security front, Singapore, as a small city-state, wants to be friends with all big powers.

Its Changi base, for example, is open to other navies, not just America's. When Mr Lee Kuan Yew was interviewed for the book One Man's View Of The World a few years ago, he made the point that one day, Singapore would be prepared to host the Chinese navy there too. That was his stand.

It is not common knowledge, but today, China also makes use of the Changi base, sending its navy ships there for refuelling. Singapore also conducts bilateral military and navy training exercises with China.

At the same time, as an English-speaking country with a British colonial heritage and an open capitalist economy, Singapore has historical and economic affinity with America. As a city-state and node in Asia, it is inextricably linked to the region, including China.

But the fact of the matter is that Singapore's position is consistent; it has not changed. It is China's perception - and perhaps expectation - of Singapore that has.

Myth 2: Singapore is a Chinese society and should be more sympathetic to China

THE CASE: China has often viewed the Chinese diaspora as part of greater China. Hong Kong and Taiwan, for example, for political and historical reasons, fall within China's ambit. Singapore has a majority Chinese population and should thus understand China, and uphold China's interest.

THE FACTS: The notion that Singapore is a "Chinese society" gets Singaporeans who uphold multiracialism very upset, on behalf of our non-Chinese compatriots. In fact, this myth comes across as quite ludicrous to those born and bred in Singapore.

True-blue Singaporeans are quite colour-blind. We don't just proclaim ourselves a multiracial society; we live it every day. My office, for example, is a hodgepodge of ethnicities. When I'm having lunch with colleagues, I sometimes do a double take: There's a Sikh woman; a Malay-Muslim woman; a Muslim who lives with her Chinese Cantonese mother; a woman of Chinese-Indian heritage; and two or three plain Chinese, including me.

Our instincts are Singaporean, not Chinese; many of us have blood ties and deep friendships in the region, especially in Malaysia; but not many of us have ties back to China any more.

Any Chinese commentator who expects Singapore to give China an easy pass and always take its side on international issues on account of "ethnic" ties has read us Singaporeans totally wrong.

We are small; our protective instinct is for our own country and other underdogs; standing up for ourselves, and never accepting being pushed around, is in our DNA.

Myth 3: China is out to punish Singapore, and Singaporeans should feel worried about this and pressure the Singapore Government to be more accommodating of China

THE CASE: Those who say China is out to punish Singapore point to recent incidents such as the seizing of nine Singapore military vehicles being shipped back from training deployment in Taiwan to Singapore. The consignment was stopped and seized in Hong Kong. There have also been quite a few public verbal spats, such as the exchange between a Global Times editor and Singapore's ambassador to China, and accusations that Singapore intervened to introduce anti-China language in the declarations issued by Asean and other meetings.

This myth is, in my view, the most invidious because it is plausible and it operates in the shadows. It is plausible because the recent series of bilateral incidents has received much attention, amplified in today's social media world.

It operates in the shadows because no Chinese official is going to say publicly that it wants Singaporeans to pressure the Government to change its stand. Instead, there is a lot of whispering going around. Many of us - in the media, business world and in political and government circles - have heard stories of how Chinese officials are leaning on those with business ties in China to get the Singapore Government to go softer on China, as though Singapore were the one playing hardball.

Most of all, this myth is the most dangerous for Singaporeans because it feeds on fear and anxiety.

China is a large country with a lot of resources at its disposal. Its Belt and Road initiative, for example, can open up land routes and an alternative sea route to the Malacca Strait that would, in effect, make Singapore's port status redundant. China's economic diplomacy targeting Singapore's neighbours, including Malaysia, the Philippines and Cambodia, can isolate Singapore - so the narrative goes.

Shadowy myths are best exposed by subjecting them to the light. I put forth aspects of this theory to some people and got quite some reassuring responses.

These are the facts, as I see them.

In the game of diplomacy, China plays weiqi, or Go, the game of encirclement and territorial grabs. It wants to widen its sphere of influence in the region and wants to push the Americans out of its maritime neighbourhood. Such shows of strength increase the Chinese state's legitimacy and feed nationalist goals.

China knows Singapore has been a good friend, but it is unhappy with Singapore's buddy-buddy status with the US and wants Singapore to come down on its side.

It is now impatient with Singapore's long-held, unwavering stance that it is neutral, and friendly to both China and the US. It appears to adopt the position according to the saying that "those who are not for me are against me" and interpret not taking sides as being against it.

As it wants to nudge Singapore off the fence and make it come to its side, China will exert pressure - economic and diplomatic and via psy ops - to get Singaporeans to question the status quo and to try to shift Singapore's foreign policy to be more accommodating of it.

But beyond diplomatic pressure, how much power does China have to "punish" Singapore?

Perhaps not that much, according to Dutch academic Lieke Bos, who studied in England and Singapore. Writing in The Diplomat, a website which features analyses on the Asia-Pacific, she said: "China does not have much power to put Singapore back in line, as Chinese economic statecraft so far has been relatively unsuccessful. Singapore is also in a very different position from its neighbouring countries as it manages an advanced economy and many international security relationships across the world. At the same time, China is still far too dependent on imports through the Malacca Strait to seriously oppose Singapore. The seizing of goods in ports can, after all, easily be done by both parties."

While Singapore should take gigantic China's displeasure seriously and seek to keep ties on an even keel, Singaporeans shouldn't feel overly anxious either. As Mr Kausikan urged: Keep calm and carry on.

As for the Belt and Road displacing the Malacca Strait as the premier shipping belt, it would take many more years for that to happen, if not decades. Meanwhile, even as port projects are being planned around Malaysia and Indochina - presumably as alternatives to Singapore - port planners here aren't keeping still. Singapore was named maritime capital of the world for the third time this year.

The impending move to Tuas allows the new port to be designed to accommodate more mega container ships - from 12,000 to about 20,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) that will ply the seas. Only about 20 ports around the world now can accommodate these mega ships.

As former head of civil service Peter Ho put it last week in a lecture, Singapore can overcome its constraints in the future by making itself the hub or node of a range of new flows. It is already a finance hub, a maritime and aviation hub, and a petrochemical hub. It is trying to be a start-up capital.

Mr Ho suggested that Singapore can become a data hub, becoming a place where companies can store and process data freely. With data now described as the oil of the future, that is an idea worth exploring.

The key to remaining relevant to the world - and hence not at the mercy of any single big power - is to embed Singapore into global networks so that talent, capital and labour, and now data, must all flow through here.

No matter how uncomfortable relations between Singapore and China appear at times these days, it's worthwhile going back to basics.

First, Singapore hasn't changed in its foreign policy. It is China that has changed its view and demands on Singapore.

Second, Singapore stands up for its national interests, not for the interests of any other society that wants to claim kinship with it.

Third, other countries big and small will periodically want Singapore to play ball.

As Singaporeans, we play ball when it is in Singapore's interests to do so. When it is not, we are free to play with others. The key is to make sure we have plenty of friends who still want to play ball with us, and that we all play by the accepted rules of the game.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 21, 2017, with the headline '3 myths about S'pore-China ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe