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By Invitation

China and Singapore: Looking back to understand the future

Singaporeans must understand Chinese nationals' view of what China is, just as China must understand Singapore's self-image as a multicultural nation with a global outlook.

Recent developments in the relations between China and Singapore have raised questions about how China sees Singapore and also how Singapore should see China.

The questions stem from several issues concerning Singapore as a small new state in a region still riven by division, amid growing rivalry between China and the United States. At the base are complex layers of understanding what is China and who are Singaporeans.

Despite the fact that both of them have had different borders over time, China has been in existence for thousands of years while Singapore is only 51 years old as a sovereign state. But it is also true that people of Chinese descent in Singapore have looked with respect to China for nearly 200 years while most people of China have noticed the achievements of the Chinese in Singapore only during recent decades.

WHAT IS CHINA?

During my recent visits to China, I noticed that many people are keenly interested in the question of just what China is.

Behind this interest is the idea that China was a great country and the time has come to restore China to greatness. Given the many calls during the US presidential election campaign for America to be great again, it is perhaps not surprising that a rising China should also be thinking of being great again. Both calls seem to reflect some anxiety that other people may not recognise that greatness.

For China, its public outlets reveal a paradox. On the one hand, the country has inherited a great civilisation-state and its people everywhere must stand up to ensure that it remains so. On the other hand, Chinese people understand that change is something they must always expect and prepare for. The world is in a state of flux and China must meet present and future challenges by adapting to every change it faces.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

How to integrate a China that is unchanging with forces that are rearing to change is a perplexing task for Chinese leaders. When China was confident, its peoples saw it as a strong state that other strong states should treat with respect.

When it encountered the system of nation-states and national empires that spread out of Europe to the rest of the world, China's traditional strategy of controlling tributary relations with foreign rulers had to be abandoned.

Today it deals with scores of smaller nations that are trying their utmost not to be dominated by larger ones. These smaller nations are dependent on an international system of sovereign states where rules can be made to protect them.

China supports that system but is also aware that large states behave differently from small ones. It is not convinced that the system is ideal and believes that there is room for improvement.

Furthermore, in this world of sovereign nations, there are millions of people of Chinese descent who left China over the centuries and are now settled in other nations. Some segments of China's society - and indeed many among the overseas Chinese themselves - think that these overseas Chinese should identify with their ancestral values while they remain loyal to their respective adopted nations.

The China they look to has been changing. Its last dynastic rulers had accepted "international law" that acknowledged it as one of the empires of the 19th century. The Republic that followed in 1912 pronounced itself the Zhonghua-Chinese nation that consisted of multiple ethnic groups. It rejected the imperial system but inherited its extended borders.

When the Nanjing government moved to Taiwan and the People's Republic of China unified the rest of the country on the mainland, doubts were raised as to whether this was a nation-state, or an empire that had not been fully de-colonised.

What made Singapore unique is that, although three-quarters of its population are Chinese, its leaders understood the exceptional position they inherited and did not stress the supremacy of its majority population. On the contrary, the Republic affirmed its plural-society base and the legal equality of its citizens, no matter what their ethnic origins.

China sees these terms as inappropriate in describing what it is, a multinational centralised state that is actively renewing itself through economic growth and socialist redistribution.

At the same time, the numbers of people of Chinese descent who have settled abroad have further increased. Large numbers from territories like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau have greatly augmented those numbers during the past three decades.

China now has expectations that those among them who care for their cultural roots should return to the "motherland" to help the country advance further. Or they could remain in their host countries to help build bridges between China and their adopted countries.

It is in that context that Singapore with its majority population of Chinese descent attracts special attention.

WHAT IS BEING CHINESE IN SINGAPORE?

For thousands of years, the tiny island now called Singapore, at the foot of the Malay peninsula, was but one of many islands in a watery Malay world.

In succession, the empires of Sri Vijaya and Majapahit, the Malacca and Johor empires, then the Portuguese and Dutch merchant fleets, all knew it as a useful port.

It was, however, the British in 1819 who chose Singapore to service their growing India-China trade and made it into a link in their global maritime empire. Later, the Japanese invaders appreciated its location and also used it as their forward naval base.

When the British returned after World War II, they reduced Singapore to a standalone colony, ready to let it become part of a federation of states that united all former British lands in South-east Asia. That plan failed and three states were established instead: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

What made Singapore unique is that, although three-quarters of its population are Chinese, its leaders understood the exceptional position they inherited and did not stress the supremacy of its majority population. On the contrary, the Republic affirmed its plural-society base and the legal equality of its citizens, no matter what their ethnic origins.

That position has nurtured three main ethnic identities, Chinese, Malay and Indian, and grouped the rest as Others. For five decades, the state introduced numerous community schemes to optimise social harmony. It remained vigilant towards those affiliated to external organisations who are prepared to exploit ethnic and religious differences.

The Singapore state has also given priority attention to national education. Generations of students are encouraged to be science-literate and progressive, and master the skills essential in the global economy to which Singapore seeks to belong. At the same time, the Government has been sensitive to the cultural integrity that each ethnic group demands. It is in this context that the Chinese majority in Singapore seeks to balance economic and cultural ties with China and Chinese communities worldwide, with growing consciousness of what China's rise means for Singapore.

Its various groups have reflected on some of the labels that have been used for them and who these labels applied to. They considered what that meant, not only to themselves and their neighbours both within and without, but also to interested powers like China and the US.

NATION-STATE IN TRANSITION

The three labels that attract attention are Singapore Chinese, Chinese Singaporean, and Singaporean.

The first has long been in use. It is inclusive in that it identifies all Chinese who are living in Singapore. It is ambivalent in that it could refer to Chinese who are Singapore citizens and also those merely residing in the country. However, the label implies an affirmation of being Chinese.

Chinese Singaporean is not a term in popular use although, for many, it is an accurate description of someone who feels Singaporean but acknowledges Chinese ancestry. Some also consider it as only a step towards full national consciousness.

The young today are ready to say they are Singaporean. Those of Chinese descent take for granted they belong to the majority in a plural society. For them, it is enough that the Singaporean label contains the Chinese connection.

By most accounts, Singapore has come a long way towards nationhood. Compared to China's wish to be seen as a multinational state with a deep and distinctive civilisation, Singapore seeks to be a multicultural city-state with modern values and a global outlook.

If China accepts Singapore as a multicultural nation with modern values and a global outlook, and understands that being multicultural and global are critically important to Singapore's very existence, it will make Singapore's task of nation building easier. After all, being Singaporean includes being Chinese, or Malay, or Indian, or belonging to other racial groups.

China will then see that the sentiments that lead Singapore to collaborate closely with it are natural and sincere, and not merely for profit, and that the state's efforts to speak and act so that this strategically located island never has to take sides are invaluable to the region's hopes for peace and prosperity.

Singapore's relations with China are now complicated by the growing rivalry between China and the US. China feels that its vital maritime interests are vulnerable to US pressures while the US sees China as a threat to its hegemony.

For Singapore, the US was part of the Anglophone alliance at the state's creation and expects its strategic connections with the city- nation to continue. Singapore hopes that China will understand why it still sees its security as dependent on that framework.

Where China is concerned, Singapore was grateful when Deng Xiaoping moved away from Mao Zedong's ideological hostility, and the city-state has responded by being actively involved in China's economic development. It would not be in Singapore's interest for China to doubt its friendship.

To counter that possibility, the Government cannot do it alone but must involve its citizens, especially those of Chinese descent, to prevent misunderstanding from growing into distrust.

Wang Gungwu is University Professor, National University of Singapore and Chairman of the East Asian Institute and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He is Chairman of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, and also Emeritus Professor of Australian National University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'China and S'pore: Looking back to understand the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe