””

With Beijing's growing influence, will Chinese replace English as facts on the ground change?

Beijing's growing influence is sure to impact S'pore in days to come and it may even change the complexion of society

If you have been following the brewing dispute in the South China Sea, you might have come across the intriguing term "facts on the ground".

I didn't know such a concept existed, until recently.

Then, it hit me that facts on the ground is one of those irresistible ideas that can change the world, for better or worse.

And I am not just referring to the South China Sea.

But you need first to know what those four words mean.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

In the territorial dispute between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, the competing countries claim sovereignty over uninhabitable pieces of rocks out in the open sea.

What they are really after are the potentially rich but unexploited oil, gas and minerals in the surrounding waters, and the fishing and navigation rights that go with ownership.

But they can't agree on how to settle their differences, or even how to begin doing so.

China prefers to do it bilaterally through negotiation with each of the claimants while the Philippines has taken the legal route, bringing the matter to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

Others prefer that Asean and China first agree on some broad principles.

As you can see, without any agreement on how to proceed, it will take a long time before they even get to the substantial arguments. In the meantime, while these matters are being sorted out, the earth is being literally moved in the various parts of those disputed rocks.

This is where the so-called facts enter the picture.

Over the last two years, China has been reclaiming large areas of land in the contested waters, as much as 800ha, according to the United States, and building all kinds of structures on them - airstrips and assorted maritime installations.

Other countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines had also done so earlier but nowhere near the scale of the Chinese construction.

Why are they doing this?

By building and operating these facilities and taking ownership of them - changing the facts on the ground - they believe they strengthen their claims to them.

There is no legal basis for this but that hasn't stopped any of them.

It didn't stop the Israelis from doing so when they changed the facts on the ground by establishing settlements in the occupied West Bank, which were previously Palestinian territory.

In fact, that's how the term originated.

No one knows how the South China Sea dispute will eventually be resolved, if at all, or how much those facts on the ground will be changed.

But it might not matter because more powerful changes of the facts are taking place elsewhere, which have a greater impact on the future of this place than what happens out in the sea.

I am referring to how China's influence has grown, and how it has become such a large part of the lives of almost everyone in the region, in trade and investment, tourism, immigration and, eventually, culture.

It is now Asean's largest trading partner as well as its top investor.

In Singapore, the Chinese connection looms particularly large, and more investments from China flow here than into any other Asian country.

In turn, Singapore companies are heavily invested in China, pumping $5.8 billion into more than 700 projects last year, making Singapore the top foreign investor there.

That's quite a feat, beating much bigger economies, including those in the developed world.

Chinese tourists outnumber other nationalities in almost every country in this part of the world, including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, even though it is estimated that only 5 per cent of Chinese households are able to afford overseas travel.

Even in Japan which has had a rocky relationship with the mainland, Chinese tourists make up the largest number of visitors, and growing.

China's rise isn't a new story and it has benefited the global economy, particularly those in South-east Asia, including Singapore.

What I think hasn't sunk in is how it will alter these societies in the long term, not just economically but also socially and culturally.

The facts on the ground are changing and turning more Chinese.

Because of their proximity to China, South-east Asian countries are the most vulnerable, though places like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have strong national identities that will help them resist cultural domination.

But Singapore, because of its openness and its predominantly Chinese population, might be the most susceptible. This has two immediate consequences which are already evident.

First, it will always be a favourite destination for Chinese businesses, workers, students and tourists because of the cultural fit.

In turn, Chinese Singaporeans will increasingly find China an attractive place to work and live in.

It used to be said that this will not happen because although the two countries are ethnically similar, they were a world apart in social norms and attitudes.

But that was during a time when China was communist-run, and undeveloped.

As the country modernises and becomes more cosmopolitan, I am hearing more accounts of how young Singaporeans find cities like Shanghai and Beijing as appealing to work in as others in the West.

This two-way exchange of people will grow if the two countries continue to invest heavily in each other's economy.

It is a mutually beneficial connection but no prizes for guessing which society will change more as a result.

Here is the uncomfortable question: How will Singapore change as China's power, influence and reach grow? Will it become an even more Chinese city, indistinguishable from those on the mainland?

Much will depend on how successful it is in being able to retain and strengthen its identity in two important areas: its multiracial composition and the use of English as its working language.

Even though it might seem inconceivable now, don't rule out the possibility that the Chinese language might replace English.

If, in future, the majority of businesses here serve the Chinese market, if Chinese multinational companies dominate the economy, if Chinese tourists are everywhere, how can the language environment not change?

Singaporeans often worry whether the country will be around in 50 years' time, given its vulnerabilities and small size.

It might be the wrong question to ask.

The question that needs to be asked is: What kind of Singapore will it be?

The answer depends on how the facts on the ground change.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Will Chinese replace English as facts on the ground change?'. Print Edition | Subscribe