S'pore needs to have ground-level contact for closer China ties

Singapore President Halimah Yacob and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on May 14, 2019.
Singapore President Halimah Yacob and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on May 14, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

ST Forum contributor Lee Teck Chuan's call for an identifiable group of individuals as China experts may be off the mark (Urgent for S'pore to develop pool of China experts, May 21).

It has been several decades since Singapore has had open relations with the new China, post-Deng Xiaoping.

There have been at least three levels of contacts over the years: government, businesses and people.

One should never underestimate the depth and breadth of people-to-people contact, especially when a sizeable number of new citizens and permanent residents have come from China.

Singaporeans at the people's level are the most critical in fostering acceptance and acculturation of these new immigrants. They, in turn, are crucial in broadening the knowledge and understanding of the new China with existing Singaporeans.

How well the newcomers and Singaporeans interact and develop relations is critical for further meaningful engagement between the two countries.

So far, much is left to spontaneous intermingling, which is as it should naturally be.

Deliberately engineering social interactions by the authorities appears contrived and not necessarily effective in the long term.

As for businesses, Singaporeans have learnt the hard way on many fronts as they venture into China. How this body of experience and knowledge can trickle down to the people is mostly by word of mouth and storytelling.

The experience of the Singapore Government in acquiring understanding and skills in relating to the Chinese leadership will always be a work in progress as the circumstances are dynamic.

So yes, Singaporeans need to have China experts but they don't come in any one identifiable grouping as we commonly refer to as "experts".

Rather, these are people who have intimate knowledge and experience through their interest and interactions with Chinese at all levels, especially from the ground up.

Better to put efforts in encouraging ground-level people-to-people contact and acquaintance. This will help both groups to become more used to each other.

Thomas Lee Hock Seng (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore needs to have ground-level contact for closer China ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe