S'pore is second most influenced by China in the world, according to Taiwan report

Singapore was found to be especially susceptible in the areas of technology, society and academia. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Singapore has been ranked second in the world - behind Cambodia and just ahead of Thailand - in a study measuring China's expanding influence on countries.

In the areas of technology, society and academia - but less so for domestic politics - the Republic was found to be especially susceptible to the exposure, pressure and effect of Beijing's influence, according to the China Index launched late on Monday (April 25) by Taiwan-based research outfit Doublethink Lab.

The inaugural index placed the Philippines in sixth, Malaysia eighth and Taiwan ninth with Australia rounding off the top 10.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia and Paraguay were identified as least influenced by China, in a list spanning 36 territories across Asia, Europe, Australasia, Africa and the Americas.

In 15th position was the United States, which remains embroiled in an intense multidimensional rivalry with an ascendant China.

The index is billed as the first to gauge the extent of Chinese influence using comparable data, collected from March to August 2021 and involving 99 indicators across nine domains: media, foreign policy, academia, domestic politics, economy, technology, society, military and law enforcement.

The indicators further fall into three categories: exposure - how vulnerable the country is; pressure - actions taken by China to change the behaviour of people in the country; and effect - the degree to which the country accommodates China, and the impact of these actions.

A committee convened by Doublethink Lab designed the indicators, each of which was then assessed on a four-point scale by at least two anonymous local experts - either academics, journalists, researchers or community leaders - who must provide corresponding evidence.

The eight-person committee largely comprised US and Western analysts such as Ms Bonnie Glaser from the US research institution German Marshall Fund and Ms Nadege Rolland from the Washington-based think-tank National Bureau of Asian Research, with the exception of Mr Roy Chun Lee from the Taiwan WTO and RTA Centre at the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research.

Singapore's percentage scores were higher than the world average across all domains except for domestic politics, which evaluates China's efforts to influence the political landscape in a country.

These findings follow a Pew Research Centre survey released in June 2021, which found that 64 per cent of Singaporeans had a favourable view of China, and that Singaporeans were the only ones in the world to view China more positively than the US.

In September last year, French think-tank Irsem (Institute for Strategic Research at France's Military College) also identified Singapore - where ethnic Chinese make up about three-quarters of the citizen and resident populations - as being particularly vulnerable to Chinese influence.

Singaporeans have also been observed taking to online forums to share anecdotes of fathers and grandfathers being "self-radicalised" by Chinese propaganda.

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The China Index pointed to the popularity of the WeChat messaging platform among older Chinese-speaking adults here - and TikTok for the younger demographic - as evidence of Chinese influence in the technology domain. The domain looks at the activity and financial leverage of Chinese companies in the tech sector, the use of Chinese hardware and bilateral research partnerships.

Singapore topped this area, with Indonesia coming in second.

Singapore also registered the third-highest score - with Taiwan coming in first - in the domain of society, which assesses China's soft-power efforts and hold over local organisations and citizens.

Here, the index cited the Hua Yuan and Tian Fu clan associations, which are made up of mostly new Chinese immigrants to Singapore, and whose heads have been invited as special observers at either national- or province-level political consultative conferences in China.

In academia, Singapore also placed third, with the US first and Germany second. The index noted Chinese-language teachers have been hired from China to work in schools and tuition centres, along with reports of Chinese-language curriculum material increasingly following China's standards.

Singapore was fifth when it came to China's economic leverage over policy or corporate behaviour, with New Zealand top of the table. The index said that in 2016, after an arbitral tribunal's ruling against China's claims to a handful of islands in the South China Sea, Singapore businesses were reportedly "warned" that Singapore's insistence on international law could jeopardise their commercial position in China.

In the domain of foreign policy, the index claimed that Singapore has become "visibly quieter" over the South China Sea dispute and international rule of law relating to China ever since the 2016 detention of Singapore's army vehicles in Hong Kong while en route home from Taiwan.

The China Index also cited Singapore Technologies Kinetics and its subsidiary Guizhou Jonyang Kinetics producing an all-terrain personnel carrier based on the Bronco armoured vehicle used by Singapore's army, as a proof point under the military domain. The carrier reportedly saw service in Tibet recently, in support of China's People's Liberation Army troops deployed in the Himalayas.

In the media domain, former foreign minister George Yeo and academic Kishore Mahbubani were described as part of "an increasing number of prominent individuals" in Singapore promoting the Chinese official line on current affairs. The index also pointed to Singapore's media outlets hiring China natives, with some in prominent positions hosting or editing news shows.

It also identified a little-known YouTuber called Noel Lee, believed to be Singaporean, who started publishing in March 2021 videos on China that include denials of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region. Mr Lee's clips are reportedly being shared on messaging platforms such as WhatsApp.

Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, who is director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said while the subject of Chinese influence is of interest, it was just as key to consider the “bigger picture”.

“I would look at who is doing the survey and its past research records… how relevant are the parameters used, and why the report is being produced and circulated,” he said.

Taipei-based Doublethink Lab describes itself as a civil society organisation investigating disinformation and information operations in order to safeguard democracy globally. 

Meanwhile, political analyst Chong Ja Ian from the National University of Singapore said the presence of Chinese influence in Singapore was unsurprising, given the significance of economic, social, academic and technological interactions between the two countries - something that successive administrations here have promoted since the 1990s.

"Such interactions also come with Singapore being a small, open economy, which makes cooperation and collaboration especially important," said Associate Professor Chong.

"The question is whether such presence translates into such issues as stress on society; the distortion of the political process that unduly advantages some while excluding others; or results in policies that may not serve overall public interest as well as they should."

Noting that these were issues the China Index could not answer, he suggested that one way to build on the findings was to move towards greater transparency - in, for example, interactions that the state and officials have with both local and international businesses and other players. This, said Prof Chong, could help increase public vigilance against potentially risky forms of influence or interference over policy and legislation.

Top 10 territories most influenced by China

1. Cambodia

2. Singapore

3. Thailand

4. Peru

5. Kyrgyzstan

6. The Philippines

7. Tajikistan

8. Malaysia

9. Taiwan

10. Australia

Source: Doublethink Lab

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