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Time to wake up to how China is racing ahead

As a transport reporter covering cycling and its growing popularity, I often looked to Europe for examples of what a car-lite Singapore could look like - I wondered if it would end up like Amsterdam or Copenhagen with spacious underground parking and speedy highways for bicycles.

But as things are turning out, there is no need to look that far.

These days where cycling is concerned, Singapore is shaping up to be more like Beijing and other Chinese cities, thanks to dock-less shared bicycles that are now a sight on almost every street corner.

These shared bicycles, which can be rented by using a mobile phone, locked and returned at any location, were first popularised in China and brought here by such Chinese companies as Mobike and ofo.

Now, the ubiquity of these bicycles and their ease of use have meant that more people have turned to cycling to travel short distances. It is an initiative that has given the Government's push to go car-lite a much needed shot in the arm.

But due to my own myopia, I was slow to look to China as a source of good urban solutions.

Events in the last few years - from the simmering South China Sea dispute to the impounding of Singapore Armed Forces Terrex vehicles in Hong Kong to the public expulsion of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy academic Huang Jing for being a foreign agent - have cemented in my mind the need for a sober appreciation of the gravity of a rising China, and its implications for the region.

Many of my peers and I have for too long held on to an image of China as a land of cheap knock-off goods, low-quality products and poorly behaved nationals.

This stereotype is fed by personal encounters with rude and loud tourists and by news stories that shine a spotlight on all things wrong with China - from tainted food scandals to sickening levels of air pollution.

But to view China through such a lens is to miss the bigger picture since the reality of this huge nation of almost 1.4 billion people is far more complex.

A communist state powered by a capitalist economy, China has in the last 40 years performed a miracle of epic proportions by lifting 700 million people out of poverty; and it continues to change and develop at a rapid pace.

Yes, some 40 years ago, when China first embarked on economic reform and opening up, it learnt from countries such as Singapore; but now the roles are starting to be reversed. Foreigners visiting bustling Chinese metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai are surprised by how far they have pushed ahead.

Take cashless payments for instance. Everything from groceries in wet markets and food at roadside stalls, to rental, utilities as well as train and air tickets can be paid for with e-wallets such as Alipay and WeChat Pay.

In artificial intelligence, the Chinese have also laid plans to dominate the field and become the world's primary AI innovation centre by 2030.

Last November, executive chairman Eric Schmidt of Google's parent company Alphabet said at a technology summit in the United States that China is poised to overtake the country if the US government does not act soon.

China's economy will continue to expand - consulting firm PwC predicts it will be the world's biggest by 2050, accounting for 20 per cent of global output - and that will make it a magnet for talent, further strengthening its competitiveness.

Those Singaporeans who have long trained their eyes on the West as a source of knowledge and innovation need to wake up to this new reality and deepen their understanding of China so as to better tap into its rise.

The Government, on its part, has been actively encouraging Singaporeans to study developments in China, but interest among young Singaporeans, while growing slowly, still seems to be low.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) introduced the subject of China studies at pre-university level in 2006 as a way to help students gain a "good understanding" of contemporary China.

The aim in the long run is to enable students to contribute in their own ways to further Singapore-China interactions, say the syllabus materials.

But only 2.3 per cent of the pre-university cohort pursue China studies in English each year. The number is about half that for students taking the subject in Chinese, according to 2014 to 2016 figures from MOE.

Events in the last few years - from the simmering South China Sea dispute to the impounding of Singapore Armed Forces' Terrex vehicles in Hong Kong to the public expulsion of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy academic Huang Jing for being a foreign agent - have cemented in my mind the need for a sober appreciation of the gravity of a rising China, and its implications for the region.

From a foreign policy standpoint, it goes without saying that as China becomes more assertive, Singapore would need future leaders who understand China deeply in order to keep relations between the two countries on an even keel.

Perhaps more Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship holders - who are considered the top of their cohorts and often go on to become public service leaders - could be encouraged to take up their studies in Chinese universities.

At present, very few choose to do so. In the last five years, only eight PSC scholarship holders out of a total of 399 have chosen to do their undergraduate studies in a Chinese university, said the Public Service Division.

Ms Sun Xueling, chief executive of Business China, has urged young Singaporeans to embark on internships or exchange programmes in China.

"Once they are there, they will be able to experience and see firsthand the sort of changes that China is going through and the opportunities available," she said.

My own quest to learn more about China has gained urgency of late after I took up a posting to join The Straits Times' China bureau.

I hope to leave for Beijing next month and have been reading voraciously, from Chinese politics to religion to science fiction. This marks the start of a new chapter for me as I grew up on books by Tolkien and Hemingway.

As I seek to correct my past myopia, I also look forward to deepening my understanding of China and to the privilege of helping to tell the story of this emerging and ever-evolving great power.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 25, 2018, with the headline 'Time to wake up to how China is racing ahead'. Print Edition | Subscribe