The assertion of a Chinese identity due to the rise of China is a persistent threat that has to be managed carefully by Singapore, said retired top diplomat Bilahari Kausikan.
Given Singapore’s young age and multi-racial composition, the Singaporean identity is “particularly malleable” as it comes under pressure from external forces, according to Kausikan, who was speaking on Thursday (19 July) at the end of a forum on ethnic identity and culture organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and OnePeople.sg.
One common narrative used by pro-China entities is that since Singapore is a small and predominantly Chinese country, the city-state should be on China’s side amid the power rivalry between the Asian giant and the US, according to Kausikan.
Singapore’s former ambassador-at-large dismissed this “simplified grotesque distortion of a much more complicated and complex reality”.
“(I) have come to the sad conclusion that they (pro-China entities) just cannot get it,” said Kausikan, adding that the equality of the different races in Singapore is an “alien concept” to them.
The current chairman of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute has spoken about the issue on several occasions recently, including at a conference organised by OCBC last week.
Kausikan cited the example of Huang Jing, the former professor from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy who had his permanent residency revoked last year, after he was identified by the Ministry of Home Affairs as an “agent of influence of an intelligence service of a major country”.
Such a situation is very difficult to deal with but the Singapore government had to take firm action and show that the behaviour would not be tolerated here, Kausikan said.
“I think it (an assertive Chinese identity) is the greatest foreign policy challenge that we face,” he added.
Kausikan pointed out that the adverse influence arising from the phenomenon can be felt across Southeast Asia, citing a “particularly stark example” during the recently concluded Malaysian general election.
The Chinese ambassador to Malaysia Bai Tian had openly campaigned for Malaysian Chinese Association president Liow Tiong Lai in the latter’s constituency in Bentong, in an incident Kausikan described as “so wrong in so many dimensions”.
Adding to the mix is the “global resurgence of identity” and the challenge it poses for Singapore’s leaders in the digital age, said Kausikan.
For example, he noted the “echo-chamber effect” of social media on the Singaporean identity and how it has reshaped the perception of immigration.
“You never really leave any country, you bring your country with you and you create little pockets of that country all over the place,” said Kausikan. “All you can do is to be aware of the downsides of the technologies.”
Nonetheless, it would be “foolish” for Singapore to not continue engaging with China but Kausikan called for greater awareness of pro-China operations.
On Singapore’s part, “the kind of system we have must be continually defended…(our) multi-racial, horizontal identity has been much more entrenched than it was in 1965.”
Kausikan also spoke about the new government in Malaysia led by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The transfer of power from Najib Razak to Dr Mahathir does not mean there is a change of system for Malaysians, he added.
“You think Dr Mahathir would say, ‘Okay, I was wrong, no more bumiputra privileges.’ He may tamper with it on the edge. He tried to modify the bumiputra policy in minor ways, towards the end of his first time as prime minister and he failed.”
On the 93-year-old leader, Kausikan added that he could be “a bit irritating” in his dealings with Singapore on water and other issues. Dr Mahathir had in June described the price of water sold to Singapore as “manifestly ridiculous” in an interview with Singapore broadcaster Channel NewsAsia (CNA).
“But without him, the system will fall apart,” he quipped.
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