Diaspora And Development: A Chinese Take On Singapore

Speaking English during state visits to China and Chinese when visiting the West, long-serving leader of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew walked a delicate line between cultures while bringing his small nation into the economic big leagues.

Modern Singapore has successfully managed its ancestral and strategic connections to China.
Modern Singapore has successfully managed its ancestral and strategic connections to China.
Tao Duanfang


When Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Choh Tong announced their retirement last week from Singapore's government cabinet, the Montreal Observer half-jokingly questioned why the "news' had aroused so much attention. The 87-year-old Lee Kuan Yew should have retired years ago, and in theory did so in 1990, the French-Canadian newspaper pointed out. And yet this retirement, even if it came more than 20 years late, is news – for the simple reason that Lee Kuan Yew is such a monumentally important figure in Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore Republic he created mean different things to different people. From the perspective of the East, they are models of what can happen when an Asian state takes its lead from the West. With its brand new cities, a complete social welfare system, enviable quality human resources, and an education system and industrial model tied directly to the English-speaking world, Singapore is a pioneer, an example of how an eastern state can learn from the West and integrate into the modern world.

Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore are symbols of "walking the eastern path." This old Hakka man, no longer in the role of prime minister, still continues to have critical opinions of western politics, society and its system of thought. Constantly and stubbornly he insists on his "modern Confucianist" concept of political rule. In the eyes of the ethnic Chinese, in other words, Singapore is a westernized "new style" country.

From a western viewpoint, however, Singapore is 100% a "Chinese country." In the 1960s, when Singapore broke away from Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew made a point of emphasizing the state's Chinese characteristics, to prevent the ethnic Chinese from being drowned in the ocean of the Malay population. But he also emphasized that Singaporeans are different from the Chinese, to prevent the "Chinese complex" of the Chinese descendents from jeopardizing the newly born country's independence. When facing the Malay and the British, he deliberately displayed "Chinese" characteristics, while within Singapore, he tried to create a unique Singaporean identity by enforcing English language-based education and by trying to eliminate the so-called Chinese complex.

During the industrialization period of the Four Little Dragons, this method of "emphasizing the eastern characteristics to the West and emphasizing the western characteristics to the East" took a new turn.

After the Cold War, the political systems of Asian countries changed one by one. Singapore, which the West had viewed both civilized and modern, gradually showed its "uncivilized nature," by instituting, for example, news censorship, a patriarchal and nepotistic system, authoritarian rule, a disguised hereditary system and severe laws. These changes attracted criticism from the West. To defend himself, Lee Kuan Yew used "differences between the East and West" and dusty old Confucianist traditions as a kind of magic wand.

Yet when China grew in strength, it made Lee Kuan Yew and his government nervous. Fearing China might lay claim to Singapore as an ancestral homeland, Lee Kuan Yew started to emphasize the country's non-Chinese characteristics. He even hinted that Singapore has a gatekeeper role in suppressing Chinese expansionism in South East Asia. In this case his defense strategy was to attack and oppose Chinese influence.

According to Russian legend, the bat, which is neither bird nor beast, seeks to benefit from every situation by showing his teeth when confronted with beasts and showing his wings in front of birds. Lee Kuan Yew is like a bat, except that he does exactly the opposite – wings for beasts and teeth for birds.

The British-educated prime minister, who learned Chinese as an adult, would speak English when visiting China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, but Chinese when visiting the United Kingdom and United States. The strategy helped him during the Cold War period, when Lee Kuan Yew maintained an alliance with the United States while at the same time building up relations with the top Chinese leaders and developing trade with China.

Lee and Singapore also made a point of adapting to the times. Through much of the 20th century, China's economy was underdeveloped, and it had weak international influence. The West, meanwhile, was friendly with Singapore, thus Lee emphasized the differences between Singapore and China. He lowered the status of the Chinese language, readjusted the election system to arrange for more non-Chinese government officials, and even shut down Nangyang University, which was known as Chinese cultural foothold in Southeast Asia.

But as time passed and China became a global juggernaut, Lee Kuan Yew made a point of emphasizing differences between Singapore and the West. From 2000 onwards, Lee Kuan Yew highlighted "the importance of Chinese language," while celebrating "Chinese tradition" and the "Confucianist value identity."

Because of Lee, the Chinese have often consciously and unconsciously regarded Singapore as part of the Chinese family. They are irritated when Singapore makes "anti-Chinese" comments and thrilled when efforts are made there to stress Chinese identity. What the Chinese forget, however, is that the Singapore Republic is a sovereign and independent country. And they forget that when Lee Kuan Yew talks, whether it is to emphasize or downplay links to China, he does so with Singapore in mind – not China. As Singapore's founder and first citizen, his actions and words have always had one goal in mind, to optimize Singapore's advantages.

If a Chinese mainlander asks a Singaporean of ethnic Chinese descent "where are you from?" he is likely to hear: "Singapore." Only then will the Singaporean explain – in a whisper – that his or her ancestors were from Chaozhou, Shantou, or Taisan. This is normal. What isn't normal are those Chinese who have forgotten the fact that ethnically Chinese people in independent states are above all foreign citizens. For those foreigners, being Chinese is secondary. This is the key point that ought to be remembered in order to avoid potentially serious misunderstandings. It is certainly something China needs to take into account in terms of how it perceives Lee Kuan Yew in particular and Singapore in general.

Read the original article in Chinese.

photo - British Council Singapore

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