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.
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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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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