Singapore—How the country’s founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, worked with and against China to serve practical purposes in the crucial years of nation-building is the topic of a recent article from a Taiwanese scholar.
Philip Liu Hsiao-Pong, a professor at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies and director of the International Master’s Programme in Asia-Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, wrote an article entitled “Love the Tree, Love the Branch: Beijing’s Friendship with Lee Kuan Yew, 1954-1965”, which was published in The China Quarterly by Cambridge University Press.
An excerpt from the article, ‘China, friend or foe to Singapore? How a wily Lee Kuan Yew made it both in building his nation’ was recently featured in the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
Professor Liu argues that the late PM Lee had a relationship with China that was both pragmatic and situational, despite the popular belief that China had stood in the way of Singapore’s nation-building since Beijing had been perceived to have encouraged the communist rebellions in Singapore in the 1950s and 60s.
At that point, PM Lee and the PAP was thought to downplay an overseas Chinese identity, for the purpose of building Singapore’s own multiracial identity. This was shown in the choice of English as a national language, for example.
The Prime Minister has already stated that he understood “the PRC aimed to increase the loyalty of the overseas Chinese to Beijing.”
And therefore, during his first visit to China in 1976, English was spoken in all of the meetings he took, in order to “avoid any suspicion that Singapore was influenced by kinship ties with China”.
But PM Lee, who is of Chinese descent, also used this when it was to his advantage, “especially for commercial gain,” as Professor Liu writes.
Concerning opportunities for business in China, the late Prime Minister said “We would be foolish not to use the ethnic Chinese network to increase our reach and our grasp,” while his administration encouraged local businesses to “to exploit their dual identity as ethnic Chinese and Singaporean”.
Professor Liu writes that to Beijing, “Lee and his top officials often tried to maintain Chinese images of what Singapore should look like, and behaved like Chinese kinsmen who were building a third China.”
However, the Prime Minister also played both sides when needful. Even as an anti-colonialist, he sided with the British against the communists, and then changed sides again later when it proved necessary, according to Professor Liu.
China did the same, since it held anti-colonialism over communism as well, and turned a blind eye when the Lee government suppressed communist moves.
The professor writes, “From the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, a mutually beneficial relationship, therefore, spurred cooperation between Lee and China. For Beijing, economic and nationalistic goals generally took priority over ideological ones.
Singapore was an important source of foreign exchange for China, alleviating its domestic economic difficulties and providing a channel for the import of modern technologies. Beijing’s relations with the city-state were marked by the same pragmatism that governed its treatment of Hong Kong because trade is a powerful bait with which to overcome ideological antipathies.”
Professor Liu gave examples of how masterful a tactician the founding Prime Minister of Singapore has been when it came to the country’s relationship with China.
“Lee meanwhile sought to play Beijing and his opponents off against one another for his own gain. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, he cancelled several planned visits to China, demonstrating that bilateral relations with Beijing were not the priority for Singapore. Rather, the trips were organised for leverage to manage challenges from his political rivals.
Lee used the race card and a perceived “Chinese threat” when he cooperated with London and Kuala Lumpur so that he could suppress his domestic opponents. After the British left Singapore, this Chinese threat continued to scare Malays. Lee then elevated his status by exaggerating the risk posed by Beijing.”/ TISG