By Bob Tan


“Singapore is a bonsai in China’s image – a miniature doppleganger similar in all respects save size.” –China is to be studied, not feared 1 (July 17 2010)

There are few uplifting conclusions to draw upon when one is compared to a bonsai.

A senior Chinese leader once used the word to describe Singapore and its dismissive connotation did not escape a Singaporean businessman in attendance. Despite hosting myriad waves of Chinese immigration and a track record of bankrolling Chinese revolution and war efforts against foreign aggression, Singapore in the eyes of the Chinese leadership today is at best miniaturized model with some genetic similarities.

What can a compact and dense city state 42km across about 4,000 kilometres away offer to a continental nation with more than 200 times the people? So, what’s in favour and what’s not for Singapore if China surpasses the US to take No.1 spot in Asia2, the world’s most populous and fastest developing continent? Anyone who’s played the board game Risk will recall fondly the bonus army advantage gained if Asia was under one’s control….But I digress.

Will securing top spot in Asia become a prelude its drive for the No. 1 spot in the world? This will make them the first non-Western power to do so in two hundred years. From revolution to the capitalist road, the No. 2 is now breathing down No.1‘s neck. That is significant. Who trains for silver placing?

Here are three arguments for and against Singapore’s cause. What’s on the table is by no means exhaustive.

AGAINST #1 Just another brick in the wall: China’s outward interests are extensive today

With BRICS they have in some ways started to chip away at American economic hegemony, providing further ballast in restoring a multipolar world. Bilateral agreements for instance to bypass the USD in favour of direct exchange are hallmark of a seachange from a defensive posture with the yuan.

That said, China’s hard power posturing over territorial disputes in both the South and East China Sea across 2012 and 2013 should at least ring some alarm bells. The media trumpeting of the combat-readiness preps for their new aircraft carrier and stealth fighter in the same period also further suggest a sea-change from the sepia-toned memories of 韬光养晦 (tao guang tang hui), a strategy of misdirection.

Of course if we look further back, China has suffered a history of strategic encirclement since the 19th century starting with the Opium War. What sort of behaviour can one expect from a de-contained power?

Singapore’s China and US hedge against the bigger picture

FPDA has been in effect since 1971. Singapore’s naval facilities have serviced American fleets since the days my dad played in a band at a bar named Melbourne where marines and MPs regularly clashed in the 70s. Singapore’s foreign policy approach today looks a hedge between the US and China3. Can it afford to piss off either, or for either to get pissed off with each other for that matter? Further, the Singapore gateway of 1990s yore sitting at Asia’s southern continental tip is just one cog in its complex foreign policy orientation.

In response to Obama’s (now weakening?) Asian pivot, China has set up its own network of friendlies across the continents to extend influence and protect shipping lanes. Its interests in Africa have been questioned despite its proclaimed non-interventionist independent foreign policy of peace  ‘see where America builds drones, China builds roads’. Beyond that, there is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the String of Pearls and its Latin-America pivot right smack in the American backyard.

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AGAINST #2 It’s not like they’ve always listened… What happens when Singaporeans the Chinese listen to retire or pass on?

Once, a suggestion was made to a Chinese leader to make English first language to better adapt to the global marketplace. The response was unsurprisingly no. There was no way a leadership with the mindset of a long-continuing civilization and bounded by 4000 years of script would accede to that. It turns out mastering English with millennia of script guiding though continues to be something the Chinese have yet to master.

While former PM Lee Kuan Yew4,5,6,  diplomat Tommy Koh and historian Wang Gungwu (technically Malayan-born but currently Singapore-based) remain voices that resonate with the Chinese, what happens when they are no longer around? A recent mainstream state media news article laments this possibility7.

Also foreshadowing this was an incident in 2005 when Straits Times correspondent Ching Cheong was arrested and accused of espionage in China. It took herculean Singaporean efforts a long time to get him back8.

AGAINST #3 People-to-people relations on the decline captured in online public opinion

In a city-state oft-described to thrive culturally looking East yet with an eye looking West strategically, this intricate leverage may be unhinging as xenophobic, anti-Chinese vitriol online permeate Singapore’s political blogosphere further channeled through social media, web forums and web 2.0-based communities. This trend prompted nationwide attention when Singapore’s Prime Minister devoted a sixth of his sixty-minute long 2012 National Day rally to nip the emergence of a divisive, politicking fault-line (this term was covered widely all over mainstream state media and online public discourse, with acknowledgement and action by ruling party members of parliament).

The digital revolution has provided a space for generating public opinion online and this has been redefining the contours, peripheries and centre of gravity of public discourse in a country whose citizens are often associated as operating within self-regulating out-of-boundary markers.

Incidents from Sun Xu9 to Ma Chi10, the curry incident11, the first strike in 25 years (see Figure 1 below for a study of its impact)12, to clashes over public transport etiquette have instigated many a social media frenzy. Many have leveraged the power of web 2.0 and social networking services to organise and amplify their displeasure across time and space.

Figure 1 - Singapore’s historical strike data. Singapore’s historical strike data from 1946 to 2009. In this chart, man-days lost refer to the total number of working days lost annually due to industrial action. It is calculated by multiplying the duration of industrial actions (in days) with the number of workers that were affected. Source – Ministry of Manpower, Singapore
Figure 1 – Singapore’s historical strike data. Singapore’s historical strike data from 1946 to 2009. In this chart, man-days lost refer to the total number of working days lost annually due to industrial action. It is calculated by multiplying the duration of industrial actions (in days) with the number of workers that were affected. Source – Ministry of Manpower, Singapore

Singapore pushing the envelope of urban density has had its impact on the latest floodgate of Chinese immigration, the first in 60 years.

This latest wave augments the fifth largest overseas Chinese community in the world. Those who identify themselves as Singaporean Chinese can be generations apart from their ancestral homes in China. Preferring the identifier of Huaren as opposed to Huaqiao and Huayi, this glimpse of self concept is an indicative signifier implying distinction, from the Chinese mainland.  1 million mainland Huaqiao and Huayi Chinese nationals are recent additions (since immigration laws were relaxed in 1989) and they currently share this space with the existing 2.8 million Singaporean Chinese Huaren citizens. 500,000 Peranakans or Straits Chinese make up the earliest arrivals of this diasporic landscape. Who knows how many of these myriad Chinese subgroups in Singapore (a long-time receiving location for Chinese emigration) also subscribe to the China Dream? Further, the Chinese narrative may not resonate at all with Singapore’s non-Chinese population.

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If Singapore’s population target of 6.9 million is to be achieved within a generation the ratio of 1 foreigner out of 3 singapore citizens becomes 1 out of 2.  The white paper was not well received.  It prompted a first – mass demonstrations organized through social networking services and attended by the thousands. Such publicly confrontational acts have been unheard of in decades.

AFFIRMATIVE #1 Long running host country to Chinese immigration and exchange

Singapore is the only place outside greater China with a Chinese-majority population. In 1840, the Chinese in Singapore made up 31% of the 10,000 strong island population. 150 years later in 1990, it was 75% of 3 million. This is a percentage it maintains to this day. That should, by right, naturally make it a great place for the Chinese to do business, work, study, or live.

It maintains top ranking as source of remittance to China.  The latest wave of Chinese immigration into the China, the first is sixty years continues a tradition that has gone on record for at least two hundred years.

Singapore trains China’s mayors. High-level exchanges are frequent and narratives about Singaporeans who mattered to China are plenty13.

1. Sun Yat-Sen’s base of operations during the remains well-maintained today, a visual marker that ensures the story of Singapore’s role in the Chinese revolution remains clear.

2. Singapore is a recent recipient of panda diplomacy, that usually comes with more perks than meets the eye.

3. Confucius Institutes: However, Singapore is just a node in this global network. Also, see Conficius Institutes look beyond language. The report notes the number of Institutes and classrooms globally have risen to more than 1,000 over the past nine years.

AFFIRMATIVE #2 Money talks

Economic cooperation is robust and Singapore’s been there from the start. It was given entry into China’s markets before official ties in 1990. Trade between the two has since edged toward S$100 billion in 2010. In that year, China was the second-largest source of tourist arrivals and Singapore’s biggest investment destination. Singaporeans have been actively taking steps to establish themselves in China, imprinting a Singaporean flavour and presence into the Chinese landscape. There were more than 18,000 Singapore projects in China amounting to US$47 billion. Singapore-style condos and food courts dot the Chinese urban sprawl. If Chinese projections are correct, its middle class could one day number up to 700 million. With the amount of building and development yet to be done what we have is a huge market a size the world has never seen, for Singapore entrepreneurs to tap in to. China is Singapore’s third largest trading partner after Malaysia and the EU (See Figure 2).


AFFIRMATIVE #3 Lessons from a one-party state retaining legitimacy while regulating online public opinion

Lessons on the digital revolution: China’s number of internet users stood at 591 million halfway through 2013. For a country often taunted as monolithic and homogenous, that number was a milestone. A little less than a decade ago in 2005, the number was 111 million. Relative to its population however, China’s attempts to bridge the digital divide continues to need work.

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According to a study published in the Washington Post that looked at internet penetration rates from 2002 to 2012,  the US grew from 50 to 81%. China was in a wholly different league. It started at 5% and grew to 42% in the same period. In 2012, Singapore’s internet connectivity was reported to be at about 99%.  Despite the democratising potential of the medium, China took its chance. They saw that Singapore, a familiar country with somewhat similar characteristics had fine tuned the floodgates of the internet, gave some room for alternative voices to emerge online, while maintaining one-party political legitimacy.

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To conclude, these arguments for and against are just the tip of the iceberg. Comments and thoughts to widen the discourse are most appreciated.

1Source – ‘China is to be studied, not feared’ published in the Straits Times July 17, 2010. An Insight interview by Rachel Chang with then foreign minister George Yeo
2Singapore’s first prime minister is in little doubt the Chinese leadership feel compelled to compete for the No. 1 spot in Asia. From the book Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World published by Belfer Center Studies in International Security, 2013
3Edward Lee (August 29, 2013) US versus China: Which matters more to Asia and Singapore? Singapore: Straits Times.
4See  Lee Kuan Yew presented with a Business China Lifetime Achievement Award in celebration of his upcoming 90th birthday on September 16 @ Also in a Global Times piece in 2009, Lee was named as one of sixty foreigners who helped shaped 60 years of the People’s Republic.
5See Vogel, E. (2011) Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. Cambridge: Bellknap Press
6See Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World published by Belfer Center Studies in International Security, 2013
7John Wong (September 18, 2013) Leader who struck a chord with China. Singapore: Straits Times.
8Ching Cheong (2013) ‘My 1,000 days Ordeal’ A Patriot’s Torture, Singapore: Straits Times Press
9For more on Sun Xu who referred to Singapore as a place where there were more dogs than humans on his microblog, go to
10View video of the Ma Chi crash here–coroner.html
11This was reported as ‘Singapore’s ‘anti-Chinese curry war’ in the Telegraph on August 16, 2011 This article had more than 5,000 Facebook likes and 190 retweets.
12See The Strike that rattled Singapore: a WSJ investigation‘What happened over two days in late November 2012 rattled the foundations of Singapore’s economic success – its business-friendly governance and industrial harmony – and prompted a robust response from the government
13See Andrea Ong (July 3, 2013) on Lee Khoon Choy’s book Golden Dragon and Purple Phoenix. The former diplomat made an important remark – that ‘Books on overseas Chinese tend to focus on the Chinese schools and associations the immigrants form rather than the deeper blood ties that have evolved’ Singapore, featured in about 10% of the 584-page tome.