In the Today paper on 19 May, the same issue was raised in Bilahari Kausikan’s speech as Singapore’s Ambassador at Large at a policy forum in Tokyo. The views expressed, I am not sure if it is Singapore’s official position or a personal view, more likely to be the former. The title of the speech was ‘Multiracial Singapore must resist being characterized as Chinese country – Standing up to – and getting along with – China’.
I am not going to repeat what Bilahari said in the speech, you can read it at tdy.sg/standupchina. What I would like to point out is the choice of words used in the speech to describe Singapore China relations vis a vis Singapore USA relations, a kind of reading between the lines. The expressions or words used would give a good impression of the weightage and thinking behind the officials of the Singapore govt. I stand corrected, but presuming that the speech is official and a representative of the govt’s stand.
Take the first example used by Bilahari in describing Vietnam’s relationship with China in his conversation with a senior Vietnamese official. ‘Every Vietnamese leader, he replied, must be able to stand up to China and get along with China, and if anyone think this cannot be done at the same time, he does not deserve to be a leader… The two Asean members who currently seem to have forgotten this basic lesson of South east Asian history, Cambodia and the Philippines, may well come to regret it.’
Bilahari was referring to Cambodia that is too close to China and the Philippines that is too confrontational to China. What is the right position is to stand up to China and at the same time to get along with China, like Singapore, the ability to punch above its weight, to deal with a big power like China. This is like being able to criticize China for its intent to divide Asean and at the same time happily going to China to seek economic cooperation. A win win formula.
Bilahari posed the question whether China is a friend and what does that mean. He added, ‘Chinese friendship can sometimes be as overwhelming as Chinese enmity. The United States is certainly a friend. But it can be a very intrusive friend, too often unable to resist the temptation to whip the heathen along the path of righteousness.’ The key words here are that the Americans are friends, and Americans are righteous. As for China, it is a big question mark. American righteousness? Hmmmm, I smell bananas.
He also commented, ‘It was never very realistic to expect China to passively be a “responsible stakeholder” in an order it had little say in establishing. This phrase is the favourite used by the Americans to tag on China despite the evil and wicked wars the irresponsible Americans have been conducting everywhere and none by China.
Ok, let me move on. Bilahari harped on the point that China ‘constantly refers to Singapore as a “Chinese country” who should therefore “understand” China better and hints at undefined but vast rewards if we should “explain” China to other Asean countries. It is good to note that all countries, particularly the Americans too have been doing the same, ie, expecting other countries to “explain” American’s position. Is there anything unusual by singling out China other than the “Chinese country” part?
He went on to say Singapore politely and firmly told the Chinese we are not a Chinese country and we would not ‘obey’ what the Chinese meant as explain and understanding. And here is the key to his thinking, ‘If we were ever foolish enough to accept their characterization and do their bidding, the multiracial meritocratic compact on which independent Singapore rests would be at least severely strained if not broken.’ Read this last sentence very carefully as it reveals a lot of the thinkings of the ‘We’ Bilahari is referring to.
His other choice words to describe Singapore China relations are ‘Chinese seductions’. You make your own conclusion on the use of these words and phrases to describe Singapore China relations as against Singapore US and Japan relations with words like ‘our partners’.
In his concluding paragraph Bilahari disclosed that the Americans and Europeans too made attempts to influence the internal dynamics of Singapore. The most important difference is that the Americans and Europeans and Japanese are friends, partners. In the case of China, the word ‘friend’ is a big ‘what’?
The fact that the whole speech is now deemed fit to be published in the main media says a lot. In the previous case that led to China protesting about the ‘dividing Asean countries’, to reprint the whole article again, is like making an official statement, that Singapore would stand up to China, we are not a ‘Chinese country’ but we also want to have good relations with China and be able to say what we want to say.
When would China cut off Singapore’s participation in the OBOR and other projects in China to tell Singapore that Singapore can go stand up to China for as much as it wants and to punch above its weight?