Chua Mui Hoong
http://www.straitstimes.com/opin ... ut-spore-china-ties
Singapore's policy on China hasn't changed, but China's expectation of Singapore has
Much chatter online and off has taken place on why Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did not attend the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in Beijing last weekend.
The event organised by China had heads of state and government from 29 countries attending, including seven out of 10 from Asean. Singapore was represented by National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.
Two schools of thought prevailed: China snubbed Singapore. No, it was Singapore that didn't want to take part.
Mr Wong clarified the issue when asked about this. He told reporters on May 16, a day after the event, that the invitation was decided by the Chinese - which meant PM Lee wasn't invited.
The snub was on the Chinese side, not Singapore's. I'm glad Mr Wong set the record straight. Nature - and gossip - abhors a vacuum, so when there is scant information on a noteworthy event, citizens are wont to rush in with speculation that heats things up but sheds little light. Worse, a climate of opacity surrounding foreign policy issues allows others to manipulate perceptions.
Former permanent secretary of foreign affairs Bilahari Kausikan, who has a wide Facebook following these days, thanks to his candid, often caustic posts, warned against Singaporeans falling for "psy ops" or psychological operations of foreign powers.
Even as some Singaporeans worked themselves into a lather that Singapore wasn't at the coming-out ball of the richest debutante, PM Lee was meeting a senior Chinese Politburo leader in Singapore. That meeting yielded positive statements on Singapore-China ties.
Sharing a Facebook post on the meeting, Mr Kausikan commented: "The moral of the story is remain calm. Psy ops succeed only when one is not calm."
If the veteran diplomat - who read foreign policy tea leaves for a living for decades - is right, what are some psy ops going on right now that Singaporeans need to be aware of?
I'm not a foreign policy guru, but when I put on my hat as a journalist, I can discern three myths floating out there that merit being plucked from the ocean of misinformation and tossed into the incinerator.
MYTH 1: SINGAPORE HAS CHANGED ITS STANCE ON CHINA AND NOW ALIGNS ITSELF MORE OVERTLY WITH THE UNITED STATES
THE CASE: Singapore sided with Western powers when it spoke out on the recent tribunal ruling on the South China Sea that ruled against China's "historic rights" claims over vast swathes of the sea. American ships patrolling the region call at Changi Naval Base, demonstrating Singapore's pro-US stance. Singapore is ramping up defence and security cooperation with America and Australia, among others.
THE REALITY: Freedom of navigation matters a lot to Singapore and it wants to see maritime disputes resolved according to international law. As a small, open nation, it also has a vested interest in upholding and speaking up for the rule of international law in disputes. Singapore leaders routinely drive home such home truths to its domestic audience and at regional events. It wasn't taking sides; but it can't help it if speaking the truth offends the losing party in the dispute.
As for being pro- or anti-China, Singapore leaders point out that ties between the two countries go back decades. Singapore stood by China and continued investing after Tiananmen, when China was an international pariah. Recently, Singapore was an early and enthusiastic adopter of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Singapore is China's top foreign investor, and China is Singapore's largest trading partner.
On the security front, Singapore, as a small city-state, wants to be friends with all big powers.
Its Changi base, for example, is open to other navies, not just America's. When Mr Lee Kuan Yew was interviewed for the book One Man's View Of The World a few years ago, he made the point that one day, Singapore would be prepared to host the Chinese navy there too. That was his stand.
It is not common knowledge, but today, China also makes use of the Changi base, sending its navy ships there for refuelling. Singapore also conducts bilateral military and navy training exercises with China.
At the same time, as an English-speaking country with a British colonial heritage and an open capitalist economy, Singapore has historical and economic affinity with America. As a city-state and node in Asia, it is inextricably linked to the region, including China.
But the fact of the matter is that Singapore's position is consistent; it has not changed. It is China's perception - and perhaps expectation - of Singapore that has.
MYTH 2: SINGAPORE IS A CHINESE SOCIETY AND SHOULD BE MORE SYMPATHETIC TO CHINA
THE CASE: China has often viewed the Chinese diaspora as part of greater China. Hong Kong and Taiwan, for example, for political and historical reasons, fall within China's ambit. Singapore has a majority Chinese population and should thus understand China, and uphold China's interest.
THE FACTS: The notion that Singapore is a "Chinese society" gets Singaporeans who uphold multiracialism very upset, on behalf of our non-Chinese compatriots. In fact, this myth comes across as quite ludicrous to those born and bred in Singapore.
True-blue Singaporeans are quite colour-blind. We don't just proclaim ourselves a multiracial society; we live it every day. My office, for example, is a hodgepodge of ethnicities. When I'm having lunch with colleagues, I sometimes do a double take: There's a Sikh woman; a Malay-Muslim woman; a Muslim who lives with her Chinese Cantonese mother; a woman of Chinese-Indian heritage; and two or three plain Chinese, including me.
Our instincts are Singaporean, not Chinese; many of us have blood ties and deep friendships in the region, especially in Malaysia; but not many of us have ties back to China any more.
Any Chinese commentator who expects Singapore to give China an easy pass and always take its side on international issues on account of "ethnic" ties has read us Singaporeans totally wrong.
We are small; our protective instinct is for our own country and other underdogs; standing up for ourselves, and never accepting being pushed around, is in our DNA.
MYTH 3: CHINA IS OUT TO PUNISH SINGAPORE, AND SINGAPOREANS SHOULD FEEL WORRIED ABOUT THIS AND PRESSURE THE SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT TO BE MORE ACCOMMODATING OF CHINA
THE CASE: Those who say China is out to punish Singapore point to recent incidents such as the seizing of nine Singapore military vehicles being shipped back from training deployment in Taiwan to Singapore. The consignment was stopped and seized in Hong Kong. There have also been quite a few public verbal spats, such as the exchange between a Global Times editor and Singapore's ambassador to China, and accusations that Singapore intervened to introduce anti-China language in the declarations issued by Asean and other meetings.
This myth is, in my view, the most invidious because it is plausible and it operates in the shadows. It is plausible because the recent series of bilateral incidents has received much attention, amplified in today's social media world.
It operates in the shadows because no Chinese official is going to say publicly that it wants Singaporeans to pressure the Government to change its stand. Instead, there is a lot of whispering going around. Many of us - in the media, business world and in political and government circles - have heard stories of how Chinese officials are leaning on those with business ties in China to get the Singapore Government to go softer on China, as though Singapore were the one playing hardball.
Most of all, this myth is the most dangerous for Singaporeans because it feeds on fear and anxiety.
China is a large country with a lot of resources at its disposal. Its Belt and Road initiative, for example, can open up land routes and an alternative sea route to the Malacca Strait that would, in effect, make Singapore's port status redundant. China's economic diplomacy targeting Singapore's neighbours, including Malaysia, the Philippines and Cambodia, can isolate Singapore - so the narrative goes.
Shadowy myths are best exposed by subjecting them to the light. I put forth aspects of this theory to some people and got quite some reassuring responses.
These are the facts, as I see them.