Singapore in the eyes of Young Chinese

I asked the young people in our International Department to conduct a survey among their circles of friends on their impression of Singapore. Although this is not a large scale opinion poll, it does, to a certain extent, reflect how some young Chinese view Singapore.

We had about 50 participants aged between 20 and 35 from Beijing and Guangzhou. Among whom were civil servants, office workers, journalists and university students, many have been to Singapore. Here I shall share with you their views as candidly as the way they have expressed them.

When asked about their overall impression of Singapore, these key phrases surfaced in the answers:

The land is small, but the geographical location is strategic;

A good environment with good city infrastructure, social order and security, ideal for travel. While living in the country is convenient, it is also dull and boring;

Many ethnic Chinese, however, their feelings towards China are complex and mixed with awkwardness and contradiction;

As regards the Singapore political system, their responses were:

Unique with tones of authoritative governance;

A corrupt-free system sustained by high salaries, many policies have been orginal and effective;

Pertaining to the Singapore economy:

A developed country with a port of geographical advantage, yet its economy does not solely depend on the port. Although lacking in natural resources, it is highly advanced in technology and is capable of turning weaknesses into strengths.

The economy has been growing consistently with a small population, high wages and a per capita GDP that is higher than Hong Kong.

As for the Singapore education system:

With good universities and an advanced education system, Singapore is a place where cultures of the east and west meet.

The great amount of effort put in to promote a bilingual education system has been visionary. The environment is also ideal for English learning.

On Singaporeans:

Hard-working, pragmatic and non-romantic, like the industrious A-student who is highly self-disciplined but lacks creativity;

High level of crisis-consiciousness, eager to advance oneself;

There is racial harmony among different races, although people are apathetic;

Young Singaporeans have a sense of superiority and are a "bunch of bananas" .

As regards Singapore’s foreign policy and Singapore-China ties, here are their views:

Despite its size, Singapore has the ambition to be ASEAN’s brain and leader, to play the role of an influential middleman in international relations and international business, although this is prone to overstepping the boundaries. It is adept in maintaining a balance among the major powers and ASEAN countries, and will not shy away from making the moves and speaking up for its benefits.

Singapore’s foreign policy is pro-west, or even “anti-Chinese”, with a sense of animosity following the rise of China. They feel that Singapore-China relations have, in reality, fallen behind ASEAN-China relations. They noted that Singapore’s leaders were absent from this May’s Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing, although its business community welcomes the Belt and Road initiative.

The unique influence which Singapore used to exert during China’s economic reform days is unlikely to continue. The relationship between Singapore and China is evolving towards one that is between China and a “developed ASEAN country”, in other words, like “a normal inter-state relationship”. They also feel that Singapore‘s influence in the region is decreasing.

I must admit I am shocked by how insightful and pointed these young Chinese view Singapore and the Singapore-China ties. They saw both the strengths and weaknesses of Singapore, its ambitions and its dilemna. They saw the uniqueness of Singapore-China ties that is also becoming “normalised”.

Young Chinese in their 20s and 30s are a brand new generation who grew up in an era which saw the boom of China and its national power. They are upbeat about the country and its future. Many of them are hard-working, well-travelled and have their very own insights of the relationships between China and the world. Biased they may seem, but these views are not to be overlooked, because the future is in the hands of this generation.


Singapore and China are very different

Due to my long-time job as an international news reporter, I got acquainted with Zaobao’s correspondent in Beijing, who has become a great friend. I toured Singapore some years back with a favourable impression of the country. This experience gives me a more intuitive feeling of how it is not easy to maintain harmony in a society that is multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious.

To the ethnic Chinese who make up the majority of Singapore population, I, like many Chinese, feel a sense of affinity. However, my experience in international journalism would remind me that Singapore is indeed a country very different from China. The Singaporean mindset is distinctive from ours, and the Singaporean experience is definitely worth our high regard. While many would say that running a small country cannot be compared to running a big country, it is no mean feat running a small nation well. What Singapore has achieved today in terms of economic development and international status is deserving of respect.

A Chinese academician has called Singapore an eastern democratic state. The intelligence that Mr Lee Kuan Yew built for this country and his influence towards China’s economic reforms have been highly respected by many in China. After his departure, Singapore-China ties encountered challenges in recent years. Some say it is no longer special, while others feel the Singapore experience is no longer important to the China model. Nonetheless, my view is that against a backdrop defined by new times, a new geopolitical environment and the rise of China, Singapore remains a country of exceptional importance to China, and China is to Singapore, one that is worthy of attention and cultivation. Singapore-China ties have reasons to keep going forward steadily.

As a country with a majority ethnic-Chinese population, Singaporean Chinese have special feelings towards China. Singapore is also an important member state of ASEAN. It is thus hard to imagine that China will not want to give up establishing an extraordinary friendly relationship with a country like this, especially when its neighbouring countries are having misgivings over its rise. Historically, Singapore has played and important role when China opened its doors. While Singapore is China’s largest foreign investor, China is also Singapore’s largest trading partner. Singapore continues to have a crucial role in China future integration. The great man has left and the geopolitical environment has evolved, time and tide are changing with the rise of China. But every generation of people will have their share of opportunities of the era. Importantly, it is up to you to seize them. As China rises to become a world’s major power, would there not be opportunities coming along? More than evern, it urgently need sincere suggestions from its friends.


Singapore To Aggressively Promote Singapore-China Exchange

In my opinion, Singapore has a few issues that it needs to sort out. One of them is how to uphold the "Balance of Powers Strategy"? A small state can influence with diplomacy in a prominent way, as Singapore did in the past. A small state should also be steadfast in upholding its principles, and there is nothing wrong in Singapore, as a small Southeast Asian country, looking to balance the influences of major powers in the region for its benefit and the region’s benefit. The key here is “balance”, which if wrongly tilted, will bring harm upon itself. The growth of China in the past has given Singapore many opportunities, and more of these will be made available to Singapore in the future as China rises, opportunities which Singapore must seize.

The second question is about how to strengthen communication and understanding between Singapore and China. Many researchers have described Singapore’s attitude towards China as lukewarm, while some young Chinese have described Singaporean Chinese as “awkward and contradictory”. I understand the complex Singaporean mentality, though I feel some changes are needed. On the one hand, Singapore can engage in more publicity campaigns in China so that more Chinese will learn to appreciate Singapore as a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society, and not an “ethnic Chinese society”. On the one other, Singapore should do more to promote cultural exchange between the two countries, for better understanding, less misunderstanding and enhanced co-operation. Media from both sides have an important part to play as well. Take for example Zaobao, which has all along had a special presence among China’s intellectual community. Zaobao is one of the most influential Chinese-language newspapers outside China, which provides familiar yet refreshing perspectives to China affairs through its reports and commentaries that are well followed by Chinese readers. I hope Zaobao can do more in promoting Singapore-China cultural exchange, and especially intellectual exchange.

Last but not least, I would like to emphasise that as China develops, it is also becoming more complex. While a society’s poor are often similar, the society’s rising affluence has also given rise to more and more interest groups, spokespersons and all sorts of ideas and thoughts. Comprehending China is becoming increasingly difficult. I look forward to more portrayal of such complexities when Singapore media report on China, so that your readers will have a more accurate grasp of the big country as it grows.

Wang Tian is a senior editor of the People’s Daily International department. This article is her speech made at the inaugural Zaobao Singapore-China Forum held on 26 July, 2017, Singapore.

First published in Lianhe Zaobao, 29 July, 2017