Singapore’s national interests vis-a-vis China

Our national interest is to see a growing and prosperous China that is at peace with its neighbours and the rest of Asia. But China may not be the benevolent power that it has been claiming to be for the past 10 years.

As expected, Lee Kuan Yew’s recent speech to the US-ASEAN Business Council, where he encouraged the US to engage more with Asia to counter China’s growing might, evoked fierce criticisms by netizens in China of not just the Minister Mentor, but of Singapore as well.

Some belittled our geographical size, while others said that MM Lee had treated the Chinese as outsiders although they had treated Singaporeans as “among their own”.

I previously wrote about MM Lee’s speech and supported his views. Those less in tune with Singapore’s foreign policy may have been under the misimpression that Singapore welcomes China taking the lead in Asia, politically and economically. We don’t.

Our national interest is to see a growing and prosperous China that is at peace with its neighbours and the rest of Asia. But Singaporeans — especially a certain segment of Chinese Singaporeans — need to know that China may not be the benevolent power that it has been claiming to be for the past 10 years. It’s aggressive actions and rhetoric towards Taiwan and any other country that offends its national pride easily debunk that claim.

This is why it is in our interest that the US to continues to station its armed forces in Japan, Korea, Philippines, Australia and, yes, Singapore, and steps up its political and economic engagement of countries in the region, including China.

We have never claimed to be neutral like the Swiss. We want to see a “balance of power” in Asia. What that means to us is that any potentially dangerous hegemon is counter-balanced (overwhelmingly, if necessary) by a more desirable power. The US has proven to be the most benevolent superpower so far — at least to Singapore. Of course, one could argue against this based on their wars of aggression in Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan, but no one really expects the US to attack Singapore that way, simply because we are neither a threat to the them nor an ideological opponent — except perhaps on the finer points of democracy and human rights.

On the Chinese netizens’ point that Singaporeans are seen to be “among their own”, this is an appeal to race and ethnicity, no different from how some Malaysian politicians use race in their futile attempt to turn Malay Singaporeans against their own country. Singapore is not a Chinese country. We are a country that is made up of different races and ethnicities, who all have an equal place under the hot Singapore sun, regardless of their numerical proportions.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

10 thoughts on “Singapore’s national interests vis-a-vis China”

  1. Hi Gerald,

    It is important to highlight (as you had done) that Singapore is not always pro-China. This is a common misconception. Our national interest in always in the area of “balance of power” and of course “economic”.

    China certainly has the right to exercise its power to protect its sovereignty and it is in my view that Taiwan is part of China (but that is a debate for another day). The chinese government struggle is to placate a fiercely nationalistic intellectual class of people who are aware of the humiliation china suffered in the past by then world powers and yet not appearing overtly aggressive to the world.

    I find it sad to know of chinese educated singaporean who are dismayed at MM Lee’s comment and felt that he is betraying his race. While we are chinese by ethnicity and race, we are Singaporean by nationality. Singapore is not a chinese province but an independent nation which people of various race and ethnicity calls home.


  2. Hi Gerald,

    I find your comments about China disturbing. Not so much about their “aggressiveness”, as I agree that China can be aggressive.

    But is the US any better? The US has many vested interests, and rarely in anything it does is pure altruism. If China is a dangerous tiger, then inviting the US here is the same as inviting a second hungry tiger.

    Perhaps the hope is that the two tigers will kill each other in the process, but chances are no. China is too important to the US (economically) and vice versa.

    The US is NOT benevolent either, no matter which leadership it’s under. Even under Obama, the US is still not to be trusted.

    The US in recent years, has caused political havoc in some Asian countries for their own economic interests while making it sound like the world is for their taking (total arrogance). The most recent victim, is ironically, TAIWAN.

    Do we need another hungry tiger in Asia?

    I’d say NO, thank you but NO.

  3. Hi Jezebella,

    Balance of power doesn’t mean that the two powers kill each other. On the contrary, when you have a *balance*, status quo is maintained because no one side is going to dare to shoot the first bullet.

    I don’t think that the US govt does things out of altruism. But it’s strength is that it is a democracy, so its actions are constrained by its people. The 2008 elections were a prime example. China on the other hand is an autocracy, which has the power to brainwash their own people into supporting the govt to do anything they want to do to cling on to power, including attacking another country.

    I’m not asking for US to colonise Asia. Just to maintain a presence here. I don’t think we need to fear that.

  4. Jezebella,

    Better the hegemony you are familiar with (and has prospered us), than one that is opaque, unaccountable and totalitarian.

  5. I don’t think any clear-thinking Singaporean would see the US as Santa Claus. They have to look after their self-interest first, just like we would.

    The crux of the argument is “balance of power”- we need the involvement of a (hopefully gentle) giant in this region in addition to China to provide stability, and keep hegemony in check.

    You can pick your favourite giant but the key is to have more than one of them in a place at any time. BTW, there aren’t that many of them left to go around these days.

  6. Gerald,

    You made important remarks in this post. Time and again the issue of race is stoked up by nationalistic fervour. It takes cool calm heads to see through that. I think race is nothing but a social construct regularly politicised. Regarding the response of nationalistic intellectuals aware of China’s past humiliation, that so reminded me of how Hitler, embittered by the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty stoked up public acceptance of militarism & anti-semitism. I’m not saying or predicting it would happen nor the factors are the same but they are scary parallels on how malevolent powers rise up. Just consider the parallels.

  7. its just political games here, played up by the netizens and what-have-you. the Chinese leadership isnt reading too much into LKY’s words – i believe they know him well and as a man who speaks his mind.

    heck, they even t-loan us 2 cute cuddly pandas to show us its business as usual!

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