Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

The China8 interviews: Straits perspectives with Tan Jin San


The China8 interviews: Straits perspectives with Tan Jin San

Wandering China is pleased to release the third of the China8 series of interviews. China8 is where China’s perceived and presenting selves are discussed. This it hopes to achieve by looking closely at both China’s international and domestic coherence of its harmonious ascent. Ultimately, Wandering China hopes these perspectives will be helpful for anyone making sense of the fourth rise of the middle kingdom.

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Wandering China catches up with Tan Jin San, who shares with us his perspectives as a fellow wandering spirit. An ethnic Chinese born in Malaysia but bred and educated in Singapore, he also spent time teaching English in China after graduating from university. His current project is a fish farm in Brunei. WC appreciates his taking some time off to share his perspectives.

Greetings Jin San! How are you? 

Hi Wandering China, I’m fine, thank you.

China8.1: For starters, could you tell us about your experience teaching in China. What motivated you to head there?

Back in 2003 I had just finished my degree and wanted to get out of Singapore because I was bumming around and it was also difficult to get a job at that time. I also wanted to see what China was really like. So I secured a job from one of the many TEFL websites and managed to impress my potential employers in a phone interview. A month later I left for Dalian in Liaoning province.

I went there with the idea of getting closer to my roots, but what I found was a culture that is actually so different from ours, due to a different and total style of political influence (just like us Singaporeans), that I decided my real roots lie in being a Straits Chinese, since my people have been here for so long, and have assimilated and created new meanings in our unique culture.

I also learned that as an overseas Chinese person, I was never truly accepted by the mainland Chinese. I still think the Chinese people are inscrutable. I can’t even claim to know what they’re like after spending two years there. But I also believe there are many common human traits that bind and drive us.

China8.2: From your vantage point from Brunei, how are relations between Brunei and China? Further, what is the sentiment from the locals where you are?

Brunei is a Muslim country, so obviously it has closer ties to the Middle East. As a small country like Singapore, it cultivates friendly relations with China and the US. Oh, and it still keeps very close links with our former colonial masters.

The sentiments of the locals about China people? Not much to talk about, not much to ask. Brunei is an oil economy, so it has the luxury of not opening up too much. The locals do not often come into contact with mainland Chinese people. It’s not in the sphere of conversation topics.

Maybe the locals will see the occasional streetwalker who stops by Brunei on their Borneo tour. But these girls are quickly clamped down. Brunei is a strict Muslim country after all. But this doesn’t mean the locals don’t go across the border to Malaysia for vices.

China8.3: In your mind, does the idea that China might rule the world resonate with you? Do you think there is such an intention?

I think it’s inevitable, although the Chinese economy is slowing down for now.

But I don’t feel much pride. I didn’t eat their rice, nor did I go to their schools or watch their CCTV family-friendly shows while growing up.

But since I speak Mandarin, it’s quite reassuring to know it’s not hard to find a Chinese person, or a Chinese restaurant, anywhere in this world.

China8.4: Using Singapore as a site of analysis, how do you see Singapore’s role in China’s sphere of influence?

Culturally? Minimal. Financially, maybe. There is a lot of Chinese money – clean or dirty – going into Singapore’s banks, property and stocks.

China8.5: Back when Deng Xiaoping first visited Singapore, inspired, his challenge on his return was for his people was learn from, and to do better than Singapore. In the 90s, the idea bilingual Chinese-majority Singapore, with political and financial power firmly in the hands of Chinese Singaporeans made it natural a gateway to China was pervasive. Does this socio-political structure still hold water?

I don’t think so. The mainland Chinese are coming into Singapore and getting comfortable here. Look at withdrawn listings of China companies, also called S-chips, on SGX – they are nothing but a deep void for naïve Singaporean investors to dump money in.

I hate sounding like a member of the ruling party in Singapore, but the mainland Chinese are more cunning, more street-smart and less sheltered than the Singaporean Chinese. The Singaporean Chinese are getting blindsided by them.

Bilingualism? That edge is slipping. You go on Alibaba and make an enquiry for a product, and you’ll receive a speedy email reply with funny-sounding English, never mind if it’s a Saturday or Sundy. But at least their English is workable, which means you can do business with them.

As the years go on, expect to hear more of how the Chinese people will take over financial power in Singapore. And that is just second to political power.

China8.6: , Anti-Chinese sentiment, now argued to be partly a result of contentious immigration policy seems to be emerging in an already compact city state. What are your views on this? Is it indicative of bigger problems, i.e are there any blind spots we should be aware of.

This kind of anti-Chinese sentiment is actually an indictment of the PAP’s (Singapore’s long-standing ruling party) indoctrination and total control. We have been smothered and told what to do since young without questioning, so when we are squeezed for space and see Singapore become less like Singapore, we act out by throwing a tantrum. You used to see lots of it in forums like HardwareZone. But now it’s spilled over into social media where people are making posts with so much vitriol, with their real names.

I think the blind spot is for every Singaporean citizen to muster the courage to take responsibility for change. And by change I mean questioning our ugly behaviour and finding out what went wrong, and taking responsibility for it.

This requires seeing that the PAP’s policies are not really good for its people, and we have allowed them to create these policies because we have been voting for them. We need to have the courage to vote for someone else to lead us, but not before we say this to ourselves: “I’m going to vote for someone else because this ruling party is not doing a good job. If things go badly, I will be responsible for this myself. And I will try to fix it.”

I hope that soon Singaporeans can go beyond this venting stage, move on past our unhealthy relationship with the nanny state, and start taking responsibility for ourselves.

China8.7: How about its behavior on the world stage today?

I don’t have a very comprehensive understanding of China’s diplomatic affairs, but what I personally find very interesting is China’s trade expansion in Africa. I know a Czech guy who is working for a solar company and he is undertaking a project to deliver mining equipment in Zimbabwe. The energy-intensive mining equipment is powered by solar panels, which provide up to a few megawatts of power. That is a lot of solar panels, inverters, charge controllers and batteries.

China’s expansion in Africa is unfettered by the self-righteous stance adopted by the west. You can say all you want about human rights issues and ethics, but at the end of the day, money is money.

China8.8: Any last words or pointers to look out for our readers to better make sense of China?

I’d recommend that you go to China to check it out. Get to know Chinese people and talk to them. If you are Chinese, please, please, do it to get a better understanding of the culture that we share.

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