Wandering China is pleased to release the fourth 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 depending on how you see it, the fourth rise of the middle kingdom, or sixty odd years of consciousness of a new nation-state with a coherent identity emergent from a long drawn period of ideological strife. Note – this is an expanded interview (the norm is/was eight questions).
Wandering China catches up with Dr Danny Tan, a vocal contributor to Singapore’s fourth estate forums both in traditional broadsheets and new media. He is also a scholar on Southeast Asian studies. In general, he is interested in cultural flux and how each culture adapts to these changes.
On Singapore //
1.1 On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you see the role of Singapore’s public 2.0 (digital democratic discourse communities consisting of blogosphere, government 2.0, social networking communities, forums, et al) in shaping public policy today? If we compare this to five years ago, and project five years ahead, what would this number look like?
I lived through the ‘pre-internet’ age where public opinion was very much to be reserved for hush-hush conversations in coffee shops. The current open-ness in the discourse on governance and everything-under-the-sun is definitely a plus-point in this new cyber reality. Everyone now – who has an internet connection – can have a ready platform to voice his/her opinion, for better or worse. For now, I rate the role of the Singapore public 6.5 /10 in shaping public opinion. 5 years ago, it was probably 5/10. 5 years from now, it should be about 7/10?
1.2 What do you think is the primary causal factor behind this change?
2 elections ago, the ruling party was already aware of the power of the internet in the shaping of local politics. But I think it was the 2008 election results in Malaysia – where the Opposition won an unprecedented number of seats – that gave an impetus to both the authorities and public in Singapore a wake up call (that the internet isnow truly a force to be reckoned with in politics).
1.3 Are you optimistic or negative about this development?
Very positive! No longer do we voice our opinions in hushed tones to only a few friends and family members. Now, everyone can say what they want; and not only do they have a ready audience of 100s or even 1000s, strangers also add on to the discussion, making a virtual conversation possible where before such exchanges were only confined to a tight circle.
1.4 Who do you think are most influential in Singapore’s public sphere 2.0? Are there are rising actors we should be looking out for?
I think there are 2 groups that are active/influential. First, there are the ‘known’ commentators, who through their websites, blogs, online forums they speak their minds. But for everyone who is ‘known’, there are dozens who remain ‘anon’, and it is this 2nd group that is just as influential. While the ‘known’ group is largely careful about their comments/opinions (assuming that it is due to their awareness that they can held to account more easily), the ‘anon’ group may come out with their guns-blazing as they may be emboldened by their cloak of invisibility. The ‘known’ group usually tread carefully with observations and allegations that are backed up with facts and research; the ‘anon’ group may also come up with wild speculations and unsubstantiated claims that may spur others to dig deeper and think
– – –
On Singapore and China //
2.1 How do you see Singapore’s role in China’s sphere of influence? Does it have a role in China’s international image in any way?
In China’s eyes, I think they see that Singapore definitely has a role to play in their sphere of influence. How many countries in the world have these affinities with China?: 1. Chinese-majority population, 2.Chinese president and prime minister, 3. Proficient in Mandarin, 4. Society built upon Confucianist ideals of scholarship, piety, thrift, hardwork, honesty etc. Also, most Asian countries have either historical baggage with China (such as Korea, Japan etc) and/or current territorial disputes. Singapore, on the other hand, have none of these outstanding issues with China.
2.2 Does the idea that China might rule the world resonate with you? Do you think there is such an intention?
Going back to cultural flux, different cultures have exerted different levels of influence on global culture. European dominance is now not as significant as it was 2-300 years ago. American influence is also going through such a phase. Perhaps it will soon be China’s turn – but not forgetting that India is also on the upswing – to exert itself more significantly on the global stage. Does China WANT to be THE global power? I do not think they will ever admit to such an ambition, but I would be surprised if they do not secretly wish for this at all.
2.3 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?
Deng’s affinity with Singapore, in my view, was tempered with his close relationship with Lee Kuan Yew. With Deng’s demise, and Lee’s old age, I suppose this special China-Singapore bridge will never be as strong. However, I think the Singapore ‘brand name’ – as a solid city-state with the right fundamentals and hardworking (mandarin-speaking) population – is already well-established in China and will continue to have some currency there, especially in setting-up and running industrial zones, training of China civil servants etc.
2.4 Anti-Chinese sentiment seems to be on the rise in Singapore. What are your thoughts on this?
You squeeze 6m people on an island 600square-km, and the locals will of course be unhappy with the newcomers, may they be Chinese or Indian or others. So in Singapore, it is not so much that we are witnessing ‘anti-Chinese’ sentiments, but ‘anti-new-migrants’ sentiments. Funny story this: there are written accounts of the Perankans in Singapore 100 years ago complaining about the new uneducated, uncouth Chinese migrants who had come to settle here. So this ‘us-versus-them’ mentality is not new. Today, we have sadly forgotten about our recent migrant past. Where would most Singaporeans be if our forefathers were turned away from Singapore by the more established groups who have already settled here?
2.5 Some argue this 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?
Some of these newcomers fill jobs that no one wants to do in Singapore. We, like many countries, are addicted to cheap labour because we feel that certain jobs are beneath us. To a large extent, this is a common ‘developed’ country’s predicament. But we also have a group of Singaporeans caught up in this cycle: they are not skilled enough to get a good paying job to sustain a comfortable life here, but yet they shun the low paying jobs as the salaries don’t quite pay all their bills. No one has talked about this group of ‘working poor’ in Singapore; they work hard, but they cannot make ends meet.
2.6 How would you describe China’s behavior on the world stage today?
They know what they want, and they know they have the clout to make it happen. They have a new found confidence that, surprisingly, has always been there all along; don’t forget that China has always seen itself as the centre of the civilised world, as the middle kingdom.
2.7 Can you describe some of the key sources of information that inform your views and opinions on China? To what extent does first hand experience play a role?
I must say that my views on China are shaped by very Euro-American-centric sources like BBC and Economist. So I may be part of the masses that some Chinese assert are ill-informed about their country. I have also limited firsthand exposure to China, and this may also cloud my views on the country. But being trained in anthropology, I feel that sometimes the ‘etic’ view of country is just as important as the ’emic’ one.
2.8 Have you visited, or intend to visit China? If so, for what reasons?
Yes, I have been to Shanghai twice (spending a total of 14 days in China!). My 1st trip was to the World Expo in 2010. I went there again in Sept 2012 to see some friends. Hopefully, some things already in the pipeline will bring me back to China more often in the near future.
2.9 Do you think the Singaporean public discourse on public sphere 2.0 will impact Singapore’s bilateral ties with China, if not in the future?
So far, Singaporeans have mainly commented on local issues in cyberspace. Yes, there were Singaporeans commenting on issues of China-nationals in Singapore (such as Sun Xu from NUS and Ma Chi the Ferrari driver), but I feel that these do not affect bilateral ties at all. I do not think that Singaporeans will in the near future use the internet to discuss issues that will affect Singapore-China relations; Singaporeans are more concerned about their rice bowl in their own backyard.
2.10 Are you positive or negative about China’s rise as a global economic and regional strategic leader?
Positive. I have to be. As an insignificant individual on a global stage where China’s role is ever-growing, I have to be positive because the other option is too fatalistic. But like every thing that is new, China, and the rest of the world, must appreciate that mistakes will be made along the way.