Singapore’s role as a neutral interpreter of China to the West

Professor Walter Woon says that Singapore’s close relationship with both the West and China gives it a unique advantage as a more neutral interpreter of China for the Western world. The country is also well-placed to help reduce tensions between the US and China.
People taking photos at the Jubilee Bridge overlooking the CBD/Raffles Place financial district on 1 March 2023. (SPH Media)
People taking photos at the Jubilee Bridge overlooking the CBD/Raffles Place financial district on 1 March 2023. (SPH Media)

On 15 February 1898, the battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor. At the time, Cuba was part of the Spanish empire and tensions between Spain and the US had been brewing for some time, principally over Cuba’s struggle for independence. There was no evidence that Spain was responsible for the destruction of the USS Maine; however, lack of evidence did not inhibit American newspapers in their competition for eyeballs. Sensationalised and biased reporting by the New York Journal and the New York World stoked the flames of wild nationalism, giving rise to the popular slogan “Remember the Maine”.

War followed. The US took Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam from Spain. The aftermath of the Maine incident is a cautionary tale of how biased and sensationalist reportage can lead to a breakdown in bilateral relations between states.

Singapore’s close relationship with both the West and China gives it a unique advantage as a more neutral interpreter of China for the Western world.

An interpreter of China for the Western world

Western reportage of China has long suffered from an inherent bias against China. The Chinese government is perceived as an authoritarian, communist regime. These biases came to the fore in the accusations of “genocide” in Xinjiang, allegations of China’s unfair trade practices that necessitated US trade tariffs, and most egregiously, the baseless theory that Covid-19 originated from a “lab leak” in Wuhan. If the growing West-China division is to be bridged, the Western world needs a more nuanced interpretation of China.

People attend a Christmas market in the Huangpu district in Shanghai on 6 December 2023. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
People attend a Christmas market in the Huangpu district in Shanghai on 6 December 2023. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

Singapore’s close relationship with both the West and China gives it a unique advantage as a more neutral interpreter of China for the Western world.

Singapore’s relationship with China is complex. The ancestors of most of Singapore’s population originated from China, principally the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. These Chinese Singaporeans have a long history of aiding China against foreign aggression. Singapore-born philanthropist Cheang Hong Lim donated significant sums to the defence of Fuzhou against the French at the height of Western imperialism in the 19th century. After the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Tan Kah Kee chaired the China Relief Fund, which raised money to defend China against the Japanese. During World War II, resistance hero Lim Bo Seng parachuted into occupied Malaya as part of Force 136. He was caught and executed; the Nationalist government of China posthumously awarded him the rank of major general. Xian Xinghai composed “Defend the Yellow River” at the height of the Sino-Japanese War. He was educated at Yeung Ching School (now Yangzheng Primary School) in Singapore. The song is still taught to schoolchildren in China and was played by Lang Lang at the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

A quest for balance

However, this history does not mean Singapore instinctively aligns with China. Indeed, China supported communist insurrections in Singapore and Malaya from the 1950s up to the 1970s. As a result, groups perceived to be supported by the Chinese Communist Party were viewed with suspicion and hostility by the People’s Action Party (PAP)-led Singapore government. During this period, and especially after Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1963, Singapore relied on the West, particularly Britain and the US, for its military security and economic growth. Relations between Singapore and China eventually normalised when China opened up in the late 1970s and stopped supporting communist movements in the region.

Singapore’s perspective of China is primarily informed by its need to balance its relationship with both China and the West. As a result, Singapore’s reportage of China does not suffer from the biases of seeing China as a competitor or an ally.

Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore’s largest Chinese language newspaper, has Chinese-speaking correspondents based in different parts of China as well as in Taipei and Hong Kong. By featuring commentaries in both Chinese and English from various parts of China — but also from Hong Kong and Taiwan — Zaobao provides a diversity of perspectives on China. Zaobao’s reporting has been criticised by both the West and China — a testament to its relative neutrality. In July 2023, the Washington Post ran a story accusing Zaobao of echoing Chinese propaganda. Chinese media commentators, on the other hand, have accused Zaobao of “learning from American teachers and teaching China how to do things”. Likewise, Singapore’s public intellectuals do not necessarily hew to the received (Western) interpretation of the Chinese threat prevalent in the US and its allies.

China's President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou (left) at Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, on 7 November 2015. (SPH Media)
China's President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou (left) at Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, on 7 November 2015. (SPH Media)

Notwithstanding Singapore’s growing relations with China, Singapore continues to retain close, albeit unofficial, relations with Taiwan. Singapore could therefore play a constructive role in managing relations across the Taiwan Strait. If there is to be rapprochement between China and Taiwan, Singapore is an ideal place to start the negotiations.

Singaporeans should not be afraid to speak out in order to counter dangerous ignorance and rising anti-Asian prejudice in Western societies.

A useful role to play

Singapore already acts as a neutral venue for meetings of officials and politicians on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. A notable instance was the meeting between then-Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 7, 2015. Singapore can serve as a neutral venue for meetings and negotiations among officials from China, Taiwan, and the US. The polemical rhetoric that accompanies any discussion on Taiwan in the US, as seen during then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ill-conceived visit to Taipei, would be absent in Singapore.

The dangers of passive neutrality by small powers during great power competition are exemplified by the fate of Melos during the Peloponnesian War. Melos’ refusal to give up its neutrality in favour of Athens led to a general massacre of its population, following a siege by the Athenian army. There is no real danger of Singapore suffering the fate of Melos. One hopes that saner politicians and military men on all sides will not push matters over the brink. However, small states that are caught in the crosshairs of great power competition continue to remain vulnerable to trade embargos, cyber attacks, and threats from non-state actors.

Singapore wants good relations with both China and the US. Singapore can quietly offer private and confidential advice to both sides to enhance mutual understanding between these two powers, without public grandstanding. At the same time, Singaporeans should not be afraid to speak out in order to counter dangerous ignorance and rising anti-Asian prejudice in Western societies.

A neutral, nuanced voice, like that of Singapore, could help to reduce tensions between the US and China. In law there is a wise maxim: audi alterem partem, hear the other side. In the great echoing caverns of the Western media and public intellectual space, such a nuanced voice is vital. Singapore is well-placed to provide that neutral voice, privately and publicly.

This article was first published on the website of the Asian Peace Programme housed under the Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore, on 4 December 2023. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the ARI.

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