The story of the Chinese in Singapore is a surprising one, almost from the very beginning. I don’t want to go into the long history of it all as there has been much work done on the subject. For instance, A General History of the Chinese in Singapore《新加坡华人通史》edited by Ke Mulin (柯木林 Kua Bak Lim) is very comprehensive, and so is the English version co-edited by Kua and Professor Kwa Chong Guan, which has a somewhat different emphasis.
As they said themselves, they have not covered everything, but they have done their best to communicate the key issues arising from the history of Chinese settlement in Singapore. But if you read either of the two volumes, you’ll see that the really interesting subject is Singapore itself.
What is Singapore?
Singapore is an extraordinary story.
It is a strange thing that Singapore was at one time of sufficient importance to be the centre of a little kingdom in the region, and yet at other times, it was of no importance whatsoever. People would bypass it, or make use of it for very small matters, but never took it very seriously until very recent times. And in all those phases, the Chinese were involved in some way or the other.
As the two volumes point out, the very first reference to Singapore as a meaningful place was in the Chinese sources, notably Wang Dayuan (汪大渊)’s Dao Yi Zhi Lue (《岛夷志略》) that first talks about Temasek. And from there, historians and archaeologists did a remarkable job of filling in the gaps, telling us what happened after that, when the place was of some importance, and then just vanished, almost without trace.
Singapore is mentioned here and there, by odd sources. It was mentioned in Sejarah Melayu, one of the Malay sources, but it was also mentioned by the Portuguese and later by the Dutch, but never as a significant place for centuries. It was important enough for little things to happen, but not important enough to be really a centre of anything.
And yet, within a few decades, this place which was almost unknown and hardly recorded anywhere, suddenly became important. The reasons for this, people have been trying to explain for a long time, but to me, not enough emphasis has been placed on the fact that it had something to do with China and the Chinese.
Dutch route to China: Jakarta and the Sunda Strait
First of all, let me say that what was then Singapore was not important to the Dutch who were very active in this area, because they had taken Malacca from the Portuguese. And having gotten Malacca, and having their own base in Jakarta, following their control of Banten, they had what to them was most important.
The reason was very simple. The journey from Europe to this part of the world, whether for spices or for the manufactured goods of China, was made by coming around the Cape of Good Hope and crossing the Indian Ocean. And the easiest way to get to this part of the world was through the Sunda Strait.
From there, you could go to Java or Southern Sumatra as a base through the Sunda Strait, and then into the South China Sea, to China and Japan. So all that time when the Dutch were involved, that was the normal way.
The most important thing second to the spices was getting to China.
Portuguese route to China: Goa and the Malacca Strait
And before them, why did the Portuguese want Malacca? For the Portuguese, they didn’t look at it that way. The Portuguese went straight up the Indian Ocean to India. They concentrated on dealing with the Muslim traders in the Persian Gulf and the coast of India, and the Red Sea. That was where their major interests were.
So they ended up in Southern India in Cochin and Calicut, and finally set up their base in Goa. To them, that was more important. And because their base was over there, the Strait of Malacca became very important.
The Portuguese rightly understood that the Malacca empire had a very good reason to be there and that was why they headed to Malacca. Of course, they were interested in spices and sought to get spices from other places in the world. The most important thing second to the spices was getting to China.
And very quickly they were in China. Within a few years of their taking Malacca from the Malays, they were exploring the coasts of China and causing difficulties to the Chinese officials in Guangdong and Fujian. Eventually, the Chinese learnt to accept them, found them useful, allowed them to use the port of Macau as the base for their activities and even invited the Portuguese to handle all the trade from this part of the world. That way, they gave the Chinese no further trouble. And all the other Europeans and others as well had to deal with China via Macau, through the Portuguese. Quite extraordinary.
As you can see, that result had something to do with the fact that they had come round the Cape of Good Hope and went straight north to the Persian Gulf and the west coast of India.
Whereas with the Dutch, when they found that the Portuguese were dominating that area, they went straight for the Spice Islands. They travelled across the Indian Ocean to the Sunda Strait and from Banten and Jakarta eastwards to the Moluccas.
Thus, the Portuguese had the Malacca route via the Indian Ocean to the north, and the Dutch used the southern route. They were both happy and settled in their chosen way. But what made the difference to Singapore was the British.
British route to China: Sunda Strait to Guangdong and Fujian
The British were the latecomers. By the time they came, the Portuguese had settled one set of routes, the Dutch had the other set. But the British were interested in two trading centres: on the one hand, they were interested in Indian goods because India was a very rich country at that time — certainly at that time as rich as China was; on the other, they discovered a tremendous market in tea.
Unlike the spices which the Dutch and the Portuguese were obsessed with, the British set their eyes on the tea trade. And for that, they looked for routes to China. There were two ways of doing this. They could combine the wealth of India with seeking tea resources in China. That way, they went up the Indian Ocean and did what the Portuguese did.
The other way was to get to China across the Indian Ocean via the Sunda Strait. They didn’t need Malacca and could go through the Sunda Strait, straight across the South China Sea to Macau and the merchants of Guangzhou with whom they built up a regular tea trade. They did that with the Hokkiens and the Cantonese.
The way the Chinese moved around reflected the trading interests of these European empires that had been building up at that time.
So you can see the activities of the Europeans laid down the patterns of how the Chinese responded. The way the Chinese moved around reflected the trading interests of these European empires that had been building up at that time. It is a significant clue to how the Chinese activated their own set of networks in the region, and how they set up their own bases in the region. And it is in that context that we look at what happened in Europe.
Asian private flows of trade
I think we have to look to Europe because, in contrast with Asian patterns of trade, theirs followed a different set of principles. The latter were extremely small-scale. Their activities did not involve major invasions, naval confrontations and battles, and so on, but concentrated on varieties of trading goods and networks which, for the Chinese anyway, were entirely private. There were no state-backed activities of any kind.
With both the Islamic and the Christian traders, they were always backed by members of the ruling elites. In the case of the Spanish and the Portuguese, they were backed by the king and the royal families. In the case of the East India Companies of the British and the Dutch, they were organised by private firms in London and Amsterdam, but also backed by the nobility of those countries who invested in the East India Companies. There was always some official backing and therefore the naval forces of those states could give assistance whenever necessary.
But the traditional trade in this region was almost entirely private, particularly for the Indians and the Chinese. For the Chinese, the opposite was true: the imperial court actually discouraged private trade.
... the Chinese were not at all backed by the government in any way...
As you know, the Chinese developed the tributary trade, which made sure that foreign merchants trading with China had to go through the bureaucracy — to the extent they were allowed to trade, they had to do so through a form of tribute. And the gifts and tributes on both sides were the basis on which this trade was founded.
It was, of course, never possible to have everything controlled by the state. Private entrepreneurs managed to flout some of the rules and there was still some private trade going on. But the private trade involved the Chinese setting the rules and giving it to the Macau people and the Portuguese to manage. Thus, while the “foreign barbarians” were coming to the coast of China, there was on the China side deterrence for Chinese private traders, one that hindered economic advancement. This type of bureaucratic trade was only relaxed towards the end of the 16th century.
So during all that time when the Europeans were expanding, the Chinese were not at all backed by the government in any way, and a few private entrepreneurial types in Fujian continued to operate and were very active in the Philippines nearest to Fujian.
And it was in the Philippines, with Spanish interest in the China trade, that they could avoid Macau. They were directly dealing with Manila and developed a very good trade across the Pacific to Mexico and to Europe, quite separate from the others. So you see a set of very complicated relations was developing there.
European politics affecting the region
This was the background to how surprising it was that Singapore emerged at all from all that. Why did they need Singapore?
I can’t help laughing when I suggest that we give credit, if you can call it that, to Napoleon. That had to do with European history, nothing to do with this part of the world at all, the fact that Napoleon began to build an empire in Europe and threatened the Netherlands.
The Dutch East India Company was at that time in bad shape, almost bankrupt, so the fact that Napoleon was taking the Netherlands alarmed the British. It led the English East India Company to occupy the Dutch East India Company territories to prevent them from falling into the hands of the French under Napoleon.
Thus the British took over Java and sent Raffles there as governor. It was in that context that they formed a new understanding of what the British interests in China were and that it could be dealt with in a different way. In other words, they realised they need not only deal with China from Calcutta through the Strait of Malacca, but could find other ways. And to do that, it depended on how that war ended.
Fortunately for the British, Napoleon was defeated in Europe. The British were on the winning side but recognised that they still needed the Dutch as allies in Europe. This had, again, nothing to do with this part of the world. It was events in Europe that determined what happened here. The fact was that the British wanted the Dutch to be on their side to make sure that the French did not dominate this region. And so there came about the famous Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. That really was what made the difference.
For the Dutch, it was to control this part of the world. For the British, they were looking for a safe way to China. Their tea monopoly, and the opium trade tied to it, were affected.
The fact that the British had several years running Java and understanding the nature of the Nusantara or Malay archipelagic world led them to see what they needed to do. To secure the route to China, they didn’t have to contest the Dutch or control any of their territories — what they needed was to have an agreement with the Dutch to allow safe passage through islands that the Dutch saw as their area of interest, among which was the island of Singapore.
Because the Dutch controlled Malacca, and between Malacca and Jakarta, Singapore was just one of those islands in between. There the Dutch and different groups of Malays — including the Minangkabau, Bugis, and others — had sorted out their problems, with the Dutch dominating over their affairs.
Again, what was their primary interest? For the Dutch, it was to control this part of the world. For the British, they were looking for a safe way to China. Their tea monopoly, and the opium trade tied to it, were affected.
So this is the background of “why Singapore”, which to me, was a surprising story, an interesting story of how Singapore emerged out of all that, and why it was always concentrated on the connection with China.
For at least the first 20 years of Singapore’s history, the China connection was all-important. I think it laid the foundations of how British policies gathered all kinds of Chinese from the neighbourhood — from Malacca, Penang, and Borneo, and the Malay world of Java and Sumatra — to come and use Singapore as an open port, in contrast to the Dutch ports with their high taxes and monopolistic regulations.
The free port idea drew the Chinese to Singapore and that was a deliberate policy. And the Anglo-Dutch Treaty protected that, absolutely, by having the Strait of Malacca forming the boundary between the Dutch and the British.
I remember when I was a student asking why Bencoolen was so important and why Raffles stayed in Bencoolen? Why not in Singapore from the very beginning? The reason was very simple, because the Sunda Strait was still an important port along the way to China.
But once there was an Anglo-Dutch Treaty, it was perfectly alright for the East India Company in Calcutta to control the whole region. The route from Calcutta to China through the Strait of Malacca was now safe. When the Dutch gave up Malacca to the English Company, Singapore’s position became totally different. This, to me, was the key to how Singapore was linked with China from the very beginning.
As a link in an imperial chain of ports, Singapore was always important. In many ways, this remained the secret to some of Singapore’s later successes in regional and world affairs.
After the first twenty years, it became less important for quite a while, because the British had defeated the Chinese and taken Hong Kong, and opened the ports of Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningpo, and Shanghai. Singapore became less important because British merchants could go directly to their colony in Hong Kong. So Hong Kong replaced Singapore as Britain’s base for China. But you can still see Singapore as a key link in the chain when that was extended.
So Singapore was a part of what Hong Kong represented: the gateway to China trade. Hong Kong was a very safe place, from which the British could expand to the rest of China. As a link in an imperial chain of ports, Singapore was always important. In many ways, this remained the secret to some of Singapore’s later successes in regional and world affairs. China was the key to the development of eastern Asia. It was that relationship that determined how Singapore came to play the role that it is still playing today.
Coming closer to the present, what else was surprising? The next surprising thing was when the British, the Dutch, the French and all national empires came to an end after World War II. Let me underline this. Whatever happened in Singapore had always been very much influenced by events in Europe. In this case, it was the fact that the empires established by European nation-states had virtually self-destructed in two world wars.
What happened to their colonies was that they all became nation-states. The nation-state was something totally new, something invented in the late 18th century with France established as the first of the great nation-states. Later in the 19th century, almost all countries in Europe became nation-states of one kind or another.
Aspirations to ‘the nation-state’
These nation-states appeared among countries that were already empires. From empires ruled by kings and feudal lords in dynastic kingdoms, most empires were transformed into ones that belonged to the citizenry. That was how the French empire was perceived, and Napoleon as emperor saw himself as representing the people of France. All the citizens in France were masters who no longer allowed kings and the nobility to lord over them anymore. The idea that such a nation-state could establish a national empire self-destructed after the two world wars.
It had begun with anti-colonial movements to drive out the West. This was set up by the Japanese in our part of the world — something interesting, even surprising, but I won’t spend time on that. Insofar that all colonies should fight the imperialists and get rid of them, that led to the idea the empires must all give way to independent nation-states.
And the idea that the nation-state should be sovereign, should have borders, and its citizenry be one and equal — was borrowed from the West successfully by Japan. That became the model for China and Southeast Asia where each came out of the Second World War determined to build its own united nation-state.
In that context, Singapore was given no choice. There was no question of Singapore becoming a nation-state. It was to become part of Malaya. I speak with some feelings about this because I come from Malaya. And to us, and to many Singaporeans at the time, it was taken for granted that Singapore would be part of Malaya one day. And so the nation-state was to be Malaya, and eventually Malaysia.
The first surprise was that the empire had to go, to be followed by a nation-state called Malaya, in which Singapore would be part, but not yet. Penang and Malacca also had no choice; the British had already put them into Malaya. Singapore was set aside — and the question comes back again — because there were too many Chinese in Singapore for the Malay nationalist leaders to want Singapore. They wanted to keep Singapore out until the nine Malay states and two colonies of Penang and Malacca were confident of being a Malayan nation. And while they were doing that, they wanted to keep Singapore separate.
The British were quite happy. They turned Singapore into a single colony and continued to dominate the economic activities in post-war Southeast Asia. But everyone expected Singapore, sooner or later, to be part of Malaya. And indeed, Singapore became part of Malaya as Malaysia, albeit for a very short time. That was another surprise.
...the British saw their future here in terms of “How to manage the Chinese in Singapore?” They didn’t stop the Chinese from coming altogether. They were still encouraging the Chinese to stay. In fact, they wanted the right kind of Chinese to come...
The British welcomed the Chinese to Singapore
I mentioned many surprises. But I think that the first question of “What is Singapore?” is something that we cannot afford to forget if you want to explain and understand the question of the Chinese in Singapore. Because Singapore began by inviting the Chinese to come; it was quite happy to have as many Chinese as possible to do whatever they wanted provided they obeyed British rules and did not make too much trouble. Whenever they made trouble, the British pressed them down.
When the Chinese became more nationalistic, when they responded to Sun Yat-sen, when they were rejoicing at the fall of the Qing dynasty, and the May Fourth Movement brought a lot of radical ideas to Southeast Asia, brought Chinese schools, China’s politics, the British observed all that very carefully. In the beginning, they left much of it alone, but when they saw that this could be a threat to them, they clamped down and controlled the community tightly. That was from the 1920s onwards.
You can see that the British saw their future here in terms of “How to manage the Chinese in Singapore?” They didn’t stop the Chinese from coming altogether. They were still encouraging the Chinese to stay. In fact, they wanted the right kind of Chinese to come, not the bad guys they didn’t want. They wanted the right kind of Chinese to come and settle. They invited them to bring their wives and families to settle and become loyal subjects of the Colony of Singapore.
The British were very sensitive about wanting only Chinese of the right kind and keeping out Chinese that they didn’t want. Their policies were very clear and can be found spelt out in records in the archives.
It is in that context that the next surprising thing happened. This was when Singapore did not join Malaya but joined Malaysia for less than two years and got kicked out.
A sudden nation, a unique make-up
I was in Kuala Lumpur then and, as a Malaysian, I was surprised. I was actually very sad, to be honest. But that made a big difference to everyone. For the first time, totally unexpected by everybody, Singapore was an independent nation, a sovereign state that would build its own nation. So that is why Singapore is special. This is a completely new Singapore, created by circumstances beyond Singapore’s control. And it had a new start as a country in which 75% of its population was of Chinese origin.
I know of no other country in the world that started like that, with one group of people who were not native to the region as the majority migrant community of a new nation. Singapore was totally exceptional, unique. With that, the first generation of leaders had to find some way of making it possible to build this nation in which the majority of its people were Chinese, in a region where the majority of people were not Chinese.
... Singapore had started out with an extraordinary principle, not known in any other nation I know of, one that recognised everyone born here as equal, and that the plural society would be the basis of a new nation.
This is not the time to talk about the Singapore government’s policies. I simply want to underline the fact the Chinese in Singapore were part of a nation in which they were the majority, but which was obviously a port city of people of many different origins, especially those from the neighbourhood and other parts of Asia — the Nusantara peoples of the Malay archipelago, those from India, from Arabia and the Muslim world, from various parts of the Christian world — hence the current categories of Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Others.
These categories have often been taken for granted. They are difficult to move away from because Singapore had started out with an extraordinary principle, not known in any other nation I know of, one that recognised everyone born here as equal, and that the plural society would be the basis of a new nation. No other nation did that. As far as I know, every other nation began by saying that whoever was the majority would determine the fundamentals of nationhood and all others, one way or another, would have to conform or remain second-class minorities until they did.
Singapore is the only one that I know of in which it was the other way round: the majority accepted that they live in a plural society, in a neighbourhood where they are a minority. They accepted that they had to treat everybody as equal and that the plural society was the foundation of Singapore’s nationhood. It was an extraordinary way to start the nation-building process. And that is one reason why the nation-building process is still in progress. It is not a simple thing, and it will never be simple.
The next feature was also surprising. Singapore’s existence, survival, the expansion and the uplift in its activities and its current role in regional and world affairs, were always tied to events outside of the region, to learning to live with events outside its control.
So when asked from time to time whether Singapore is a nation or something else: is it a city state, a nation in the making, ultimately to become a nation-state that would have to be a global city at the same time? If you take these terms seriously, you’ll find that there are contradictions in the terms themselves, but I won’t go into that here.
Let me come back to the idea that Singapore is an exceptional place, a surprising place. It has surprised people around Singapore as well as people inside Singapore. That this has been so for decades is one reason why the people of Singapore are so sensitive to its own position in the world and so willing to work hard to try and preserve that position, and to preserve it always in the context of uncertainty and a degree of vulnerability both within and in the region.
In a way, it reflects the fact that Singapore as Temasek in the 13th and 14th centuries was not an accident. It should be borne in mind that it could happen to any polity in the archipelagic world. Although Singapore is in a different position today, the Singaporean people and their leaders have understood this. Not least, they understand that the position of the Chinese here is of special relevance to how Singapore survives and how it develops.
I will leave it at that as my effort to answer the first question: “What is Singapore?” I have highlighted its surprising features. And when I say “surprise”, I’m also underlining the fact that, with so many surprises in the past, I should not laugh when I say that there could be surprises in the future.
My second question is interesting, but perhaps not so surprising. What is striking is that its complicated part comes from the word “Chinese”.
But the word “Chinese” is foreign to China. There was no exact equivalent in the language that all the people used for themselves before the 20th century.
What is ‘Chinese’?
I’ve always been hard put to explain to my non-Chinese friends where the word “Chinese” comes from. The Chinese didn’t have a word for “Chinese”. Today, we most commonly use Zhongguoren (中国人), huaren (华人) to translate the word “Chinese”. But the word “Chinese” is foreign to China. There was no exact equivalent in the language that all the people used for themselves before the 20th century.
It was in the 19th and 20th centuries that the people gradually accepted that there needed to be a word to translate the word “Chinese”. When the Qing dynasty fell and was replaced by the Republic of China, the word “China” was for the first time officially used as the name of the country. Before that, the country or the empire was known as Daqing (大清), following Daming (大明) and much earlier, Han (汉) and Tang (唐), the names of the ruling dynasties.
And if you want to go further than that, we talk of the philosophical civilisational aspects of what we might look for in other words, like Huaxia (华夏), or Zhonghua (中华), or the more recent Minguo (民国). Huaxia encompassed a civilisational identity of all people who belong to the traditions that followed from the great philosophers of the Zhou dynasty and various other groups and philosophers down to the present. It’s too complicated a story to go into. Most of you are aware that defining what is Chinese has never been easy.
From the very beginning, the formation of what the people knew as “China” had involved different peoples from within the China defined by its borders today — from within, as well as from outside those borders — with different peoples coming in and out, often merging with large populations of people who might be called “Chinese”. They adopted and accepted certain civilisational values, which enabled them to identify themselves with the Huaxia and be accepted as Huaxia people. But the word Huaxia doesn’t translate to “Chinese”.
The word “Chinese” has also been linked to the first empire established by the Qin dynasty and consolidated by the Han, so that the name of the Qin dynasty has been used to explain the origins of the word “Chinese”.
In ancient Indian languages like Sanskrit and Prakrit, chin or china was the name of the country, and was thought to originate from the Qin dynasty. And the word spread to the Muslim and the Christian world. This ancient word china was later used in local languages influenced by the Indians, and later by the Japanese. It was widely used for centuries by a variety of foreigners but never one used among the Chinese themselves.
... Sun Yat-sen complained that the Chinese people didn’t understand nationalism. It was true that they didn’t have a sense of being members of a nation.
Chinese civilisation versus Chinese nation-state
So why did we take up the word? It became the official name when the Republic of China succeeded the Qing Dynasty. The nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen identified the modern nation-state as the source of wealth and power of the European powers. To rejuvenate itself and restore the civilisation that had been battered and humiliated by the West throughout the 19th century, China had to become a nation-state to regain the power and wealth that would enable it to stand up and stop being bullied as they had been for so long. That was how the nationalists saw it and one can totally understand it in that context. And it was the revolution of 1912 that established China as a nation-state.
This was a new idea. For several decades, most people in China didn’t understand that. You may be aware that Sun Yat-sen complained that the Chinese people didn’t understand nationalism. It was true that they didn’t have a sense of being members of a nation. Most Chinese identified themselves through their villages, their hometowns, their dialect groups, their familial kinship groups, and used extended genealogies to trace their origins.
All these ways of identifying themselves with their civilisation did not give them a sense of nationality. The nationality idea was very new. To me, it has been astonishing how the Chinese searched their past and realised how difficult it was to find “nationalism” in China.
Chinese accepting of foreign rulers
Through the centuries, the Chinese were prepared to accept rulers who were not Chinese. Those in northern China had been dominated by Turks, Khitans and Jurchens before the whole of China was conquered by the Mongols and, since the 17th century, by the Manchus. For most northern Chinese, they had lived under Han Chinese rule only under the Ming Dynasty. During the rest of the last millennium, they had lived under conquest dynasties.
They all accepted the continuity that was China. That had nothing to do with the word China or modern nationality.
For southern Chinese, they were under the rule of Han Chinese for a little longer, as long as the Song dynasty survived. But looking closer, what was the Southern Song? It was a small kingdom pushed southwards that fought desperately to defend itself from non-Han states to their north.
Nevertheless, all the dynasties acknowledged their attachment to a common Sinic civilisation. They were proud to share a continuous history and were prepared to use the classical language to rule over China. Even the Mongols, who used their own language more than the others, accepted the primacy of Chinese history. The Manchus were particularly successful in their use of Chinese cultural institutions.
All that time, they recognised the continuity from the Shang and Zhou to Ming and Qing dynasties. All that was regarded as a single heritage in the eyes of the ruling elites, the mandarins, the people who were well-versed in history, the classics, a common set of moral values as well as key principles of governance, and so on. They all accepted the continuity that was China. That had nothing to do with the word China or modern nationality.
Changing concepts of ‘China’
So what is “Chinese” for Singapore? This was a problem from very early on. If you look at the way the Chinese responded to the Qing Dynasty, to begin with, most of the Chinese in Singapore who came from Fujian and Guangdong did not accept the Manchus as their legitimate rulers. As you know, many secret societies were founded on the basis of fanqing fuming (反清复明) — Oppose the Qing and Restore the Ming Dynasty. That was why Sun Yat-sen, when he came to Singapore, had so much support from the Fujian and Guangdong people here who sympathised with the idea of driving the Manchus out of China and restoring China to Han rule.
That was how it started. But it did not end that way. By the time Sun Yat-sen set up the republic, he had accepted that the map of Manchu-Qing China should be the map of the Republic of China. That is a separate story; I won’t go into that. But it does add to the complexity of what we understand by “China”.
Because when Sun Yat-sen realised that he could never unite all the people of China any other way, he offered to support Yuan Shikai for presidency of the Republic of China if Yuan could persuade the young Manchu emperor to abdicate and legitimately hand over power to him.
China’s nationalism did not begin with the Han Chinese; Wuzu Gonghe accepted everybody as “Chinese”. Sun Yat-sen’s supporters were unhappy with that and invented Zhonghua Minzu (中华民族 Chinese nationality) to describe everybody in the Republic.
That way, the republic inherited the borders of the Qing empire, much of which had not been ruled by the Ming. In fact, more than half was peopled by non-Han subjects of the Manchu-Qing empire. But with the abdication by the Manchu to Yuan Shikai, their land was part of the Republic and the people were thereafter seen as the republic’s citizenry.
What Sun Yat-sen had to do when Yuan Shikai took over was to accept the formula that this Republic of China was one of “five races” — Wuzu Gonghe (五族共和). This meant that the Han Chinese were one of the five major ethnic peoples that formed the Republic. Wuzu was a term used by the late Qing dynasty to refer to the Manchus, the Han, the Mongols, the Muslims and the Tibetans. That was the Republic of China for over a decade.
So China’s nationalism did not begin with the Han Chinese; Wuzu Gonghe accepted everybody as “Chinese”. Sun Yat-sen’s supporters were unhappy with that and invented Zhonghua Minzu (中华民族 Chinese nationality) to describe everybody in the Republic. That was new! A new name to include all “Chinese”. Again, I shall not go into details here. You can see how complicated the question has become.
What is relevant here is that Singapore’s Chinese responded in different ways to the use of such new terms. Many had supported the Sun Yat-sen slogan: “Get rid of the Manchus. Restore the Ming Dynasty (return to Han rule).” When the republic adopted Wuzu Gonghe, and later Zhonghua Minzu, the people here more or less accepted the terms as they were introduced. They were used in textbooks in all Chinese schools. But some adults did find that a bit puzzling.
Then when the PRC was established in 1949, when the CCP defeated the nationalists and claimed to be internationalists, this was found to be contradictory. For many, the People’s Republic was nationalistic. One of their ideas of nationhood was to be a multinational state of 56 nationalities. That was noted but found to be confusing.
The Han was the largest of the nationalities, about 91-92% of the whole population. Their identification and distribution did lead to controversy, but let’s just accept that figure. But for the 9% or so of the 55 other nationalities, together they had ancestral claims on at least half of China.
So where do the Chinese in Singapore stand on this? This raises questions of how to identify and recognise the many kinds of relationships with China. Another side of the question would be, what is “Chinese”, itself a question that seems to have been changing. I have heard some say that the idea of “Singapore” and that of “Chinese” in Singapore have been changing. So how do the two come together?
This leads me to my last question.
Of course, there are people who say, “Ah, but there’s another China”. The Republic of China has never been overcome. It was there in 1912, set up by Yuan Shikai and Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang. It still exists.
What does it mean to be Chinese in Singapore?
What does it mean when Singapore is changing and trying to find a firm basis for its survival for all time as an independent sovereign nation-state, while being at the same time a global city, and also the heart and centre of the region called Southeast Asia under the umbrella of ASEAN?
On the other hand, China itself has been changing. The China that had been dominated, humiliated, defeated, with its civilisation almost discarded, has restored itself after 1949 through the Chinese Communist Party. That surprised everybody. The Chinese Communist Party had been internationalist but has also become very nationalistic as it set out to become rich, powerful and secure. Its China has indeed risen, now able to stand for itself against anybody, never to be bullied again, never to be vulnerable again.
But it also sees itself as having borders inherited from the Qing Dynasty, from the Kuomintang’s Republic of China, borders that were consolidated by the Chinese Communist Party after 1949. It is now a sovereign nation-state, a multinational state of the People’s Republic of China, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. There’s nothing secret about one China rising.
Of course, there are people who say, “Ah, but there’s another China”. The Republic of China has never been overcome. It was there in 1912, set up by Yuan Shikai and Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang. It still exists. Nominally there is still a Republic of China. Some people call it Taiwan, but that’s not its official name.
And there are something like 50 to 60 million Chinese, or people of Chinese descent — some say more, depending on the way they are counted — around the world.
There are multiple ways of identifying with China as Chinese. And they’re all legitimate, each in their own way. Each can be justified, I would say totally justified.
How are they “Chinese”? Who is Chinese? What does it mean to be Chinese?
Citizens of the People’s Republic of China; that’s one definition. People who identify with Chinese civilisation; that’s another definition. People who identify with their ancestry and genealogy, their dialect group, their religion or religious practices — whether it’s Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Christianity, whatever they choose, or even other local spirits and gods that the Chinese pray to — they can all identify as Chinese in one way or the other.
There are multiple ways of identifying with China as Chinese. And they’re all legitimate, each in their own way. Each can be justified, I would say totally justified. Much of it depends on self-identification, how you identify yourself, but also depends on how other people identify you.
This comes back to the question bringing together China and Singapore. I’ve been in Singapore now since 1996. This is my 27th year in Singapore, and even in these 26 years, I’ve seen so much change in the way that people describe themselves: from “Singaporean Chinese”, to “Chinese Singaporean”, to dropping the word “Chinese” and just “Singaporean”; and forget about any other identification with the country called China. And a wide range of these identifications can be found in Singapore.
So what does it mean to be ethnically Chinese in Singapore? It seems to depend on so many other things. And this becomes the most difficult of the three questions I have. But each of them involves the understanding that Singapore has changed so many times, sometimes surprisingly, and China has changed so many times. China is once again powerful, rich — something unknown to the world for almost 200 years — that is now something real to our neighbourhood, and to those who are hostile to China, who want to make sure that China is contained and never allowed to develop to have any kind of influence outside their territory. All these are obvious — you read that every day, you can’t escape from it. All of that is playing into this question: what does it mean?
It is in that context, with the world moving and changing all the time, that the whole idea of a world order is real. I confess that I have never understood the “international world order”. But let me say that there is such a thing, it is widely claimed to be working, and Singapore operates actively within that.
Singapore itself is a country that is a plural society, a modern state which is global in its aspirations, and has ambitions which are admirable. How this is understood by other countries, and to what extent this is related to China and Chineseness, remains a question.
The United Nation system that Singapore depends on as a small state, as a sovereign nation-state, recognised as equal to every other nation-state of its 195 members, is vital to the survival of Singapore. It is crucial that the system functions in peace. But what is the meaning of that, when that is being threatened by superpowers once again playing the kind of international politics familiar from the 19th century, the imperial politics that is now becoming part and parcel of our daily fare?
Much of the vocabulary, the discourse, the language used has become more confrontational. And the consequences of using them have become less certain. How do we expect the next stage to develop? How can we prepare ourselves for future surprises if we put it together with the question, what does it mean to be ethnically Chinese?
I hate to end off with such uncertainty, but I confess that I have no answer to this question. All I can say is that it is a very important question to those of Chinese descent in this part of the world. How do other people identify them, how they identify themselves, and what their presence could mean? Singapore itself is a country that is a plural society, a modern state which is global in its aspirations, and has ambitions which are admirable. How this is understood by other countries, and to what extent this is related to China and Chineseness, remains a question.
And the meaning of it all depends on so many variables that I can’t summarise them for you. I wish I could leave you with a happier description of what the answers might look like, but I do not have an answer. All I can say is, you do have to examine as closely as you can the numerous changes that have been taking place all this time, especially those that have surprised you, and leave it at that. If you do that, you should all go further beyond the thoughts that I have offered here. Thank you.
Related: Wang Gungwu: China, ASEAN and the new Maritime Silk Road | Singapore history: A tale of separating and connecting (Video and text) | Wang Gungwu: When “home” and “country” are not the same | Trees in a forest: Becoming Chinese Singaporean in multicultural Singapore | What does multiculturalism mean in Singapore?