Following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s high-profile visit to Taiwan on 2 August, mainland China conducted unprecedented military exercises around Taiwan, sent aircraft across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, and flew four missiles over Taipei for the first time. Commentators said this was the dawning of a new mode of attack or a new normal, and there was no turning back.
In this context, a news report in Singapore drew much attention: United Microelectronics Corp founder Robert Tsao, who had emigrated to Singapore a long time ago, announced that he would be donating NT$3 billion (US$100.17 million) to help Taiwan bolster its defences. Some Singaporeans thought this a bad idea as it interfered with the internal affairs of others and ran counter to Singapore’s “one China” policy. Others even asked if this violated the law.
Objectively speaking, first-generation immigrants typically feel some connection to their place of origins. Didn’t our ancestors from southern China also donate money and resources during China’s eight-year war of resistance? Of course, as Singapore was a colony at that time, it was natural for them to pledge allegiance to their motherland. From a different perspective, if Singapore was under threat and received help and support from Singaporeans who had emigrated to other countries, wouldn’t we be touched by the move too? So taking the politics out of it and different opinions aside, Tsao’s gesture is still admirable, or at least understandable.
How Singaporeans would react
While Tsao’s move may be an isolated case, if war really breaks out across the Taiwan Strait, what kind of psychological impact that would have on the average Singaporean? While we will not rush to make donations, will we be able to stay out of the situation and go on with our life?
... what happens if we report on a war in the Taiwan Strait? How do we stay balanced and put aside all of our political affiliations and connections?
I immediately thought about whether I would be able to write, publish and vet articles as usual, and whether I could maintain objectivity in my reports. While we can constantly remind ourselves to put our own stands aside and be professional, this is still quite a challenge. For example, when you are flooded by news from all sides, which source would you trust and how would you sieve out the truth from the lies to avoid fake news and emerge from the fog of cognitive warfare? And this even comes down to the specific words we use. For example, I used “place of origin” when talking about Tsao earlier on. If I had used “homeland”, astute readers would definitely pick up the difference. Such subtleties and nuances are commonplace in news reports.
Distance, neutrality and objectivity are standards we hold ourselves to as journalists but sometimes this is hard to put in practice. Take the Russia-Ukraine war for example. Over the past six months and more, we have been translating Western newswires every day. If we are not careful or lack experience, we could be misled by the subtleties in expression. In fact, the decisions people make when they choose what to report and what not to report already have an effect behind the scenes. Fortunately, most people sympathise with the weak and agree that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of small countries are inviolable. Thus, going along with the mainstream international media and showing a slight slant towards Ukraine is still acceptable. But the point is that this war is far away from us, whether geographically or emotionally. But what happens if we report on a war in the Taiwan Strait? How do we stay balanced and put aside all of our political affiliations and connections?
Chinese reunification is no longer a matter of course
I remember what a senior in the media industry drummed into me over 20 years ago: reunification is a major matter of principle; separatists will be regarded as sinners in the eyes of history and these black sheep in reality are not worth mentioning. In short, Chinese reunification was internalised as the most prized and natural course of action. But in the new internet era of today, I am not sure if the younger generations concur with this view — relatively speaking, people do not have a strong sense of history and some simply reject the mainland’s system, whether innately or not. In Taiwan, they are known as the “natural independence” (天然独) camp. On the streets of Hong Kong, these individuals’ firm beliefs and tenacity in the protest years attracted many eyeballs.
... the gradual schism of views in the newsroom is but a microcosm of what’s happening in society at large.
In fact, the gradual schism of views in the newsroom is but a microcosm of what’s happening in society at large.
I am friends with mainland Chinese, Taiwanese and new immigrants. The interesting thing is that not all of my mainland Chinese friends support reunification and some of my Taiwanese friends oppose “Taiwan independence” as well. Undeniably, those who sit on the fence or advocate separation but not independence and simply hope for the best are still in the majority. In terms of their attitudes, while most of them respect the opinions of others, some are more extreme. As long as someone shows their approval of the mainland’s achievements in recent years, they would criticise them for “sucking up to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)”. Conversely, if someone speaks up for Taiwan, they would mock them for supporting “Taiwan independence” (胎毒 taidu, lit. embryotoxicity, derogatory term for 台独 taidu, Taiwan independence). Such endless criticism is truly unpleasant. When that happens, I usually try to stick to casual conversations and avoid talking about national issues. When I see messages that involve political correctness or incorrectness, I do not reply as well.
But tensions are just rising at this point — if war really breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, how would everyone feel about it?
Let’s look at Taiwan first. The divide between supporters of reunification and independence runs deeper here than in any other Chinese community in the world. Even in peacetime, people on the island are already split down the middle. Family members may even have terrible fights over differing political views and support for the Blue, Green or White camp. A Malaysian friend told me that a difference of views among the Chinese are also becoming more common in Malaysia because many students furthered their studies in Taiwan in recent decades. They have thus formed strong opinions and are vocal about issues of reunification and independence. In contrast, even if Chinese Singaporeans have an opinion about the topic, they are more reserved and not so adamant about their views.
If we also include the new Chinese immigrants — whether they are from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Malaysia — in this group, then they can be broadly seen as a larger and new “Chinese community”.
The new ‘Chinese community’ in Singapore
To have a sense of how the Chinese born and bred in Singapore will react to a Taiwan Strait crisis, we must first distinguish between two groups. One, the younger students and English-speaking “monolinguals” across all age groups. They are generally not interested in the happenings in the Chinese region and have no concept of Kuomintang and CCP history. For example, they do not understand the 1992 Consensus and are not interested to find out more. Put simply, they couldn’t care less about these topics.
Two, the people who listen to Chinese radio, read Chinese newspapers and consume massive amounts of first-hand information from the Chinese world on the internet. They interact with mainland Chinese and Taiwanese and could have relatives or colleagues living on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The spouses of some of them could even be from these regions. Many people listen to popular songs from Taiwan (or Hong Kong) growing up and could still be humming the tunes of Jonathan Lee and Jay Chou. They have experienced the beauty of Taiwan and could have also travelled frequently to the mainland for work or business over the past two, three decades. Some have settled down there and have their own business partners, and also found many life-changing opportunities. The younger generation also have their favourite internet celebrities and drama series that they binge-watch. They may shop on mainland Chinese e-commerce platforms every day, using the “Made in China” products they have bought…
Because of these complex and intricately connected interpersonal, commercial and cultural relations, this group of people are more concerned with the cross-strait situation and would stay updated with the various happenings. If something happens, they will not be unmoved. If we also include the new Chinese immigrants — whether they are from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Malaysia — in this group, then they can be broadly seen as a larger and new “Chinese community”.
... regardless of which side they gravitate towards, nobody wants a war.
Based on my limited contact with them, this “Chinese community” does not have a “one-size-fits-all” attitude or a clear-cut love-hate relationship with the mainland and Taiwan; they do not see one side as “friend” and the other side as “foe”. Rather, there are things they like and admire but also aspects that they cannot agree with. Thus, most of them feel that choosing sides puts them in a dilemma and is also very unnecessary.
But one thing is clear: regardless of which side they gravitate towards, nobody wants a war. This is because as long as war breaks out, there will be bloodshed and families will be torn apart. And there will always be someone they know among the victims. Also, Taiwan will suffer a severe blow and the mainland’s economy will go into recession. And this is assuming that the war is contained within the Western Pacific region without the participation of a third party — not a full-scale confrontation between China and the US or nuclear war.
I spoke with a recent businessman migrant from mainland China the other day. While he is undoubtedly a nationalist, he is also aware that there will be no winners between both sides of the Taiwan Strait under this situation — they would only hurt themselves and benefit their enemies. Thus, he was also stuck in the middle.
Shouldn’t the “Chinese” elevate their perspective and allow one side to continue building wealth and power while the other side continues experimenting and developing a democracy suitable for the Chinese?
War will mean big trouble for Singapore
I told him that I studied history and that the Anglo-Saxons founded at least five developed countries in the world today — the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Among them, after the UK and the US fought the War of 1812, they never fought another war over the past 200 years and only joined hands to fight others. This is a nation’s greatest wisdom. Shouldn’t the “Chinese” elevate their perspective and allow one side to continue building wealth and power while the other side continues experimenting and developing a democracy suitable for the Chinese? Why can’t the top leaders consider the longer-term historical merits for the sake of humanity right now?
We do not know if there will be war in the Taiwan Strait. But if it really happens, how will it affect Singapore? The answer is clear — it’d mean big trouble!
We have taken rides on Taipei’s metro, eaten black tuna from Donggang and walked along Tamsui Old Street. If these places are destroyed, how can we take the blow?
Putting aside the losses in the economic, investment and trade sectors, such an event would send the Chinese community made up of people with different backgrounds and positions on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Taiwan is not Ukraine — we do not understand a single word that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is saying and neither can we pronounce that many place names in Ukraine. The day when Europe’s largest nuclear plant was shelled in Ukraine, it did not become the cover story of local newspapers. But we understand Hokkien and the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan. We have taken rides on Taipei’s metro, eaten black tuna from Donggang and walked along Tamsui Old Street. If these places are destroyed, how can we take the blow?
A war in the Taiwan Strait is ultimately a stress test for the unity of the Chinese community. Will we fight among ourselves and label one another with derogatory terms or be torn into pieces like Taiwan society? Or will we stay calm and rational, be more understanding, and keep communicating with one another?
Yes, it’s hard, but it is necessary.
Donning a bullet vest, United Microelectronics Corp founder Robert Tsao announced in an international press conference on 1 September that he has renounced his Singapore citizenship and returned to Taiwan. He vowed to stand with his Taiwanese compatriots against the CCP and hoped that it would one day become like the US, a "land of the free and home of the brave". He also pledged support to develop Taiwan's civil defence.
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