A few weeks ago I received a phone call from someone who claimed that he was conducting a survey from Mindef. I was asked for my opinion on several issues, such as China's conduct in the South China Sea and its increasingly belligerent anti-Singapore rhetoric. I said I really hope that China is able to act like a responsible global power and that it should observe international laws and multilateral frameworks. I also said that however critical I sometimes am towards Singapore, I believe in my country's sovereignty and would not want this to be compromised in any way.
At the end of the conversation, I was asked whether I was 'born in China' or 'had any relatives who were from China'. I said no. And when I put down the phone, I couldn't help but wonder whether in these unanticipated times, being China-born is now seen as being more of a security liability in the military more than being Malay.
It's not the Indonesians who are publishing jeering editorials about our country and calling us an American stooge. And it's not the Malaysians who confiscated our Terrex vehicles. Malaysia is filing a new appeal to have Pedra Branca declared within its territorial waters, but this is done through third party arbitration at the International Court of Justice. Try telling China to defer to a third party like the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which it has called “a lackey of some outside forces” and “a laughing stock in human history”.
What's most worrying for me is seeing how some Chinese Singaporeans are completely siding with China–and some of them even take the line that it is beneficial for Singapore to become some kind of tributary state to China. They seem to get away with saying things like these, as if these sentiments don't skate close to treason and sedition. But that's just another manifestation of Chinese privilege. Imagine a Malay person siding with Malaysia or an Indian person siding with India–I don't think we'll ever hear the end of them being told to 'go back' to Malaysia or India.
Admittedly, the whole thing is very complex. There is some element, I think, of comeuppance. The comeback–with a vengeance–of a form of Chinese cultural and political identity that was suppressed because of Cold War calculations. And maybe China's rise means that the tide of history has turned, and those who were once at the margins–made to feel uncultured or unwelcome because of their lack of English-language ability or 'Western' cultural capital–are now finding their place in the sun.
But does reclaiming your overdue dignity mean that you have to be an uncritical cheerleader of a potentially hostile foreign power? In many Southeast Asian countries, the fear of the Chinese minority as a potential fifth column has led to various programs of forced (and often traumatic) assimilation. This was done in the hope of estranging them from Beijing's influence.
In Singapore, the Chinese community is the majority, and in some ways share cultural similarities with mainland Chinese, including the adoption of simplified characters for Mandarin. Sociologists talk about a Sinicisation of the Singapore Chinese population, a process where Mandarin is emphasised over Hokkien, Cantonese etc and where hybridity like Peranakan Chinese identity is not legitimised. (Think of the 'Little Nyonya' where characters speak Mandarin; consider the implications of that series being one of the few Singapore TV exports to China.) Is it possible to Sinicise a community and at the same time hope that they do not develop political attachments to the cultural motherland?
Originally posted on Alfian Sa'at's Facebook page.