Singapore: Guard against false binary choices in Chinese Public Diplomacy

June 29, 2018

Singapore should guard against false binary choices in Chinese public diplomacy: Bilahari Kausikan  

Mr Bilahari Kausikan said that Beijing uses a mix of persuasion, inducement and coercion techniques to create a psychological environment which poses false choices for other countries.
TODAY file photo
Mr Bilahari Kausikan said that Beijing uses a mix of persuasion, inducement and coercion techniques to create a psychological environment which poses false choices for other countries. The eminent diplomat adds, “Sometimes it may lead us to tilt a bit towards China or towards America. But the guiding principle is always our own interests.”


SINGAPORE — China’s public diplomacy in the region often involves presenting false choices in a binary fashion, said retired top diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, adding that such psychological operations would fail once those being targeted are aware of Beijing’s intentions.

Speaking at a conference on Chinese public diplomacy in East Asia and the Pacific on Wednesday (June 27), Mr Kausikan said that Beijing uses a mix of persuasion, inducement and coercion techniques to create a psychological environment which poses false choices for other countries.

He told an audience of more than 50 academics and policy makers that this has been a simple, but powerful and effective instrument.

“This technique of forcing false choices on you and making you choose between false choices is deployed within a framework of either overarching narratives or specific narratives… The purpose is to narrow the scope of choices and they are usually presented in binary terms,” said Mr Kausikan, who was previously permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now chairs the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

“The intention is to stampede your thinking so that the critical faculty is not fully engaged and to instill a sense of fatalistic inevitability of the choices forced upon you.”

Image result for lee kuan yew and deng xiaoping

On China and other issues, Lee Kuan Yew was always ahead of the curve. A brilliant strategist and a student of history, he understood  Chinese leaders from Chairman Mao and Deng Xiao Peng to Xi Jinping

He cited several examples of falsehoods that have been put forth by Beijing when dealing with the Republic, including how relations under founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew were much better as compared to now because the current Government does not understand China.

“(These discourses are) powerful because they are not entirely fabricated. They do contain a kernel of truth,” he said. “(But) they are either extremely simplistic… or leave out vital facts,” he added, pointing out that Mr Lee went against the Chinese-supported Communist united front in the 1950s-60s and prevailed.

Image result for Lee Hsien Loong and Xi Jinping

Other examples of untruths, said Mr Kausikan, include how Washington represents the past while Beijing stands for the future, as well as suggestions that those who are close to the United States will find it hard to have close economic ties with China.

A study released this week by AidData research laboratory, Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the Asia Society Policy Institute said that China has spent more than US$48 billion (S$65 billion) across East Asia and the Pacific between 2000 and 2016 to reward trade partners and those supporting its foreign policy positions.

Mr Kausikan noted during the conference – organised by The S Rajaratnam School of International Studies together with those who produced the study – that China’s influence can be brittle even if it succeeds in its public diplomacy.

For one, Beijing’s efforts would only work when those targeted are unaware of the psychological operations against them.

“Once you are aware (of the manipulation), you have to be particularly obtuse to fall for it,” he said. “Exposure is therefore the best countermeasure”.

Other vulnerabilities in the Chinese approach he added, include “cultural altruism” as well as a tendency towards “self-deception… and rigidity”. This may lead to China over extending itself in the region.

But he said that even when China’s intentions are exposed, the other parties may opt to play along due to genuine sympathy towards the Chinese position, cultural affinity or to ensure that bilateral relations can be kept on an even keel. This may also be due to “transactional reasons – for hope of reward or fear of sanctions”, Mr Kausikan noted.

“Sometimes it may lead us to tilt a bit towards China or towards America. But the guiding principle is always our own interests.”–Bilahari Kausikan

When asked during the question and answer segment on what would be Singapore’s core strength in countering Chinese attempts to influence the Republic, the veteran diplomat said the idea of being a multi-racial country is important.

“Modern Singapore is not based on being a Chinese country… No one can ignore China. But significant influence is not dominant influence or exclusive influence,” he stated.

Mr Kausikan added that most Singaporeans are not really interested in foreign policy, and this creates a fertile ground for psychological manipulation.

He suggested that the Republic should beef up national education efforts and “teach our own history better”.”It is wrong to think that we side with China or America. We side only with Singapore. Our organising idea is our own national interests,” he said.

“Sometimes it may lead us to tilt a bit towards China or towards America. But the guiding principle is always our own interests.”

6 thoughts on “Singapore: Guard against false binary choices in Chinese Public Diplomacy

  1. There is another fourth option. Singapore could side with all nations, loving the world as it is, being a Switzerland of the east.

    Politics of Sound of Music…
    Edelweiss. Joachim Orchid.

    I remember the last question asked in an ASEAN scholarship interview, “Would you join national service?”
    The silly 12 yo me replied, “What is national service, I am a Malaysian”. I really didn’t know what national service is, not to mention what the question suggests. My mom really didn’t talk politics at home.
    Malaysian Sejarah didn’t teach me anything except for number of pedals in the bunga emas we sent to Siam King, in which I still didn’t get why I was asked to memorize that, except to hate Siam or to gain false pride of wealth?

    Many years later, I didn’t recall the questions asked for my application to be a citizen for another nation. But, I did recall the question asked in Singapore while waiting for the interview. I then quickly said to myself in my own mind, I was a Malaysian that was never a Malaysian by the Doctor’s standard. I want to be a citizen for this new world America.

    Yet, looking back, I couldn’t have imagined the meaning of national service then of loving a world would mean so much now.

    Tough days ahead for a Singapore that would only thrive in a trading world, at least befriend one of those two nations that could represent a world to trade with, and not to isolate itself by not taking side at all. Yet, silly as it may sound, loving all, loving people of the two giants, loving oneself. .. loving Joachim Orchid, loving Edelweiss.. Singapore’s national service, I look up to you today.

    Singapore’s national service, an international service for humanity.

    For myself, it is one thing for others to call you pendatang, it is another when you could have the courage to call yourself pendatang. I grew to love the world better. Dragon village, literal name of my mom’s Hakka ancestral village, is not a place to look back, but a place to look forward to, in wherever we choose to be.

    Glad to read Mr Bilahari’s response.

    My New World America is getting old, already gotten older in mental age than the dragon village my ancestors came from. I guess my Mr President grew old, and forgot the meaning of the name America, in that it always mean one thing, New World. Singapore, could tell the world the meaning of its’ Chinese name, “New+ City”. It is new and need not be that Chinese and not so Westernized at the same time.

  2. The view Singapore Ministers are projecting is that they lack diplomatic skills. Maybe their voters will teach them to have better manners in 2020.

    • Why not you do the job instate in inciting others to do so? Show them your passion. Say it to the Ministers faces. Stop degrading the posting on this site.

    • Sorry lah, I don’t have to as there are enough of smart Singaporeans to take up the challenge come 2020 who are not arse kissers.

  3. Under the PAP many Singaporeans became prized products of their colonial masters. They look at the world exactly as that noted by Stephen J. Gould’s “The ‘Mismeasure of Man”, that there’s a racial hierarchy that begins with the lightest skin and ends with the darkest skin. And that skews into whatever they’re thinking, from sex to politics and international affairs. The nations that lied and cheated and murdered to conquer the world are always right and their leaders honorable, all honorable men. The rest are suspect: they speak in binaries. Native Americans, however, have a different idea as to who spoke with forked tongue. Though nearly wiped out to the point of extinction, the wisdom of Native Americans still illuminates.

    • Should read Paul Baran’s The Political Economy of Growth and the Selected works of Mao Tse Tung.

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