I am a Malaysian who has been living in Singapore for 26 out of 28 years, a Singapore permanent resident who has spent practically all my life in Singapore. That includes kindergarten, primary school, secondary school, pre-university, national service and my Bachelor’s degree.
The national service leg is interesting; quite a few Singaporeans wondered why I had to serve the country even if I was not of that nationality. Like a broken record, I explained that second-generation Singapore PRs had to undergo mandatory national service, be it in the army, police force, or fire brigade.
I was in the third group (well kind of), where I was twice offered Singapore citizenship. Both times I said no. The plan is that I re-locate to Malaysia in the long run, hence the reason for retaining Malaysian citizenship. This is the same response I give to Singaporeans in general.
Being a Malaysian with Singapore PR invites interesting remarks. In Singapore, I am simultaneously seen as a Singaporean while being reminded, through jokes, of my Malaysian nationality. In Malaysia, I’m told I am more Singaporean than Malaysian. I must say that these jokes are strictly jokes and have no ill intent.
However, as with any other phenomenon, jokes reflect a fascination with the truth. The fascination in this context is how I have a Malaysian passport but was placed on the Singaporean track since I was two or so.
I become a little uneasy when someone asks where I am from. I still haven’t figured out a way to escape the intellectual maze that is this question.
What do they mean by where I’m from? Nationality or race? Instinctively, I just say I am from Malaysia. Woe betide the man who doesn’t look like a certain nationality when he says he belongs to that same nationality. The response I get is “you don’t look Malaysian”. I am not sure what a Malaysian looks like. I still don’t. I end up giving a song and dance of my racial background. My point is that even saying I am Malaysian doesn’t cut me loose but that merits another article for another time on race.
So the question is, who am I loyal to? I think loyalty, in this context, is a very emotionally-laden word to use. Being loyal to one country presupposes apathy or indifference to another. I am not indifferent to Singapore simply because I have a Malaysian passport. Nor am I apathetic to Malaysia simply because I never had a life there.
The truth is, despite the wave of questions about what I am, I feel a connection to both countries. I have said why for Singapore already. For Malaysia, the memory of my late grandfather, whom I was close to, still keeps me feeling Malaysian. Being able to publish in Malaysian news websites definitely helps too. At least I know that my opinion is welcomed there, whether people agree with it or not. Predictably enough, I had one netizen respond to an article I wrote for a Malaysian news website, saying I had little authority to write on Malaysia because I was not genuinely Malaysian.
Now, I’m not saying I’m the only individual to be in this position. I’m sure there are many others who wonder which nationality they belong to, simply because they have a certain passport but never grew up in the country of that passport. Nationality is one of many social categories we use to feel a sense of belonging to somewhere. Other categories could be race, gender, socio-economic status or even job occupation.
Which category we use depends on which one we think about on a regular basis. It could even be more than one category. In this article though, I talked about nationality because, well, I think about it a lot. Is there a way two reconcile two certainties, one being that I’m Malaysian, and two, that I’ve lived in Singapore almost my whole life?
In a utopian world, questions of nationality would not exist. We would be “global citizens”. This term has been thrown around before, both as a joke and as truth. In the real world, cosmopolitanism and national identity exist side by side. Simply saying you’re a global citizen is a cop-out. Malaysia and Singapore are not mutually exclusive to me; I feel connected to both countries, for different reasons. The important thing is I should be allowed to feel that way.
Malaya-Singapore Relations: Old Bilateral Issues have resurfaced under PH Rule, says Diplomat Bilahari Kausikan
Mr Kausikan said the fundamental reason for Malaysia’s continued provocative acts towards Singapore is because of the republic’s system of a multiracial meritocracy, which greatly contrasted from the former’s race-based policies.
Political instability in the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition and its failure to capture Malay support are aggravating relations between Malaysia and Singapore, said former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan.
Mr Kausikan said after Barisan Nasional (BN) was replaced by PH in the 14th general election last year, “old bilateral issues almost immediately resurfaced”.
“These issues are not new and they cannot be resolved,” Mr Kausikan said in a public lecture at the National University of Singapore.
“To resolve an issue, both sides must want to resolve it. Whereas in this case, the other side’s interest is to keep them alive to use them to rally support. “It would be wrong to place too much emphasis on the personality of (Prime Minister) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) although that was undoubtedly a factor,” he told more than 200 attendees.
“More importantly, the new Pakatan Harapan government is fundamentally incoherent.
“It’s falling apart,” said Mr Kausikan.
He cited a Merdeka Centre research last year which found a three-way split of Malay votes for PH, UMNO and Islamist party PAS, meaning that the support of Malaysia’s largest ethnic group looks to be fiercely contested by the three groups.
The results, said Mr Kausikan, reveals the instability of the ruling pact, which will grow further as it desperately tries to rally greater Malay support if it hopes to retain power in the next general election.
Using Singapore as a bogeyman or whipping boy to rally the Malay ground is a time-tested tactic,” he said.
“Dr Mahathir used it when he led UMNO, he uses it now that he is head of Bersatu.
“This is not just a matter of personality or historical baggage.”
In his lecture, Mr Kausikan also said he expects Malaysia’s political scenario to remain in a flux for some time because of infighting within PH and the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism.
Show of Might
The Former Policy Adviser to Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged the republic’s incoming new leadership to maintain the country’s military capabilities, saying that a show of might is crucial in its dealings with Malaysia.
This is because Malaysian leaders will always seek to undermine and subjugate the city-state.
“Even though Singapore is now accepted as a sovereign state, it is not a situation which Malaysia is entirely comfortable with,” Mr Kausikan said at the lecture titled ‘Singapore’s relations with Indonesia and Malaysia’.
Today, the governments of our neighbours deal with Singapore as a sovereign nation only because we have developed capabilities that have given them no other choice.
“It is not their preferred way of dealing with a small, ethnic Chinese-majority city-state.
“They would prefer us to accept a subordinate role as do their own Chinese populations,” he said.
Singapore’s new leaders must, therefore, continue to “establish red lines,” which send a clear message to Putrajaya that the country is equipped and ready to use its military might in the event it is forced to a corner. The threat of use of force is as much part of diplomacy as negotiations.
Diplomacy is not just about being nice.“It is essential to establish red lines because it is only when red lines are clearly understood that mutual relations can be conducted on the basis of mutual respect.”
Mr Kausikan said the fundamental reason for Malaysia’s continued provocative acts towards Singapore is because of the republic’s system of a multiracial meritocracy, which greatly contrasted from the former’s race-based policies.
“The basic and enduring issue is not what we do, but what we are – a multiracial, meritocratic small city state that performs better than they do and we must always perform better.
“The very existence of our dramatically very different system, too close to be ignored or disregarded, that does better than their system, poses an implicit criticism of their system to their own people.”
In November 1978 Deng, newly installed as China’s paramount leader, visited Singapore. Ostensibly the trip was part of a diplomatic campaign by China against what it considered a growing threat from Soviet-backed Vietnam. But in Singapore, Deng instead became obsessed with the city-state’s purported transformation from a backwater fishing village to a leading global city under Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party’s (PAP) rule.
In his welcoming remarks, Lee stressed that Singapore’s ethnic Chinese citizens were the sons and daughters of uneducated, landless peasants from Southern China, leading Lee to suggest, as former Foreign minister George Yeo has recently phrased it, if Singapore with its “poorly-educated coolies could make good, how much better mainland China could be if the right policies were adopted.” Deng showed great respect for Lee (going so far as to not smoke in the presence of the fastidious Lee despite the Singapore leader providing him with a spittoon in a well-ventilated room) as he had inherited a broken system that he was quickly trying to fix. In his comments Deng endorsed the (exaggerated) story of Singapore’s miraculous metamorphosis.
Crucially, Deng and Lee developed a special relationship during Deng’s short visit. Both were anti-colonial leaders at the forefront of their countries’ revolutionary movements and committed to political order over chaos. Ezra Vogel, in his monumental 2011 biography of Deng, comments that:
“Deng admired what Lee had accomplished in Singapore, and Lee admired how Deng was dealing with problems in China. Before Deng’s visit to Singapore, the Chinese press had referred to Singaporeans as the ‘running dogs of American imperialism.’ A few weeks after Deng visited Singapore, however, this description of Singapore disappeared from the Chinese press. Instead, Singapore was described as a place worth studying .…. Deng found orderly Singapore an appealing model for reform, and he was ready to send people there to learn about city planning, public management, and controlling corruption.”
Unlike other Chinese party leaders and academics who, as Kai Yang and Stephan Ortmann have shown, were looking at a variety of potential models such as Sweden (seen then to represent a “‘third way’ between Communism and capitalism” and symbolising “the ideals of social equity and harmony”), Deng was single-mindedly focused on Singapore, a fascination that was initially quite idiosyncratic. He was searching for a model that both legitimated party rule and was adaptable to the country’s rapid industrialisation. Deng’s articulation of the “Four Cardinal Principles” in 1979 showed that he still adhered to party orthodoxy in regard to repressing political dissent and reaffirming the party’s monopoly on power. But Deng was also concerned with how the party could guide China through state-led capitalist growth. In this regard, Deng left little doubt his thinking was closer to Lee’s than Karl Marx’s.
It has been difficult for China to find examples of a successful combination of centralised authoritarian rule with effective and corruption-free government in a modern society anywhere else in today’s world besides Singapore. Besides the tiny sultanate of Brunei, Singapore is the only high-income country with a non-democratic regime in East Asia and arguably the only clear case globally, as oil-dependent absolute monarchies are rich but not “modern” in most understandings of the term. China’s observers also tend to see Singapore as “Chinese” and Confucian-influenced (ignoring its distinctive national identity and multi-ethnic character), making it seem more culturally appropriate for emulation.
But more recently China seems to have moved away from adopting Singapore’s “soft authoritarian” style of rule. A recent book by David Shambaugh claims that gradualist political reforms by Xi Jinping’s predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, albeit within a continued authoritarian framework, were “intended to open up the system with carefully limited political reforms,” seeking to “manage political change rather than resist it.” By contrast, Xi’s recent widespread crackdown on dissent has undermining hopes of further, however constrained, political liberalisation. Shambaugh regrets that Singapore’s semi-competitive system, with a dominant party legitimised through limited but significant popular participation, and whose power is constrained by the rule of law, is no longer considered relevant by the Chinese leadership.
Thus, China seems to be moving further away from rather than toward the Singapore model. At the same time, as China takes a more aggressive stance in its foreign policy, particularly the South China Sea, and becomes more confident of its own political and developmental success, its interest in Singapore, which has staked out an independent foreign policy that has sometimes angered the mainland, has declined. After many years in which officials offered a codified version of the “Singapore story” to Chinese observers, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently described the island state as little more than a “bonsai tree model of what China is” that might be “intriguing to scrutinise” but from which is hard for a gigantic country like China to draw lessons. Seemingly consigned to a historical period of conservative reformism in China, the “Singapore model” now appears to represent a path not taken by the mainland’s hard-line leadership.
After years of winnowing through candidates, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has anointed Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as his successor. Back in 2016 there were six candidates for the role but one by one they were removed from contention, mostly by mechanisms in the form of gifts from the Prime Minister. One of the stronger candidates, for instance, was unexpectedly made Speaker of the House, which put him out of contention.
There is no formal process of selection and the decisions are made behind closed doors, with narratives about the selection process generated retrospectively. The trigger for the final declaration of Heng Swee Keat as the designated successor was his election to the rather obscure position of First Assistant Secretary-General of the ruling People’s Action Party. This election was initially greeted as an indicator that Heng Swee Keat was merely the front runner to be next Prime Minister but in the space of a day it morphed into a declaration of succession.
Heng Swee Keat was already known to be Lee Hsien Loong’s favourite even before 2016. When Heng Swee Keat suffered a stroke during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016 and spent six days in a coma, it was universally accepted as being a blow to Lee Hsien Loong’s succession plans. Only extreme medical intervention saved Heng Swee Keat’s career and brought him back into contention. Since then, the process of selecting the next prime minister has suffered unexplained delays. Now we know why the delay was necessary: to give Heng Swee Keat a chance to settle doubts about his health, while the other candidates were dropped.
Heng Swee Keat was never an obvious candidate. He has a relatively narrow range of Cabinet and professional experience and is a rather awkward public speaker. No one doubts his technocratic competence, nor that he will be ‘a safe pair of hands’ but few, if any, suggest that he has strong political skills. So why did Lee Hsien Loong endorse Heng Swee Keat ahead of younger, stronger and healthier candidates with better political instincts?
The question is easier to answer if we begin by asking who will be the next prime minister after Heng Swee Keat. Lee Hsien Loong’s son, Li Hongyi, is currently a senior civil servant working in one of the divisions of the Prime Ministers’ Office and has been identified by his close relatives as harbouring political ambitions. Li Hongyi denies that he wants to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps but he and his mother have been carefully cultivating his media and social media profiles as one would for an aspiring politician. Rumours are now circulating that he will enter parliament at the next General Election in 2020.
Lee Hsien Loong is 66 and indicated he would like to step down by age 70, which would make Heng Swee Keat about 61 when he becomes prime minister. If his health holds up, Heng Swee Keat can expect to enjoy a decade or perhaps longer as Prime Minister, by which time Li Hongyi would be 45 to 50 — an acceptable age for a prime ministerial aspirant.
Granted that any of the six original candidates would have met the basic threshold of political and administrative competence, the attraction of Heng Swee Keat is his age, health record and ordinary communication skills. In short, he is not likely to disturb a succession plan by overstaying his welcome — as did former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was supposed to be a stop gap between Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong but persisted in the job for 14 years.
The main risk of the Heng Swee Keat succession is that it leaves the government with a Prime Minister who has no record of being an effective politician (as opposed to an effective administrator) at a time when a number of political red flags have surfaced.
The most serious institutional issue is the government’s recent declaration that Housing and Development Board flats will have nil value at the end of their 99 year leases and at that point will revert to the government without compensation. This is a particularly uncomfortable issue because about 80 per cent of Singaporeans ‘own’ their flats and regard them as their main financial asset. The government has also spent decades talking up their values. Now it turns out that devaluing flats is part of its plan.
The government is not going to lose the next election but it does not like to leave anything to chance. In the absence of good political instincts and a mediocre record of administrative achievements, the Cabinet has upscaled the intensity of its repressive actions throughout 2018, continuing a trajectory that has been developing for several years.
This may be satisfactory as a short-term measure to retain control but it is not a great way to launch a new round of change in government, nor to lay the groundwork for the following generation.
Michael D. Barr is Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
Tropical rain is bucketing down when P. J. Thum arrives for our meeting at a semi-outdoor Starbucks amid high-rise public housing flats on Singapore’s unfashionable north side. Seeking quietness, we move inside a nearby shopping mall to a cafe offering beverages of a local flavour: black tea with the option of evaporated or condensed milk – the tannin-laden, chalky legacy of long-gone British military men.
Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, a fellow Singaporean and Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford.
Thum – full name Thum Ping Tjin – is 38 years old, athletic and preppy in tortoiseshell spectacles and a pink shirt. From Singapore’s ethnic Chinese majority, he has an Oxford doctorate in history, is a former Olympic swimmer and has an unblemished military service record. All of which makes him the ideal candidate to go far in Singapore’s kind of meritocracy − perhaps joining the “men in white” of the People’s Action Party, in power since 1959.
Except Thum made the wrong career choice for that. As his history specialisation developed, he’d been thinking of a biography of Vespasian, the Roman legionnaire who, after invading Britain and quelling the Jewish revolt, was installed as emperor by acclamation of his troops and ended a period of instability.
“Then I thought, ‘There are other people who can do that, many people doing way better work on Roman history than I could,’ ” he tells me. “ ‘But who’s going to do Singapore history?’ ”
Soon after his return to a postdoctoral fellowship at the National University of Singapore (NUS), a historic windfall came his way: the British government declassified its archive for the tumultuous year of 1963 in Singapore and Malaya when the two self-governing former colonies were moving to join up in the new, pro-Western nation of Malaysia, standing against the communist tide sweeping South-East Asia.
It contained documents about Operation Coldstore, the sweep by Singapore’s Special Branch in February 1963 to detain more than 100 politicians, trade unionists and activists without trial, ostensibly to prevent the underground Malayan Communist Party instigating unrest to hinder the formation of Malaysia.
From these documents, Thum found the proof of what many had long suspected: that then Chief Minister Lee Kuan Yew mounted Coldstore chiefly to nobble the leftist opposition party, Barisan Sosialis, looming as a serious challenge to his People’s Action Party (PAP) in forthcoming elections. The archive shows Lee virtually admitting as much to British officials. It set a pattern of ruthless use of communist scares and preventive detention powers that Lee employed for decades.
As he wrote and talked about these findings, Thum soon got the answer to his question about who would write Singaporean history.
“Only someone brave or stupid enough,” he says. “Here it is almost career suicide to do Singapore history, because eventually you run into the problem of either you have to censor yourself in Singapore or you leave Singapore and you enter an industry which is not interested nowadays in this sort of niche history.”
Within a year, a senior NUS administrator pulled him aside. “I am not supposed to tell you this, but a directive has come down from the top,” the official said. “You’re blacklisted: no renewal, no extension, no new contract. You’d better make plans.”
Thum went back to Oxford, then returned to Singapore with funding from the Open Society Foundations of George Soros and other donations big and small to start New Naratif, a web platform for research, journalism and art in South-East Asia.
In Singapore he is not alone in myth-busting. In 2014, he contributed to the book Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, which queried many PAP narratives. It regarded meritocracy as a cover for elitism and groupthink; low taxes and migrant labour benefiting the wealthy and punishing ordinary locals; the purchase of government flats a trap rather than economic security.
The writers saw themselves as helping point Singapore to a more sustainable prosperity, explains co-author Donald Low, an economist and former finance ministry official, in what seemed at the time a new era of flexibility and contested policy on the part of the PAP.
In 2011, in the economic doldrums after the global financial crisis, voters gave the party and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew – a severe shock. The PAP vote dropped by 6.5 points to 60 per cent, the lowest since 1963. The Workers Party gained six of the 87 seats, the best opposition result since Singapore broke from Malaysia in 1965. In a separate presidential election, a widely liked maverick came close to beating the PAP’s preferred candidate.
Lee responded with social policy reforms, hints of openness and some humble gestures, notably cutting his own salary by 36 per cent to $S2.2 million and that of his ministers to $S1.1 million. The PAP has long argued that these salaries, still the highest in the world for elected officials, are necessary to attract top talent and lessen corrupt temptations.
However, in 2015, Lee Kuan Yew died, aged 91. After an effusion of national mourning his son called a snap election, in which the PAP vote rebounded to nearly 70 per cent. “The result of 2015 removed whatever impetus or pressure there was, both within and without,” Low tells me, over beers and another local adaptation of British cuisine, crispy-toasted Spam. “The reform appetite has completely gone out the window in Singapore in the last three years.”
Dig deeper, he says, and Singaporeans are far from the “crazy rich Asians” of this year’s hit film set in the glittering south side of the island, with its heritage hotels, fusion cuisine and rooftop infinity pools.
For a few, the island is like this. A bungalow sold last month for $S95 million, reflecting the top-end wealth created by income tax rates that plateau at 22 per cent at $S320,000 a year and the absence of capital gains or inheritance taxes. IT start-ups are thriving. British inventor James Dyson has just chosen Singapore to manufacture his new electric car.
For the rest, things are pretty stagnant. Citizens are now only about 60 per cent of the 5.6 million population, their wages and job openings depressed by workers imported from the wider region. The 85 per cent living in Housing and Development Board flats that they have been persuaded to buy have seen values flatten. They are likely to decline steadily once their “ownership” gets to the halfway point of what are actually 99-year leases.
Low and Thum see few responses coming out of the PAP now.
The fall of the similar-vintage United Malays National Organisation in Malaysia’s election this year has been a new shock. Under the returned Mahathir Mohamad, Kuala Lumpur is breaking its mould, ending capital punishment while Singapore steps up its hanging, winding back ethnic Malay privilege, and exposing how Goldman Sachs bankers, some based in Singapore, helped loot the 1MDB fund of billions.
It’s attracting some envy. “Because really we are the same country,” Thum said. “We just got split up by politicians who couldn’t get along. There are so many similarities that Singaporeans look north and see a society that looks so similar to ours but is heading in a different direction, with hope and vision, things that we lack.”
Singapore’s problem is ennui, not massive scandal. PAP leaders look back, arguing about who best embodies Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. In the 2015 election one even boasted about the lack of promises, since promises can be broken.
Lee Hsien Loong is only 66 and highly competent, but looks older than his years, after overcoming two types of cancer, then fainting while speaking at a national day rally two years ago. He has said he will retire at 70, so the next election, widely expected to be next year, will be his last before handing over.
But to whom? The consensus is that a third-generation Lee family member, such as the Prime Minister’s pushy second son Li Hongyi, an IT specialist, could be a risk, especially after a public family squabble about the disposal of Lee Kuan Yew’s old house that diminished the dynastic aura.
The alternative comes down to three candidates among younger ministers, with senior military rank and closeness to Lee Hsien Loong their main selling points inside the party. “They’re all bland, interchangeable, boring, uninspiring male Chinese,” Thum says. “The problem is compounded by the fact there is a clear, popular leader that Singaporeans want.”
This is current Deputy Prime Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 61. A former head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and later Finance Minister, he is credited with the post-2011 reforms that helped the PAP rebound in 2015. But he was then shifted into a vague coordinating role in cabinet.
There is more history here. In 1987, Lee Kuan Yew used internal security powers again, in Operation Spectrum, to detain 22 young Catholic social activists, some of whom, after soft torture, confessed on TV to having been unwitting tools of the communists. Studying at the London School of Economics, Shanmugaratnam had mixed with one of the detainees, and an exiled Singaporean leftist lawyer, Tan Wah Piow. “I can only speculate that the PAP feels that Tharman is a useful tool but he can’t be trusted to lead because he will take Singapore in a very different direction, especially one away from the Lee family,” Thum said.
And of course, he is of Tamil descent. As Flinders University political scientist Michael Barr wrote in his recent book The Ruling Elite of Singapore: “Today the ideal Singaporean is no longer an English-educated Singaporean, but an English- and Mandarin-speaking Chinese.” Lee Kuan Yew got the PAP hooked on the notion that only strong individuals, like the ideal Confucian junzi (righteous gentleman), could preserve the nation, not strong and independent institutions.
Meanwhile, the PAP leadership plays it by its time-tested book of legal action against opposition figures: for defamation, contempt and sometimes minute financial irregularities, such as using office stationery for private purposes.
Three MPs of the Workers Party are in court facing charges of financial laxity in the local council they also run, with the government-owned media breaking away from what Low calls its usual “Panglossian cheerleading” to give the trial reams of coverage.
Even a stalwart of Lee Kuan Yew’s era, diplomat and “Asian values” proponent Kishore Mahbubani, fell foul of the system. His offence was an op-ed, after Chinese officials blocked the Hong Kong transit of Singapore armoured vehicles being shipped back from exercises in Taiwan, saying that small countries had to put up with such things. He was removed as dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.
In March, Thum himself appeared before the Singapore parliament’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, to argue among other things that a government defending Operation Coldstore had its own problems with truth. He found his academic credentials questioned for six hours in what was clearly a prepared ambush by the law and home affairs minister, K. Shanmugam, the government’s main political attack dog.
Still, history does have its rewards. After one talk, a man in the audience approached Thum. He had been a Coldstore detainee: the stigma of being a communist dupe had remained after his release. Now Thum had shown there was no such evidence. “The man said that because of my work, he can look his wife and children in the eye,” Thum said. “He said: ‘P.J., you’ve given me my pride and my dignity back.’ I will never forget the privilege to be able to make someone’s life better like that.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 10, 2018 as “Singapore sting”.
Hamish McDonald is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.
For almost a decade, the basic strategic issue for Southeast Asia has been how to respond to the changing dynamics of the Sino-American relationship as it enters a new phase of heightened long-term competition.
The U.S. and China will not quickly or easily reach a new modus vivendi. Southeast Asia will have to navigate a prolonged period of unusual uncertainty.
U.S.-China rivalry in the South China Sea has emerged as something of a proxy for their competition. Strategically, the situation is a stalemate. China will not give up its territorial claims and the deployment of military assets. But neither can China stop the U.S. and its allies operating in the area without risking a war it does not want because it cannot win.
The Trump administration has given the 7th Fleet more latitude to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. Japan and other U.S. allies are beginning to push back against China’s claims. The U.S. has signaled its intention to conduct even larger shows of force. This raises the risk of accidental clashes. Still, that risk does not at present seem unacceptably high.
A premeditated war is improbable. China will feel it must fight only if the U.S. supports Taiwan independence. This is unlikely. If an accidental clash should occur in the South China Sea or elsewhere, both sides will probably try to contain it. The Association of Southeast Nations ought to be able to cope with situations short of a U.S.-China war. ASEAN has previously managed far more dangerous circumstances. But this will require greater agility, unity and resolve than ASEAN has shown recently.
The most obvious manifestation of increased Sino-American competition is U.S. President Donald Trump’s “trade war.” Trade is the means; the objective is strategic competition. China accuses the U.S. of using trade to hamper its development. China is not wrong.
Although attention has focused on the tit-for-tat tariffs, the more significant aspect is new U.S. legislation to limit technology transfers to China, which sets new rules that future administrations will find hard to change.
Trump’s attitude toward China is no aberration, but reflects a bipartisan view — widely shared in business as well as politics — that the U.S. has been too accommodating to Beijing. Whoever succeeds Trump will likely stay tough on China.
The Trump administration has often been described as isolationist, but this is a distortion. Rather, it believes that this is an era of great power competition and is determined to compete robustly, with a preference for bilateralism over multilateralism, and a return to “peace through strength.”
China has misread the implications of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 by believing its own propaganda about the U.S. being in irrevocable decline. It missed the souring mood of U.S. business toward China, mainly over intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers. These concerns are shared by businesses in other developed economies, which support Trump’s goals although they may disagree about his methods.
President Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress speech a year ago abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s approach of “hiding light and biding time.” But his main focus was domestic. Xi said China’s new “principal contradiction” was between “unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.” This poses a fundamental challenge. Unless those needs are met — which will require immense resources — Communist Party rule could be at risk.
To find a new growth model, the party must balance control and market efficiency. An enhanced role for markets implies a loosening of control.
It remains to be seen what Xi will do. So far he seems to have opted for stronger control, and may have sharpened the problems he faces.
The Belt and Road Initiative is as much about this domestic challenge as China’s global ambition. The BRI exports the old growth model based on state-led infrastructure investment. The BRI buys time to find a new balance between the market and the party.
But the BRI rests on the foundation of U.S.-led globalization. Can it succeed if the world turns protectionist? China may well be the main loser if that global order frays. China cannot replace U.S. leadership. An open international order cannot be based on a largely closed Chinese model. BRI partner countries are pushing back, including in Southeast Asia, and implementation will be problematic.
China is not happy with every aspect of the post-Cold War order based on U.S.-led globalization. China wants its new status acknowledged. But Xi has championed and profited from globalization. The trade war is now hurting China and slowing growth. China may seek to become more self-sufficient technologically, but this will take time while the pressures are immediate.
Some have speculated that there may be opportunities for ASEAN if foreign companies shift production from China. This is possible. But doing so is easier said than done and no one will forgo the Chinese market. ASEAN members must also resist temptations to act as a backdoor into the U.S. for Chinese companies.
A prolonged trade war and concerns that China may have compromised the security of supply chains, are likely to upend existing supply links. This could seriously complicate ASEAN members’ efforts to move up the value chain, for example if U.S. groups relocate business back to America. In response, ASEAN must attract higher grade investments by improving infrastructure and skills, and assuring investors their technology is secure.
Low labor costs and a potential market of 700 million consumers are no longer sufficient to make Southeast Asia an attractive investment destination. The attitude of ASEAN members toward China and the extent to which they are beholden to it are likely to become important considerations in investment decisions.
BALI, Oct 12 — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has lamented ASEAN for not fully tapping its potential as an economic powerhouse, despite having abundant resources and a consumer market of nearly 700 million people.
ASEAN needs to move decisively to hedge against long-term uncertainties, while taking advantage of available opportunities.
Reforms such as the removal of non-tariff barriers and harmonization of ASEAN’s approach toward services and labor mobility could help make Southeast Asia a common production platform. Member states meanwhile should implement plans to upgrade skills and infrastructure. But internal political changes in some member countries could undermine the goal of closer economic integration. Unfortunately, ASEAN has, in recent years, become too timid for its own good.
Ambassador A Large Bilahari Kausikan, a former Permanent Secretary at Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is Chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.