This is meant to be a companion post to my recent FTRL one, but with more of a personal slant and not so much related to the blog.
If you know me personally, I can be very Sinophobic — disturbingly so, I will admit. But one of the great things about Lee Kuan Yew was that he knew to put the nation first before his own opinions, some of which could be quite controversial. And that’s an example I want to attempt to emulate.
Below I’ll put out some points in order to further explain my thinking, but that I felt out of place in the FTRL piece because they didn’t correspond very well to transportation issues.
The Skyrim Civil War
If you haven’t played Skyrim, stop reading now.
Otherwise, since I have plenty of time during the totally-not-a-lockdown “circuit breaker”, I’ve been playing Skyrim. Whiterun, the first major city you visit, is located smack in the middle of Skyrim, and is a major trade hub for the entire place.
While initially practicing a policy of neutrality and “being on Whiterun’s side”, Jarl Balgruuf the Greater, leader of Whiterun, threw in his lot with the Empire during the Skyrim Civil War. They say it’s because he personally disliked Ulfric Stormcloak. But more immediately, Ulfric Stormcloak did adopt a “with us or against us” policy, and after the attack on Whiterun, Jarl Balgruuf’s neutral stance became a pro-Empire stance.
I can’t help but notice similarities to the situation Singapore faces. We preach neutrality as well, but are increasingly dragged in certain directions by the world powers. As a small country reliant on global trade, this is unavoidable. Bilahari Kausikan has said as much, and that we must be on alert for the Great Powers’ attempts to paint us with a “with us or against us” brush. First and foremost, we must remember that we are Singaporean and are on Singapore’s side.
But no matter what we do, the day may come when we are forced to pick a side, just as Jarl Balgruuf was provoked by the Stormcloak attack on Whiterun. And looking at the state of international relations, it will probably come soon enough. So far it looks like alignment is more dangerous than neutrality; but we have to be prepared for that day when that is no longer the case.
We’re not in Zurich anymore
It should immediately stand out that Singapore is unable to maintain a Swiss policy of neutrality. The Swiss had managed to retain their neutrality through the two world wars, especially in WW2 where they were surrounded by Axis territory, and there were also Nazi sympathizers within Swiss borders attempting to orchestrate a Nazi takeover. And if all else failed, the Swiss could retreat into the Alps for the National Redoubt.
It helps that the Swiss Confederation had existed in some form or another for a hundred years or so, and that they have strong traditions and identity that can help hold the country together in times of crisis.
Singapore has none of that. Bukit Timah Hill pales in comparison to the mighty Alps. We’ve only been around for fifty-odd years, and of course we run the risk of CCP sympathizers trying to nudge us in that direction, much like the Swiss Nazi sympathizers. For obvious reasons, it is thus much easier to challenge Singaporean neutrality than it is to challenge the Swiss.
All we have is diplomacy, and when the great powers abandon the world of diplomacy (if not outright flooding it with bullshit), we are probably going to be in trouble.
No gods or kings, only Emperor Pooh under heaven
While Europe stagnated during the Middle Ages, the Chinese empires grew from strength to strength. It was estimated at some points in world history that the Imperial Chinese economy was the largest in the world. And if you wanted a part of trade in that economy, you better be ready to recognize Chinese superiority over your own king. That was true for the Thais, and that was true for the Vietnamese.
Of course, following the Enlightenment and rapid development in Europe, the Chinese empires did not take kindly to the arrival of the Western powers, let alone being asked to coexist with them in a community of nations. The Qianlong Emperor most notably gave the middle finger to the Macartney Embassy, sent by the British to persuade the Chinese government to further open up to trade. One thing led to another, and the infamous “century of humiliation” took place.
It’s probably not much of a surprise that Winnie the Pooh and his brand of nationalism wants to bring back the glory days of the Chinese empires, when they could do whatever they wanted, and if lesser countries had a problem with it, they could well cut off trade at their own peril. The public won’t have much of an issue with that, given decades of propaganda education — like what American WW2 films once said about the Nazi German education system: “the worst educational crime in the world”.
By now, I think it should be very clear that we cannot be afraid of “offending the feelings of 1.4 billion people”. We also should be very careful of whatever investments we do make there, with a very clear understanding that whatever we do, we put Singapore first, and that we are not afraid to cut our losses and run.
We may damn well be standing at where Britain was in 1940, as Nazi Germany menaced them with the Blitz. Maybe the Hong Kong protestors’ use of the term “Chinazi” is very well apt.
The proverbial “Jews of the East”
Racism and violence against ethnic Chinese is pretty prevalent in Southeast Asia. In fact, the term “Jews of the East” was coined by a Thai king back in the early 20th century to describe Chinese migrants to the Southeast Asian region.
Singaporeans also need not look any further than our own story of independence. LKY and his “Malaysian Malaysia” rhetoric was not exactly welcomed by the locals, which resulted in the Tunku driving the PAP out to form modern day Singapore on their own while they stuck with the Malay ethnostate and bumiputera policies. Heck, to further drive home the comparison with the Jews, we even approached the “Mexicans” — actually Israelis — for help in building the early SAF!
This means that Singapore has to tread carefully. We know that influence operations have sought to push Singapore in a more PRC-friendly direction. More tenuously, the “United Front” has sought to impose a more Chinese identity on the Singaporean Chinese people, and by extension the entire country. To me, this sounds particularly dangerous especially given our own history with our surrounding neighbours. Once it appears that Singapore may not be so sympathetic to their interests; and that we incline more towards their opponents due to ethnicity bias, things may start to heat up for us too. Remember Bilahari Kausikan‘s warnings.
Despite what the media portrays, observers would say that we aren’t really the best of chums with Malaysia and Indonesia. It only took the return of the old Mad Hatter to get relations across the Causeway into a massive knot, and even so one must assume the good doctor had a more moderating influence on his foreign policy compared to the Malay nationalists he had with him the first time around. As for Indonesia, well…
I am convinced that the prosperity of Singapore relies on a strong ASEAN — which frankly, there isn’t much hope for at this point in time. ASEAN is, so far, as useful as the League of Nations, which did nothing to stop Japanese aggression against China in 1931. But in any case, we need to personally do our part as a nation, and that means showing ASEAN partners we can be trusted to do the right thing for the region, leading by example. But in fairness, casting our lot in with ASEAN means that we adopt whatever “alignment” ASEAN may adopt, which may spell an end to our policy of neutrality.
However, if we don’t do our part in strengthening ASEAN, we stand on shaky ground if we want to criticize it. But if ASEAN falls despite Singapore’s best efforts, leaving us well and truly alone in the world, then at least we can say that we tried.