Avoid international relations of ethnicity

ASAD LATIF

Singapore has come in second on the China Index, a ranking that measures China's global influence. Cambodia, written off by many as a quasi-vassal state of China, is first.

I am not terrified by this sign of Singapore's closeness to China. A Chinese Singaporean remarked in a letter to The Straits Times recently: "I believe most Singaporeans are well-informed enough to understand that China has achieved much in the last few decades and its policies and actions have far-reaching consequences and implications for all nations, including Singapore.

"It seems natural for Chinese Singaporeans to have some special affinity for China because of racial and cultural closeness. In addition, most Chinese Singaporeans will have some emotional attachment to China since their ancestors came from there."

The same holds true of Malays and Indians in Singapore.

It would be a strange Malay who refused to notice how Malaysia and Indonesia have overcome the economic and political struggles of their early years of independence to arrive at a position of robust confidence today.

According to the World Bank, Malaysia is one of the most open economies in the world with a trade to GDP ratio averaging over 130 per cent since 2010. Indonesia, the largest economy in South-east Asia, is the world's fourth-most populous nation and 10th largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity. A degree of ancestral satisfaction would be natural among Malay Singaporeans at this happy state of current affairs.

Indian Singaporeans, too, take pride in the economic strides that India has made since its economic liberalisation in the 1990s and of the security that it has achieved since having gone nuclear in 1998.

After all, since Singapore recognises the agency of ethnicity (and hence ancestry) in state-building, there is nothing wrong with its different ethnic groups deriving a degree of existential comfort from the fact that their mother-countries are thriving.

So, why should it be anti-national in any sense for Chinese Singaporeans to take pride in the ascendancy of China? It is not.

Indeed, China is not asserting its claims to being a great power. It is resuming a role that it played before the violent intrusion of European colonial powers into Asian affairs in the 16th century disrupted the largely benign Sinic, Indic and Arabic influences in the region. Ties of trade and culture were terminated by terms of dominance. South-east Asia became a helpless adjunct of European history.

The recovery of historical space lost to colonialism because of the rise of Asian powers is beneficial. China is leading the charge.

Yet, there are perils in celebrating global changes in ethnic terms.

China, Malaysia, Indonesia and India are ethnic powers in the sense that they are present in the demography of Singapore, which is reflected in the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others model of ethnic management here.

The West, particularly the United States, is not an ethnic power in the Singapore context.

Certainly the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (the five countries of the Anglosphere) are ruled by largely male Christian white elites, but their foreign policies are not tailored to preserving the global elitism of males, Christians or whites.

Rather, the West is post-ethnic in the sense that its claim to the global future rests on its advocacy of a civic and secular nationalism that transcends quotidian barriers of race and gender on the basis of a progressive democracy.

Of course, this post-ethnic vision of the world is riddled with imperfections. But a vision inspires humans when it exists. The Western version of humanity transcends, in principle although not in practice, the ethnic influence that a large power can exert on a small nation.

Within this construct, Singaporeans are called upon to cherish their ancestral cultures. That is not the same, however, as holding Singapore's multiracialism hostage to the centrifugal attraction of great ethnic powers. Singapore's social model has come a long way in integrating its people without assimilating any of them.

That record must survive the rise of new great powers.

asad@sph.com.sg

Asad Latif is an editorial writer for The Straits Times.

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