by Bertha Henson
IT DIDN’T escape notice that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wasn’t at the biggest diplomatic event held in China over the weekend. The guest list was filled with luminaries including his counterparts in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. There were in all 29 heads of state or government. Singapore was represented instead by Minister Lawrence Wong.
Asked why the PM Lee wasn’t there, he said that the invitation was decided by the Chinese.
So on Sunday, PM Lee was giving out flowers to his Ang Mo Kio constituents on the occasion of Mother’s Day, rather than hobnobbing with other leaders over what seemed to be the most ambitious economic project in recent time.
His absence in Beijing is intriguing and only serves to raise questions about whether Singapore and China had papered over their differences since the seizure of Singapore Armed Forces vehicles by Hong Kong authorities in November last year. Or are the Chinese still pissed off at Singapore’s lack of empathy over its position on the South China Sea?
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You wonder if the invitation was extended to a Deputy Prime Minister or a senior co-ordinating minister like Mr Khaw Boon Wan. After all, Mr Wong, in charge of national development, told the media himself that Singapore didn’t have any infrastructure projects under the One Belt, One Road initiative. In fact, he spoke more about “brokering’’ opportunities for Singapore banking and city planners.
Even as it seemed that the PM had been snubbed by the Chinese, we’re told that a Chinese delegation is in Singapore to discuss leadership development. The Singapore side was led by Mr Teo Chee Hean, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service. The Chinese were headed by Mr Zhao Leji, Communist Party of China (CPC) Politburo member and Central Committee Organisation Department Minister.
Is this a meeting of political equals? Or should we be glad that a Chinese delegation has deigned to visit Singapore even as China chose not to invite its PM over for its biggest shindig? And we’ve been asserting that Singapore is its “all-weather friend’’ – who also wants to be a friend to all. In other words, we don’t want to take sides. The question then is the definition of an “all-weather friend’’.
All this illustrates the rather prickly situation of the little red dot. Obviously, the Chinese want Singapore firmly in its camp, and might even be wondering why a Chinese majority country isn’t behaving like Muslim-dominated Malaysia and Indonesia or a Catholic country like the Philippines.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung tried to explain this in TODAY : “In Singapore, we have a majority Chinese population. But other than the Chinese traditional culture, what is very deeply rooted in Singapore is a collective awareness that there is also the tradition and wisdom of the Malay and Indian cultures. We are small, and we are open. We have been very much affected by Western cultures, but basically, we are still an Oriental* society.” Presumably he means Oriental as Asian opposed to Occidental or Western, rather than the perception that Oriental means Chinese.
To business people here, the chief concern is probably whether the political atmosphere would affect the economic environment and their chance of exploiting the massive One Belt, One Road project.
It doesn’t help to read about the deals inked by Asean counterparts with China, even though most of them are for infrastructural projects which aren’t relevant to Singapore.
Is the initiative a boon or a bane for Singapore?
There is the question of whether the plans for rail links cutting through Europe, Asia and Africa would affect Singapore’s premier port status. Maybe not, as the One Belt initiative includes a maritime route which cuts through Singapore and it’s still cheaper to go by sea.
Then again, there is the other question of whether ships will skip Singapore since the Chinese are helping different countries build their ports and industrial parks along the route. “With the Belt and Road (initiative), new infrastructure will be built all around us… Trade routes will be adjusted as these new roads and ports get built and developed,” noted Mr Wong.
That’s why Singapore is going full-speed to expand its port and airport facilities to gear up for the competition, he said.
The competition looks daunting. We’ll need to make and save money, if we don’t want to ask for Chinese money. And even if we do, there will be an insistence that significant projects must remain in Singapore hands rather than those of foreign (Chinese) companies.
It’s interesting that after Chinese leader Mr Zhao met PM Lee at the Istana, a statement was released which affirmed the “strong and substantial relationship’’ between the two countries. (Of course, nothing was said about the snub)
The statement also harked back to the old days: “The two leaders noted that bilateral relations dated back to 1976, when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first visited China, and 1978, when then-PRC (People’s Republic of China) Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore. Mr Lee and Mr Deng provided a strong foundation for the friendship and cooperation that the two countries now enjoy.’’
That was a long, long time ago. Circumstances are different now and China is a mighty power with the ability to project its military and economic might. Singapore is its biggest investor and it is Singapore’s biggest trading partner. How do we proceed from here and on what basis so as to secure our own independence and prosperity? Despite exhortations about strong ties, everything still looks pretty murky.
*According to the Mandarin speech delivered by Mr Ong, the appropriate word is Asian.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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