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Why Singaporeans need to understand two global trends that will shape nation’s future

China’s rise and the resurgence of identity politics are two over-arching global trends which could shape Singapore’s future and should be understood “clearly and clinically” by Singaporeans, said former permanent secretary of foreign affairs Bilahari Kausikan on Thursday (July 12).

Neither the US nor China finds their ambivalent relationship comfortable, says Mr Kausikan, noting how Mr Trump’s approach towards trade and Mr Xi’s attempt to find an alternative to China’s interdependence with the US through his Belt and Road Initiative both reflect this discomfort.

Neither the US nor China finds their ambivalent relationship comfortable, says Mr Kausikan, noting how Mr Trump’s approach towards trade and Mr Xi’s attempt to find an alternative to China’s interdependence with the US through his Belt and Road Initiative both reflect this discomfort.

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China’s rise and the resurgence of identity politics are two over-arching global trends which could shape Singapore’s future and should be understood “clearly and clinically” by Singaporeans, said former permanent secretary of foreign affairs Bilahari Kausikan on Thursday (July 12). Speaking at a forum organised by OCBC Bank, he also explained why he has been outspoken about attempts by China to influence and shape the Singapore identity.  Below is a transcript of his speech.


A small city-state cannot insulate itself from the world.

A small country is never without agency – the ability to determine its own fate -- but is nevertheless more a price-taker than a price-setter.

We must accept that we are exposed and make the best of it, avoiding dangers, while taking advantage of the opportunities.

To do so, we must first understand –  and understand as clinically, indeed as cold-bloodedly, as possible – the nature of our exposure.

I thank the organizers for giving me the opportunity to share my views on this crucial subject.

Most Singaporeans do not think very much about international affairs, or if they do, think only cursorily. They cannot be blamed for doing so, but this is a serious liability.

I have identified two inter-related, mutually reinforcing, and over-arching global trends that I believe are of particular importance for Singaporeans to understand clearly and clinically.

The first is the rise of China. This is a term far more often loosely bandied about than precisely defined or even understood, in fact a trope.

A trope is not inaccurate, and China’s re-emergence as a major regional and global actor is a geopolitical fact.

A trope is an over-used but under-examined term, and China’s rise is usually described by a simplistic and misleading narrative: misleading because it is simplistic.

Let me try to inject some complexity into our understanding of the term.

China’s rise is both a symptom and consequence of a far broader and more complex re-ordering of international order.

For those of us born in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or earlier, the most important geopolitical event of our adult lives was the end of the Cold War.

In a historical instant – miraculously without much bloodshed – the international structure that, directly or indirectly, and irrespective of whether or not we were conscious of it, shaped almost every facet of our lives for decades, suddenly dissolved.

What will replace it, is not yet clear.

Despite its many dangers, the Cold War international order was clear and simple: binary in structure.

You were either on one side or another. Even if you tried, or pretended to be, non-aligned, you essentially defined yourself in relation to this binary structure.

This entrenched a mode of thought – a binary view of the world -- that is still a powerful, if usually unconscious, but inappropriate influence on how we understand the term ‘China’s rise’. 

To state my essential argument upfront: China’s rise is not necessarily America’s decline. The post-Cold War world is complex not binary.

US-China relations are of course, the most important bilateral relationship in the world.

But after the Cold War, all major power relationships are no longer only one thing or another.

The US and China are not natural partners, nor are they inevitable enemies. Their relationship is simultaneously profoundly interdependent in a way that is historically unique between major powers, and infused with deep strategic mistrust.

No matter how a relationship may be described – alliance or strategic partnership, or even if no label is attached to a relationship – to some degree, ambivalence characterizes almost every major power relationship.

For example, US-Japan relations, Europe-Russia relations, US-ROK relations, Sino-Japanese relations, China-India relations, China-Russia relations, US-Russia relations, among other combinations.

Neither the US nor China finds their ambivalent relationship comfortable.

The Trump administration’s approach towards trade reflects this discomfort; so does President Xi Jinping’s attempt to find an alternative to China’s interdependence with the US through his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

And yet the BRI and China’s rise both rest on the foundation of post-Cold War, American-led globalization.

Can the BRI succeed if the US and China stumble into a trade war or the world turns protectionist? I don’t think so.

China was the main beneficiary of post-Cold War globalization; it may well be the main loser if that order frays because America under the Trump administration no longer embraces an open and generous definition of leadership.

It is important to recognize that Mr. Trump is a symptom not a cause. Like Mr. Obama before him, he is a reaction to the hubris that contaminated American policy after the end of the Cold War.

Without the balance imposed by the Soviet alternative, the American idea was taken to extremes. Taken to extremes, even the worthiest idea becomes self-subverting.

Hubris drew the US into interminable wars in the Middle East, leading to public disillusionment with the traditional political establishment and traditional American values.

When Mr Obama spoke of ‘change’ he was not primarily speaking about change abroad but change at home – in other words, about putting ‘America First’. Mr Obama and Mr Trump are different iterations of the post-Cold War metamorphosis of American values

Without the existential challenges of the Cold War, why should Americans bear any burden or pay any price? Time to put one’s own house in order.

This is not a retreat from the world, but it implies a different concept of American leadership.

Mr Trump is not an aberration that will pass with the next administration. He is a correction to the extremes of the immediate post-Cold War; perhaps an over-correction, but democracies almost always over-correct.

His successor may be less flamboyant and more predictable.

But the probability is that whoever succeeds Mr Trump will represent, at least in some degree, the same political phenomenon.

The universality of the American model, particularly in its political aspects, was always a delusion.

But America was able to lead because American openness and generosity allowed variants of its economic aspects – China after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms is itself an example – to develop around the world and attach themselves to the US.

Globalisation was the name by which we came to describe this process after the Cold War.

When Mr Xi stood up at Davos and Danang and Boao to deliver eloquent defences of globalisation, he was implicitly making the same basic point as when the American establishment or Europeans denounce Mr Trump as a threat to the so-called liberal international order.

That basic point is anxiety about what this means for international order now that America is no longer prepared to be as open or as generous as before, and probably will not be for the foreseeable future.

The resulting uncertainties affect all countries, China included. The looming prospect of a trade war is one indication.

China’s rise must be seen in the context of the gradual re-emergence of a more multipolar world, after a historically brief and exceptional period of unchallenged American preeminence.

One reason for the evolution of multipolarity, is the ambivalence of major power relationships I earlier mentioned.

Multipolarity is the consequence of every major power hedging and balancing simultaneously.

Multipolarity and China’s rise therefore implies only relative, not absolute, adjustments of global power. It is not as if the only alternative to an ‘American world’ is a ‘Chinese world’.

And do not forget that the most significant things about America do not necessarily happen in Washington DC.

What happens in American universities, research laboratories, major American corporations, on Wall Street, and in the 50 states of the Union are often more important.

The US will not suddenly disappear. Nor will Europe, Russia, Japan and India vanish.

They are all still and will remain, substantive global players, albeit not on the same scale and scope as the US or China.

The paradox and challenge is that a multipolar world still rests on institutions, norms and practices established by American leadership.

No other power, either singly or in combination, is a substitute for American leadership.

China alone is not an alternative.

To lead, China must work with America. It can supplement, but not substitute for, American leadership.

This is for the simple reason that an open global order cannot be led on the basis of a still largely closed Chinese model.

The 18th Party Congress of 2012 recognised that the Chinese model that led to the spectacular growth of the 1990s was not sustainable over the long-term.

The 18th Party Congress recognised that a new normal of slower, but still respectable, growth would over the long-term have to depend on enhanced market efficiencies.

This posed a fundamental – perhaps even existential – question for China.

A bigger role for the market implies a loosening of control. But how to give the market a greater role without risk to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party?

And bear in mind that there is no practical alternative to Communist Party rule for China.

By the time of the 19th Party Congress in 2017, there was still no clear answer to how and how much more China should open up.

It remains to be seen how Mr Xi will deal with this. He will have to manage many contradictory considerations.

Most commentary on Mr Xi’s speech at the 19th Party Congress focused on China’s global ambitions.

There is nothing unusual about a big country having big ambitions. But the main focus of Mr Xi’s speech was in fact domestic.

Insufficient emphasis was given to his redefinition of the new ‘principal contradiction’ facing China – between unbalanced growth and the people’s ever-growing desire for a better life and, consequently, on the need to revitalise the Communist Party and strengthen its control in order to deal with the challenges.

The new ‘principal contradiction’ prescribes an extremely lengthy and complex domestic economic, social and political agenda for China, now complicated by the prospect of a trade war.

Dealing with this agenda will take a long time – how long no one can say for sure – and will require immense resources.

China’s resources, while vast, are not infinite or inexhaustible.

Replenishing resources on the scale needed, requires continued growth. Sustaining growth requires a new model.

But Mr Xi’s insistence on stronger Party control may have sharpened the fundamental challenge of finding a new balance between Party control and economic efficiency.

The BRI attempts to finesse the challenge by externalising and exporting the Chinese growth model – based on heavy reliance on SOE-led infrastructure investment -- that the 18th Party Congress had already in 2012 recognised was unsustainable within China.

The BRI buys time to find a new balance between the market and the Party but does not in itself prescribe the new balance or a new sustainable model.

There is now growing international awareness in countries as diverse as Colombia, Malaysia and Pakistan, among others, that the externalisation of China’s internal challenges is not without liabilities to recipient countries.

This has resulted in greater caution if not out-right push-back. The BRI is not going to unfold along a smooth trajectory.

None of this implies that China will fail. I don’t think China will fail.

But awareness of these complexities presents a more nuanced and qualified understanding of the trope of ‘China’s rise’ than is usually presented by officials, intellectuals and academics of a certain ilk, or the media.

The second trend is a global resurgence of real or imagined identities of various kinds -- national, tribal, ethnic, gender, religious or secular -- resulting in a global resurgence of identity politics.

Globalisation may have made the world ‘flatter’ – in Thomas Friedman’s vivid phrase -- and facilitated connections, whether physical, perceptual or mental, between once distant corners of the world.

But not everyone is comfortable with the daily intrusion, with a historically unprecedented immediacy, of the alien ‘other’ into their lived experience.

In every country, only a minority is truly comfortable with a flat world, and have the economic and mental resources to benefit from and cope with a flat world.

Economic inequalities – both between states and within states – attendant upon and perhaps inherent in globalisation, accentuate the discomfort of the majority.

The result is too often a retreat into identity politics of various kinds to try to recreate the comfortable certainties, real or imagined, of different times now regarded as under threat.

But there is no going back. We can only live forwards.

At bottom, identity politics is the result of political dysfunctionality.

Failure to mitigate the inequalities; failure to convincingly communicate the inevitable trade-offs of policy in a globalised world where sovereignty is longer absolute and even the most cherished values must be subject to compromise; failure to find the political courage to make hard decisions and tell electorates hard truths.

The European Union, perhaps more so than in the US, is where the political dysfunctionalities were most stark.

Jean Paul Junker, President of the European Commission, best framed the essential issue: “We all know what to do” he said, “We just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”

The result was Brexit and the rise of right-wing, sometimes neo-fascist, movements.

These were other manifestations of the same phenomenon I described in the US.

The failures are structural, and not just the consequence of the inadequacies of individuals or specific policies.

They reside in the nature of politics and political systems as they have evolved in the 21st century and, at least to some degree, affect us all.

Governance is becoming more difficult everywhere. The mitigation of globalisation’s downsides is accordingly too often sub-optimal.

Democracy is to a degree dysfunctional by design: to prevent the over-concentration of power in governments and preserve space for individuals.

Democracies of all kinds are based on the idea that sovereignty resides in The People. This is preferable to all other alternatives. But who are ‘The People’?

In the 21st century, social media – which has become the primary source of information for most people -- and the algorithms that drive them, facilitates and accentuates the fragmentation of the idea of ‘The People’.

Increasingly, we only know and listen to what we already think we know and want to believe. 

This has loosened the sense of national community without which democracy cannot function.

As community fragments, the very idea of the national interest is contested, as different segments of ‘The People’ demand often contradictory rights as entitlements.

Time-frames shorten, policy is very quickly pulled in different directions and becomes sub-optimal.

The Chinese political system is better placed to pursue long term goals than western systems. But it is not without its own dysfunctionalities.

The concentration of power evident under President Xi, the abandonment of Deng Xiaoping’s principle of collective leadership by the abolition of term limits, and Mr Xi’s insistence on stronger Party control and discipline, have been compared to Mao Zedong.

The comparison is false. But something akin to a neo-Maoist single point of failure may have been reintroduced into the Chinese system.

A single wrong decision can have far-reaching effects.

The CCP’s concern over the potentially subversive power of social media is evident.

The narrative of China’s ‘Great Rejuvenation’ under CCP leadership – the narrative is itself the assertion of a form of Chinese identity – is often evoked to divert Chinese netizens from inconvenient concerns and harness the energy of social media to the Party’s goals.

Those goals are not confined to within China’s international boundaries.

The title of a speech in June 2014 by Mr Xi to the 7th Conference of Overseas Chinese Associations makes this clear: “The Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation is a Dream shared by All Chinese”.

In January 2018, after Mr Xi’s consolidation of power, Politburo member and former Foreign Minister and State Counsellor, Yang Jiechi, told the National Overseas Chinese Conference that the government should expand and strengthen “Overseas Chinese Patriotic Friendly Forces” in the service of the ‘Great Rejuvenation’ of the Chinese nation.

In plain language, what this means is that overseas Chinese should be persuaded, induced, or in extremis, coerced, into accepting allegiance to China as at least part of their identity.

In case the message was still not clear enough, in March 2018, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office was incorporated into the United Front Work Department under the Central Committee of the CCP.

This is leading China into very complex, indeed dangerous, territory. China’s navigation of the complexities has in many cases been clumsy.

Let me give you one example.

During the recent Malaysian general elections, the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia openly campaigned for the President of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) in his constituency in Bentong, Pahang.

This was so wrong in so many dimensions that I hardly know where to begin to enumerate the mistakes.

For a start, it was a clear violation of the principle enshrined in Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of non-interference by diplomats in the internal affairs of their host countries.

It was wrong in the overall context of Malaysia’s race-based politics; it was wrong in the specific context of this particular general election where the opposition led by Dr. Mahathir made much of the ruling government’s indebtedness to China.

And of course, the greatest mistake of all was that it did not work. The gentleman in question lost his seat.

This was not just an aberration by one errant diplomat.

Three years ago, at a particularly racially fraught moment, the previous Chinese ambassador saw it fit to make his way to the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. 

Close to where only a few days previously the police had to use water-cannons to disperse a potentially violent anti-Chinese demonstration, the ambassador read out a statement that, among other things, implied that China would not stand idly by if overseas Chinese were threatened.

But I cannot say that such tactics are without effect.

Earlier this year, a Malaysian Chinese academic told me that he and other Malaysian Chinese regarded the Chinese embassy as, and I quote, “an alternative source of authority”, which indicates that this person at least had internalised the message.

That the MCA President did not see the liability to himself of the Chinese ambassador campaigning for him and stop him from doing so, strongly suggests that he too had probably internalised the message.

However, I do not think that every Malaysian Chinese or every overseas Chinese thinks in the same way as these gentlemen.

In fact, most probably don’t, because they are aware of the dangers to themselves, particularly in South-east Asia where overseas Chinese communities are very diverse and their role has always been sensitive.

But precisely because this is so, it is a very short-sighted policy on the part of China.

I can only explain this policy and behavior as the result of a form of cultural autism.

The factors I mentioned earlier -- Mr Xi’s concentration of power and insistence on greater Party discipline -- have created echo chambers where Chinese diplomats and officials hear only what is in accordance with pre-existing beliefs, resulting in situations where instructions to mobilise overseas Chinese in China’s service are blindly followed.

Nor is this kind of behavior confined to Malaysia or countries where there are large overseas Chinese communities.

Since my retirement, I have travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Complaints about similar behaviour by Chinese diplomats and officials are all too common in all these regions; in fact, so common that it is becoming somewhat tiresome to listen to them.

Cultural autism is one of the self-created obstacles to the smooth implementation of the BRI that China is experiencing from recipient countries around the world.

And as the media reports on the problems that some countries have faced, awareness spreads.

This does not mean that countries – ourselves included – will or should shun working with China. That would be foolish.

But countries are going to be increasingly cautious, will push-back when the terms of engagement are too onerous, and they will seek to forge relationships with as many other major powers as possible.

This is another reason why I believe the post-Cold War international order is eventually going to be multipolar.

What does this mean for us?

Thoughtful Singaporeans will recognise that we are not unaffected by the global resurgence of identities. Nor are we uninfluenced by more deliberate attempts to shape identities.

My point in drawing attention to the global resurgence of identities is not to deny the power of identity. That would be futile.

Identity is an inescapable part of human nature, and all of us have multiple identities.

My point is that which identity we choose to emphasise in our social and political interactions with each other and the world is vitally important.

Are we Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, or are we Singapore Christian, Singapore Muslim, Singapore Hindu or Singapore Buddhist?

Are we Chinese, or Indian, or Malay, or are we Singapore Chinese, Singapore Indian or Singapore Malay?  

And is it our choice and only our choice?

The question arises because the global assertion of identities is not always a phenomenon that arises spontaneously, apart from external volitions and agendas.

Hierarchy is often embedded – concealed -- in the concept of identity.

There is no logical reason why it should be so, but nevertheless it is so as an observable reality; sometimes explicitly as a matter of state policy, and sometimes implicitly in social practice. The urge to impose hierarchy is perhaps inherent in human nature.  

Examples are not difficult to find: Bumiputra over non-Bumiputra; pribumi over non-pribumi; Javanese over Sumatrans and other ethnic groups in the outer islands of the Indonesian archipelago; Buddhist Thai over ethnic Malay-Muslim citizens in southern Thailand; Buddhist Bamar over the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar.

In China, Han over non-Han PRC citizens of say, Tibet and Xinjiang, among others; In India, Hindus over Indian citizens of other religions; In Sri Lanka, Sinhalese over Tamils and Buddhists over other religions.

Even in a liberal democracy like Japan, ethnic Japanese over Japanese citizens of Korean ancestry; Sunni over Shia in Saudi Arabia or vice-versa in Iran. 

Closer to home, Arab versions of Islam are privileged over Islam as traditionally practiced in Southeast Asia;

Evangelical variants of Christianity are regarded as more authentic by their followers than the Christianity of established churches; Western liberal democracy is regarded as superior to other political systems.

In Europe and the US, a White Christian identity is being reasserted over minority immigrants of other faiths and Black-Americans, not entirely without success.  

This list could easily be extended.

Hierarchy is a vertical organising concept. Moreover, the assertion of hierarchy is all too often violent, as a moment’s reflection on the examples I gave will demonstrate.

Since 1965, independent Singapore has been organized horizontally on the basis of multi-racial meritocracy and, except for a few episodes in our early history, peacefully.

Singapore is of course not perfect. There is no perfection to be found except in heaven.

But the principle by which we by an explicit political choice, decided to organise ourselves is certainly exceptional.

That political choice in 1965 was the foundation of our subsequent stability and prosperity.

The horizontal organization of society that we have chosen is not a natural or self-regulating state of affairs.

The centrifugal forces exerted by the global resurgence of identity threatens to pull our society in different directions.

The many examples I listed – and that list is only partial -- indicate that hierarchy is perhaps more natural, or at least far more common.

Singapore is only 53 years old. That is but the blink of an eye in the sweep of history.

I do not doubt the reality of the Singapore identity, particularly among young Singaporeans. But is it shared by all   Singaporeans?

Ethnic pride is a natural human instinct. But it is only a tiny step from pride to chauvinism. Should we gamble that nobody will, for whatever reason, ever be tempted to take that step?

Being a young country, the Singapore identity is still malleable, particularly since the Singapore identity premised on multiracial meritocracy, is more exceptional than many Singaporeans may realise.

I think it will be at least another generation, if not more, before our special identity becomes unassailable.

And if the global trend of the resurgence of identity persists, it may never be entirely unassailable.

The political choice we made in 1965 has therefore to be continually defended, if necessary by the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state. And we have done so.

That is also why, at some political cost, the government amended the Constitution last year to allow a Malay-Muslim woman to be elected President, the highest representative and symbol of Singapore.

But the state and government cannot do everything and often faces constraints. An educated public is the best defence against external influence.

That is why, since my retirement, I have written and spoken about attempts by foreign powers to influence and shape the Singapore identity.

One of the criticisms I have encountered is why single out the Chinese because all countries conduct influence operations.

That is true but trite. Just because everybody does something does not make it right or less dangerous.

In fact, an American diplomat once tried to impose a western political identity on Singapore.

He encouraged a prominent but disgruntled Singaporean to form an opposition party, and promised him safe refuge in America should things go wrong for him. The diplomat was caught and expelled.

But Chinese attempts are particularly invidious because they attempt to foist a Chinese identity on multiracial Singapore. Their methods are subtle and need to be better understood.

I will not repeat in detail what I have previously said on this subject, except to point out that Chinese influence operations make use of the two global trends that I discussed today, which is why I focused on them.

This is in brief, how it works: An overly simplified but superficially plausible narrative of China’s rise is spread by various means.

Most people who are not very interested in international affairs, do not realise they are being fed over-simplifications and swallow them.

Inducements and the possibility of coercion, typically economic, encourages others to suspend their critical faculties or play along.

Appeals to ethnic pride are made to yet others.

In the context of the global resurgence of identity politics, all this creates an environment that makes some Singaporeans susceptible to psychological manipulation.

The aim is to instill a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability and desirability of a Chinese identity for multiracial Singapore.

After all, if China’s rise and America’s decline are inevitable, why not get on the right side of history?

The ultimate objective is to get Singaporeans – and not just Chinese Singaporeans -- to pressure the government to align Singapore’s national interests with China’s core interests.

Some of our national interests will in fact be aligned with Chinese interests.

Just as some of our interests will align with American interests, or Japanese interests, or Russian interests, or Indian interests, or French, Australian, Malaysian, or Indonesian interests; or for that matter, the interests of Swaziland or Vanuatu.

But it must always be our national interests and if there are alignments of interests, they must be determined by our choices and not because of manipulation by any foreign country.

On that note, I will end.

I hope I have given some of you a new way of thinking about some of the things that are happening around us.

In any case, I thank all of you for listening to with patience and courtesy.

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