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Amid rise of identity politics, S’poreans need to beware foreign manipulation: Bilahari Kausikan

SINGAPORE — Singaporeans must recognise that the global resurgence of identity politics affects them, and which identity they choose to emphasise when dealing with each other and the world is of vital importance, former permanent secretary of foreign affairs Bilahari Kausikan warned on Thursday (July 12) at a conference organised by OCBC.

Returning to a topic he has touched on several times recently, Mr Bilahari Kausikan singled out China whose influence attempts, he said, had been “particularly invidious because they attempt to foist a Chinese identity on multiracial Singapore.

Returning to a topic he has touched on several times recently, Mr Bilahari Kausikan singled out China whose influence attempts, he said, had been “particularly invidious because they attempt to foist a Chinese identity on multiracial Singapore.

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SINGAPORE — Singaporeans must recognise that the global resurgence of identity politics affects them, and which identity they choose to emphasise when dealing with each other and the world is of vital importance, former permanent secretary of foreign affairs Bilahari Kausikan warned on Thursday (July 12) at a conference organised by OCBC.

Being aware of this global trend – one of two which he said would shape the Republic’s future, the other being China’s rise - would blunt the efforts by foreign powers to influence and shape the Singapore identity, he said.

Returning to a topic he has touched on several times recently, Mr Kausikan singled out China whose influence attempts, he said, had been “particularly invidious because they attempt to foist a Chinese identity on multiracial Singapore. Their methods are subtle and need to be better understood”.

Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the narrative of China’s “Great Rejuvenation” — the assertion of a “form of Chinese identity” by itself – is often “evoked to divert Chinese netizens from inconvenient concerns and harness the energy of social media to the party’s goals” which are not confined to China’s borders, Mr Kausikan noted.

This was made clear in the title of a speech made in June 2014 by Chinese President Xi Jinping at a conference of overseas chinese associations: “The Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation is a Dream shared by All Chinese”. 

In January, after Mr Xi’s consolidation of power, Politburo member and former Foreign Minister 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,” Mr Kausikan pointed out.

In March, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office was incorporated into the United Front Work Department under the Central Committee of the CCP.

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

He cited an example during the recent Malaysian general election, where the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia Bai Tian “openly campaigned” for Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) president Liow Tiong Lai in his constituency in Bentong, Pahang.

Mr Kausikan said 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, he noted.

It was also wrong in the “overall context of Malaysia’s race-based politics”, and 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 this was “not just an aberration by one errant diplomat”, he said.

In 2015, “at a particularly racially fraught moment, the previous Chinese ambassador (to Malaysia) saw it fit to make his way to the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown”, Mr Kausikan recalled. 

“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,” he said.

Such a policy is “very short-sighted” on the part of China, he reiterated.

Mr Kausikan said that since his retirement as ambassador-at-large in May, he has travelled extensively in South-east Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. “Complaints about similar behaviour by Chinese diplomats and officials are all too common in all these regions,” he said.

Nevertheless, he made clear that countries, including Singapore, would be foolish to shun working with China.

“But countries are going to be increasingly cautious, (they) 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,” he said.

For Singaporeans, it means that it is “vitally important” which identity they choose to emphasise in their “social and political interactions with each other and the world”.

Singapore’s special multiracial identity remains malleable for a young country, he stressed.

“I think it will be at least another generation, if not more, before our special identity becomes unassailable,” he said. “And if the global trend of the resurgence of identity persists, it may never be entirely unassailable.”

Referring to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, Mr Kausikan said 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”, he noted.

However, the government cannot do everything and often faces constraints. “An educated public is the best defence against external influence,” he said.

HOW CHINA’S ‘INFLUENCE OPS’ WORK

Mr Kausikan said he has been criticised for singling out the Chinese even though all countries conduct influence operations.

“That is true but trite. Just because everybody does something does not make it right or less dangerous,” he said.

On Thursday, the Straits Times published a response from China’s ambassador to Singapore Hong Xiaoyong to a June 27 speech by Mr Kausikan, where he spoke about China’s influence operations.

Mr Hong said the speech was a “far cry from reality and leaves an unfavourable impression of China on others”. He added that China is no different from every country which “hopes to gain recognition and support for its development philosophy and foreign policies”. Mr Hong said: “Unlike some countries, however, China does not impose its ideology and development model."

At the OCBC forum on Thursday, Mr Kausikan also spoke briefly about how Chinese influence operations work. An “overly simplified but superficially plausible narrative” of China’s rise is spread by various means, and this would be believed by most people “who are not very interested in international affairs (and) do not realise they are being fed over-simplifications”. He added: “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”, he said. “The aim is to instill a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitability and desirability of a Chinese identity for multiracial Singapore.”

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.

But Mr Kausikan stressed that while Singapore’s national interests will align with others’, 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”.

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