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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / International Relations and Security

A stronger and more distinct Singaporean-Chinese identity necessary for addressing China’s misperceptions of Singapore

I have always had mixed feelings about the statement “We are all Chinese” (我们都是华人), which often comes up when I meet mainland Chinese for the first time.  Emphasizing our shared ethnic identity helps build rapport but there is something uncomfortable about being treated (and allowing myself to be treated) as part of “one Chinese family” (中华大家庭).

Overseas Chinese are in a unique and complicated position of being intimately identified with China. “Overseas Chinese” could refer to both huaqiao (华侨) or huaren (华人) in Mandarin. Huaqiao (华侨) refer to citizens of China who are living abroad. Huaren (华人) are foreign citizens who are Chinese by descent and ethnicity.[1] Having a shared language, traditions and customs means that huaqiao, huaren and Chinese nationals are sometimes treated as an inseparable whole. This is the lens that many Mainland Chinese use to view Singaporean-Chinese, leading to misperceptions of the Singaporean-Chinese identity.

Misperceptions lead to unrealistic expectations

I recently had a conversation with a Mainland Chinese, who has never been to Singapore. She wrongly assumed that Singaporeans are all Chinese and all speak Mandarin. Of course, this was a factual inaccuracy that need to be corrected, and I gave a rather forceful (if predictable) explanation about how Singapore is a multiracial and multicultural country with four official languages and many more unofficial ones. After listening, she responded, “Why does it seem like Singaporean-Chinese are all so ‘pure’? Chinese people only get together with Chinese people.” (“可是怎么感觉新加坡华人都很纯呢?华人只跟华人在一起。”)

She was probably referring to the fact that despite the multi-racial culture that I claimed characterized Singapore, most Singaporean-Chinese people continue to marry other Singaporean-Chinese. Although her choice of word, ‘pure’, made me highly uncomfortable, it is reflective of the view that because “blood is thicker than water”, ethnic Chinese necessarily have a strong affinity to China.

To many Mainland Chinese, China is where their cultural roots lie. This narrative is often reflected in policy documents as well as speeches made by China’s political leaders. For example, when President Xi Jinping spoke at the 7th Conference for Friendship of Overseas Chinese Association in 2014, he said:

“There are tens of millions of overseas Chinese (海外侨胞) in various parts of the world, and everyone is a member of the Chinese family(中华大家庭). For a long time, generations of overseas Chinese have adhered to the fine traditions of the Chinese people (中华民族), not forgetting the motherland, not forgetting their ancestral homes, not forgetting the blood of Chinese people that flows in them (不忘身上流淌着中华民族的血液),enthusiastically supporting China’s revolution, construction, and reform. Overseas Chinese have made important contributions to the development of the Chinese people (中华民族), promoting the great cause of peaceful reunification of the motherland and enhancing the friendly cooperation between the Chinese people (中国人民) and the people of all countries.”[2]

In this speech, overseas ethnic Chinese, regardless of their nationality are commended and called on to continuously support the development of China and the “Chinese people”. This narrative which makes China the sole reference point for one’s ethnic Chinese identity allows for the blurring the lines between ethnic and national loyalty.

Scholars who study Singaporean-Chinese identity as well as mainland Chinese themselves buy into this narrative.

One mainland Chinese scholar criticized Singapore’s efforts to create a unique Singaporean-Chinese culture, saying that it is one “without roots and soul”.[3] Another scholars went as far to say that although Singaporeans “strangely resistant to accepting that they are a part of the Chinese people”,[4] “deep within their hearts they have not completely forgotten their distant hometown” and will one day “realize the pain of cutting off their roots”. [5]

For my undergraduate thesis, I surveyed 229 Chinese students and 212 Singaporean-Chinese students to understand how Mainland Chinese students perceived Singaporean-Chinese. About 38.9% of Mainland-Chinese students indicated that they see Singapore-Chinese simply as “Chinese people”, followed by 47.2% who see Singaporean-Chinese as “Foreigners that they felt closer to”. This is aligned with the China’s official policy to not treat Chinese who are foreign citizens as merely ordinary foreigners. In addition, 49.8% believe that Singapore is a “Chinese country” (华人国家).

This is worrying because an overemphasis on ethnic and cultural links leads to expectations on Singapore to be sympathetic and supportive of China. In my survey, I asked mainland Chinese students if they expected Singaporean-Chinese to support China and its initiatives on the basis that Singaporean-Chinese are ethnically Chinese. 31.4% believe that Singaporean-Chinese should support China in general, and 21.8% expect support for the Belt and Road Initiative. 23.6% also believe that Singapore-Chinese should be proud that China is becoming stronger as a country. Overall, 46.7% of the mainland Chinese students surveyed agreed that it is reasonable for China to expect Singapore to behave a certain way because of the cultural ties between the two countries.

Such expectations are concerning, especially in the foreign policy realm, because it translates into attempts by China to shape the opinions and interests of the Chinese community in Singapore about Chinese interests. Calls on the Chinese community in Singapore to cater to the demands of their ancestral homeland could also undermine the social glue that has held Singapore together these past 50 years.

Wu Xiao An, Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Director of the Peking University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Overseas recently acknowledged that “China’s diaspora policy is primarily driven by its national interests and foreign policy imperatives”. As China’s confidence as regional and global power increase, its desire to project cultural influence to achieve its foreign policy aims will only get stronger.

Correcting misperceptions with a stronger understanding of our unique identity

Correcting misperceptions that Mainland Chinese have of Singaporean-Chinese is necessary to preventing China from having unrealistic expectations of Singapore and Singaporeans.

This is not new. As the only country in the world that has a majority-Chinese population outside of China, Singapore has strived to develop a unique identity since independence. Political leaders have emphasized in their speeches that the Singaporean-Chinese identity is independent from China and rooted in Singapore’s multicultural, multiracial context. Singaporeans are taught to emphasize their national identity before their ethnic identity.

Results of my survey of Singaporean-Chinese students proved that this is not merely a view advocated by the government. Among the students surveyed, 84% indicated that they prioritized their national identity and another 14.2% indicated that they valued their national and ethnic identity equally. A vast majority of the Singaporean-Chinese students (96%) believed that Singapore has developed a unique local Chinese culture that is different from culture in China.

If both the government and the people assert that the Singaporean-Chinese identity is unique, why do mainland Chinese still have misperceptions? It is easy to put blame on the Chinese government’s diaspora strategy or ignorance of mainland Chinese. But I would argue, part of the problem has to do with Singapore’s emphasis of Chinese culture over other ethnic cultures.

For example, the Bicultural Studies Programme has a somewhat misleading name because it only focuses on Chinese history and culture. The Regional Studies Programme and the National Elective Tamil Language Programme are two existing programmes that allow student to expand their knowledge of the history and culture of the Malay Peninsula and India respectively. Why aren’t these programmes included under a larger Bicultural Studies umbrella? Singaporeans who have expertise in Malay and Indian culture are also bicultural talents in their own right; the Ministry of Education ought to emphasize that the bicultural talent that Singapore needs are not limited to people who understand China.

Much has also been written and said about the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools. SAP schools have rich heritage and play a key role in promoting the learning of Chinese language and culture. However, we can no longer ignore the detriments of the lack of ethnic diversity in SAP schools. How can we convincingly claim to have a unique Singaporean-Chinese culture and identity rooted in multiracialism, when Singapore’s ‘bicultural elites’ have barely any non-Chinese friends and only a superficial understanding of non-Chinese cultures?

Apart from Singapore’s heavy emphasis on Chinese culture, another reason why mainland Chinese continue to have misperceptions is because Singapore has yet to illustrate the unique features of the Singaporean-Chinese identity. The opening of the Singapore-Chinese Cultural Center in 2017 as well as the publication of “A General History of the Chinese in Singapore” were two important milestones in defining the Singaporean-Chinese identity. However, we need to more communicate and educate people on how the Singaporean-Chinese identity came about. One suggestion would be to include lectures on the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia in school curriculums, so that students can have a preliminary understanding of how the Singaporean-Chinese identity evolved. It is important that Singaporeans start understanding “Chineseness” not as an unchanging essence located in Mainland China but something that is fluid and renegotiated throughout history.

“Same-same but different” is how I would describe the Singaporean-Chinese identity, with relation China. This Chinese girl I spoke to probably assumed that since Singaporean-Chinese still have the “blood of Chinese people” in us, we are “pure”. Hopefully she will have a chance to visit Singapore one day and discover for herself the difference between Singaporean-Chinese culture and her own.

Image Source: The Independent

[1] 国务院侨务办公室,“华侨、外籍华人的定义是什么?”,2015年11月25日, (2018年4月23日)

[2] 陈悦、关腾飞:《习近平会见第七届世界华侨华人社团联谊大会代表》,《人民日报》2014年6月7日,年4月22日)

[3] 彭慧:“新加坡华族文化的建构与彷徨—以新谣运动与七月歌台为例”,《世界民族》,2015年,第5期,第66-72页。

[4] 张亚宏、陈良启:“海外泉籍华裔新生代的调查与思考———以泉州为例”,《龙岩学院学报》,2017年,第6期,第97-102页。

[5] 金进:“华校情结、代际区隔与国族意识——对新加坡华人国族意识建构历史的文学考察(1965—2015)”,《外国文学研究》,2017年,第3期,第166-174页。