October 6, 2004
By Chen Hurng-yu
Translated by Perry Svensson
FOLLOWING the Asian financial crisis, a marked change has taken place in Singapore's East Asia policy: it no longer hides its pro-China attitudes. Having seen the inability of East Asian countries to respond to the financial crisis, Singapore began casting glances at China when the Chinese economy was further stabilized during the crisis.
The city-state took the opportunity to play up the importance of the rising Chinese economy, and its leaders have often used this situation to warn Taiwan that "time is not on Taiwan's side."
Singapore's leaders, in particular during the tenure of former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, ignored the multifaceted good relations between Singapore and Taiwan and instead openly said that Taiwan is not a nation. As the local saying goes, "you can dig deep in soft soil." Taking silence for weakness, Singapore has thus taken another dig at Taiwan by further intensifying its criticism.
Lee Hsien Loong took over as Singapore's prime minister on Aug 12. In a nationally televised address on Aug 22, he commented on the situation in the Taiwan Strait, saying that "any movement toward independence on Taiwan's part can only be detrimental to Singapore and the region. If Taiwan moves toward independence, Singapore will not recognize it. In fact, no Asian or European country will recognize it. China will start a war, and regardless of the outcome, Taiwan will suffer severely."
This tune was recently repeated in the UN General Assembly by Singapore's foreign minister. When Singaporean leaders discuss Taiwan loudly and widely, don't they know they are intervening in this nation's domestic affairs? What business do they have discussing Taiwan's domestic matters? According to the logic of Singapore's leaders, the reason for doing so is that they want to maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific region. This is nothing less than a confusion of cause and effect.
If such logic is acceptable, then Singapore should never have left the Federation of Malay States in 1965, since that certainly was something that could destabilize East Asia. Don't forget that Singapore then was considered the Cuba of East Asia. At the time, no East Asian nation, nor the US or the UK, opposed Singaporean independence on the grounds that it would threaten regional stability.
Nor should we forget that Singapore at the time also was trying to dispel suspicions of being a fifth column working for China overseas. It therefore maintained a low diplomatic profile, saying that it would establish diplomatic relations with Indonesia before it would with China, and tried to advocate the involvement of the great powers to maintain East Asian stability.
Now, however, Singapore has changed this policy and is completely biased toward China, not only lobbying other countries and bringing China into the Asian Free Trade Area, but playing up the size of the Chinese market and urging businesspeople to invest there. Singapore aims to become China's spokesman and standard-bearer in Asia by attacking Taiwan.
The main reason behind Singapore's change of policy is that its economy has reached a bottle-neck. What's more, the prospects of the Malaysian economy are looking good, with the electronics industry and others suddenly performing well. The new Malaysian leadership is implementing aggres-sive economic policies, and all evidence shows that the Malaysian economy is revving up and getting ready to take off. In addition, the democratization of Indonesia has been successful, and the succession of a popularly elected leader might kick-start its economy.
Whether politically or economically, these factors will put pressure on Singapore. The nation's only way to break out of this difficult situation is to hook its economy to China's economy. Doing so, however, will lead Singapore down the road most detrimental to its regional standing. The negative impact of neighboring countries' suspicions toward Singapore resulting from its China policies will outweigh the economic benefits of relying on Beijing.
While Singapore's past policy of maintaining balanced relations with all major powers was praised and supported by the other East Asian states, the total bias toward China in recent years has already become a source of Indonesian discontent. Malaysia has a long history of being displeased with Singapore, and the two often fail to see eye to eye on different issues. In the past, Singapore relied on maintaining a balance of power in its relationships with the major powers in order to survive.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US continues to be influential in East Asia. Singapore has also tried to cozy up to the US by allowing it to set up the logistics headquarters for its Seventh Fleet there. This situation has changed, and we should pay attention to the question of whether Singapore's introduction of Chinese power into East Asia will lead to a power realignment.
As a small nation, Singapore will not speak rashly in the international arena. Evidence clearly suggests that Singapore is trying to use China to improve its own international prestige and gain economic benefits.
Looking back at Singapore's contacts with China over the past few years, we might ask whether Singapore will get its way. The evidence is clear and does not need restating. Singaporean leaders are clear on the answer in their mind.
Just looking at the longstanding good relationship between the Taiwanese and Singaporean governments and peoples, Singapore has now completely disregarded the feelings of the Taiwan-ese people and on several occasions issued statements interfering with Taiwan's domestic affairs. This is very regrettable.
Finally, it will be easy to guess the outcome if Singapore, led by an ethnic Chinese government, continues to introduce Chinese power. An ethnic Chinese government has never been able to survive in East Asia.
Chen Hurng-yu is a history professor at National Chengchi University.