Sunday, September 24, 2017

Commentary: The growing importance of China studies with Singapore characteristics

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s official visit to China and its many positive outcomes are a welcomed assurance that Singapore-China bilateral ties are again making headway.

Singapore, which will take over as ASEAN chair next year, will promote stronger cooperation between the association and China. The leaders of both countries also discussed the potential of new and existing collaborations, including Singapore’s multiple roles in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The numerous possibilities for mutual cooperation between the two countries reaffirm the importance of nurturing Singaporeans who can, in their respective fields, tap into these opportunities and serve as bridges between Singapore and China.

It is in this spirit that the Singapore Government has long recognised the value of an education in China studies.

One of its key initiatives was the introduction of China studies as a subject at the pre-university level from 2007. The programme seeks to give students a strong understanding of China’s economic, socio-political and geopolitical development.

This timely move, according to the Ministry of Education, was in response “to a need for Singaporeans to acquire a good understanding of China and the Chinese mindset, and to develop a deep appreciation of Chinese culture” in the context of China’s rise as a regional and global power.

Today, some may question the value of an education in China studies given the deluge of information about China freely available on the Internet.

While it may be true that Singaporeans know more about China today than compared with a decade ago, their knowledge, gleaned from disparate online sources and acquired out-of-context, is often shallow and detached from geopolitical complexities.

This is evident from how many Singaporeans responded to the Terrex incident by suggesting that our leaders should not have voiced out in the South China Sea territorial disputes considering that Singapore is not a claimant state. As their reasoning goes, Singapore is a small country whereas China is big and hence we should not have offended China.

This view betrays a woeful ignorance about how upholding a rules-based international order and the freedom of navigation in international sea lanes is of paramount importance to Singapore’s interests.

Amid the fast-changing geopolitical landscape, it is perhaps time to rethink how we may best educate Singaporeans about China.


A student originating from China once remarked in class that my explanation of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” ­departed from how it was understood in China. ­I had pointed out that “Chinese characteristics” is essentially a catch-all phrase to rationalise the inclusion of non-socialist elements in the ideology.

And that is precisely how China studies taught in Singapore should be understood: China studies with Singapore characteristics, grounded in the broader context of regional geopolitics from a Singapore perspective.

There are three reasons why the teaching of China studies with Singapore characteristics is so crucial, in view of the rising power’s growing reach in Asia.

First, it serves to forestall or guard against a disturbing trend that, hopefully, has not arrived in Singapore.

In her New York Times op-ed, Merriden Varrall, Director of the East Asia Programme at Australia’s Lowy Institute, raised concerns about Chinese students’ objection to any critical view of China in the Australian classroom and their proclivity to align themselves with the Chinese Communist Party’s official stance.

Varrall’s account was corroborated by a recent spate of incidents in which lecturers in Australian universities were pressured by Chinese students into apologising for comments or using materials these students see as inimical to China’s interests and therefore are “offensive.”

In Singapore, Chinese students should be made aware that our China studies syllabus is not designed to toe any other country’s line.

Under no circumstances should educators of China studies in Singapore be cowed into apologising for teaching, for example, our nation’s official stance on the South China Sea disputes.

Second, a China studies programme that incorporates, for instance, the evolution of Singapore-China relations, will foster an understanding of Singapore’s consistent and pragmatic approach to foreign policy that has underpinned its survival as a small state.

In this era of fake news and fabricated social media posts, arming Singaporeans with such knowledge would make them more discerning of what they read.

This is in line with former Senior Minister S Jayakumar’s comments earlier this year on the importance of Singaporeans understanding our foreign policy, so that we do not fall prey to external influences and become an unwitting pawn in their stratagem to harm our own national interests.

Last, while Singapore and Singaporeans continue to ride on China’s rise and tap into the opportunities afforded by its growing economic might, there is a need to ensure that Singaporeans do not lose sight of our nation’s interests.

To guard against the alarming prospect of Finlandisation, which refers to how a smaller state has to bend its policies to satisfy the demands of a larger neighbour, we have to nurture Singaporeans - which will include our future leaders, policymakers, diplomats and intellectuals - ­who understand the complexities of engaging China, as well as the opportunities and risks that come along with it.

A China studies programme with a Singapore perspective will allow students to see China’s development from our position, as a small but nonetheless sovereign state in Asia.

In short, we need Singaporeans with not only a deep knowledge of China, but also a keen awareness of Singapore’s interests and vulnerabilities.
And herein lies the value of an education in China studies, with Singapore characteristics.

Dr Yew Chiew Ping is head of the Contemporary China Studies Minor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

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