CHINESE IN SINGAPORE

CHINESE IN SINGAPORE

Singapore's Chinese residents were the descendants of immigrants from coastal southeastern China, an area of much linguistic and subcultural variation. The migrants spoke at least five mutually unintelligible Chinese languages, each of which contained numerous regional dialects. Singaporean usage, however, following the common Chinese tendency to assert cultural unity, referred to mutually unintelligible speech systems as "dialects." All the Chinese languages and dialects shared common origins and grammatical structures and could be written with the same Chinese idiograms, which represent meaning rather than sound. The primary divisions in the immigrant Chinese population therefore followed linguistic lines, dividing the populace into segments that were called dialect communities, speech groups, or even "tribes". In the nineteenth century, each speech group had its own set of associations, ranging from secret societies to commercial bodies to schools and temples. The groups communicated through leaders conversant with other Chinese languages or through a third language such as Malay or English. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The nomenclature for Chinese speech groups common in Singapore and Southeast Asia is confusing, partly because each group can be referred to by several alternate names. Most of the names refer to places in China with characteristic regional speech or dialects, and include the names of provinces, counties, and major cities. *

As the majority of the population and the ethnic group that dominated the political system and state administrative structure, Singapore's Chinese exhibited the widest range of occupational, educational, and class status. Those with little or no formal education occupied the bottom rungs of the occupational hierarchy and led social lives restricted to fellow members of the same dialect group. The level of formal education and language of education--Chinese or English--divided the Chinese into broad categories. Status for those working in the internationally oriented private sector or in government service depended on command of English and educational qualifications. In the still substantial Chinese private sector, status and security rested on a position in a bounded dialect community and a network of personal relations established over a lifetime. Although the latter exclusively Chinese category was shrinking, by the late 1980s it still contained some quite wealthy men who helped set the international price of rubber, controlled businesses with branches in Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and other countries of the region, and supported Singapore's array of Chinese charities, hospitals, and education trusts. Singapore's Chinese society was one with a high degree of social mobility and one in which status increasingly was determined by educational qualifications and command of English and Mandarin. *

Different Chinese Groups in Singapore

The distribution of Singapore's Chinese speech groups has remained fairly stable since 1900. The largest group were the Hokkien, who came from the area around the trading port of Xiamen (Amoy) in southern Fujian Province. Hokkien traders and merchants had been active in Southeast Asia for centuries before the foundation of Singapore. In 1980 they made up 43 percent of Singapore's Chinese population. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The second largest group were the Teochiu (sometimes written Teochew), comprising 22 percent of the Chinese population. Their home area is Chaozhou, in Chao'an County in northeastern Guangdong Province, which has as its major port the city of Shantou (Swatow). Chaozhou is immediately south of the Hokkien-speaking area of Fujian, and both Teochiu and Hokkien are closely related languages of the Minnan group, mutually intelligible to native speakers after sufficient practice. Hainanese, from the island of Hainan south of Guangdong, made up 8 percent of the population. Hainan was settled by people from southern Fujian who arrived by sea, and Hainanese is a Minnan language whose native speakers can understand Hokkien or Teochiu with relatively little difficulty after practice. Speakers of Minnan languages thus made up 72 percent of the Chinese population, for whom Hokkien served as a lingua franca, the language of the marketplace. *

The third most numerous group were Cantonese, from the lowlands of central Guangdong Province around the port city of Guangzhou (Canton). They made up 16 percent of the Chinese population. Hakka, a group scattered through the interior hills of southern China and generally considered migrants from northern China, were 7 percent. Other Chinese call them "guest people", and the term Hakka (Kejia in pihyih romanization) is Cantonese for "guest families." There also were small numbers of people from the coastal counties of northern Fujian, called Hokchia, Hokchiu, and Henghua, whose northern Fujian (Minbei) languages are quite distinct from those of southern Fujian and seldom spoken outside of Fujian. A final, residual category of Chinese were the "Three Rivers People," who came from the provinces north of Guangdong and Fujian. This group included people from northern and central China, and more specifically those provinces sharing the word "river" (jiang) in their names--Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. They would have spoken southern Mandarin dialects or the Wu languages of Shanghai, Ningbo, and Hangzhou. In 1980 they were 1.7 percent of the Chinese population. *

Straits Chinese

A significant category of Chinese, although one not listed in the census reports, were the Baba Chinese or Straits Chinese. They were Chinese who after long residence in Southeast Asia spoke Malay or English as their first language, and whose culture contained elements from China, Southeast Asia, and sometimes Europe as well. An indication of the size of the Baba Chinese community was provided by the 1980 census report that 9 percent of Chinese families spoke English at home. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Stereotypically the Baba were the offspring of Chinese migrants and local women. In the nineteenth century, they tended to be wealthier and better educated than the mass of immigrants and to identify more with Singapore and Southeast Asia than with China. In spite of their language, the Baba considered themselves Chinese, retained Chinese kinship patterns and religion, and even when speaking Malay used a distinct Baba dialect of Malay with many loan words from Hokkien. Never a large proportion of Singapore's Chinese population, in the late nineteenth century they took advantage of opportunities for education in English and promoted themselves as loyal to Britain. In Singapore, many Baba families spoke English as a first language and produced many of the leaders of Singapore's independent political movements, including Lee Kuan Yew. *

Although the Baba, in a sense, provided the model for the current Singaporean who is fluent in English and considers Singapore as home, the community fragmented in the early twentieth century as Chinese nationalism spread. After the 1920s its members gained no advantage, economic or political, from distinguishing themselves from the rest of the Chinese population and tended increasingly to become Chinese again, often learning to speak Chinese as adults. In the 1980s, Baba culture survived largely in the form of a well-known cuisine that mixed Chinese and Malay ingredients and in some families who continued to use English as the language of the home. *

Poll Finds One in Five Young Singaporean Chinese Rather Be White

In December 1999, a survey by Chang Han Yin, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Singapore, showed that 25 percent of the Chinese surveyed they wished to be either Japanese or Caucasian and 18 percent of Indians said they would opt to be Caucasian if given the choice. In contrast, nine out of 10 Malays said they would still choose to be Malay.

Associated Press reported: “A poll showing that one in five young ethnic Chinese Singaporeans would rather be white or of another race has become a hot topic in this prosperous city-state known for pride in its Asian heritage. ``I was initially shocked, I couldn't understand it,'' Singapore novelist Catherine Lim said of the results. Chang Han Yin, a sociology lecturer at the National University of Singapore, agreed that he found it ``amazing and disturbing'' when his survey of 811 students, ages 14 to 28, showed that 21.6 of the ethnic Chinese respondents would rather be of another race. Caucasian was their preferred choice, with Japanese running a close second. [Source: Associated Press, December 18, 1999]

Chen Wei Kiat, 24, who recently graduated from Britain's University of York, said he understood why some of his peers might prefer to be another race. Asked if he would rather be white, Mr Chen said: ``If it offered me the opportunity to work in the country of my choice, yes. It would be a practical concern. But to say that being Caucasian is better is not a value judgment that I would make at all.'' His first choice of a place to live would be Britain, he said, explaining that he ``felt comfortable there, felt at home'', and enjoyed the openness of Western society. Mr Chen said he was not worried about young Chinese losing pride in their ethnicity. ``I'm Chinese, but I'm so much more than just that,'' he said. ``To look at someone just in terms of race is very limiting.''

Keith Tan, a 25-year-old civil servant, was more concerned. ``This is a significant portion of young Singaporeans that are unhappy with their ethnic background. As a result, they could leave Singapore and not return,'' he said. ``I think it's important for humans to have some sense of cultural located-ness,'' he said. ``I appreciate and value being Chinese. I appreciate the immense history of China, and its great culture and civilisation.'' Others saw the survey results as a wake-up call to the dangers of Westernisation in Singapore, a former British colony where ethnic Chinese make up about 78 percent of the 3.2 million population. ``It is the differences that make us unique, not the banal universality of Western pop culture disguised as multiculturalism,'' Wong Hoong Hooi wrote in a letter to the Straits Times. But Ms Lim said she believed that many of the discontented young respondents were simply frustrated with Singapore's conservative society and tight government controls.

Chinese in Southeast Asia

Large numbers of Chinese live in Southeast Asia. They are sometimes called "Asian Jews" because they started businesses, retained their customs and have become very rich. The economies in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand for the most part are controlled by rich Chinese Although some live in rural areas, the vast majority of Chinese in Southeast Asia live in urban areas. Sometimes they live in separate Chinatowns.

Chinese in Southeast Asia (percentage of population): 1) 6 million in Malaysia (34 percent); 2) 6 million in Indonesia (3 percent); 3) 6 million in Thailand (14 percent); 4) 2 million in Singapore (76 percent); 5) 1 million in Vietnam (2 percent); 6) 600,000 in the Philippines (1 percent); 7) 300,000 in Cambodia (4 percent); 8) 25,000 in Laos (0.8 percent). These numbers do not always reflect the full extent of Chinese presence. Partially assimilated Chinese are often not counted as Chinese.

The first Chinese to enter Southeast Asia were Buddhist monks, maritime traders and representatives of the Imperial Chinese government.. In ancient and medieval times, Chinese traders utilized Southeast Asian ports on maritime Silk Road but in the early days much of this trade was carried out by Arab mariners and merchants. Regular trading between China and Southeast Asia didn’t really begin in earnest until the 13th century. Chinese were attracted by trade opportunities in Malacca, Manila, Batavia (Jakarta) Some of the most detailed descriptions of Angkor Wat and other Southeast Asian civilizations came from Chinese travelers and monks.

Companies controlled by ethnic Chinese are very powerful in all across Asia, with the exception of South Korea and Japan. The economic clout of the Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia would rank third or forth in the world after the United States, Japan and possibly Germany.

Chinese Arrive in Southeast Asia

The Chinese eunuch explorer Zheng He (1371-1433) helped establish Chinese communities in parts of Java and the Malay Peninsula in part, many historians believe, to impose imperial Chinese control.

Beginning in the late-1700s, large numbers of Chinese---mostly from Guangdong and Fujian provinces and Hainan Island in southern China---began emigrating to Southeast Asia. Most were illiterate, landless peasants oppressed in their homelands and looking for opportunities abroad. The rich landowners and educated Mandarins stayed in China. Scholars attribute the mass exodus to population explosion in the coastal cities of Fujian and prosperity and contacts generated by foreign trade.

So many people left Fujian for Southeast Asia during the late 18th century and early 19th century that the Manchu court issued an imperial edict in 1718 recalling all Chinese to the mainland. A 1728 proclamation declared that anyone who didn't return and was captured would be executed.

Most of the Chinese who settled in Southeast Asia left China in the mid 19th century after a number treaty ports were opened in China with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 after the first Opium War. The ports made it easy to leave and with the British rather than imperial Chinese running things there were fewer obstacles preventing them from leaving. British ports in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore, gave them destinations they could head to.

A particularly large number of Chinese left from the British treaty ports of Xiamen (Amoy) and Fuzhou (Foochow) in Fujian province. Many were encouraged to leave by colonial governments so they could provide cheap coolie labor in ports around the world, including those in colonial Southeast Asia. Many Chinese fled the coastal province of Fujian and Zhejiang after famines and floods in 1910 and later during World War II and the early days of Communist rule. Many of the legal and illegal immigrants from China continue to come from Fujian.

Chinese Advance in Southeast Asia

Of the Chinese who went abroad, some returned, some died under harsh working conditions but many stayed on where able to prosper under European colonial rule. Many of those who initially did well acted as middlemen between the Europeans and Southeast Asian producers and consumers.

The Chinese thrived under colonial rule. In French colonies laws discouraged participation in commerce by the native population but encouraged Chinese participation. In the British-controlled Malay states the Chinese managed the lucrative opium farms and controlled opium distribution. in Indonesia, the Chinese collected taxes and worked as labor contractors for the Dutch.

Over time, the Chinese became moneylenders, and controlled internal trade in the Southeast Asia countries where they lived. They also played various roles in the trade between Southeast Asian countries. Some accumulated great wealth and this encouraged other Chinese in China to follow in their footsteps.

Overseas Chinese worked as shop owners, traders, middlemen; became involved in wide variety of businesses; and founded family businesses and international firms. By the late 19th century they controlled much of the commerce in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia and ran companies that businesses through the Asian-Pacific region.

Chinese Assimilation

Chinese that arrived before the mid 19th century often intermarried with local people and became assimilated into the local culture. As time went on they became progressively less assimilated.

Assimilation has been particularly difficult in Malaysia and Indonesia where Islamic practices discourage marriages involving Muslims and non-Muslims. For local people marrying a non-Muslim is also seen as rejection of Muslim-based nationalist pride.

Assimilation has been easier for Chinese in Thailand, where the people speak a tonal language somewhat related to Chinese, practice Buddhism and Chinese influences are present in the culture. Here more Chinese of have intermarried and become assimilated. Many have taken Thai names and speak the Thai language but retain Chinese cultural practices

In most countries in Southeast Asia Chinese children speak Chinese at home but use local languages at school and study government-designed curriculum that encourages nationalism and identification with the culture of the Southeast Asian nation where they live. Chinese culture is often transmitted outside the education system in community-based cultural and recreational clubs.

Despite all this there waves of anti-Chinese protests swept Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. See Malaysia

Chinese Languages in Southeast Asia

Overseas Chinese speak three main language groups: 1) Min (Northern and Southern), 2) Yue and 3) Hakka. Southern Min dialects include Hokkien and Fukien from Fujian; Chaochow, Teochew and Taechew from Chaozhou and Hainan. Northern Min dialects include Foochow and Hockchew from Fuzhou, Hungua from Xinghua and Hockchia. Yue dialects include Cantonese, Guangfu and Yueh. Hakka dialects include Hokka, Ke, Kechia, Kejia, Kek and Kheh. Technically these dialects are not really dialects. They are topolects (speeches from a particularly place).

It is not unusual for an overseas Chinese community to speak eight of more dialects. When this is the case one dialect becomes the lingua franca for the entire community. Hokkein, the Southern Min dialect of Fujian, is the primary dialect of many overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore Indonesia, and the Philippines whereas Teochew, the Southern Min dialect of Chaozhou, is the primary dialect of the overseas Chinese communities in Thailand.

Even when different Chinese communities can not understand each other’s speech they can communicate through written Chinese, which more less universal for all Chinese dialects. See Written Chinese, China factsanddetails.com

Most Southeast Asian Chinese are required to learn local languages in schools and need skills in the local languages to get a top level education and land a good job. Southeast Asian Chinese keep up their Chinese because it use useful in business and helps them communicate with other Chinese in Southeast Asia, China and around the world

Chinese Society in Southeast Asia

Social stratification tends to be based on income levels in the country where the Chinese live rather than on class distinctions from back home. This is at least partly because most overseas Chinese are descendant of poor peasants. Social unification is based on bonds created by “dialect” groups, business associations, and shared surnames. Leaders tend to be selected in the basis of merit, connections and economic influence rather than family background.

Overseas Chinese generally use the legal and political systems in their home countries to settle disputes and further their aims. In some cases they may turn to Tongs (secret societies) for some help. Tongs have their roots in fighting societies created when rival Chinese communities fought one another. They have traditionally been involved in “underground economies,” gambling and prostitution; often had their own “police force” of thugs; and had links with Triads (organized crime groups).

Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia

Chinese in Southeast Asia tend to congregate in Chinese urban communities, There they have elaborately decorated temples, ancestor halls ( kongi), dialect associations and Chinese chambers of commerce. Many Chinese live in two story houses that have a residence on the top floor and a business or shop on the first floor. Businesses of a similar kind are grouped together in the same neighborhood. Jewelers, for example, run shops in one area, while fabric sellers run shops in another area. Everywhere there are restaurants up and food hawker.

The Chinese often attend their own schools, read their own newspapers, attended their own operas and set up their own banks. They have community associations and try, whenever possible, to trade with each other.

Many Chinese are members of societies within societies and have retained an intense loyalty "to family, village and clan." They are often more interested in events in China than the are in what was going on in the countries where they live. Descendants of Chinese who arrived abroad generations ago still send large amounts of money back home.

With the exception of Singapore and Malaysia, Chinese in Southeast Asia were required to adopt non-Chinese names. Chinese living outside of China have generally endured discrimination without complaining, partly out of fear that they would only make the situation worse if they rocked the boat.

Chinese Associations in Singapore

The most elaborate set of ethnic associations was found among the Chinese, who in 1976 supported over 1,000 clan, locality, occupational, religious, and recreational associations. The membership of each association usually was restricted to those speaking the same dialect or tracing ancestry to the same small region of China. The lowest level associations were clan or district associations, which were in turn grouped into federations based on progressively larger administrative or linguistic regions of China. The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, founded in 1906, was the overarching association that represented the entire Chinese community. A federation, its constituent units were not individuals or individual businesses but associations. Its basic structure consisted of representatives of seven regional associations (Fujian, Teochiu, Cantonese, Hakka 1, Hakka 2, Hainan, and "Three Rivers") and ninety-three trade associations, each one usually restricted to speakers of one dialect. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The functions and activities of the associations were multiple, reflecting the concerns of members and leaders. Common activities included mutual aid; insurance benefits; foundation and maintenance of schools, hospitals, or cemeteries; contributions to the same sorts of public projects in the ancestral districts of China; settling disputes between members; acting as spokesman for the community to the government; and promoting good fellowship and continuing identification with the clan or region. Associations were run by committees and met at least once a year for a formal banquet. Association leaders were prosperous businessmen who had played a major part in fundraising and the management of activities. Success in business gave them both the free time to devote to association activities and the funds to contribute to the association and its charities. The associations conferred prestige and public recognition on those who took the burdens of office and community service, but the community so served was restricted to those from the same region and speaking the same dialect. The leadership of the lowest level associations was usually provided by those of moderate means, while the more wealthy belonged to several or many associations and worked for the higher level, more inclusive associations, which conferred more public recognition and prestige. The mechanisms of leadership and prestige and the channeling of much charity and assistance (schools, scholarship fund, hospitals, recommendations for employment or loans from Chinese banks, death benefits) through the associations thus reinforced ethnic and subethnic identification for both poor and rich. *

Chinese Groups and Business in Singapore

In a pattern common to Chinese urban society in China and in Southeast Asia, groups defined by common place of origin or dialect also tended to specialize in certain trades or monopolies. Exactly which regional group dominated which trade varied from place to place and represented historical accidents and contingencies, but the principle of a regional group also acting as an occupational group was common. As late as the 1980s, the Singapore Hokkien were dominant in banking, insurance, shipping, hardware, real estate, and other lucrative fields. Within the Hokkien community, smaller subgroups controlled particular trades. For example, 96 percent of the merchants dealing in China tea in the 1980s traced their ancestry to Anxi County in southern Fujian. Teochiu dominated the fresh produce trade and the jewelry and antiques business; Cantonese predominated in furniture making, watch and clock repair, and operating drug stores and restaurants; and the Hakka were pawnbrokers, tailors, and dealers in Chinese herbs and medicines. The Henghua people from northern Fujian, a small component of the Chinese population, controlled the very important bicycle, motorcycle, and taxi businesses. Over the years the speech groups competed for the control of trades, and the pattern of dialect- specific occupations was a dynamic one, with, for example, strong competition for shares of the textile trade. In the 1980s, four textile trade associations represented Teochiu, Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese traders. The competition between speech groups reinforced both their internal solidarity and the social boundaries between them. Regional associations were, to a certain extent, also trade associations. For the large proportion of the Chinese population employed in regional commerce, service trades, or small-scale manufacturing, there remained a close relation between ethnicity and occupation, each aspect reinforcing the other. [Source: Library of Congress *]

For the proprietors and employees of many small and medium Chinese businesses, continued identification with dialect and subethnic communities provided many benefits and indeed was a precondition for engaging in many lines of trade. Although the dialect communities were not primarily occupational groups, the social solidarities created within the communities were economically useful. Much of the business activity in the extensive Chinese "traditional" sector of the economy depended on credit, personal relations, and the reputation of individuals for trustworthiness. In the final analysis, individuals met their obligations because failure to do so would result in immediate loss of reputation and creditworthiness with their fellows in restricted subethnic communities. * For many members of the Chinese community, economic self- interest reinforced the identification with an ethnic or subethnic community and the continued use of a regional dialect. Such individuals tended to be both more intensely and self-consciously "Chinese" and "Teochiu" or "Anxi Hokkien" than their fellows, who might well be their own brothers, sons, or daughters, who worked for the government or large multinational corporations. For the latter, formal educational certification, command of English, and perhaps skill at golf rather than Chinese finger games and etiquette were associated with economic success. *

Chinese Family-Run Businesses

In his book The Spirit of Chinese Capitalism, Gordon Redding wrote, "The Chinese family business...is peculiarly effective and a significant contributor to the list of causes of the East Asia miracle." Chinese-owned companies are often family run and have family members, other relatives or family friends in all the management positions. This contrasts with Western corporation which generally rely on professional managers. One Chinese businessman told the Washington Post, "We mostly hire people because he family knows them, or because they're introduced by a family member. That way you can find someone you can trust. Chinese find it not so easy to trust other people."

Many Chinese companies are run by old patriarchs backed up by Western-educated sons and daughters. The Chinese family system is much more effective in simple organizations like shipping, real estate and the production of low-market goods such as shoes and electronic but is not as effective in sophisticated organization that spend a lot on research and development and design high-tech products.

Confucian thought adapts itself very well to the hierarchical management style. One of the key components of a Chinese family-run business is trust. The Chinese have a reputation of distrusting people outside their clan or circle. The advantages of the Chinese family system of business are that it keeps management size down and allows quick decisions to be made without lengthy meetings, which in turn allows companies to move quickly into profitable markets. The disadvantages of the Chinese family system of business are that favoritism keeps talent out and family feuds can bitterly divide a company especially after a patriarch dies.

Modest Chinese businesses like noodle restaurants and small shops. are run by husband and wife teams, with children providing labor. Women often play an important role in organizing the finances. Explaining how such a business gets started one Asian businessman told Stanley Karnow in Smithsonian magazine: "Americans make big investment, hire manager, technicians.” Asians “cannot afford that, but wife and children all work hard. At first I keep old job while wife and friend take care of store; later I quit to run business full time. Until last year we are here seven days a week, sometimes until 2 in the morning. Now we are doing OK, so we take Sunday off."

There are critics of the the Chinese family business model. One Chinese businessmen said that many Chinese businessmen suffer from “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in that “they are contents with small-scale enterprises; they are happy to making a living. But Jewish people want to be the best and make a huge company.”

Chinese Custom Among Chinese in Southeast Asia

Customs regarding extended families, kinship, marriage, funerals, inheritance have remained the same or close to same as those practiced by Chinese in China. Descent is along patrilineal lines. Children are taught Confucian values of respect towards elders and filial duty. Women do most of the child rearing but sometimes grandparents help out so women can work.

Marriages tend to follow the Chinese pattern. They are arranged or have a fair degree of parental input and couples tend live the groom’s parents after they get married. . Overseas Chinese are more likely to marry a partner with different religious beliefs or from a different hometown area than Chinese in China. Intermarriage with local people varies from place and place and has traditionally been less likely in Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia than in non-Muslim countries.

In the case of divorces local laws are generally stronger than Chinese customs. This means that divorces are often easier to get than they would be in China and women are more likely to get custody of the children.

The religion observed by overseas Chinese is the generally the same mix of Taoism, Buddhism and folk beliefs practiced by Chinese in China. They perform rites to ancestors and celebrate Chinese lunar calendar festivals and visit temples. .In some cases their beliefs are stronger than Chinese in China because their religious beliefs were not discouraged by a Communist regime.

Questioning What It Means to be Chinese in Singapore

Tash Aw wrote in the New York Times, “In Singapore, Chinese people used to be called zhongguo ren or hua ren interchangeably: The small distinction between the two terms — the former relating to people with Chinese nationality or born in China; the latter to anyone ethnically and culturally Chinese — was considered artificial. But subtle divisions of this kind have now become the crux of what it means to be Chinese here.[Source: Tash Aw, New York Times, February 12, 2015 ~~]

“In 2013, the government published a white paper that laid down plans for sustaining economic growth and increasing the population from about 5.3 million to 6.5 to 6.9 million by 2030. In an already densely populated island with limited space for new construction, the plan sparked widespread debate and unprecedented public protests: Given Singapore’s low birth rate, this increase in numbers would have to be fueled by immigrants — largely, it was presumed by many, from China. ~~

“On the face of it, few cultural mergers could be more seamless. Singapore’s multilingual educational system treats Mandarin as a de facto second language after English. Almost half a century ago, the country adopted the simplified system of writing Chinese that is used in mainland China, rather than the complex forms from Hong Kong and Taiwan. In the late 1970s, the government launched a Speak Mandarin campaign to limit the use of various Chinese dialects. Familiarity with Chinese culture is presumed from similarities in food and shared customs rooted in Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. ~~

Views of Ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia Towards China

Michael Vatikiotis wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Western social scientists have long postulated that ethnic Chinese communities in Asia have assimilated with their host societies and slowly lost their Chinese identity. But much of this research was conducted in the dark days of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, when links between ethnic Chinese and their motherland were cut off. [Source: Michael Vatikiotis, International Herald Tribune, August 24, 2005]

The trend for the last 25 years, since China opened up under Deng Xiaoping, has been for ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia to make return visits to China to explore their ancestral villages, network with distant relatives, relearn the language and - more recently - invest in China's booming economy. On a recent official visit to China, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand made a pilgrimage to his grandparents' graves in Guangdong Province. Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Group was for many years one of the largest foreign investors in China.

China, for its part, has been careful not to claim the loyalty of its overseas kin. Successive prime ministers, from Zhou Enlai to Li Peng, made it clear that ethnic Chinese overseas owed their loyalty to host governments. This position has modified somewhat with the growth of China's economy. Special arrangements were made for ethnic Chinese returning to "invest in the motherland." A new network of "Confucius Centers" is being established to teach Chinese language and culture overseas. When anti-Chinese riots broke out in Indonesia a decade ago, Beijing felt compelled to lodge a protest with Jakarta. And China has increasingly made use of ethnic Chinese business and political contacts to further its influence in Southeast Asia.

All this raises the question of where the loyalties of ethnic Chinese overseas lie.The official line is that Singaporeans are culturally Chinese but politically Singaporean. It's this cultural identification that inspires pride in China's recent achievements and helps mute the kind of knee-jerk fear of China that tinges debates in the United States and Europe. "The idea and ideal of One China" are "deeply embedded in the Chinese mind," Singapore's foreign minister, George Yeo, said recently.

But as China extends its influence economically and politically, the nagging question is whether Beijing's policy of not claiming loyalty and affiliation will hold. With so much overseas Chinese capital now invested in China, how easy will it be for governments or individuals in Southeast Asia to resist calls for support and sympathy? The difference between being American and being Chinese is that America has a universal appeal, rather like a religion; being Chinese is a tribal thing, Yeo argues. "A Chinese cannot cease being a Chinese."

Singaporean Chinese Verses Mainland Chinese

Tash Aw wrote in the New York Times, “A chasm remains between the Chinese of Singapore and their mainland counterparts, divided by contemporary social values and the very language that is supposed to bind them all. Singapore’s lively Internet media and online forums reveal a pattern of prejudice toward immigrants from China. Mainlanders, Singaporeans often complain, are rude and uncivilized: One recent story that caused outrage on open portals such as The Real Singapore and STOMP, the Straits Times’ “citizen-journalism website,” centered on a “PRC woman” relieving herself on the otherwise spotless floor of a subway station. Chinese immigrants, for their part, are frustrated by what they perceive as aloofness, as well as a lack of fluency in standard Mandarin, or putonghua, among Singaporean Chinese — proof that their island cousins are not truly Chinese.[Source: Tash Aw, New York Times, February 12, 2015 ~~]

“The result of this tension is an uneasy two-way xenophobia, with each side accusing the other of racism even though both are Han Chinese. Predictably, this has led to a reassertion of cultural identities. In shops, public transport and the island’s famous hawker centers, Singaporean Mandarin — a heavily accented strain of putonghua, which includes idiosyncratic vocabulary and a smattering of words imported from other dialects as well as English — shows no sign of becoming standardized, despite many TV and radio programs featuring classic mainland-inflected pronunciation. Local dialects, especially Hokkien, still thrive. Although schools are required to teach Mandarin to ethnic Chinese students, a sizable proportion of Singaporean Chinese, mainly from affluent classes, remain more comfortable in English than Mandarin. ~~

“The visible influence of China in the everyday lives of Singaporeans has sharpened their sense of identity as Singaporean rather than as the descendants of Chinese mainlanders. If the Chinese of Singapore once defined their Chineseness in opposition to Malaysia, today they are distancing themselves from China. As one Singaporean Chinese friend of mine told me before heading to Japan for work this past autumn, at the height of tensions between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, “I just need to make sure they know I’m Singaporean, not Chinese.” ~~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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