On Chinese social media, Singapore elections amuse and confuse

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During my 18 years living and working in mainland China, people who discovered I was Singaporean would usually respond with one of the following remarks:
These observations are offered in various permutations but have largely withstood the test of time. Understandably so, because these are the broad narratives about Singapore conveyed in Chinese media and books published there over the years.
Popular books about Singapore sold in China in recent years include Lee Kuan Yew: A Great Man from a Small Country and several versions of Lee biographies by Chinese authors.
At an academic level, the Centre for Singapore Studies has been established at Shenzhen University, Xiamen University, Guangxi University and Jiangxi’s Gannan Normal University.
Apart from conducting research into Singapore’s foreign affairs and efforts in tackling corruption and fighting terrorism and extremism, these institutes examine Singapore’s water policies, public administration, social and urban management, vocational training and the cultural identities of Singaporean Chinese.
Among netizens and ordinary Chinese, though, Singapore attracts less attention. The one exception came in 2017 when the feud between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his younger siblings over property owned by the late Singaporean prime minister was splashed across the headlines in China. Many Chinese regarded the dispute over a dead ancestor’s estate as “extremely Chinese” and therefore relatable.
Now, as Singapore campaigns ahead of its general election, Chinese interest has again stirred, particularly on the microblogging website Weibo.
One user expressed amazement that Singapore conducts elections, asking: “Isn’t there a saying that in predominantly Chinese societies it is not wise to engage in the backward practices of the West? Look, Taiwan elections are in a mess.”
Another asked whether the next Prime Minister of Singapore will be a “Lee”. Another user responded: “No, it will be a ‘Wang’,” referring to the Chinese rendering of Heng Swee Keat, the deputy prime minister and Lee’s designated successor. In turn, users piled on in surprise, demanding to know: “Why is it not a Lee?”
The fascination among Chinese with the Lee family is impossible to miss. Singapore’s official name in Chinese is “Xin Jia Po” but many Chinese refer to it instead as “Li Jia Po”, emphasising the Lee family’s importance. For example, they might ask: “Isn’t this Li Jia Po? Why is there the need to canvass votes?”
Last month, Lee Kuan Yew’s younger son, Lee Hsien Yang, threw his support behind the opposition, creating a stir on Chinese social media. One user insisted “his father would strike his younger son unconscious if he is still alive”.
Another asked why an election was needed given “the results and outcomes are always the same”.
Yet another noted: “Ordinary people have the vote, yet Singapore politics is not messy like in the West. Perfect!”
The general lack of understanding about what makes Singapore tick and the hard issues faced during an election campaign should not come as a surprise. After all, Singapore is a small country and ordinary Chinese are generally better informed about countries that more significantly impact their own, such as the US, Japan and India.
Online, Singapore becomes a subject for serious discussion only when it adopts a position at odds with China, such as support for US engagement in the region or endorsing international law in maritime disputes, potentially undermining Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
These discussions usually centre on Singapore’s pro-US stance and the perceived attempt to use the US as a counterweight to China’s influence in the region. Such discussions are often critical, suggesting Singapore, as a predominantly ethnic Chinese country, should be careful of inching closer to the Western camp and instead remember which side its bread gets buttered. Sometimes there is even a warning or a threat of repercussions and punitive measures against Singapore for not siding with China.
Fundamentally, many in China regard Singapore as a Chinese nation that should therefore understand and support Beijing’s policies.
Whatever happens in Singapore’s upcoming elections, the country’s leaders will need to manage this ongoing balancing act, pursuing their own country’s national interests without jeopardising the goodwill with Beijing thpanies a shared lineage.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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