December 29, 2014, by Tony Hong

Singapore: China’s Ambivalent Heterotopia

By Flair Shi,

Currently Studying Comparative Literature (MA) at University College London,

Graduate of the School of English University of Nottingham Ningbo,

BA in English Language and Literature.

Any Chinese who is efficiently bilingual in both Mandarin and English should be interested in Singapore, and with the population of such Chinese, especially that of the young, rising rapidly, so will Singapore’s potential and the value of the insights it can offer.

I didn’t realize how far my interest in Singapore has carried me until I overheard an interesting conversation between a Chinese student and a Singaporean student during the summer course in Peking University, which was about the rise of China and taught by LSE professors. The PKU student, majoring in international relations, so supposedly a representative of the best students within the Chinese education system, obviously knew not much about the small island country and was utterly curious about how they could be Chinese and Singaporean at the same time, hence her question directed toward the Singaporean mate: “do you have any special feelings about China?”.
“What do you mean?” he was puzzled.
“Like the fact that you are Chinese and we are conversing in Mandarin, ya your Mandarin is native, I don’t feel like you are a foreigner, do you think I am a foreigner to you?” she spoke kindly but also confidently.
“But I certainly feel I am out of place in China if you know what I mean” he was carrying that knowing smile, as if it wasn’t the first time he had heard such a question, coming from a Mainland student.
“But as you said your grandparents are from Fujian right? Don’t you feel this, um, somehow, sense of belonging toward China? I mean the food, the language, the culture, and your ancestry?” she just didn’t get it.
“No, I don’t” he laughed, and, inevitably, traces of disappointment and embarrassment lingered on her face.

Such hurtful feelings are almost personal, might it be not as severe as when a mainland student reads all those “separatist” opinions from grassroots level in Taiwan and Hong Kong for the first time. You feel like you are being treated as a stranger by someone whom you thought all along should be your brother or sister. I understand the feeling well because I used to think like that.

While the young people of our generation display ostentatious diffidence toward the politics books we have been forced to memorize during high school and everybody knows that such so-called patriotic education is no more than a facade you have to put up with on the road towards economic pragmatism, we can still be quite shocked by how much we have overestimated our agency in negotiating our national identity when we confront it in the face in our encounter with “the Other”.

Singapore is such an “Other” in case, and arguably the most ambivalent other out there for China. Sometimes included in this sphere of “Greater China”, but unlike Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Singapore is the only Chinese-majority society China officially acknowledges as an independent country, as everyone else does. So this might just seem to be a very obvious matter of fact and should not be treated with much fuss and angst, but the notion of another independent country that is more than 80% Chinese is fundamentally disturbing and destructive to the mono-dimensional and categorical national identity the Chinese government have been trying to build into its people.

While one of the most offensive things Singaporeans hate to hear from ignorant Westerners is “Singapore? Where in China is that?”, not so many ordinary Chinese actually know or know much about the place, very much due to the fact that there is no mention of such “brothers and sisters” far away down there in Southeast Asia at all. Surely there was the memorization required regarding the “four little dragons of Asia” in the history books, but it did not mention its intricate historical links with China; surely some Singaporean celebrities, such as JJ Lin and Stephenie Sun, enjoy big fame in the sinophone world, but most Chinese people mistake them as Taiwanese, thus Chinese (epitomized in many Chinese netizens’ accusation of the Malaysian musician Liang Jingru about her encouragement toward the Malaysian badminton player Li Zhongwei in his match against our national hero Lin Dan a couple of years ago, labelling her as a “national traitor” while she was merely cheering for her own nation).

Such ignorance about Singapore more or less deliberated by the Chinese government indicates perfectly the philosophy about collective memory and national identity, namely, forging a coherent identity that can bound people together is all about selective remembrance and forgetfulness–preserving and magnifying the useful parts, forgetting and erasing the inconvenient parts. But such inconvenience ultimately reveals fear of the Chinese government, and of their awareness concerning the inherent fragility of the comfortable narrative they have constructed: Singapore’s national identity is based on multiculturalism and internationalism, and, despite its current propensity towards internalization and exclusion, it still showcases the most progressive and cosmopolitan pattern of nationhood formation in East Asia, standing at almost total opposite direction against China’s outdated monolithic middle kingdom mentality that heavily relies on ethnolinguistic unity.

What’s more, Singapore’s heterotopic value to China is much more than the fragmentation, disenchantment, and generally, (post-)modernization of the latter’s nationhood; it is the historical lessons the new generation of Chinese can learn from Singapore’s own proactive negotiations with colonial displacement and post-colonial hybridity. As thoroughly recorded by its founding father Lee Kuan-Yew, independent from 1965, Singapore was already way ahead on its road from a third world country to a first world modern nation when it established diplomatic ties with PRC in 1990. In the 21st century, the average young Singaporean enjoys a stable sociopolitical environment, a high per capita income and native-level proficiency in English while being more than functionally fluent in their mother tongues (Mandarin, Malay or Tamil). Living in one of the most important and prosperous financial centers of the Asia-Pacific area, the Singaporeans are fully adapted to a globalized urbanism, which affords them not only the modern outlook provided by material wealth and updated technology, but also the postmodern possibility in its cultural appropriation of both the East and the West. To chronicle such amazing development with the Foucaultian concept of the heterotopia, Singapore productively transformed itself from a space of crisis (migrant society) to an equalizing space of co-existing historical lineages and legacies (multicultural society). Then in such heterotopia, aren’t all the aforementioned characteristics what the rising middle-class in China wish their country’s modernization can bring them or their children? In this sense, will China’s modernization story be a kind of Singaporeanization story too?

But here is where the ambivalence comes into play too: while similar to its love-hate relationship with the West and Japan, this disparity in terms of the pace of modernization that exists between China and Singapore takes the Chinese’s mixed feelings of humiliation, envy and admiration to another level, just because Singapore, ethnolinguistically speaking, is also a “Chinese” state. Yet very much like how Japan’s rapid modernization during and after the Meiji Restoration period produced the same set of feelings that propelled the Chinese revolutionaries to actively learn from the West and Japan and set its own path for modernization during the Republican era, more knowledge about Singapore now can and should have the same effects for the new generation of Chinese, hence the opening remarks. I hope the day will come soon when I can go to PKU and to be again shocked by some random conversation between Chinese and Singaporean, in a different way.

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