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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Whither goes Chinese identity?


The former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, is now called the minister mentor. He is indeed a great mentor to Singapore, as it is he who has led the nation to become one of the most affluent and most stable, disciplined societies in the world.

The designation of "mentor" is very symbolic. This is because Singapore state — where the Chinese make up the majority of the population and where the free-market principle and self-help philosophy have been in practice coupled with a tinge of political cautiousness — could be considered as a good model or at least, a beacon, for the future of China. In other words, Singapore might well demonstrate to China not only what China could achieve with pride but also the kind of possible troubles to expect in the years to come.

These achievements and troubles are associated with what one might call "Chineseness" or Chinese identity.

It would appear today that no one questions Chinese identity. Chinese language and tradition, socialist-orientated authoritarian politics, a politically controlled free market and relatively open policy for foreign investment — all these are major elements of the Chinese identity. These elements have so far been crystallized into the modern, strong, increasingly assertive, politically stable China we see today.

Interestingly enough, these elements of Chinese identity would seem to be more clearly and distinctly manifested in Singapore. Modernity and wealth, coupled with order and discipline, are found almost everywhere in Singapore. Political stability and intellectual assertiveness as well as internationalism are also apparent in Singaporean society. One might say that China, or at least its coastal areas, will likely become a second Singapore in the not distant future.

Success is, nevertheless, bound to be accompanied by troubles or potential difficulties.

What are the difficulties that Singapore faces today?

The first is a rapidly changing demographic trend and a low birthrate. In Singapore, the birthrate of the Chinese population has been declining and the demographic balance between the Chinese and the non-Chinese minorities is now being questioned, with the result that Singapore has allowed a large inflow of Chinese immigrants and workers. (One has to remember that Singapore, as a city state, does not have a vast hinterland or agricultural population.)

However, the inflow of Chinese immigrants to Singapore has ironically given rise to the need to redefine the Chineseness of the nation, because Chinese immigrants have customs and a mentality different from native Singaporeans. Indeed, the inflow of such immigrants, the low birthrate and increasing affluence have undermined traditional Chinese values in Singaporean society. There are many Chinese in Singapore who no longer practice the custom of a family reunion over the New Year.

China is likely to face a similar situation, due to a rapidly changing demography and a pervasive modern mentality that undermines both socialist-orientated egalitarianism and Chinese traditional ethics that have already been "damaged by revolutionary thoughts."

In addition, young Singaporeans have increasingly been "globalized" or Americanized, and there are many, reportedly, who do not write Chinese ideograms correctly. Cultural Chinese identity is all the more complicated in Singapore as the Chinese language and customs practiced in Singapore are in many cases Fujianese and not necessarily Mandarin.

Under these circumstances, Singapore finds it rather difficult to maintain its Chineseness as it becomes wealthy and increasingly internationalized in economic and social activities.

As China becomes richer and more associated with the international trend of globalism, it may turn out to be rather difficult for modern China to maintain its Chineseness or Chinese identity, just as it has become an important issue in Singapore today.

Both Singapore and China have so far smartly avoided conflicts between the multiethnic nature of society and the maintenance of Chinese cultural identity. However, both countries are, in the future, likely to face the increasingly difficult task of redefining Chinese identity.

Finally, somewhat related to the issue of Chinese identity, there is the problem of what one might call "controlled internationalism." As evidenced in the latest debates both in China and Singapore over the free flow of information through the Internet, to what extent Singapore, with its internationalism, can control or effectively supervise the flow of information may be a good lesson for China.

This issue is not only related to the freedom of expression of political opinions, but also the roles to be played by Chinese and Singaporean intellectuals in the international community.

Just as Singaporean leaders and intellectuals have been very articulate in the international community of intellectuals, China has begun to foster intellectuals who could discuss economic and military strategies or global issues on equal terms with Americans and Europeans, as well as with other Asians.

If China wants to promote such an endeavor, it has to face the dilemma of opening its own society more freely to "international, intellectual exposure." Here again Singapore's policy could be a good beacon for Chinese political orientation.

All in all, the basic question that confronts Singapore today and that China is likely to face in the future is as follows: how to preserve Chineseness with more prosperity, greater international exposure and less political control.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is a president of the Japan Foundation.


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