S’pore’s sincerity makes ASEAN nations wary: Former foreign minister George Yeo – Mothership.SG

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George Yeo: Reflections is a collection of it all: the former foreign minister’s thoughts on a variety of miscellaneous topics.

First seriesthe first of three books, contains Yeo’s reflections on Singapore’s identity, diversity and how this affects the country’s relationship with the rest of the world, including China and India.

The book is written by Yeo, with Woon Tai Ho, and published by World Scientific. It will be available in all major bookstores from September 2022, but Mothership readers can pre-order a copy here with promo code “WSMSGY20” and get 20% off.

An excerpt from Chapter 11, “The People’s Republic”is reproduced here.


By George Yeo, with Woon Tai Ho

As China takes center stage in global politics and economy, relations between China and the Chinese diaspora will naturally grow stronger. Chinese communities that have lost their connection to China (such as the Peranakans of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore) are finding renewed interest in Chinese heritage and language.

In the United States today, Chinese Americans working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have suddenly found themselves under the scrutiny or suspicion of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) due to the deterioration of relations between the United States and China. In 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the United States was concerned about “the Chinese threat not just as a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat from their side”, which requires “…a response from all of society on our part”. In a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in January 2022, Wray again emphasized, “I want to focus on that tonight because it’s reached a new level – more brazen, more damaging than ever before, and it is vital, vital that we all focus together on this threat.

In Southeast Asia, ethnic Chinese have gone through difficult times in the past. After the fall of South Vietnam to the North in 1975, the first waves of boat people were mostly Chinese. Under Suharto, Indonesia banned Chinese language and literature, probably the only country in the world to do such a thing. I remember reading with disgust the customs forms that stated that along with drugs and firearms, Chinese-language materials were also considered contraband. In Thailand, people of Chinese descent were not allowed to join the army (although many still did).

Anti-Chinese sentiment in Southeast Asia

The main cause of anti-Chinese sentiment in Southeast Asia is the disproportionate role that ethnic Chinese play in business. Among the very rich, many are of Chinese origin. Some are known for their philanthropic work like Lee Kong Chian’s family, but a few behave badly and live ostentatiously. King Rama VI of Thailand referred to ethnic Chinese as “Eastern Jews”, even though his own ancestor, Rama I, had Chinese blood.

They are also seen as being disloyal or not being loyal enough. Overseas Chinese supported China’s resistance against Japan’s increasing encroachment on the Chinese mainland from the early 1930s. Tan Kah Kee organized the Nanyang Federation of China Relief Fund Technicians. From 1939 to 1942, more than 3,000 overseas Chinese volunteered as truck drivers and mechanics in China along the Rangoon-Yunnan Highway. About 1,800 technicians died from shelling, disease and exhaustion. Her nephew, Tan Keong Choon, raised funds to build a memorial near Dian Lake near Kunming to remember their sacrifice. At the Ee Hoe Hean Club in Singapore, there is an interesting memorial hall for Tan Kah Kee and other Chinese leaders of Singapore.

Japan viewed overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia as extensions of China. The Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia was carefully planned for years before being executed in December 1941.

Plans for the Malay campaign were drawn up in Taiwan (which Japan captured from Qing China in 1895). In his book The killer they called a god, Ian Ward recounts how Lt. Col. Masanobu Tsuji came up with a detailed plan to eliminate many overseas Chinese once the Japanese army occupied Singapore. Post-war sources revealed that the order was to kill 50,000 people. The Japanese called the Sook Ching the Kakyō Shukusei (華僑粛清), meaning the purge of overseas Chinese. Sook Ching was second only to Nanjing in cruelty inflicted on a civilian population.

During the Japanese occupation of Malaysia, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), led by the Communist Party of Malaysia (CPM), waged guerrilla warfare against the Japanese in the jungle. They were mostly Chinese. Between the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, and the return of British forces in September of that year, the MPAJA took action against Japanese collaborators, many of whom were Malays.

Ultimately, the failure of the CPM’s struggle in Malaysia was due to its inability to win over the Malays, who expressed their nationalism through the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

The Malayan Emergency will ultimately be viewed in historical context as a nationalist struggle that failed due to the racial division exploited by the British. Many young men have lost their lives pursuing a righteous cause. Robert Kuok burns an incense stick every day for his second brother, who was killed by the British during the emergency and whom he admired for his kindness, intelligence and eloquence.

In Malaysia as in Singapore, the British were determined to cede power to credible nationalist groups that were less hostile to them. In Malaysia, the proposal for a Malay Union was changed to one for the Malay Federation, enshrining the position of the sultans and Malay rights. In Singapore, the British favored Lee Kuan Yew and his faction within the People’s Action Party (PAP). Direct and indirect British interventions at critical moments were decisive. The British did not want an independent Singapore because it could become a satellite of China. They maneuvered for Singapore to gain independence through merger with Malaysia.

Lee Kuan Yew later said that Sarawak and Sabah were the dowry the British gave to the Tunku to admit Singapore to Malaysia. When the Tunkus agreed two years later that Singapore could become free, Lee Kuan Yew wrote that he had kept it a secret from the British until it was irreversible as they would have thwarted it.

Although many ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia engaged in nationalist struggles against the colonial enemy, such as the Filipino José Rizal, as a group they were sometimes seen as less supportive, as in Indonesia, or too aligned with Chinese-backed communist movements. as in Thailand and Malaysia.

Projecting misfortune on Singapore

When, for whatever reason, Southeast Asian countries are dissatisfied with their native Chinese populations, they project their displeasure onto Singapore as the headquarters of Southeast Asian Chinese.

Whatever we say or do, the fact is that many countries take the Chinese character of Singapore into account in their planning and calculations. For this reason, Lee Kuan Yew has suspended diplomatic relations with China until Indonesia does. To some extent, we have succeeded in convincing other countries that while Singapore has close cultural ties with China, on political issues we calculate in our own interests.

One day in the mid-1990s, Singapore’s relations with China hit a rough patch. Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas expressed his concern to me about the state of Singapore-China relations and indirectly offered me his help. I was pleasantly surprised that Indonesia is worried that we have bad relations with China.

For a while, Vietnam also looked at us with suspicion. After Vietnamese divisions arrived in Cambodia in 1978, Singapore, along with other countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), worked with China to support anti-Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. (Unlike China and Thailand, Singapore kept its distance from the Khmer Rouge but supported all other factions.) At the United Nations and other international gatherings, we have combined our efforts to deny legitimacy to the Phnom Penh government installed by Vietnam. After 10 years, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia. They then decided to follow China by gradually opening up its economy.

Prime Minister (PM) Vo Van Kiet visited Singapore in 1991. At the end of a dinner hosted by Lee Kuan Yew at the Istana, Kiet asked Lee Kuan Yew to be an adviser in Vietnam. Although he was surprised and promised to visit Vietnam regularly, he did not agree to become an adviser.

Lee Kuan Yew and Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Vo Van Kiet at a dinner at Istana in 1991, after which he asked Lee Kuan Yew to be Vietnam’s adviser. Image courtesy of George Yeo.

I accompanied Lee Kuan Yew on his first three trips to Vietnam. Relations steadily improved. The first Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Project (VSIP) was a mini-Suzhou, established near Ho Chi Minh City in 1996. (Since then, many VSIPs have sprung up across Vietnam.) When I was Minister of Commerce and of Industry, I co-chaired a bilateral commission with the Vietnamese Minister of Planning as my counterpart. Whenever meetings were held in Hanoi, I called Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. He was always polite but a bit formal until one year, he talked to me like I was his minister and started giving me “homework”.

Something had happened. My belief was that Vietnam had come to the conclusion that Singapore was not an agent of China and could become a strategic partner. During Khai’s next visit to Singapore in 2004, the two countries launched the Connectivity Initiative, which I helped set up for Goh Chok Tong.

Prime Minister’s Office image via PM Lee’s Facebook account

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