Former Chairman of National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and former Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bilahari Kausikan emphasised the importance of being alert against any threat of foreign influence upon the Singaporean identity.
Speaking at a forum on ethnic identity and culture organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and OnePeople.sg at The Grassroots Club on 19 July, where experts spoke about the challenges to Singapore’s racial harmony, Mr Kausikan was responding to a question on how new immigrants can better understand Singapore.
“Forget about immigrants and things like that, [even] among Singaporeans […] we do a very bad job of national education,” he said.
Mr Kausikan said that national education in Singapore is “very formalistic”, and that de-emphasising the study of history in schools is a “fundamental mistake”.
He believes that a better job can be done at educating new permanent residents and citizens on”certain basic things about Singapore”, he said.
“Whether it will take root or not, who knows… But you can at least do a better job of conveying certain things,” he concluded on the matter.
Mr Kausikan also spoke on foreign attempts at influencing Singapore’s identity politics.
At 53 years old, Singapore is a young nation, and its relatively new history in comparison to older nations might make the country susceptible to foreign attempts to infiltrate Singaporeans’ conception of their national identity.
“Our identity, based in the idea of multiculturalism and meritocracy, is under pressure. There are centrifugal forces trying to pull us apart,” he said.
He cited China’s attempts to “assert the Chinese identity on multiracial Singapore”.
Reiterating a point in a speech last month, which drew flak from China’s Ambassador to Singapore Hong Xiaoyong, Mr Kausikan suggested yesterday that Chinese influence operations aim to pull people abroad toward China’s stance, thereby advancing Chinese hegemony and interests.
Pro-China entities frequently perpetuate the narrative that Singapore should be on China’s side regarding the political war between the Asian giant and the US due to Singapore’s racial demographic, which is predominantly Chinese, according to Mr Kausikan.
Mr Kausikan rejected the narrative, calling it a “simplified grotesque distortion of a much more complicated and complex reality”.
“The system we have has to be continually defended. There will never be a time when you can say, ‘Job done, we don’t have to worry about it.’ The best defence is if you are aware of it.”
Mr Kausikan also highlighted that the apparent spread of Chinese hegemony is not only confined to Singapore, but is also making ripples throughout Southeast Asia.
Citing a “particularly stark example” during the recently concluded Malaysian general election, the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia, Bai Tian had organised a public campaign for Malaysian Chinese Association president Liow Tiong Lai in the latter’s constituency in Bentong, in an incident Kausikan described as “so wrong in so many dimensions”.
He also cited the “global resurgence of identity” and how it has become a hurdle for Singapore’s leaders in the digital age.
Mr Kausikan spoke of the “echo-chamber effect” of social media on the Singaporean identity, and believes that immigration lies at the heart of it.
“You never really leave any country, you bring your country with you and you create little pockets of that country all over the place,” said Mr Kausikan.
“All you can do is to be aware of the downsides of the technologies.”
However, Mr Kausikan also warned that it would be “foolish” for Singapore to cease any of its engagement with China.
Kausikan also spoke about the new government in Malaysia led by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
He said that the transition from the Barisan Nasional government under Najib Razak’s helm to Pakatan Harapan under Dr Mahathir does not necessarily indicate a change of system for Malaysians.
“You think Dr Mahathir would say, ‘Okay, I was wrong, no more Bumiputera privileges.’ He may tamper with it on the edges. He tried to modify the Bumiputera policy in minor ways towards the end of his first time as Prime Minister… and he failed.”
On the 93-year-old leader, Mr Kausikan added that he could be “a bit irritating” in his dealings with Singapore on water and other issues.
Dr Mahathir had in June described the price of water sold to Singapore as “manifestly ridiculous” in an interview with Channel NewsAsia.
“But without him, the system will fall apart,” he concluded.