As the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Singapore draws near, Insight talks to Foreign Minister George Yeo on Singapore's place in the orbit of a resurgent China.
By Rachel Chang
TO CHINA'S leaders, Singapore is a bonsai in China's image - a miniature doppelganger similar in all respects save size.
Flourishing and fully grown to its tiny height, the Singapore miniature is often a source of inspiration and ideas to the giant republic - but it is never taken as a full-scale model.
'Sometimes, when they get frustrated with their own problems, they will ask themselves, how does Singapore do it? Let's check - they faced the same problems, they have the same culture, how did they solve it?' is how Foreign Minister George Yeo tells it.
He first heard the term after a senior Chinese leader used the word in conversation with a Singaporean businessman.
'He felt a little hurt when he mentioned it to me,' Mr Yeo recalls. The term struck the Singaporean businessman as dismissive.
'I said, no, some bonsai are very old, very precious. And if you see a beautiful bonsai, you can be sure that a lot of effort has gone into it,' he says.
He speaks with optimistic equanimity, a trait that also characterises much of his world view.
'It's not derogatory,' he adds. 'It's just a very realistic assessment of what a city state can do (for) a continental nation.'
Widely regarded as one of the finest diplomats in the region, Mr Yeo regards China, population 1.3 billion, with the studied fascination of a scholar confronting an ancient civilisation.
He thinks the behemoth bold and creative; to him, the country's re-emergence on the world stage is not to be feared, but to be understood.
Of 'Singapore-style condos'
THREE decades ago, when Deng Xiaoping made the decision to open China's doors to the world, Singapore was one of the first to get its foot in, unofficially at least, before official ties were sealed in 1990.
Its affluence relative to China's made the country a byword for success to an uncertain nation just rousing from its socialist slumber.
Mr Yeo remembers hearing a radio commercial in Suzhou in the mid-1990s, advertising 'Singapore-style condominiums'.
'Not a Singapore investment, but condominiums like the type in Singapore,' he recalls. 'So, in other words, the Singapore association had with it a certain association with quality, with modernity.'
For years now, Chinese delegations have been arriving in droves, scouring the details of the Singapore Government's policies, from housing development to water treatment to transport regulation.
But today, as China powers forward to new heights beyond the bonsai's reach, the interest level is waning.
'There was that period in China when they were sort of putting things together and Singapore looked attractive,' he says. 'But since then, of course, there's been a surge. Their cities have become bigger than ours; they have the Olympic Games and the Expo.'
'We have a URA urban centre, they got a bigger one; we got a concert hall, they got bigger concert halls. Everything is on a bigger scale, nicer, grander.'
The Chinese do return, episodically, for new solutions or ideas. The bonsai, after all, has achieved full bloom.
Singapore's generosity has not gone unnoticed, he says. This year, Singapore was loaned a pair of baby pandas, just the seventh country after the United States, Japan, Spain, Austria, Australia and Thailand to be shown the favour.
The Singapore Zoo wanted a pair, and the Chinese government was approached, he reveals. 'We had raised it earlier, but we were given a queue position,' he quips.
'Then as we were planning for President Hu Jintao's visit (in November 2009), we raised it again to them and they said, why not we make it a (20th anniversary of diplomatic relations) celebration?'
A long line of countries had registered their panda interest before Singapore, notes Mr Yeo. But China wanted the gift announced when the two countries' presidents met in Singapore. 'They intended it to be a very visible symbolic gesture of friendship,' he says.
For Singaporeans at large, 'it was big news. People got very excited', he recalls, with delight. 'I thought that (for) the public, that was the high point of President Hu's visit.'
Listening to Mr Yeo, it is clear that he considers it both an advantage and good fortune that Singapore is so innately similar to China, fostering an ease of understanding rare in a world so prone to getting diplomatic wires crossed.
As he puts it: 'We're happy to help them because, I think, we believe we're helping ourselves.'
What Singapore should fear when it comes to relations with China, says Mr Yeo, is only internal stasis. 'The key challenge to us is whether we're able to always be fresh and creative. If we're inert and rigid and stop sparking, then naturally we cannot sustain anybody's interest.'
Beyond Washington consensus
NOT every senior government leader is as sanguine as Mr Yeo regarding China's rise. Late last year, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew incurred the ire of China's netizens when he said on a visit to the US that America must remain present in Asia to counterbalance China.
Cyberspace lit up as ultra-nationalistic commenters rushed to decry Singapore as a pawn of the US.
While Mr Yeo is similarly invested in the US' presence in the region, he has made it clear that he views China's coming prominence benignly.
He maintains that China is not an aggressive, imperialistic power; contrary to what some fear, its external agenda is merely to maintain a stable environment in which it can concentrate on internal governance.
Still, China's growing investment and links with developing regions like Africa worry many in the West. The Chinese may not have delusions of empire, but they will buy resources from wherever they can - no matter that the money lines a dictator's pockets, or fuels civil war.
They are also loath to impose moral strictures on rogue nations like North Korea, frustrating the old imperialist powers which believed in using their influence to bring about positive change in the world.
As Mr Yeo notes, the idea of 'positive change' has always carried the unsaid corollary of 'to become like us'.
In contrast, the Chinese tell their children 'don't get involved in other people's affairs', he says. 'Accept things for what they are, make a living, look after yourselves.'
In fact, he says that unhappiness over China's presence in Africa is due to the old - American and European - powers who 'thought Africa was their fiefdom'.
For colonial powers that did 'horrible things' to their African colonies, Mr Yeo says that the present talk of human rights is inevitably received as hypocritical.
But China's presence all over the world is significant beyond a shifting of power axes, he says, and matters on a philosophical level.
In recent decades, the 'Washington consensus' - that free markets, deregulation and political freedom are the way to development - has been the wisdom of the day.
But China is defying that consensus.
It refused to devalue the yuan during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, when the International Monetary Fund forced painful devaluations on Thailand and Indonesia.
Its economy barely slowed when years of lax regulation led to an unprecedented economic crisis in the US and Europe last year.
Perhaps most stinging of all: The country has staunchly held democratisation at bay, refuting the liberal precept that economic freedom must come hand in hand with political freedom, and capitalism with civil liberties.
Not that Mr Yeo thinks that the Beijing model will take over the world. China is not interested in exporting its model, he emphasises.
'But what it means is there are many models (of development) and you should find your own. If someone tells you, there's only one model, and it must be our model, (you will say) thank you very much, we are still looking,' he says.
'So psychologically, it has a very powerful impact.'
Mr Yeo does not put it in so many words, but for Singapore's leaders, long derided for denying a Western-style democracy in the city-state, it must feel like vindication.
Once it was predicted that liberal democracy would be the final model, the end of history. The Chinese are perhaps proving, to truncate Martin Luther King Junior's quote, that the arc of history is long.
Valuable lessons for both sides
LAST year, Singapore's trade with China came to $75.7 billion, outstripping trade with the US, which came to $66.9 billion, and inching up on the European Union trade of $86.8 billion.
Chinese delegations are once again coming in droves to Singapore, not just to study how its government works, but also the People's Action Party. The latter receives as many as four delegations a week sometimes, party members say.
Where once they marvelled at the good governance, now the Chinese are preoccupied with another aspect of this peculiar bonsai: urban politics.
Mr Yeo has called the PAP 'the most successful urban political party in Asia'. Lone among longstanding dominant political forces in the region, the PAP has not been ousted from office.
To him, unprecedented urbanisation poses the biggest political challenge for traditional parties. The Chinese Communist Party was formed when China was only 20 per cent urban. Now, with the population set to one day be 80 per cent urban, migration to the cities is tugging at the Confucian social fabric.
A similar urban disaffection has translated into votes for the opposition in Asian countries from Indonesia to South Korea to Malaysia, he notes.
Singapore does not have a rural hinterland, but the parallel he sees is the intense influx of immigrants.
'How do you create an organically healthy urban community? That requires a certain rewiring of social relationships so that people... feel that they are living in the village while they are living in the city.'
A social fabric that can stretch and shrink as populations evolve is the holy grail which neither Singapore, China nor any other Asian country has found yet, he says.
He does not foresee national elections in China, but notes that they are 'still experimenting'.
'If they want city dwellers to feel a sense of control over the immediate environment, we must give them a franchise, otherwise (they) are just being administered. Then it's just a hotel, not a home.'
As for what the bonsai can take from blooming China, Mr Yeo is most excited by the experimentation the Chinese are doing, most effectively by blithely upending old expectations.
Sprung from the assumptions of the developed world, the Chinese sometimes do things in strange ways. For example, 'they will put ice into wine'.
'The French, they will scoff, but they will still sell wine to China, right?'
'You know,' he laughs, 'sometimes it's quite nice to have a cube of ice in my wine when I'm thirsty. It cools down the wine and makes it more drinkable.
'If you're too conservative, too set in your ways and you say, 'Oh well, no, it should not be done, it's crass', well... the Europeans used to say that of America.'
Genius or madness, Singapore can partake of the same - revelling in the juncture of new and old; the tried-and-tested and the experimental, he says.
And the bonsai must go forth with boldness: 'I think we would be a very exciting place, a crucible of new ideas, of new possibilities. When cultures mix, there's tension, but there's also sparking... and new forms will evolve.'
Why Singapore can't be a walled city
- On China's governance, which emphasises a central authority in Beijing that is impartial:
In 1994, the water level in the Yangtze River was rising. Taihu lake was at the point of overflow. And they had to decide whether to flood a million farmers in Jiangsu province, or to flood Shanghai.
And everybody knew that the flood was due because they had been reclaiming ponds and lakes in Shanghai and replacing them with drains, so the sponge-like ability of the Yangtze Delta to absorb floodwaters was reduced in Shanghai.
The matter went up to (the central authorities in Beijing). Tables were pounded. In the end, they decided that too bad, the million farmers would have to give way to Shanghai because Shanghai was too valuable.
You can imagine the resentment. But without a central authority considered to be fair in Beijing, they will kill each other.'
- On the Chinese learning from Singapore:
In other words, the relationship is not only a formal one, it is a familiar one. Singaporeans visiting friends or relatives in China will get questions asking how we do things here.'
- On Chinese government officials learning from Singapore government officials:
'In 1996, a big delegation led by (head of the propaganda department) Ding Guangen came. The Internet, newspapers, cinemas, that was all under his purview.
He came with three or four minister-level officials, and they spent a whole week in Singapore. Doing real work, from morning to night.
Even the day they left, they did a tour of Changi Airport. I must say I felt a little naked because by the time they left, there were aspects of our policies which I wasn't aware of but they had gone into it in such detail.'
- On the need to connect to the outside world:
'You can shift physically but the networks are intact. So I can move from Bedok Reservoir to Hougang, all my social networks are intact. It is so when foreigners come in as well. We need a kind of culture that is welcoming.
Then of course it's got outer rooms and inner rooms and they can be brought closer in as they become closer. But no closed doors. There are doors, but there's no gate with barbed wires saying 'keep out'. That's what keeps us alive and connected.
If Singapore were a walled city, we would be irrelevant.'