Monday, October 10, 2016

S’pore businesses quizzed by Chinese counterparts over their stand on South China Sea issue

Tan Weizhen

October 9, 2016

Today Online

SINGAPORE — Following the back-and-forth between Singapore and Chinese state-owned newspaper Global Times over the South China Sea issue, some Singapore businessmen with interests in China are being questioned by their Chinese counterparts, on where they stand on the matter.

Singapore companies TODAY spoke to are concerned that this, along with the increasingly shrill comments by Chinese netizens in response to the newspaper’s provocative articles, would eventually affect their businesses.

Restaurant chain Tung Lok Group has operations in Beijing and Shanghai. Its executive chairman Andrew Tjioe noted the nationalistic fervour in a country “where everything seems to be about politics”. “I’m hoping, though, that consumers in China are mature enough to know how to separate politics and business,” he said.

Agreeing, Mr Ho Meng Kit, chief executive officer of Singapore Business Federation, added: “If this drags on, and there’s widespread anger or hostility towards Singapore products, we’ll be concerned. The Chinese are very nationalistic. I think it’s important that Singapore’s side of the story gets heard in China as the Global Times is not balanced. We hope that the Chinese citizens get a balanced view of the situation.”

Last Tuesday (Oct 4), Members of Parliament (MPs) were briefed on the situation by the Cabinet. MPs told TODAY that concerns of businesses were reflected at the briefing and clarifications were also sought on the actual situation, beyond the rhetoric in the Chinese press.

On Saturday, the topic was also raised at an annual gathering between MPs and grassroots leaders, with Chinese clan associations in attendance.

Mr Koh Chin Yee, chief executive officer of Singapore-based think-tank Longus Research Institute, which does work on China and Asia geopolitics, had previously worked in China for nine years and has ties with the Singapore business community there.

He said: “Such talk among netizens has translated to real life debate… and has caused disturbances to businessmen operating in China. Singapore businessmen in China have told me that they get questioned about their stand on the South China Sea issue, by their counterparts in China.”

Over the past weeks, Global Times had published a series of reports critical of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s official visit to Japan last month, which sparked criticisms of Singapore among Chinese netizens. On Chinese social media network Weibo as well as on the newspaper’s websites, scores of netizens lashed out at Singapore — for example, accusing the Republic of siding with the United States and Japan over the South China Sea issue. Some also remarked that Singapore should know its place as a small country while others said they would stay away from Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia which “oppose China”.

The Global Times reports came on the back of a public exchange of words between the tabloid and Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The newspaper claimed that the Republic had tried to push for a stronger statement on the international tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea at the NAM summit last week in Venezuela.

This sparked a pushback from Singapore’s ambassador to China Stanley Loh, who said the claim was fabricated, false and unfounded. But the Global Times maintained its sources were credible, and said Mr Loh should urge Singapore to “conduct self-reflection” instead. In response, Mr Loh stated that the crux of the matter is that Global Times’ Sept 21 report did not accurately reflect the proceedings at the recent NAM Summit, which can be verified by the public record of the meeting.
While Singapore companies said they have not been affected adversely, at least one foreign company has claimed that earnings have taken a hit due to the South China Sea territorial disputes on business.

Last week, Yum Brands — which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell — attributed the company’s weak financial results in China to the spat and a United Nations tribunal ruling in July that China’s claims violate international law. Yum CEO Greg Creed said: “Anticipated tougher laps in the second half of the third quarter were compounded by an international court ruling on claims regarding the South China Sea, which triggered a series of regional protests and negative sentiment against a few international companies with well-known Western brands.”

Referring to Yum’s predicament, Tanjong Pagar GRC Member of Parliament Joan Pereira, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for defence and foreign affairs, pointed out that the “risk to trade and business is real”.

“This makes it important for the Government to clarify the misreporting in the Global Times, which is exactly what our Ambassador has been doing,” she said. She reiterated that in the South China Sea disputes, as well all international issues, Singapore’s national interest “lies not in taking sides but in supporting a rule-based world order”.

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