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A Chinese Commonwealth: A proposal Singapore itself should best pursue

Singapore wants to unite Taiwan and China?

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(Canva.com photo)

(Canva.com photo)

On September 11, former Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yong-Boon Yeo (楊榮文) proposed at an “Asia-Pacific Forward Forum" in Taipei that Taiwan consider joining a "Chinese Commonwealth."

He argued this would be a helpful first step toward political integration with China. It would be consistent with the People’s Republic of China's (PRC) desire for “One China,” but it would also accommodate a looser interpretation by Taiwan of what that would mean, including the timing and details of developing such a framework.

Despite Yeo’s presumably good intentions, a young Taiwanese participant at the forum rejected the proposal, bluntly saying “I’m Taiwanese, not Chinese.” Yeo responded that this was an understandable “political feeling” and that if he were young and Taiwanese, he would also have this view. He argued, however, that there was still room to reach an agreement that takes into account Taiwan’s relations with China at the “cultural and civilizational level.”

It may be that Yeo did not fully appreciate the rigidity and timelines of Xi Jinping’s unification ambitions, and had ignored Hong Kong’s glaringly obvious tragic fate within the “so-called “one country, two systems” framework. It may also be the case that Yeo failed to appreciate the extent to which most Taiwanese now feel little affinity for the cultural, much less the political, features of a China dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. Safely ensconced within the security of Singapore surrounded by Malaysia and Indonesia, it is rather easy for Yeo to express his personal wish to see Taiwan “reunified” because, as he said, he “cannot believe that Taiwanese are not Chinese.”

It is no surprise the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a press release on September 14 said Yeo's remarks at the Asia-Pacific Forward Forum about Taiwan were "completely inconsistent with the facts, clearly biased, and vastly different from the understanding of most democratic countries in the region." The ministry said that Yeo's personal opinions not only failed to contribute to regional peace and stable development but also harmed the positive development of Taiwan-U.S. relations and Taiwan-Singapore relations. The Ministry expressed its deep regret over Yeo's comments and urged avoiding turning public opinions into a "mouthpiece for authoritarian China."

Singapore: The best candidate for a "China Commonwealth"

Some 75% of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, and there is no evidence at all that they - much less Yeo himself - are yearning to be citizens of China. Nonetheless, the sincerity and conviction behind any proposal for a “Chinese Commonwealth” can be put to the test, and if so, it should best be tested first in Singapore. After all, Singapore - like Taiwan - was never part of China and was never governed by the Chinese Communist Party, so Yeo’s expressed preferences for Taiwan’s future are only theoretical at best.

A strong case can be made, however, that Singapore is in fact a far better candidate than Taiwan for membership in a "Chinese Commonwealth." For starters, like Hong Kong, Singapore is a more bite-sized territory and therefore would be more easily digested by the PRC. Singapore is roughly 17 square kilometers and Taiwan is 35,980 square kilometers, making Singapore about 2% of the size of Taiwan. Put another way, Taiwan’s land area is about 50 times bigger than Singapore’s.

Moreover, Singapore has a smaller population. Over 95% of Taiwan's population of 23.4 million consists of ethnic Chinese, but some 75% of Singapore's 5.9 million people are also ethnic Chinese. While there are fewer Chinese in Singapore than in Taiwan, they clearly rule the government in Singapore. All three of Singapore’s prime ministers have been Chinese.

Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, had ensured that for reasons of “political stability,” the higher ratio of Chinese immigrants to other ethnic immigrants (mostly Malay) was maintained, and this preference continues. Some 75.9% of Singapore’s citizens and permanent resident visa holders are ethnic Chinese, while ethnic Malays and Indians comprise 15% and 7.5%, respectively.

Together, the three largest ethnic groups make up 98.4% of the citizen population. So a "Chinese Commonwealth" would comfortably accommodate the relatively small Singapore.

Singapore: A better fit for the PRC political and economic system

Singapore could also more easily adapt to a PRC political and social system because, unlike Taiwan which is a true democracy and a leading model of freedom in Asia, Singapore is still only ranked as “Partly Free." China remains ranked as “Not Free," according to the widely respected Freedom House rankings.

TAIWAN SINGAPORE PRC

Status

And Scores

FREE

94 out of 100 Points

PARTLY FREE

47 out of 100 Points

NOT FREE

9 out of 100 Points

Political Rights 38 out of 40 19 out of 40 -2 out of 40
Civil Liberties 56 out of 60 28 out of 60 11 out of 60

Simply put, Singaporeans could adapt far more easily than Taiwanese to the undemocratic and unfree political and legal systems of authoritarian China.

The best destination for China's wealthiest

“Singapore is not only a major economic partner of the PRC but also the largest foreign investor in China,” according to Singapore-based political scientist Ian Chong, who added, “Politically, I think China sees Singapore as a place that they can work with because of the more controlled social and political state in Singapore.”

On April 14, 2023, the Financial Times reported “Singapore has asked the world’s biggest banks to avoid discussing the origins of the significant sums of money flowing into the city over the past year, as wealthy Chinese funnel billions into the Asian financial hub. The tacit directive from the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) was given during a February 20 meeting of an industry group made up of bankers and regulators…. The flow from China into Singapore has become a politically sensitive issue domestically, and the MAS wants banks to keep public discussion of the phenomenon to a minimum…. The influx of mainland Chinese money and people into Singapore comes as China’s President Xi Jinping has launched a regulatory assault on business and an anti-corruption crackdown.”

On April 21, 2023, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that “Chinese money is flooding into Singapore, [but] Beijing wishes it was being spent at home.” The report noted that in 2023, “Singapore … pulled in $25 billion in fixed asset investments, mostly in property, doubling the previous year’s total. That surge…is helping to push up inflation to a 14-year high of 6.4%.”

Former Foreign Minister Yeo should seriously examine how well Singapore would fit into a "Chinese Commonwealth" before presuming to recommend that Taiwan, a country he clearly neither understands nor appreciates, do so. Singapore is a far better fit for his dream of a "Chinese Commonwealth."

Singapore should lead the way. But I doubt it will get far.

William A. Stanton is currently a chair professor at National Chengchi University, where he teaches at the International College of Innovation. He previously served (2019 -2021) as a vice president of National Yang Ming University and then as a senior vice president of National Yang-Ming Chiao-Tung University. From August 2017 to July 2019, Professor Stanton taught at the Center for General Education at National Taiwan University. He previously worked for four years as the George K.C. Yeh Distinguished Chair Professor and founding director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From October 2014 through January 2016, he was also NTHU’s senior vice president for global affairs. Prior to his academic career, Dr. Stanton served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).