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Why Chinese nationals and S'poreans don't always get along

Posted on Mar 27, 2013 12:38 PM Updated: Apr 18, 2013 11:06 PM

In a recent Lianhe Zaobao article, Dr Ji Yun points out that Singapore continues to be misunderstood by the Chinese from the People’s Republic of China (henceforth ‘Chinese’) in various ways. Specifically, he notes how ordinary Chinese show the tendency to conflate those who are geopolitically Chinese (zhongguo ren) and those who are cultural-ethnically Chinese (hua ren). Unfortunately, he did not elaborate on this point, as his article was focused on other issues.

Drawing on my ongoing doctoral research, I would like to offer a few thoughts and observations on the misunderstandings between Singaporeans (here, I am primarily concerned with those of Chinese ethnicity - henceforth ‘Chinese Singaporeans’) and the Chinese, as well as the implications of such misunderstandings with regard to social cohesion.

As Dr Ji Yun’s article points out, one first and foremost way in which the Chinese misunderstand Singapore, especially in the case of those Chinese immigrants who are relatively new to the city-state, has to do with the discrepancy between the Chinese and Singaporeans’ respective ethno-national imaginations.

Many Chinese find it somewhat problematic to conceive of a sufficient distance between Chinese citizens on the one hand and those that are considered ‘ethnically Chinese’ on the other. This is not to say they simply cannot distinguish the two, which is rarely - if ever - the case; instead, it is about how much distance they are consciously and subconsciously able to put in between the two categories.

This tendency on the part of the Chinese is in no small measure due to the nationalistic ideology that has long saturated China which often obfuscates the line between political status/belonging and ethno-/racial identity—an ideology that is very much in active service in relation to, for instance, the Taiwan problem. In other words, the nationalistic ideology in China operates by trying to shorten or omit the hyphen in ‘nation-state’, among other things.

Under the influence of this ideology, many Chinese tend to view other countries and/or societies with predominantly ethnically Chinese population with a sense of familiarity (qinqie)—which can be productive—but also a sense of presumptiveness—which can be counterproductive. In the Singaporean context, such presumptiveness may manifest in, among other things, assumptions about local Chinese Singaporeans’ fluency or willingness to speak mandarin or assumptions about local Chinese Singaporeans’ understanding and acceptance of certain behaviours and ways of doing things. On a daily basis, these have all proven to be occasions in which misunderstandings and disaffections occur.

In certain circumstances, the Chinese presumptiveness develops into arrogance, such as when, for example, service workers from China refuse to try to communicate in English with customers despite Singapore’s multilingual social makeup; it is no wonder that people sometimes get the impression that immigrants from China do not make enough effort to integrate or that they simply ‘behave as if they are in their own country’.

Not knowing enough about the historical trajectory of Singapore as an independent nation-state and not sufficiently recognising the psychological distance between Singaporeans and Chinese constitute the first major source of misunderstanding on the part of the Chinese immigrants. The significant distance in terms of autonomous national-cultural identity that the Singaporeans have traveled away from the ideological Chinese imagination is illustrated in some small but pregnant instances.

For example, Singaporean friends of mine who are open-minded enough would sometimes admit to me that some Chinese Singaporeans are ‘racist’ against the ‘PRCs’. Both the terms ‘racist’ and ‘PRC’ are significant. Mainland Chinese would hardly ever consider discrimination from the Chinese Singaporeans to be ‘racist’, as there is no doubt in their minds that they belong to the same race; in fact, even Chinese Singaporeans should have no reason to characterise their prejudice against the ‘PRCs’ to be racist if Singapore’s founding ideology of multiracialism is to be strictly adhered to.

But the fact that some Chinese Singaporeans—especially the younger ones—are ready to reflect on their prejudice towards the Chinese as racism seems to be due to more than just the loose or wrong employment of the term; instead, it precisely reflects how much more distinct and distant the new generations of Chinese Singaporeans have come to conceive of themselves as opposed to the Chinese. At the same time, because Chinese Singaporeans still believe themselves to be ‘Chinese’ in some ways, they therefore need to label the Chinese some other way in order to mark the distinction, and the phrase ‘PRC’ is used—the full title of a geopolitical entity.

Unfortunately, the daily use of the term ‘PRC’ can no longer be seen as innocent in Singapore; instead, it often carries a derogative connotation. This is the reason why I resist calling Chinese from the mainland ‘PRC Chinese’; it is to the credit of local press that they have not endorsed this term either, preferring ‘Chinese nationals’ or other similar phraseology. The pejorative ‘PRC’ remains widely used in the realm of the often tendentious Singaporean blogosphere; but then blogosphere everywhere is tendentious. 

Related to the first, a second source of misunderstanding has to do with Chinese Singaporeans’ bilingualism, which ironically has the effect of entrenching the first type of misunderstanding as I outlined above. Chinese Singaporeans may express welcome or congeniality to the Chinese immigrants by speaking to them in Mandarin; this, however, makes the urgency for immigrants to speak English and therefore to integrate into the multilingual Singaporean society even less apparent. Chinese Singaporeans’ bilingualism in Mandarin to some extent confirms the Chinese immigrants’ ideology-influenced imagination of Singapore as a ‘Chinese society’ (huaren shehui).

The problem is further complicated here, because neither English nor Chinese is a so-to-speak ‘risk-free’ language between the immigrant Chinese and the local Chinese Singaporeans. When immigrant Chinese—especially those with lower educational levels—speak English, they often cannot make themselves clear or they make the listeners comfortable; this can lead to much misunderstanding and unpleasantness, but may also become a reason for Singaporeans to look down on and laugh at them.

Yet, when being snubbed, the immigrant can always return the snub by denouncing Singlish or Singaporean accented English, an act that is regarded as very offensive. Reversely, when Mandarin is spoken, there is often the danger that the Chinese will come across as ‘upstaging the host’, as they are after all speaking their first language. The nationalistic ideology that to a greater or lesser extent characterises the Chinese makes them consider the Mandarin spoken by Singaporeans to be of inferior standards. Thus, language, which supposedly connects people, is also capable of pitting them against each other, as language is always invested with history, power, and desire.

Although we assume Singapore’s bilingualism makes it easier for Chinese immigrants to integrate, this may not in all circumstances be the case. I sometimes even wonder if the tension between Singaporeans and the Chinese immigrants might not be less if Singaporean Chinese actually did not speak any Chinese/Mandarin at all. This is a rather counterintuitive idea at first, but perhaps not so counterintuitive if we agree that one of the reasons for the current tension is the presumptiveness on the part of the Chinese.

A third very important source of misunderstanding has to do with class perception and attitudes. Since the post-Mao reforms in the late 1970s, the class gulf has widened enormously in the Chinese society. The rural-urban binary divide that has existed as an administrative infrastructure since the founding of the PRC developed into a huge class divide as the poor and poorly educated rural domestic migrants flooded into Chinese cities to seek labour-intensive employments. The official discourse of renkou suzhi—meaning ‘population quality’—castigates the poorly fed, poorly educated and unpolished in China as a low quality class, while the urbanites, generally with better standards of living and education, pride on having higher suzhi.

This class mentality and discourse may be reproduced and reenacted when the relatively privileged urban Chinese set foot abroad as skilled immigrants or, ‘foreign talents’ as is more commonly known here. In the context of Singapore, Chinese dialects remain an important anchor of identity for a significant number of citizens, especially of the older generations; whereas English and Mandarin are still tinged with a sense of foreign imposition.

Speaking Chinese dialects, while perhaps being an expression of identity for some Chinese Singaporeans, often also coincides with disadvantaged socio-economic position in the Singapore society. With Chinese dialects carrying connotations of ruralness and backwardness, the encounter between the more privileged immigrant Chinese and the less privileged Chinese Singaporeans can take on a class inflection. The same kind of discourse employed by Chinese urbanites to condescend on their rural compatriots may also be employed to bear upon those of lower socio-economic and educational backgrounds in Singapore, particularly in scenarios of conflict. This is the context in which we should understand—but of course not condone—the perceived arrogance of some Chinese ‘foreign talents’ in Singapore; in my opinion, this is probably also the nub of the issue in last year’s Sun Xu case, which I found interesting as my research is exactly focused on Chinese students in Singapore. While I am not familiar with the comparative situation about Indian immigrants in Singapore, according to a scholar colleague of mine, a similar scenario occurs with some Indian immigrants in Singapore who consider themselves to be of superior status (either based on caste, ethno-linguistic, class or other backgrounds originally in India) compared with some local Indian Singaporeans.

In the context of Singapore, misunderstandings between immigrants and the local populations can be multifarious and complicated, as both the immigrant and local populations have very complex make-ups and trajectories. In this article, I have only touched on several of them in the Chinese dimension of the issue, and this is only meant to be indicative. When two or more peoples come into contact with each other, they each carry their own sets of social, cultural and historical baggage with them. To hope that they drop their baggage and enter into context-free cosmopolitan interaction is often an impossible ideal, because that baggage may well be the treasured cornerstones based on which each of them derive their deep senses of identity and ontological security.

As such, the best that can be done is for the parties to the interaction to understand each other better and to understand why they misunderstand each other in the first place. In the case of immigration, the duty naturally falls more heavily on the immigrants to understand their host society and to correct their own previous misconceptions, but unfortunately this often takes some time; the duty on the part of the host, then, is to be patient, and to be willing to know where the ‘other’ has come from, literally and metaphorically.


Peidong YANG is a final year doctoral student in the social science division at Oxford University, UK. He is finishing a dissertation on ‘foreign talents’ in Singapore, with specific reference to the experiences of Chinese students receiving Singapore government scholarships.