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[Research Reports] The Strategic Significance of a "Multiethnic Singapore"

Tsutomu Kikuchi (Professor, Aoyama Gakuin University /Senior Adjunct Fellow, The Japan Institute of International Affairs)
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Research Group on 'The Indo-Pacific' FY2021-# 1

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.


Singapore is a small country but, it has a global presence that far exceeds its size in the world economy and finance. Singapore has been playing an important role not only in the international relations of Southeast Asia but also in the politics, economy and security of the Indo-Pacific. Singapore has taken a number of initiatives in the area of multilateral cooperation, including cooperation within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), cooperation in East Asia, and the conclusion of regional free trade agreements. The country's proactive foreign policy has been highly appreciated internationally. That is reflected in the visits to the country in the past several months by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Singapore's proactive foreign relations are supported by its national identity as a "multiethnic Singapore". Today, however, Singapore's status as a multiethnic nation is under challenge. Its fate will have a profound impact not only on the country but also on international relations in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Ethnic and overseas Chinese account for three-quarters of Singapore's population. Despite the fact that ethnic and overseas Chinese have made up the overwhelming majority of the population since the country's founding, the Singaporean government has fostered a national identity not as a "Chinese nation" but as a "multiethnic nation". The country has promoted a policy in which different ethnic groups, such as Malays and Indians, respect each other's cultural traditions and coexist as equals.

In recent years, however, developments have surfaced that might undermine this identity. The rise of "identity politics" (politics in which one's particular ethnic, racial, religious or other identity has a major influence on one's attitudes on political and social issues) as a global trend is one such development, but even more important are China's rise in Asia and its foreign policy. China is one of the factors affecting Singapore's national character.

If Singapore's identity as a "multiethnic nation" weakens and its identity as a "Chinese nation" strengthens in future, this will not only change the state of Singapore itself but also have a great impact on international relations in Southeast Asia. Singapore's relations with its neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia will be strained, ASEAN's functions will be significantly diminished, and international relations in Southeast Asia will inevitably be destabilized. Whether Singapore can continue to maintain its national identity as a "multiethnic nation" is a question that will have a major impact on the future of international relations in Southeast Asia (and thereby on those in the Indo-Pacific as well).

International Relations and Ethnicity in Southeast Asia

Singapore is a country dominated by ethnic and overseas Chinese born in Southeast Asia, where ethnic and religious differences cause disputes and conflicts. Singapore is the only country outside "Greater China" (mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau) that has an overwhelming majority (76%) of ethnic and overseas Chinese.

However, as the history of Singapore's independence from Malaysia shows, Singapore has pursued a national identity of being not a "Chinese nation" but rather a "multiethnic nation" in which all ethnic groups are equal partners in forming the nation. The Singaporean government has encouraged its citizens to develop an identity as a multiethnic nation. Conscious efforts have been made to create a nation in which each ethnic group, while maintaining its own traditional culture, respects the other ethnic groups so that all ethnic groups can coexist on an equal basis.

The concept of Singapore as a multiethnic nation was indispensable for smooth relations with neighboring countries. Right next to Singapore are two Malay countries, Indonesia and Malaysia. The circumstances in these neighboring countries have strongly influenced Singapore's domestic politics and foreign policy.

Ethnic and religious diversity has created conflicts and tensions in inter-state relations in Southeast Asia, and managing these has been an important issue in Southeast Asian international relations.

ASEAN was launched in 1967 with the aim of establishing a degree of order in the relations among Southeast Asian countries with causes for conflicts and divisions rooted in their identities.1 Disputes between Southeast Asian countries could have provided an excuse for extra-regional powers to interfere in their internal affairs, and Southeast Asia could again have become a battlefield for power struggles, threatening the independence and sovereignty of Southeast Asian countries. The "peaceful settlement of disputes" was the most important principle affording a certain degree of stability to the relations among Southeast Asian countries, where mutual distrust persisted. Ethnicity and religion remain divisive factors in both domestic and international relations in Southeast Asian countries to this day.

Countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, which have a small number of ethnic Chinese and which have been struggling to reconcile their ethnic groups, have harbored suspicions since the time of its founding that Singapore, which has a large number of ethnic and overseas Chinese, might pursue a national identity as a "Chinese nation" and foreign policies based on this identity. This could have galvanized the ethnic and overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia and Indonesia, upsetting the delicate balance between ethnic groups and leading to political instability.

For many Southeast Asian countries with multiple ethnic groups, dealing with internal ethnic issues is one of their most delicate political problems. Although there are a small number of ethnic and overseas Chinese communities in most countries of Southeast Asia, they are not entirely welcome in their respective societies. Differences in ethnic identity can be linked to differences in income and religious beliefs, potentially destabilizing national politics.

The Singaporean government has understood that its neighbors in Southeast Asia look at it with suspicion and distrust. Singapore's identity as a "multiethnic nation" was a concept that Singapore positioned as fundamental in nation-building for its survival in the regional environment of Southeast Asia. Singapore adopted English as its lingua franca, not the Chinese language used by many of its citizens, and was the last ASEAN country to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. Singapore has been paying close attention to both domestic and diplomatic agenda in order not to provoke anxiety in neighboring countries.

The Rise of China and the Identity of a Multiethnic Nation

For a young nation like Singapore, less than 50 years old, maintaining such an identity is no easy task. China's moves in particular present a serious challenge to Singapore today.

China has long regarded Singapore as a "Chinese state," seeking support and tacit approval for China's policies. For China, Singapore is a "compatriot" and is therefore expected at the very least to avoid criticizing China openly.

The Singaporean government did not take this perspective into consideration in making "multiethnic Singapore" a pillar of its nation-building.

Nevertheless, two things have shaken this identity in recent years. One is that China is growing into a major power. In the past, when China was poor and lacked international influence, the Chinese identity within the Chinese-Singaporean identity of a "multiethnic Singapore" was unlikely to be energized. However, as China has become a major power, the "Chinese" identity among the ethnic and overseas Chinese in Singapore has been roused, and this has the potential to upset the national identity of a "multiethnic Singapore".2

The second is China's increasing efforts to stimulate a "Chinese identity" among Singaporeans. In recent years, China has been engaged in a variety of activities throughout Southeast Asia to galvanize and entrench the "Chinese identity" of ethnic and overseas Chinese.

President Xi Jinping has a grand vision of realizing the "Chinese Dream", the core of which is said to lie in the "Great Rejuvenationl of the Chinese Nation". According to President Xi, the dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is not one to be pursued and appreciated only by the citizens of the People's Republic of China, but is a dream to be shared by all people of Chinese descent living around the world.3 Ethnic and overseas Chinese in Singapore are naturally a part of this.

In order to realize the Chinese Dream, China needs to appeal to the "Chinese identity" of ethnic and overseas Chinese. In March 2018, the office in charge of ethnic and overseas Chinese affairs is said to have been placed under the direct control of the Communist Party Central Committee's United Front Work Department.

In Singapore, too, China is promoting cultural projects and publicity activities that rekindle a "Chinese identity" among Singaporeans.4

Findings by the Pew Research Center released at the end of June 2021 tell an interesting story. In reply to the question "Do you have a positive or negative impression of the United States or China?", most respondents in the major countries surveyed expressed a negative view of China. Among the developed countries, Singapore was the only country with a large number--an extremely high percentage of 64%--of respondents having a positive impression of China.5

In the future, the "Chinese identity" of ethnic and overseas Chinese residents of Singapore may be galvanized, and the national identity of "multiethnic Singapore" may change. As a result, groups could emerge in Singapore that openly support China's foreign policy and object to the Singaporean government's criticism of it.

If the Singaporean government's stance toward China could change under such pressure, the impact would be felt throughout Southeast Asia. In other words, there is a risk that the state of Singapore, a multiethnic nation, will undergo a major transformation, which in turn will affect ethnic and overseas Chinese communities in other Southeast Asian countries and result in friction among these countries.

The Singaporean government itself is not optimistic about the situation. In his National Day address on August 29, 2021, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the ethnic and religious challenges Singapore faces, ranking them only below the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy, and reiterated that Singapore's founding fathers, including former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had aspired to build a "multiethnic nation" in which different ethnic groups co-exist harmoniously while preserving their own cultures and traditions.6 He also pointed out that Singapore had adopted English as its official language because it believed that there should be no advantages or disadvantages in terms of languages among ethnic groups, and stressed the significance of equality and harmony among ethnic groups.

Singapore has stood firm against major powers based on the principle of multilateralism. The country is an important partner in realizing the "free and open Indo-Pacific" that Japan is promoting. It has maintained close economic ties with China while at the same time providing naval facilities and other support in aid of the US military presence in Asia.

Singapore's identity as a multiethnic nation is an important domestic basis for its constructive foreign relations. Its ability to uphold this identity has strategic implications for the future of the region, so we will continue to monitor developments in the country.

(This is English translation of Japanese paper originally published on November 18, 2021.)

* In writing this article, I learned a lot from Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan's essays and speeches. See, for example, the following. Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore is not an Island, Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2017.

1 According to Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, the purpose of ASEAN's establishment was to provide order and civility, albeit in a modest way, among the Southeast Asian countries which were at odds with each other.

2 Wang Gungwu, "Singapore's 'Chinese Dilemma' as China Rises," The Straits Times (Singapore). June 1, 2015.

3 President Xi Jinping's remarks at the 7th Conference for Friendship of Overseas Chinese Associations on June 6, 2014

4 During the 2018 general election in neighboring Malaysia, there was an extraordinary occurrence of the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia going to the constituency of the president of the Malaysian Chinese Association to support his campaign.

5 Laura Silver, Kat Devlin and Christine Huang, "Large Majorities Say China Does Not Respect the Personal Freedoms of Its People", Pew Research Center, June 30, 2021. Retrieved from

6 Prime Minister Lee's speech was delivered in three languages: Malay, Chinese and English. "PM Lee Hsien Loong delivered his National Day Rally speech on 29 August 2021 at Mediacorp. PM spoke in Malay and Chinese, followed by English."