“Huang Jing Case a Test of Nation Building” by Benjamin Loh

2017/46, 7 August 2017

The revocation of the Singapore permanent residency of a prominent US Chinese academic has captured the media headlines both local and abroad. Branded an “agent of influence” of an unnamed foreign country by the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs on 4 August, the revocation is a stark reminder of the challenges of nation building and national coherence.

Singapore, an independent Chinese-majority state in the Malay Peninsula, was born out of conflict and wrestled with communist insurgency. For survival in the region, our founding fathers pursued policies to avoid being seen as a “Third China”. Over fifty years on, certain realities remain unchanged – ethnicity remains an issue in the Malay Peninsula, and the struggle for regional influence among major powers continues.

But the Huang Jing case is not just about small states surviving in the midst of influential great powers. The expansion of geo-political and economic influence in this case also goes hand in hand with the increasing flows of new migrants, many from China (and in Huang’s case, a China-born US citizen), who have arrived to work, live and study in Singapore. This new wave of Chinese migrants come at a time when China is flexing its economic, military and political muscle. China’s status as global power has shaped their worldview. Many are expected to orientate towards China, while technology and globalisation allows them to serve China from afar.

The potential of the new Chinese migrants to serve China’s national interests has not been lost on Beijing, and China has been eager to harness the potential of its human capital. The Huang Jing case, if indeed acting under the auspices of Beijing and its organs, joins the recent incidents of alleged Chinese campaign to infiltrate the Australian political process by co-opting the growing Chinese community in Australia. Hung Jing was in a unique position to influence not only students but also academics and the policy community on China issues. According to a news outlet, Huang “is known for his Beijing-friendly stance in regular articles for international and mainland Chinese publications” (SCMP, 4 August 2017).

It is unclear at this point which aspects of Singapore’s foreign policy and public opinion were targeted in this episode, but the decision to declare Huang Jing as effectively persona non grata signals the Singapore government’s principle in standing up for its core interests; and where attempts at shaping the opinions and interests of Singaporeans and the Chinese community in Singapore about Chinese interests are concerned, Singapore is proclaiming its national coherence as an independent multi-ethnic nation state.

Dr Benjamin Loh is Fellow and Coordinator of the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Program at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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