S'poreans are 'handicapped in addressing disinformation' such as Chinese propaganda: academics

A segment of Singapore's population is receptive to dissemination of the Chinese narrative.

Matthias Ang | March 19, 2022, 03:27 PM

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From around 2012, China has been making a concerted effort to push its national narrative outward to the rest of the world, tapping on anti-imperialist and anti-U.S. sentiments, Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Political Science Department said on Mar. 17.

A segment of Singapore's population receptive to the propaganda barrage by China

Speaking at a Academia.sg panel titled "A World Divided – International Conflicts and Contending Loyalties in Singapore", Chong added that the narrative also includes an emphasis on Chinese culture and ethnic pride, which has been conflated with both China itself and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The world is currently receiving a "barrage" of this narrative and within Singapore, there is a certain segment of Singapore that is responsive to it, he noted.

Chong said:

"Some of it has to do with the constant refrain that we should be cautious of the West, that we are Asian and so this CCP claim that it represents Asia and a certain idea of pan-Asianism, that finds fertile ground with those groups."

In addition, there are also those who are sympathetic to the view that the U.S. is hypocritical.

Another group consists of people who feel they have "very unfairly treated" by Singapore's own policies towards Chinese schools, training, and education in the past.

The rise of China therefore validates their beliefs, he added.

Who are the people who might be receptive to such propaganda?

Linda Lim, a Singaporean economist at the University of Michigan gave two examples of groups who have a vested interest in making Singapore more Chinese-focused, and moving it away from its Western orientation.

One group is a "very large number" of new Chinese immigrants in Singapore, Lim said.

Lim said:

"All new immigrants have ties to their home country. In this particular case, I think that the new Chinese immigrants in Singapore haven't had to cut ties to their own country, right? I mean, because it's there, they have very close business relationships. This is advantageous. And there's so many of them in Singapore, that they don't really need to integrate into the rest of society.

They have their own associations, they have even social media platforms that basically are allied with, if not funded by, the Chinese state and exist to spread things of interest to (the) Chinese émigré population, which includes Chinese state views."

Lim clarified that while she was not saying they were disloyal to Singapore, her point was that many immigrants hold double loyalties, whether these are Singaporean immigrants in the U.S. or Chinese immigrants here.

"Most of them come to Singapore because they have been told by their own state this is a Chinese country we can go to and also because they go for economic interest," she said.

"Their own economic interest will take precedence," she added.

As for the second group, Lim said that these are Singapore-based businesses with extensive networks and investments in China.

Such business interests will be very strong and opposed to any antagonism in China, Lim said.

She summarised the thinking of these businesses as such:

"A big part of my money is in China. The Chinese state does not have to tell me to do anything; I know where my interests are. And my interests are in supporting Chinese views in my own home country in Singapore or wherever else in Southeast Asia."

Lim also clarified that this was purely in the interest of business and did not necessarily mean political support for China's policies in Xinjiang for instance.

In giving an example of her point, Lim pointed out that during China's dispute with South Korea over the deployment of American anti-missile THAAD system in 2017, small and medium-sized Singaporean business in China were also pressured into opposing South Korea, even though Singapore was not directly involved in the issue.

But what is being pushed out is a "very skewed version" of the Chinese mind

It is therefore important to note, especially for Singaporeans who are receptive to Chinese opinion-makers as the more "culturally appropriate reference point," that what Singapore is receiving is a "very skewed version" of the Chinese mind, the panel's moderator, Singaporean media academic Cherian George, highlighted.

This is due to censorship in China which has resulted in the circulation of mostly jingoistic content rather than more reasonable or critical views, he said.

In addition, part of the effectiveness of Chinese propaganda in Singapore lies in how it does not just sell the "supreme wisdom" of the CCP, but also goes on the offensive, by pointing out how the West is no better.

George added, "So the propaganda we're receiving, I think many Singaporeans don't even realize that it is coming from China. It's not branded as something from a Chinese source, just that they appreciate the West being shown the finger."

As for the sensitivity and strong reaction by the mainland Chinese towards criticism of China, Chong said that this is likely due to the way the CCP has constructed the Chinese state.

"Like many other authoritarian states, they tend not to be as accepting of criticism, right? So they need to show how strong they are. So when there is criticism or perceived slights, there's a sort of strong response to it. That's part of it."

Other more nuanced elements, according to Chong, include more autonomy in Hong Kong which is seen by the Chinese state as unacceptable, along with the view of Taiwan as a separate entity, and humans rights issues in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Chong also highlighted the ban on Winnie the Pooh as an example of the absurd lengths of the CCP's reactions to slights.

The cartoon character is censored in China when used in political contexts, such as comparisons to the country's president.

One should not overreact to such extreme opinions

Both Chong and George were echoed by Kanti Bajpai, a professor from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) who cautioned:

"The one thing not to do is to overreact. I mean, on social media, you're going to get the most extreme opinions, stated in the most extreme and provocative terms because the nature of the medium is, that that's the way it works."

Inflammatory opinions should therefore not be met with equally inflammatory responses, Bajpai added.

He pointed out that with the exception of "deeply-controlled" societies, such opinions will also be met with pushback from other sources.

"There will be a kind of almost inevitable check-and-balance going on," he said.

However, that does not mean the matter should be left as it is.

Rather, Bajpai clarified, "Let's not despair about voices coming out from all kinds of levels and agencies and so on. Let's not think that the general public are without intelligence and critical dispositions."

Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, an associate professor at the Nanyang Technological University School of Social Sciences, also highlighted that one could be critical of both Western double standards and hypocrisy, on Iraq and the military industrial complex, while also acknowledging Russia's aggression.

He said:

"In fact, if you are really against the military industrial complex, you really should hate (Russian President Vladimir) Putin because Russia has given the military industrial complex all the justification for its expansion that is going to be needed in the next 10 to 20 years."

Singaporeans are handicapped in addressing disinformation

Here, Chong said that the dissemination of the Chinese narrative had highlighted two issues.

The first is that Singaporeans have been conditioned to not be very critically-minded.

This means that Singaporeans tend to see issues in terms of dispositions such as "U.S. bad, West bad, China good," he said.

This results in a blurring of distinction for how a country acts, given that both the U.S. and China can act in both good and bad ways, Chong elaborated.

In turn, Singaporeans are uncomfortable in having more open discussions and sharper debates over the actions of these countries which handicaps their ability in addressing the disinformation which is coming across, he said.

The second issue is that Singaporeans do not have a strong and clear sense of political values.

Singaporeans therefore tend not to hold those in power to a certain set of standards, he said.

With a clearer of political values and standards, it provides a marker.

Chong explained, "Based on what we believe as a society, how do we then measure what the U.S. is doing or what the PRC (China) is doing?"

Without this, Singaporeans will start latching onto dispositions rather than the reality of the situation.

"A lot of this has to do with education, and media literacy, which we really need to work on, but really haven't so far," Chong concluded.

Education is key to the gap in the skills of Singaporeans in addressing disinformation

Chong's point was echoed by Lim who said that while there was no cause for alarm, the disinformation pushed by Chinese propaganda has shown that Singaporeans are "definitely deficient" in critical thinking.

Lim added that Singapore was handicapped by not having any "independent, professional media" or enough venues for rigorous analysis of such disinformation, resulting in these matters being pushed into "anonymous WhatsApp chats."

Education is therefore key in addressing these matters with students needing to challenge each other in the classroom, she said.

"I think in Singapore, we've had a paucity of discourse that has all these different points of view. Once we go through all these different points of view, argue amongst ourselves...then we can be much more secure in our views," she added.

"Criticism is a positive contribution to knowledge and to policy-making. And I think the fact that we have tended in Singapore to suppress criticism, actually is the one thing that makes us most vulnerable to disinformation," she said.

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