S'pore 2nd in world for being most influenced by China: Taiwan research institute

After Cambodia.

Kayla Wong | April 30, 2022, 06:58 PM

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Singapore is the second country in the world that is most exposed to China's influence, according to a report called the China Index, released by Taiwan-based research institute Doublethink Lab (DTL) on Apr. 25.

Out of 36 countries and regions, Singapore ranked behind Cambodia, and was marginally ahead of Thailand by two points.

Other Southeast Asian countries such as The Philippines and Malaysia were ranked in the top 10 as well. Taiwan and Australia ranked ninth and 10th respectively.

The report was touted by the non-governmental organisation as the “the first ever attempt to survey and portray the PRC’s influence in the world”.

It presented data that was collected from March to August 2021 from the surveyed places in eight regions, including East Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America.

According to DTL, which also monitors the flow of disinformation from China to Taiwan, the report assesses China’s influence in nine domain areas, which involves several indicators each.

Areas where Singapore is supposedly most susceptible to China's influence

Singapore was ranked particularly high in the areas of technology, academia, and economy, which means the city-state is most susceptible to China's influence in these areas, at least according to the survey.

Here's how Singapore holds up against the world average in the various domain areas.

Spider chart via China Index.

Singapore ranked the highest in the area of technology out of all the domains, with the report saying that China-based venture capital is increasing in many areas in the country, and that Chinese firms are suppliers to technology that the Singapore state is using.

As for the area of academia, the report claimed of instances where Nanyang Technological University (NTU) apparently instructed its faculty and guest speakers to refer to Taiwan only in ways that are deemed appropriate by the Chinese leadership.

For instance, a contributing expert claimed that a U.S.-based historian working on the history of World War Two was allegedly pressured to drop references to the "Republic of China" in the talk he was set to give at the university, and that faculty were told not to refer to Taiwan or Hong Kong in ways that could be "construed as countries".

As for the economy, the report highlighted that while China is not the largest source of foreign investments for Singapore, Singapore is the largest foreign investor in China. It also mentioned that China is the largest destination for investments from state investor Temasek holdings.

The report also said there has been "no direct economic coercion yet", although the detention of nine Singapore Armed Forces Terrex infantry carriers in Hong Kong in 2017 was mentioned as an example of a form of “coercion”.

Singapore susceptible to China's influence in media and society too

Singapore was assessed to be vulnerable to China's influence in the area of society as well, which was defined as the effectiveness of China's efforts to advance its soft power in the country over local organisations and citizens.

The report claimed that while views regarding China are mixed in Singapore, China is generally viewed as "holding great commercial opportunity and technological prowess" even if some people are "suspicious" of the Chinese government's intentions.

The report also claimed that Singapore's "mainstream media is quite positive of the PRC", and that some in Singapore are drawn to China as a site for "Asian values".

"Prominent individuals" accused of promoting Chinese government's narrative

In addition, the report pointed out that there has been "an increasing number of prominent individuals, often ethnic Chinese males", who have been promoting "PRC denialism towards Xinjiang".

Former foreign minister George Yeo was named as the "most prominent of these", with the report noting that he is "closely affiliated with Kerry Logistics", a Hong Kong company.

Yeo was Chairman and Executive Director of the company from 2012 until he stepped down in 2019. He stayed on as Senior Adviser to the Kuok Group for two years, and retired on June 1 last year.

Included in its list of citations were former foreign minister George Yeo's public remarks that China is not committing genocide in Xinjiang.

The report also described Yeo as being "closely affiliated" to Kishore Mahbubani, who was formerly the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.

It said that they released "a series [of] articles and podcasts that seem to closely parallel the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) official line".

Yeo appeared in an episode of a series of podcasts hosted by Kishore that were billed as discussions with academics and policymakers to "promote peace and reduce conflict".

Responding to Mothership's queries on his thoughts on the report, Yeo said his views of China were "long held from a young age", and that since leaving the Kuok Group, his views of China have "remained largely the same".

Yeo added that he has "left the Kuok Group completely" since June last year and people can refer to his book Banyan, Bonsai and the Tao on speeches he made about China in different ministerial portfolios.

Mothership had also reached out to Kishore, the author of Has China Won?, for his comments.

Kishore, who recently appeared on CNN to provide his views on China's reaction to Russia's war, said, "This report reminds me of the black operations that Mr S Rajaratnam (late Singapore foreign minister) warned about. It is clearly funded by intelligence agencies and it is not an objective or impartial report."

How vulnerable is Singapore to China's influence?

The results of the report appear to be congruent with findings from earlier polls.

For instance, a survey conducted by Washington D.C.-based think tank Pew Research Center in 2021 showed that Singapore was the only advanced economy, out of the 17 surveyed, where more people have a positive view of China than the U.S.

However, a 2021 survey done by Singapore-based research centre ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute also revealed that despite China being seen as the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia, most respondents would rather side with the U.S. over China if forced to make a binary choice.

Trust towards China had dropped as well in 2021 as compared to the previous year, with respondents regarding Japan as the most trusted power in the region.

In addition, a report released by French military think tank IRSEM late last year claimed that Singapore is "particularly vulnerable" to Chinese influence. The contributing factors included its "size, hyper connectivity, common use of both English and Chinese, its dependence on imports", as well as the multiethnic nature of the Singaporean society such as the "Chinese roots" of a majority of its population.

However, the report also stressed that Singapore is "well-equipped" to counter the pressure from China, which includes the portrayal of the city-state as a "Chinese country", and the imposition of a "Chinese identity" onto the country.

This is because Singapore has developed "a unique national, multiethnic and multicultural identity" that serves as a "counter-narrative" to the one that Chinese influence operations might be trying to push for.

Furthermore, the "cultural penetration of China is weak", the report claimed, as a large majority of Singaporean Chinese describe themselves as Singaporean.

The report also pointed out that Singapore is among the most advanced in the world when it comes to the field of "combating information manipulation".

How credible is the report?

In asserting the report's quality during the assessment process, DTL said at least two experts had to agree on the assessment. All assessments had to be accompanied with corresponding evidence as well.

In addition, DTL said the questionnaire focused on factual indicators, and avoided questions that might lead the respondents to answer with their “opinions, preferences, or judgments”.

The research outfit also emphasised that the experts who worked on the indicators had not received any funding or payments from the Chinese government directly or indirectly.

These experts are mostly made up of analysts from a Western background, such as Bonnie Glaser of the U.S. think tank German Marshall Fund.

Report may not reflect complete reality

Speaking to Mothership, Ian Chong, Associate Professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said that while the veracity of the report is best ascertained by following up on the sources, the report may not reflect the complete reality.

This is because the data might be "lumpy" in the sense that some features in particular countries might be "less visible", therefore "suppressing any measure of their openness to influence".

That the data is not complete in some countries and regions was acknowledged by DTL, which said there is “difficulty” in doing so, therefore making the total scores of the places surveyed not directly comparable.

Chong added, "They present some areas of exposure, but cannot tell readers about where, how, or how much PRC influence affected policies, legislation, or their implementation or not."

"These are complex processes that are likely to be subject to multiple forces," he explained. "To test for any effect from PRC influence requires more detail than the index provides."

Nevertheless, he thinks the report provides "a starting point for areas to examine", and recommends whoever that’s interested to “examine and follow up” with the sources provided in the report.

He would also like to remind readers that the index is not just about rankings, which he noted that current discussion appears to revolve around.

He said,

"If Singapore ranked 10 or 12 or even 20 and had the exact same indicators, that simply suggests that exposure to various forms of PRC influence is more pervasive. It would still be worthwhile to assess the evidence for Singapore on its own merits."

Top image via Nicolas Asfouri-Pool/Getty Images