2020 marked the 30th anniversary of the normalization of Singapore-China relations. Following the initial low-key interactions during the Cold War, the 1990s heralded a period of significant growth in bilateral ties, encompassing political, economic, and sociocultural cooperation.
Economic ties between the two countries are strong, as can be observed in Singapore’s position as China’s top foreign investor from 2013 to 2017. Additionally, Singapore is the largest trading partner for China in 2017 and is a key financial and business hub for China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Singapore’s political leaders have been able to foster this vibrant relationship with China without much domestic hindrance, not least due to the centralization of foreign policy decision-making in the hands of political elites, coupled with non-partisan support from across the political spectrum. Moreover, foreign policy has seldom been a contentious issue within Singapore, let alone register significantly on the minds of most Singaporeans.
However, these could be altered, given the increasing trend towards a more participatory form of democratic governance in Singapore which could potentially open up Singapore-China relations to more domestic scrutiny. This is the first of three commentaries which explores how this could materialize and seeks to highlight the relevance of Singapore’s domestic politics on relations with China.
Relevance of Singapore’s Domestic Politics to Singapore-China Relations
Usually, discussions on Singapore’s domestic politics in relation to China tend to focus on the role of Chinese Singaporeans, the largest ethnic group in the city-state, on bilateral ties. Specifically, Singapore’s leaders have been hesitant to engage China along ethnic commonalities, in order to avoid the twin risks of upsetting neighbouring countries and undermining the harmony within Singapore’s multiracial society.
However, beyond the delicate issue of ethnicity, the presence of a strong government in Singapore has been relevant in shaping bilateral ties with China. In particular, China’s political leaders, keen to maintain its own domestic political legitimacy, have drawn lessons from Singapore as a role model in preserving a dominant one-party rule through effective governance accompanied by stellar economic performance.
To be sure, this is not to suggest that strong Singapore-China relations is heavily dependent on how attractive Singapore’s strong governance is to China. Nevertheless, it is plausible that the longstanding political success of the People’s Action Party (PAP) served not only as a guarantee of consistency in Singapore’s policies towards China, but also as a source of capital to influence China’s behaviour towards mutually beneficial outcomes as both countries interact with one another.
Increasing Democratization in Singapore
If Singapore’s political system has been a source of Singapore’s attractiveness to China, what would greater political plurality mean for Singapore-Sino ties? In particular, since the 1980s and more so over the past decade, the Singapore government has had to cope with increasing pressure from the electorate for more diverse voices and greater democratic participation in the governance of Singapore, but this has mainly been confined to contestations over ‘bread and butter’ issues.
That said, the desire for more plurality seems to have increased and this manifested during Singapore’s general election in July 2020, in which the ruling PAP secured a mandate for continued governance of Singapore, but suffered an electoral setback with a 10% drop in the share of popular votes. They also lost a second Group Representative Constituency (GRC) to the opposition Worker’s Party (WP).
It is unknown how China would perceive recent and future developments in Singapore politics. China’s initial enthusiasm in learning from Singapore on strong governance has already been waning over the years, not least due to China’s growing confidence in its ability to develop its state capacity to govern. Singapore’s ongoing trend towards a more competitive democracy (which is not a given) might complicate China’s eagerness to learn from Singapore’s political system. This could blunt Singapore’s ability to leverage on its style of governance as a means of relevance to influence China.
However, if China’s reaction were to involve some degree of influence in Singapore’s domestic politics to ensure Singapore maintains favourable policies towards China in the face of uncertainty, then this could potentially damage bilateral relations, especially since Singapore is deeply against any form of foreign interference in domestic politics.
While China has openly and consistently declared that it firmly upholds the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, there is no guarantee that China will be indifferent to the political developments of other state actors, especially if it impinges on China’s national interest. Indeed, there have been reports on China’s alleged interference in the domestic politics of countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
Could such a scenario happen in Singapore especially if democratization in Singapore were to reshape the country’s foreign policy towards China? Fortunately, Singapore’s existing strong state capacity has been effective in stamping out foreign interference in domestic affairs, including foreign policy decision-making. Nevertheless, should democratization eventually alleviate the pervasive and invasive aspects of Singapore’s state capacity, this could embolden foreign entities (including other countries) to think that it would henceforth be easier to manipulate Singapore’s domestic politics to serve the interests of such external actors.
This is not to imply that democratization must be rolled back to safeguard Singapore’s national security. Instead, Singapore must find a way that accommodates the growing democratic space which could anticipate more domestic participation in Singapore’s foreign policy decision-making towards China, while still preserving its robust internal security apparatus to keep out any undesirable foreign interference in such a process.
Indeed, a consequence of Singapore’s growing democratic space is the spectre of more critical assessment from domestic constituents regarding the rationale and implementation of Singapore’s policies towards China. As will be discussed in the second commentary, such domestic scrutiny should contribute to a more robust foreign policy conducive to building stronger bilateral ties with China, while preserving Singapore’s national interests and freedom from any forms of foreign interference and coercion.
David Han is a PhD candidate in International Relations at LSE. Concurrently, he is also a Senior Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies , Nanyang Technological University. His PhD thesis re-conceptualises 'hedging' as unique form of risk management in Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines’ foreign policies towards China and the United States.