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A Hainan Tiger Dance is performed ahead of the Lunar Year in Kuala Lumpur on January 21, 2022. File photo: AP

Why do Singapore and Malaysia have a more favourable view of China than the US?

  • The two Southeast Asian states were outliers in a poll in which 25,000 respondents from 19 countries held mostly unfavourable views of Beijing
  • Some ethnic Chinese may view the Asian power as being culturally significant, while a respect for ‘strong’ leaders may also be why Singaporeans and Malaysians tend to think better of Xi, analysts say

In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center released at the end of June, Singapore, followed closely by Malaysia, was found to have the most favourable views of China. Some 67 per cent of Singaporeans and 60 per cent of Malaysians polled viewed China favourably, while an overwhelming majority of respondents from both states said their country had good ties with China. The results stood in stark contrast to other countries polled, many of whom held unfavourable views of China compared to the United States.

From China’s economy to President Xi Jinping’s leadership, Singaporean business executive Andre Han believes Beijing performs better on all fronts than Washington.

The 63-year-old says Xi has created jobs, brought prosperity to the Asian superpower, and thinks the projects under the Belt and Road Initiative – Beijing’s global infrastructure and connectivity programme – is a sign of the country’s economic prowess.

“China has prospered, it has built new railways that have not only beaten but also left the United States far behind,” says Han, an executive vice-president of a medical devices distribution company, whose career has taken him from Malaysia to the Maldives and Madagascar. “The US has always been a domineering force, constantly telling other countries what to do. They have started wars and invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Han’s brighter impression of China in comparison to the US aligns with a majority of his compatriots surveyed recently by the US-based Pew Research Center, which found that respondents from Singapore and Malaysia had the most favourable views of China among 19 countries polled.

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Some 67 per cent of Singaporeans and 60 per cent of Malaysians said they saw China in a positive light. In comparison, 51 per cent of Singaporeans viewed the US favourably, while only 44 per cent of Malaysians had positive views towards the US – the lowest among all the countries polled.

Those results made the two Southeast Asian nations outliers in the Pew survey, where an overwhelming majority of the approximately 25,000 respondents polled said they held unfavourable views of China.

In the Asia-Pacific, 87 per cent of respondents in Japan regarded China negatively, as did 86 per cent in Australia and 80 per cent in South Korea.

Distrust and unease loom as South Koreans grow wary of China’s clout

On the diplomatic front, while a significant percentage of people – especially those in Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the US – described their countries’ relations with China as “bad”, almost all respondents in Singapore (90 per cent) and Malaysia (84 per cent) described their relations with China as “good”.

On whether they believed China’s leader “will do the right thing regarding world affairs”, 69 per cent from Singapore and 62 per cent from Malaysia expressed “some or a lot of confidence” in President Xi.

While most respondents in the 19 nations prioritised human rights in China over economic relations, those in Singapore (60 per cent) and Malaysia (55 per cent) indicated they valued strengthening ties with China, even if meant rights issues would not be addressed.

Business executive Han says every country has its own ways of dealing with internal problems. “A leader has to do what he has to do,” he says, adding that he looks up to figures such as Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos Snr, the former dictators of Indonesia and the Philippines.

A bullet train runs through Nanxihe grand bridge on the China-Laos Railway in Yunnan Province. The railway is a Belt and Road project. Photo: Xinhua

‘China’s no angel’

But some Singaporeans whom This Week in Asia spoke to strongly disagreed with the Pew findings.

From headlines on China’s opaque and non-transparent political system to its heavy-handed treatment of Hong Kong, Singaporean tech worker Ethan Wee has formed a view that Beijing “does not inspire confidence”.

The 28-year-old IT specialist says the Asian power’s increasing influence has led to “growing assertiveness and aggression”, especially in the South China Sea, which is claimed by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Wee also pointed to the “arbitrary freezing of its people’s bank accounts” amid a massive banking scandal that led officials to freeze deposits at five banks in April, sparking frustration from customers.

“While some US actions around the world are questionable, such as launching wars on oil-rich regions, China is not exactly an angel either, especially when it supports corrupt and brutal regimes around the world politically, militarily and in the economic arena,” Wee said.

People in Manila protest against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. File photo: AP

One professional in his 40s, who wanted to be known by his surname Chua, said he had observed even new migrants from China to Singapore “now have very negative impressions” of the country and its leader.

“Since the lockdown in Shanghai began, the tides have turned against Xi,” he said. “Some people who required urgent medical care were allowed to die at home due to the strict lockdowns.”

One of China’s largest metropolises, Shanghai went into a strict two-month lockdown in April to quell an Omicron wave, with the move in keeping with the country’s staunch zero-Covid policy.

A sense of pragmatism that is common in Singapore is to read material success as worthy of approval and emulation
Chong Ja Ian, National University of Singapore

Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said populations in Singapore and Malaysia were more “primed towards pliancy to authority” and tended to place more emphasis on economic performance.

“This utilitarian form of pragmatism may make [China’s] authoritarian-driven prosperity as well as apparent success in handling Covid, at the time the survey was conducted, appealing to many in Malaysia and Singapore,” Chong said.

China’s large economy and its status as a major military power are also seen by some in Singapore as signs of success, he said. “A sense of pragmatism that is common in Singapore is to read material success as worthy of approval and emulation.”

Chong noted that Beijing’s efforts in strengthening Chinese culture may also “appeal to Singaporeans who may be seeking cultural and ethnic roots”.

In recent years, Beijing has pressed for the protection of the country’s cultural heritage and has called on its people to cherish, honour and deepen knowledge of Chinese civilisation.

In Singapore, a search for a Chinese identity with a little less China

Meanwhile, there are also Singaporeans who disapprove of the US and Europe for their “excesses and failings”, including domestic problems ranging from race relations to political infighting, gun violence, economic troubles, and the invasions of countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, Chong noted.

“These Singaporeans may see US allies in Europe as complicit in these acts,” Chong said, adding that these Singaporeans tend to approve of what they see as the opposite of the US and Europe, in this case China and its leadership.

The academic said the lingering resentment by some Chinese-educated Singaporeans against historical policies that diminished their prospects may have influenced them to view China’s rise more favourably.

In the 1970s, Singapore shut down a number of vernacular schools as it made English the medium of instruction for all students.

The move led graduates of traditional Chinese schools to feel aggrieved over what they saw as a rollback of Chinese language and culture, and more importantly, a loss of career opportunities to those who were educated in English.

“They may see the rise of China into a global power as a vindication of their views. They associate themselves with the success of [China] and support the positions Beijing and its leaders take,” he said. “Some of this is in response to the condescension they experienced from the Anglophone Singapore elite.”

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad in April 27, 2005. File photo: AFP

The ‘Lee Kuan Yew’ factor

Linda Lim, a Singaporean economist at the University of Michigan, noted that unlike some of the other countries surveyed, Singapore did not see China as a military threat and had no historical animosity or current conflict.

“China is too far away and, it is believed, would not want to undermine the Singapore and Southeast Asian economies by aggressive military action there,” she said.

The city state also doesn’t share the anxieties of Japan and South Korea, which view China as an economic competitor. Rather, Singapore has positioned itself as an agent of Chinese companies seeking to go regional or even global, just as it has for Western multinationals, Lim said.

“Many Singaporeans – especially the Mandarin-speaking, Chinese-educated, and new citizens originally from China – benefit from business with and employment in Chinese companies, so they benefit from China’s economic rise,” she said.

Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hainan Province on April 10, 2018. File photo: Xinhua

On human rights, Lim said Singaporeans had been conditioned to perceive individual freedoms “as unimportant or even dispensable” due to six decades of uninterrupted rule by the People’s Action Party, “which explicitly emphasises pragmatism over principle”.

“This makes them approve of China’s definition of human rights and democracy as being subordinate to or even defined by economic well-being, and to accept weak human rights and individual freedom standards in Singapore itself as necessary for ‘stability’,” Lim added.

China has often maintained that its top priority is to ensure the subsistence and development rights of its people, while lifting its citizens out of absolute poverty. Beijing’s “people-centred” philosophy on human rights states that “helping people pursue a happy life” is the best way to protect human rights.

“Based on their own past experiences, Singaporeans accept and see a patriarchal-authoritarian, one-party state – with a strong leader like [former Singapore leader] Lee Kuan Yew – as not only acceptable, but even necessary,” Lim said.

This makes Xi and his centralisation of political power “acceptable and even desirable”, she added.

Singapore lures new wave of Chinese investors eyeing good schools, stability

Lim said one source of influence had come from “recent immigrants, permanent residents and short-term visa holders from China”.

“They are so numerous that they cluster among themselves, with their own business and social associations, media and social media outlets that have close relations with China state organisations and readily propagate China state views,” Lim said.

“Many don’t speak English and also now dominate the Chinese-language media, cultural and educational space in Singapore, which spills over to and influences locally-born Singaporeans. You don’t need China state propaganda efforts and information campaigns to exert influence.”

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Chinese in Malaysia

For Malaysia, China has been its largest trading partner for 13 consecutive years, with bilateral trade reaching US$94.6 billion in 2021, according to government data.

Some 7 million people in Malaysia – almost one-quarter of the 32 million-strong population – are ethnic Chinese who perceive China as having cultural significance to them, said Ibrahim Suffian, director of Malaysian independent pollster Merdeka Center.

“They feel a certain sense of pride that China has rivalled the West in terms of providing an alternative development and political model.”

Many in Malaysia’s Chinese community look at China as an important trading partner and a success story in its own right
Ibrahim Suffian, Merdeka Center

Ibrahim, whose organisation in March ran a similar poll to the Pew survey, said Malaysians had always viewed the West with some scepticism due in part to years of nationalistic rhetoric by Malaysia’s political elite, and this fed into existing cultural and emotional ties to China.

“Many in Malaysia’s Chinese community look at China as an important trading partner and a success story in its own right … and a lot of people in the business community have relationships with China,” he said, adding that the Asian giant was seen as an “important source of capital, and a giant neighbour that can be a positive force in the economy”.

Even so, these positive views by the Chinese community are not representative of larger Malaysia, where more than half the population is Malay.

Merdeka Center’s poll, which was run in collaboration with Universiti Malaya, found that just 39 per cent of respondents held a favourable view of China, compared with 35 per cent in 2016 when it was first conducted.

A breakdown of the numbers showed that 67 per cent of the ethnic Chinese respondents viewed China positively, compared to just 28 per cent of the ethnic Malay respondents.

The March poll also indicated that more ethnic Chinese – 67 per cent – now view China positively, as compared to 41 per cent in 2016.


China-built East Coast Rail Link project continues in Malaysia

China-built East Coast Rail Link project continues in Malaysia

Anti-China rhetoric came to a head in the run-up to the 2018 general election, in which the Barisan Nasional coalition lost its six-decade grip on power.

During the hustings, two-time prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was stumping for the opposition, had spearheaded a campaign criticising Malaysia’s perceived overexposure to China.

The elder statesman took particular aim at major infrastructure projects such as the Forest City development and the East Coast Rail Link, which he alleged were ways for then-premier Najib Razak to extricate himself from the multibillion-dollar corruption scandal involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) national fund.

However, since the fall of Barisan Nasional and two leadership changes, the level of anti-China rhetoric has “slowed down significantly”, Ibrahim said.

Still, he said “quite a lot of people recognise Malaysia, as a small country, should not be a satellite of a bigger country”.

“They appreciate China as a major power and our biggest trading partner, but they want Malaysia diplomatically to be somewhat neutral, or equidistant to Western powers,” Ibrahim said.

Malaysia’s Mahathir says new US-led trade group intended to ‘isolate China’

Oh Ei Sun, president of the Malaysia-China Friendship Association Sabah, noted that while the country could not ignore the territorial disputes with China, especially those involving the South China Sea, he said there was more to gain from maintaining cordial ties.

“There’s no point in denying we do have territorial disputes with China, and I do not want that to escalate to armed conflict,” he said.

“Whether you like it or not, China is indeed the locomotive that is driving economic development of the East Asia region,” Oh said. “That’s why I am doing my best to promote people-to-people relations between the two countries, and hopefully our disputes will not overshadow our economic cooperation.”