The intersecting challenges of race, inequality, and US-China rivalry

Academic Views / Monday, March 14th, 2022

Economist Linda Lim (University of Michigan), argues that inequality, race, and tensions over US-China relations are interlinked and embedded in Singapore’s input-intensive, state-driven, multinational-led economic model. This is a revised and expanded version of her talk for the Stanford University Southeast Asia Program, March 8, 2022.  Lim is emerita professor of corporate strategy and international business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

Race, inequality and US-China relations have separately generated major public discourse in Singapore in recent years.  But insufficient attention has been paid to the linkages among them, and to their embeddedness in Singapore’s economic model.

Linda Lim’s Stanford talk can be viewed here.


Most advanced market economies have experienced rising inequality due to the shift from labour- to capital- and skill-intensity. In the era of neoliberal orthodoxy, inequality has been aggravated by reduced redistribution from winners to losers in economic growth, with tax cuts and subsidies for businesses and shareholders, and shrunken social safety nets for workers.

In Singapore, income and corporate taxes, and social welfare entitlements, are very low compared with other rich countries, without growth being any higher. So inequality has been higher than in most peer economies, whether measured by Gini coefficient, the very low (40 percent) share of wages and consumption in GDP, or percentile shares of income. Compared with other rich countries, income in Singapore is much more concentrated in the hands of top earners. The shares of national income claimed by the top 1 percent and 10 percent of income earners amounted to 14 percent and 44 percent respectively in 2014.  Only the United States, and by some measures the United Kingdom, are as or more unequal.

The incomes of the top 10 percent of earners in Singapore amounted to 44 percent of national income in 2014. This is a level of inequality higher than found in most developed countries. – Photo by William Cho.

Such high inequality results from Singapore’s state-directed, multinational-led, export-oriented, manufacturing-focused and austerity-obsessed economic model’s heavy reliance on imported capital, technology, skills and labour.  It is input-intensive, achieving growth by adding factors of production—capital, labour, even land (sand from neighboring countries)—rather than by increasing the productivity of domestic resources.  Wages at the low end of the skill ladder are depressed by a massive supply of low-skilled migrant labour, while “world-class” salaries are paid to attract transient “foreign talent” at the high end.  First World living standards for the rich are procured by Third World wages for the poor.  Some 40 percent of the labour force, and of the population, is foreign-born. 

Workers in low-wage occupations earn as little as 30 percent of the wage of a similar worker in other countries with the same per capita income, and as much as 30 percent of the resident population is unable to make ends meet through full-time work at market wages, some even with the help of state subsidies.  That Singaporeans care about this issue is shown by the nearly 40,000 copies Nanyang Technological University sociologist Teo You Yenn’s book, This is What Inequality Looks Like, has sold since publication in 2018.[2]  That same year the Minister for Education said tackling inequality is a “national priority” because social stratification is threatening social cohesiveness.  A growing “class divide” has been much discussed.

The government plans to raise the regressive Goods and Services Tax from 7 percent to 9 percent. – Photo by Project Manhattan.

In 2021, Monetary Authority of Singapore Managing Director Ravi Menon, speculated that it might be necessary for Singapore to adopt a minimum wage and unemployment insurance (which other rich countries have but which the PAP government has steadfastly resisted), and perhaps even a more unusual “wealth tax”, to deal with this problem.  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also pledged in his 2021 National Day Rally speech that his government—which had lost vote share and a second GRC (Group Representation Constituency of 5 seats) to the opposition in the July 2020 General Election—would “take care of low-wage workers”.   

The expanded opposition in parliament has been pushing for a minimum wage[3], and against an increase in the regressive Goods and Services Tax (GST).  Yet in Budget 2022 released in February the government only delayed its planned increase in GST from 7 percent to 9 percent, increased some property and luxury taxes, and raised the top income tax rate for the top 1.2 percent of earners from 22 percent to 23 percent (still low by international standards).  It will continue to subsidise employers for wage increases for the lowest-waged workers, but there is no increase in social welfare entitlements.  Corporate tax rates remain low despite global standardisation moves, and there are still no capital gains or inheritance taxes, or any kind of wealth tax–perhaps because these would conflict with Singapore’s role as a wealth management hub for wealthy foreign families and their family offices, and a haven for famous global billionaires. 

The Economist’s Crony-Capitalism Index (published in its March 12, 2022, issue) shows that Singapore’s billionaire wealth as a percentage of GDP is second only to Russia’s. It ranks Singapore at #3 in terms of crony capitalism. The index uses billionaire data from Forbes, and labels each one as a crony or not, based on the industry in which he is most active. It categorises some industries as more vulnerable to “rent seeking” (extracting more profit than would occur in a competitive market) than others, including industries with a lot of interaction with the state, or are licensed by it.

The government’s philosophy on inequality is that the poor earn low wages because their individual productivity is low, rather than because deliberate state economic policy compels them to compete with migrant workers from lower-income neighbouring countries.  So the onus is on the individual to increase her own productivity through state-subsidised skills training, which has its own limitations.


Every Singaporean is assigned a race at birth which must be one of the following: Chinese (75.9%), Malay (15%), Indian (7.5%) or Other (1.6%), known as the “CMIO” framework.  This applies even if they are biracial, which an increasing proportion are.  First established by the British colonialists in 1921, current ratios are fossilised at what they were at the time of Singapore’s independence in the 1960s.  One’s racial designation is employed in many public policies.  It influences your Housing Development Board (HDB) housing allocation through the Ethnic Integration Program (EIP), your primary school, and your “mother tongue” for second language learning.  It also restricts choice in electoral candidates through the GRC scheme and the Reserved Presidency.  As a result, Singaporeans think of race as core to their identity and become habituated to see many things through racial lenses.

In response to growing public concern about racist incidents, AcademiaSG organised this discussion in June 2021.

The rigidity of the CMIO model does not make economic sense, since it constrains the immigrants needed for the input-intensive economic model, according to what their race is, rather than who is best for the job.  A lecture Lee Kuan Yew gave that I attended in 1971 suggests a possible “rational” reason: he mused about the superior economic success of East Asians—particularly, at that time, Japan—relative to South and Southeast Asians.[4]  He continued to develop an obsession with the cultural, hence racial, roots of economic development, and about ten years later brought Chinese-American scholars to Singapore to help develop a secondary school curriculum on Confucian Studies.  Although this effort was subsequently abandoned, it spawned an “Asian values” discourse in the 1980s and 1990s.  This has long since receded in academia, but resurfaces in Singapore from time to time.  Underlying it is an implicit association of race with patterns of behaviour such as work ethic, academic and entrepreneurial acumen, and achievement.  I believe that clinging to colonial-era racial quotas and allowing them to permeate throughout the society and economy reflects a belief that ethnic Chinese can make a superior contribution to the economy. Chinese are privileged in ethnic quotas for immigrants—of 7 to 1 over Indians, for example.

Singapore is often lauded for its “racial harmony” and “successful multiculturalism”, but rigid CMIO ratios are neither necessary nor sufficient for this.  They did not stop the handful of race riots which occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, nor the increase in racist incidents in recent years directed at ethnic minorities, particularly Indians in 2021.  In the same National Day speech last year, Prime Minister Lee announced that a Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act would be legislated, adding to the existing Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, and Sedition Act which makes it illegal to insult any race or religion.  He also promised separate anti-discrimination legislation which hopefully will deal adequately with the job and housing discrimination which minorities encounter: until very recently, job advertisements commonly specified that only “bilingual” or “Mandarin-speaking” candidates need apply, and landlords frequently and openly refuse to rent apartments to Indians.  Just a few years ago a government Minister said that “Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister”—though the most popular and top-vote-getting PAP Minister is an Indian-Singaporean. 

Even as surveys and election results showed that Singapore’s most popular minister was an Indian, government leaders continued to maintain that Singaporeans would not accept a non-Chinese prime minister. – Photo by Cherian George

The increase in racist incidents is linked with the economic model through heavy reliance on foreign labour and expatriates—particularly South Asians at both the low and high ends of the labour market—coupled with the belief that foreigners, especially Indians in IT and finance, are unfairly outcompeting Singaporean PMETs (professional, managerial, executive and technical) for jobs.  Inequality within the resident population is bad enough. But political sensitivity to it increases when those seen as causing low wages (at the bottom) and benefiting from inequality (at the top) are foreigners of a different race from the majority of Singaporeans.

The United States vs China

The economic model also plays into attitudes toward the U.S./the West, and China. China is Singapore’s largest merchandise trade partner, reflecting its role in China-centered global manufacturing supply-chains, and long-established role in entrepot trade.  But the U.S. has long been and remains Singapore’s largest foreign investor in Singapore. Singapore does more business in services trade with the U.S., European Union and Japan than with China.  Singapore’s rapid economic growth and development since independence in the 1960s owes much to its role as an intermediary—a “comprador” or agent—for Western and Japanese capital in global, then Asian regional, markets.  It is consequently also an enthusiastic participant in the rules-based international order devised by and centred in the West.

Opening of Johnson & Johnson’s Asia Pacific headquarters at Sciece Park in 2018. The US remains Singapore’s number one foreign investor. – Photo: Johnson & Johnson

Today there is general, though not uncontested, agreement that China is or will soon be the dominant economic power in Southeast Asia.  This was not seen as at odds with continuation of the Western-centred global system—or requiring Singapore to “choose” between one power or another—until the U.S.-China trade war under Trump, and China’s muscle-flexing on the world stage under Xi Jinping, particularly in the South China Sea.  As the annual State of Southeast Asia Survey by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS-YII) shows, the Singapore elites interviewed (government officials, academics, business leaders, journalists and other experts) are very worried by “China’s rise”, more so than other ASEAN countries, and increasingly so every year.[5]

According to the survey published in February 2022, 81 percent of Singapore respondents saw China as the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia, and 74 percent were worried about this.  Nearly half thought China wielded the most political and strategic influence of any country, and 90 percent were worried about this.  Only 4 percent were confident that China would lead in the rules-based order and international law, whereas 62 percent had confidence in the US doing so.  If forced to align the country with one power or the other, 78 percent would choose the U.S., and 22 percent China.  Sixty-three percent  were concerned about “China’s use of economic tools and tourism to punish my country’s foreign policy choices” while 41 percent were worried about “China’s interference in my country’s domestic affairs, including influence over ethnic Chinese citizens of my country”—all significant increases over the previous two years.  Only 16 percent were “confident” or “very confident” that China will “do the right thing” to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance.  The proportion of respondents who did not trust China because “I do not consider China a reliable or responsible power” was the highest in Singapore of all ASEAN countries, at 44 percent.  Responses on the U.S. were for the most part a mirror image of those on China, improving over the past two years.  Bottom line, Singapore elites have a strong preference for the U.S. over China. 

This contrasts with the June 2021 Pew Research survey of 17 advanced economies (including Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore), where Singapore was the only country with a more favourable view of China (64 percent vs the group median of 27 percent) than of the U.S. (51 percent vs the group median of 61 percent).  In the 17 economies as a group, 61 percent said it was more favourable to have economic ties with the U.S. vs 27 percent for China, but for Singapore it was the reverse, with 49 percent for China and 33 percent for the U.S.[6]  Singaporeans in general are more pro-China and less pro-U.S. than people in other advanced economies, and than their own elites.

Chinese soldiers ride a captured American tank in a still from The Battle At Lake Changjin, a 2021 Chinese film honouring Chinese forces’ victory over the Americans in a Korean War battle. The sequel is currently screening in Singapore.

Singapore elites are more likely to be aware of and perturbed by incidents in recent years of China putting pressure on Singapore when it disagreed with our independent foreign policy stances, particularly on Taiwan and the South China Sea.  These incidents include Chinese “influence operations”, with the expulsion of one China agent (Huang Jing) and conviction of another (Dickson Yeo); external state-sponsored hacks of Singapore government data; and the widespread social media penetration of China propaganda videos spewing pro-China and anti-U.S. selective information or misinformation. Elites are also likely to be more heavily vested in the Western economic-business-professional ecosystem, given their higher education, overwhelmingly in the West, and their involvement in global services trade and investment.

Race, Inequality and the United States vs China

Race is a social construct, more complex, variable, situational and dynamic in Singapore than in most other societies, given the extreme heterogeneity of the official CMIO races.[7]  China-born permanent residents and “new citizens”—some half a million in a total population of 5 ½ million—might skew some survey results.  Most are economic migrants whom the state needs to fill the C quota of the CMIO model, given that Singapore Chinese have the lowest fertility rate of any race.  They maintain close ties to their home country, partly for business advantage, and there are so many of them that they do not need to integrate culturally and linguistically into native-born Singapore society.  They might resent disadvantages in their job market prospects and social status that result from not being fluent English speakers, given the dominance of the English-speaking, Western-centric education, business and government ecosystem.  The same disadvantages afflict Singapore’s older age cohort of locally-born Chinese-educated, who additionally suffered the closure by the PAP government of private Chinese-language schools, and in 1980, of the Chinese-language Nanyang University.

While ethnic minorites may suffer discrimination, there are also members of majority who are looking for cultural validation that they feel deprived of. – Photo by Choo Yut Shing.

Today English is the lingua franca in Singapore, even among Chinese, a majority for whom it is their first language, particularly in younger age groups.  Surveys show that ability to speak English is considered by all races to be a marker of Singapore national identity, and speaking “good English” a marker of higher socio-economic status.  For Singapore’s ethnic minorities, and the “Straits born” Peranakan Chinese, the inability or refusal of new immigrants to speak English—particularly an insistence on Mandarin—is resented because it both inconveniences and marginalises non-Mandarin-speaking natives. Yet many English-speaking Singaporeans, including PMETs, also feel unfairly treated in the job market.  Liberal immigration policies mean that both multinationals and large local enterprises, including government-linked corporations, can and often prefer to hire “foreign talent” from around the world, at both middling and higher levels.  They include Westerners, Malaysians, Filipinos and South Asians, whose English is as good as if not better than that of native Singaporeans, while PRC immigrants are employed for business with China.

So while some Chinese-Singaporeans feel demeaned or disrespected because they do not or cannot speak English to the highest civil-service standards honed at Oxbridge and the Ivy League, other Chinese-Singaporeans feel demeaned or disrespected because they cannot speak Mandarin.  This they consciously or unconsciously blame on being deracinated by British colonialism and American imperialism, even though Mandarin is not their native language, which are Chinese “dialects” or, for English-speaking Peranakans, “Baba Malay”.  Both groups might seek cultural validation in identification with a big, powerful, ascendant China that courts rather than dismisses them.

There is simmering nationalist resentment among many middle-aged and older Singaporeans, including the highly-educated, who have experienced unequal treatment compared to white Westerners, in their careers and even in daily life.  This began during the British colonial period, continued through the Western multinational era and, it is felt, is perpetuated by an Anglo-centric government, often derided as “banana men” and “coconuts”.  It is very galling to feel discriminated against relative to foreigners in your own country, especially when they are not any more accomplished than you are, and often less.  Inequality factors into it when you see rich foreigners come in, appearing to live the high life, literally bossing locals around, and raving about how Singapore is an “expat paradise” and such a great place for the world’s ultra-wealthy, while a significant proportion of the local-born cannot make ends meet in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Decades of anti-Western rhetoric from the ranks of establishment elites, including the government itself, labeling “liberal values” such as human rights and freedom of expression as “Western”, and therefore alien to our “Asian values”, have also left their mark.  This of course is exactly what one hears from China’s government, thus validating its pronouncements.

Ukraine—a Perfect Storm

The Singapore government has taken a strong stand on Ukraine, condemning Russia’s invasion, voting against it in the United Nations General Assembly, and enacting economic sanctions along with the West, Japan and Korea.[8]  It sees this is an “existential issue”, as a tiny sovereign nation threatened by any international tolerance or acceptance of invasion and conquest by a foreign power.  Yet local social media has been inundated with anti-U.S., anti-West, pro-China, even Russia-sympathetic commentary, blaming NATO for provoking Russia, pointing out past wars instigated by the U.S. including its invasion of Iraq, approving China’s refusal to condemn the invasion, and accusing the Western media of racism and bias in its coverage of the War.  This content, reflecting a global ratcheting up of China and Russia propaganda, has been shared mostly approvingly among all demographics and segments of society, though with greater traction among ethnic Chinese and those aged over 50.  It has become a dramatic example of the divergence between official/elite and popular/mass sentiment highlighted by the contrast between the ISEAS-YII and Pew survey results, with roots in the PAP’s economic and governance model.

Fascist connection? An anti-Ukraine post that circulated on social media in Singapore.

This state-directed, foreign-investment-led economic model has since its inception at independence relied on political stability achieved through authoritarian control and the rule of a single dominant party, now in its seventh decade.  Education and immigration policy have been oriented instrumentally toward the needs of multinational employers and the state for specific skills, eschewing training in critical thinking.  There is a lack of independent free media and non-state civil society institutions.  Ironically, the state-promoted belief in “Asian values” privileges China over the U.S., at least in the effectiveness of its paternalistic-authoritarian regime which will be quite familiar to Singaporeans. 

The PAP has also made it a matter of pride and distinctiveness among Singaporean to prioritize “pragmatism” over principle, and material advancement over individual rights and personal freedoms, such that deference to authority and acquiescence to power have become “part of our DNA”.  Many Singaporeans believe and accept that it’s “pragmatic” to let the powerful do what they will.  Resistance just means you will bear heavy costs and still lose, which is why some view Ukraine’s President Zelensky as an irresponsible leader.  Siding with “the West” was the pragmatic thing to do when American power was economically and politically dominant.  Now, given an increasingly powerful and assertive China, which you believe will dominate your economy going forward, and is arraigned against the West, the pragmatic thing to do is to just go along with what you think China wants—which in this case is to avoid “taking sides” and refrain from denouncing and sanctioning Russia.

There is also a conflation between the anti-West, pro-China and anti-PAP sentiments voiced by those expressing them, including longstanding denunciations of “high ministerial salaries”, “paper generals” and “foreigners” in Singapore.  The PAP government is seen as compradors enabling and favouring foreign multinationals which, together with government-linked corporations, “crowd out” local private business.  To date the multinationals are predominantly Western, especially American, the largest foreign investors in the economy.  Liberal immigration policy allows them to hire staff from anywhere in the world, including Westerners (Brits, Aussies, Europeans, Americans of Chinese and Indian heritage) and other Asians (Malaysians, Filipinos, Indians, Chinese).  These then “crowd out” local Singaporeans of different ethnicities, including well-educated professionals, especially once they hit age 50 and begin to be subject to age discrimination as well. 

Meanwhile, PAP leaders pay themselves the highest public sector salaries in the world, as government ministers, senior civil servants, and managers of government-linked companies, contributing to high inequality.  Many of them get to the top of the state/corporate ladder beginning as students with scholarships to the best (and most expensive) Western universities.  This means they tend to have “very good English”, and are seen as very pro-West (except as it relates to freedom of expression)—hence “banana man” or “coconut”.  They are also seen as elitist and dismissive of their supposedly “less accomplished” fellow citizens, advocating the so-called “national ideology” of meritocracy based on academic achievement, which qualifies them to rule.

Thus many Singaporeans are angry at seeing these government “scholars”, Western, Western-appointed and Western–anointed foreign expatriates in plum cushy jobs that are out of their reach.  These people are not only not us, they disparage us. The PAP’s rhetoric since the 1990s has been that we need to bring in “foreign talent” because Singaporeans lack the skills, aptitude and experience to do the sort of work they do, are not “world class”, “not good enough” and “can never be good enough”. Such condescension is grating, perhaps especially for members of the successful business and professional elite, who are indeed “world-class”, even internationally competitive, but are not given that acknowledgment by the PAP, including in how they are governed.  We are all supposed to just bow down and accept what it has decided will be best for us.

As one anonymous Facebook post succinctly put it, “State Capitalism in cahoots with MNC imperialism has hindered our social economic progress.”  This can explain the refusal of the government to raise revenues (a) by increasing corporate taxes, which would hurt their MNC clients (or patrons), or (b) by increasing personal income taxes on the rich (whose ranks include themselves and many foreigners), or (c) reducing the growth of foreign reserves, which result from under-consumption of the population at large.[9]  The government often talks about Singapore’s “competitiveness” in terms of ability to attract foreign companies and expatriate talent.  At the same time, it insists on raising the regressive GST.  This contrasts with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s campaign for economic redistribution and “common prosperity”, and his crackdown on China’s super-wealthy.

Many Singaporeans think the PAP is too uncritically supportive of a hypocritical U.S.—even a “lapdog” of the Americans—while not understanding China.  Chinese-educated Singaporeans still riled by their experience during British colonialism, and subsequent treatment by the PAP, feel vindicated by China’s rise. They are proud of China’s growing place in the world, because they know they will never be accepted as first-class citizens by the racist, arrogant White West.  Trump and recent incidents of racism in the U.S. have not helped.  In socio-cultural terms, a segment of the Chinese elite has been “Sinicized” by the SAP (Special Assistance Plan) schools the PAP government set up to cultivate a bicultural, less Westernised elite, and there is some indication that they are more politically sympathetic to China in its hegemonic competition with the U.S.[10]  In intellectual terms, post-colonialism and anti-imperialism readily translate into anti-Western resentment, and in this the Chinese-educated are joined by many Indians, Malays and English-educated Chinese.

Raffles City in Chongqing, China, a CapitaLand project. While Singapore’s government-linked companies are heavily invested in China, China also promises economic opportunity and advancement to Singaporean non-elites. — Artist’s Impression by Safdie Architects

China also promises economic opportunity and advancement especially to non-elites.   Singapore’s own government-linked companies are heavily invested there, as are numerous large and small private businesses.  In Singapore itself Chinese companies are happy to employ Mandarin speakers (local Chinese-educated and new citizens from the PRC), and English speakers of all races shut out from the Anglophilic state-dominated foreign-privileged elite universe.  This is fertile ground for anti-Western messaging, even if it is not state propaganda.[11] 

For elites, the stakes are even higher.  Singapore’s government-linked companies and sovereign wealth funds are heavily invested in and thus financially dependent on China.  So are many of Singapore’s largest private companies, whose leaders are deeply networked with Chinese state entities and state-linked associations.[12]  In Singapore, “new citizens” from the PRC and local Singaporeans who are allied with them for business or personal reasons, actively promote PRC views and interests, which are heavily influenced if not dictated by the Chinese state.[13]  All these face substantial costs if conflict between the West and China over Ukraine lead to economic sanctions and business disruptions.  They may have a financial incentive to promote and circulate—especially among fellow elites—propaganda that would serve their interests.

What Is To Be Done?

Unfortunately, to deal with the current conundrum, the PAP government is simply reinforcing its anti-Western-values rhetoric by doubling down on its authoritarian impulses, passing more laws that restrict freedom of expression and criticism of itself.  In 2019 we got POFMA, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, and in 2021 we got FICA, the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act which was rammed through parliament with unseemly haste.[14]  In seeking to combat China’s influence through online propaganda and misinformation, the PAP government risks becoming more like China instead.

Singaporeans may not care that Global Times is Chinese propaganda tool, since they are not accustomed to free and independent media in their own country.

The lack of a free and independent media has led to cynicism and distrust of the state-controlled mainstream media, making citizens more susceptible to alternative media and especially social media too often packed with misinformation.  Readers do not care that Global Times is a tool of China’s Communist Party, since they see the Straits Times as just a mouthpiece of the People’s Action Party.  This lack of trust in the media can extend to other institutions, like the judiciary, and to political leaders, especially when combined with a lack of data transparency.

Lee Kuan Yew used to say that Singaporeans need “cultural ballast”, to protect us against the loss of conservative traditional Asian values threatened by Western exposure and English use. But what we need today is “intellectual ballast”—exposure to diverse and alternative views, and training in critical thinking, from a young age.  This is so we can discern for ourselves what is truth and what is propaganda, what is fact and what is opinion or perspective, and not uncritically accept what is presented to us.  Being able to think for yourself is the greatest protection from domestic or external subversion, and for that we need more knowledge and information, not less.  This is something to which independent watchdogs can contribute—for example, through investigative reporting by a competitive professional media, and fact-checking and monitoring by civil society organizations.  Singapore lacks these and other checks-and-balances, which the government actively discourages, probably because they could open it to more criticism.

As an example, the popular labeling of so-called “liberal values” upholding individual rights and freedoms as “Western”, is inaccurate.  As University of Michigan China historian Marty Powers has shown,[15] so-called “Western values” of individual liberty, democracy, equality, social justice, human rights and protection for freedom of speech appeared in China long before they appeared in the West, and “men of learning” were expected to publicly debate government policy.  Such values are not “Western”, but universal, even if not practiced in today’s China.   Stanford professors Jennifer Pan and Yiqing Xu’s research on public opinion polls in China found that people in China have diverse views—those with higher incomes and better education are more likely to favour liberal politics and pro-market economic policy, and are less nationalistic with respect to foreign policy.[16]  In Singapore, one survey found that younger, better educated and higher socio-economic status respondents were more concerned about inequality, racism and press freedom, than their seniors.[17]  

The tilt toward universal values and independent thinking among the young suggests an underlying advantage for the political opposition in Singapore, regardless of its current travails, since Singaporeans are becoming ever better-educated and richer.  In the 2020 general election, the PAP lost some vote share among the young and racial minorities, and is reportedly having difficulty recruiting young people.  Idealistic youth are much more attracted to the Workers’ Party, while the Progress Singapore Party appeals to the middle-aged.  A nation is more than its GDP, and people do care about inequality, fairness, racism, press freedom and other social issues.  One explanation for the anti-PAP hence anti-West turn in public opinion is a breakdown of the “social compact” between the PAP and the population.  It used to be: If you help us get rich, we will give up our individual liberties.  But now, you are no longer helping us get rich, you are helping foreigners get rich and getting rich yourselves, while we still do not have our individual liberties.

Jakarta’s metro. Singapore should reorient its economic model toward Southeast Asia, writes Linda Lim. – Photo by Iqbal Nuril / Pixabay.

If the state-directed, multinational-led economic model is to blame for Singaporeans’ apparent favouring of China over “the West”, and this is considered detrimental to the national interest, what is the alternative?  Much more can and should be done to tackle inequality, which otherwise threatens to undermine political and social stability. This includes reduced dependence on foreign labour and talent.  Singapore should also reorient its economic model toward Southeast Asia, and rely more on local private enterprise rather than GLCs and MNCs.  South and Southeast Asia are now the fastest-growing economies in the world, as the West, Japan, Korea and China age and slow.  In international relations, a pivot toward Southeast Asia would reduce the current fragile and fraught dependence on the contending superpowers U.S. and China, providing more economic, political, social and cultural “ballast” as a counterweight to both, and than our hitherto Anglophilic and Sinic orientations can deliver. Removing the CMIO straitjacket to allow the immigration of more Malays, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Indonesians, and South Asians than currently, would enhance both national security and the economy. 

We should also stop thinking in terms of “Asia vs the West” or “China vs America”.  Arguing that the 21st century is “Asian” inaccurately and unfairly essentialises “Asians” as well as “the West”.  Especially post-pandemic, post-Ukraine, and in the face of looming environmental catastrophe, divisions among us need to fall away, letting universal values and collective challenges bind us together in the only world that we have and must share together.


[1] For more detailed argument and some data on inequality in Singapore, see these articles by Linda Lim:;;

[2] Teo You Yenn, This Is What Inequality Looks Like.  Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018, second edition 2021.

[3] For a discussion of issues surrounding the minimum wage, see

[4] Lee Kuan Yew, “East and West, the Twain Have Met”, Commemorative Lecture at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, 8th November 1971, National Archives of Singapore. lky\1971\lky1108.doc



[7] For discussion of divisions within the Chinese majority, see these works by Chong Ja-Ian: “The Burdens of Ethnicity: Chinese Communities in Singapore and their Relations with China”, in Terence Chong, ed.,  Navigating Differences: Integration in Singapore, Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (2020), pp.165-85; “Complications of Ethnicity: The Politics of Chinese-ness in Singapore”, in K.H. Koh, C.W. Ong, C.P. Phua, J.I. Chong and Y.Yang, eds., Diversity and Singapore Ethnic Chinese Communities, in Singapore: Singapore Chinese Cultural Center and Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore (2020), pp 1-12.



[10] Haolie, Jiang. 2021. “The Mandarin Candidate: Vulnerabilities and Implications of State Sinicisation of Elite Huaren Singaporean Identity.” Undergrad thesis, Yale-NUS College.

[11] See, for example, Chandran Nair, Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World, Penguin Random House 2022, on the need to rid the world of the persistence of white privilege.

[12] See, for example, Sino Group’s Robert Ng; and Wilmar’s Kuok Khoon Hong

[13] See, for example, naturalized citizen Wang Quancheng;;; and Koh Chin Yee;;

[14] For AcademiaSG views, see,




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