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  • Orson Tan

Cotton vs Shou: Ignorance, Outcry, and what it means for the Singaporean Identity

A tense exchange in a United States Senate committee hearing provides a good reminder of the dangerous racist undertones to the US-China rivalry, and also presents questions for the ethnic communities caught up in it.


TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online child safety
Photo credits: AFP

The United States Senate Judiciary Committee commenced its big hearing on online child safety last week with tense exchanges between the five Big Tech CEOs that were invited to testify and the members of the bipartisan committee. Of the many moments from the hearing that were noteworthy, there was one particular exchange between US Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew that drew the attention of Singaporeans and went viral on the Singapore social media scene.


In that exchange, Cotton repeatedly pressed Shou on the question of his citizenship, asking Shou if he either was or had applied for citizenship with the PRC, or was a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Shou’s reply to these questions was that he was Singaporean. The Singapore government does not allow for dual citizenships, while PRC citizenship is mandatory for membership in the CCP. Cotton has been criticized for his line of questioning, with the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus labelling it as not only racist but also dangerous.


In Singapore, the Straits Times media outlet had uploaded the clip of the exchange on its social media, sparking outraged comments from angry Singaporean netizens who bemoaned Cotton’s perceived ignorance and criticized what they viewed as blatant racism. Other online outlets in Singapore have similarly picked up the story, with some reposting the video on social media, while others have taken the opportunity to create memes mocking the Senator or the exchange. Such was the viral popularity of the exchange that the hashtag #Singaporean trended internationally on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.


Given the viral quality of this exchange, it is no surprise that it has raised several important points and questions.


Firstly, the supposed “ignorance” of Tom Cotton to conflate a Singaporean and a Chinese citizen just because Shou is an ethnic Chinese who looks like a PRC Chinese is unsurprising. Cotton has come out to defend his actions by claiming that Singapore is one of the places in the world with the “highest degree of infiltration and influence” by the CCP, but his actions are merely symptomatic of an anti-Asian rhetoric that has been increasingly normalized by the Republican Party in American political discourse. Starting with Trump’s comments about the China Virus and Kung Flu during the COVID pandemic, as America’s relationship with the PRC has deteriorated, there have been increasing instances of racist anti-Asian comments being made by the Republican Party, all of whom are trying to portray themselves as strong on China as an enemy. It is no surprise then that Cotton’s line of questioning has evoked comparisons with McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the early Cold War, with one reporter claiming that it was “McCarthy-esque”. It is evident that given the current political climate, it is open season within the Republican Party for its reps to pursue such racist lines of arguments all in the name of winning political points.


Secondly, the reaction from the Singapore online community is also to be expected. Cotton’s line of questioning was seen as being racist because it seemed to link Shou’s ethnicity with being a citizen of the PRC or a member of the CCP. In pressing Shou on these issues, Cotton had invariably denied the independence and sovereignty of the Singapore identity. This is an especially touchy issue for the Singaporean-Chinese community, who just over a decade ago had made the news for their xenophobic and racially-charged reaction to PRC immigrants coming to the city-state. While there is no doubt that there are sympathetic feelings towards the PRC within the Singaporean-Chinese community, the historical context of Singapore’s existence and Southeast Asia’s experience with communism has seen the community as a whole go through great pains to craft out an identity that removes any links with the PRC, while at the same time emphasizes their independence and sovereignty as Singaporean. This is especially so when PRC officials often like to consider Singapore as a Chinese state, and expect the city-state to act in a way that befits that label.


As Sebastian Strangio, an editor at the Diplomat, noted, it is ironic that despite the ongoing strategic competition between the two powers, Cotton’s actions can be seen as following the PRC line that anybody with Chinese ancestry can be considered as “Chinese”. The outcry in response to Cotton’s pressing is also a good reminder of the tribulations that the ethnic Chinese communities in the Southeast Asian region have gone through. Barring Singapore where the ethnic Chinese form the population majority, the ethnic Chinese communities around SEA are ethnic minorities who have had to endure constant questioning about their identities and political loyalties over the decades of independence in the region. Till today, politicians in Malaysia still bring up this issue especially when it comes to election campaigning. The various ethnic Chinese communities have, over the years, crafted ethnic identities that allowed them to maintain their cultural Chineseness but separate themselves from a connection to the mainland. Crafting these identities is not only a political necessity, but in some instances, it has become crucial to the survival of the community within the country. Having an American politician ignore all of this for the sake of political grandstanding is dangerous and outright disrespectful to the various ethnic Chinese communities around the region. As Tan Chee Beng, a Malaysian scholar once wrote:


“As proud citizens of our respective countries, we feel insulted to be called or even referred to as 'Overseas Chinese'. We are overseas in China but not when we are at home in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and so forth.”


Lastly, this exchange has also raised questions for the Singaporean identity itself. Singapore has built a national narrative of vulnerability, based on its size and the fact that its society is so diverse. The government has often reminded its citizens that the peace and prosperity that Singapore enjoys did not come easily. As a result, despite the Chinese majority, the Singapore government has taken great pains over the years to reinforce that the Singapore identity is a multicultural one, and that Singapore is not a Chinese state. Yet, much like many nations around the world, Singapore has not been spared from the effects of identity politics, with debates about Chinese privilege and unfair outcomes for ethnic minorities in the city-state. As Singapore gets caught in the tides of this great power competition, these misinterpretations of the Singapore identity will not go away and may cause further consternation amongst the various ethnic groups in the country. It is therefore imperative for the social fabric of the country that Singapore addresses the issue and reiterates that the Singaporean identity is not one that is dominated by a single ethnic group, nor do shared ethnicities influence the positions of the country in its external relations, while also working to further strengthen its embracing of multiculturalism. This can be done by giving space to the various groups to contribute to the discourse on what the Singaporean identity should look like moving forward.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Authors

Orson Tan is research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, and has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.


 

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