Commentary: Why the interest over TikTok CEO Chew Shou Zi’s nationality and how Singaporean he is?
What does it take to be "one of us"? Singaporeans' obsessions in defining the "us" in this latest episode stems not only from a fixation on labels but insecurities amid seismic changes in society, says SUSS' Dr Leong Chan-Hoong.
SINGAPORE: Are you a Singaporean? Did you embrace our way of life?
It does not require a genius to see the subtext in discussions over our daily headline news whenever the term “foreign” is mentioned in the media. This happens both when someone has misbehaved or achieved an extraordinary feat in a profession.
We saw this most recently last week when TikTok, the social media giant named 39-year old Chew Shou Zhi its new CEO.
Chew, who is based in Singapore, was previously the CFO at ByteDance. Prior to that, he was part of the senior management team in Xiaomi, another Chinese tech behemoth.
Chew has been said to have the deep knowledge of the industry and is part of the Chinese inner circle. He was instrumental in securing much needed financing from investors and played a huge role in seeing through Xiaomi’s listing.
The corporate announcement understandably and instantaneously triggered lively discussions.
The business community commented on the role that Singapore play in the global corporate ecosystem, while netizens took a greater interest in Chew's personal life. Specifically, they asked - is he a native-born or naturalised Singaporean? Did he serve National Service (NS)?
Many have recalled tales of his kind acts in NS, putting to bed most of these questions.
Yet, Chew is not the first to be publicly scrutinised on his citizenship background and his allegiance and neither will he be the last.
Dilhan Pillay Sandrasegara, CEO-designate for Temasek Holdings, and Joseph Schooling, Singapore's Olympic gold medallist, both have had similar doubts and prejudgement casted on their cultural authenticity.
Why this obsession with nativism and the meaning of Singaporean-ness? The drivers behind this national pastime is a complex mix of identity, immigration, and politics. The best way to understand this phenomenon starts with unpacking our fixation with labels.
Human are cognitive misers. We prefer to make sense of the world - our problems in particular - using a simple and usually binary prism.
Like a divine programming code imprinted in our cultural DNA, events, people, things, are classified as either good or bad, right or wrong. This constructed dichotomy gives us a false sense of control.
In many cases like the news on Mr Chew, comments border on suggesting being a “true” Singaporean is somehow better than being a new citizen or permanent resident. And from this follows that to support a fellow Singaporean is a patriotic duty. Any behaviour that conforms to the normative rituals of being Singaporean is a virtue.
In a similar vein, to support a non-Singaporean is a betrayal, and any behaviour that deviates from our prescribed list must be a sin.
This proclivity for a mental short-cut is not novel. We have seen how populist leaders in America use this heuristic to great devastation.
Under President Donald Trump's administration, we saw a fixation on persecuting foreign adversaries.
This political movement, though shocking, was earlier displayed in McCarthyism in the 1950s, when Americans went on a protracted witch hunt for domestic infiltration of communists. The underlying belief was that by ridding America of all communists, life could suddenly be improved and the security of the nation guaranteed.
Such sentiments during the Cold War, where there was an existential threat, are understandable though this dichotomy is far more nuanced today. That is partially because there is more similarity than differences among the contemporary waves of immigrants to Singapore.
Even if Mr Chew, Mr Pillay and Mr Schooling were immigrants, they would behave like a globalite just like most of Singapore's native-born yet well-travelled and incredibly exposed population. We probably consume Netflix, Starbucks, and Haagen-Dazs ice cream to the same extent as other residents in global cities.
And yet we embrace this strict binary of identities, which comes with an assumed hierarchy. This does nothing but fosters an imaginary divide between us and them.
THE ESSENTIAL SINGAPORE IDENTITY
Yes, we have a Singaporean identity and feel proud about it.
Our respect for the rule of law, multi-racialism, fulfilling one's obligation in NS or reciting the pledge, are examples of the common markers people say make us Singaporean that are positive and to be welcomed. We expect immigrants and non-residents alike to respect these boundaries, and rightly so.
Yet when an immigrant behaves badly, we criticise their flawed character and assume this must be because they are “un-Singaporean”.
Ironically, when they achieve success at the international podium, we focused on the unfair advantages they enjoy, like exemption from NS among the first-generation residents.
Such imposed standards of becoming Singaporean are impossible for new residents to meet. From assumed character flaws to not serving NS, the barriers to becoming one of "us" is endless.
This is not to suggest that identity markers are not important, but that they are not exclusive. You can be a non-Singaporean who made substantial contributions to Singapore.
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The angst about Singapore identity is also about the politics of migration as much as about the lack of social integration among some immigrants.
There is a palpable sense of economic and cultural insecurity in the mid of seismic changes in our demography, workforce, and regional geopolitics.
It does not help that at times the domestic political rhetoric gives the impression that the state pays greater attention to the interest of the non-native born – in speeches that talk about protecting jobs for Singaporeans during this COVID-19 pandemic for example.
Two years ago, a Singapore naturalised citizen was caught on video shouting and using vulgarity at a condominium security guard for enforcing a rule that requires visitors to pay S$10 if they park their cars in the premise after 11pm.
The incident went viral overnight, drawing thousands of viewers and their condemnation in a matter of days, ostensibly for the utter lack of respect to our orderly conscious culture, and for the offensive words he used in support of a upper-class privilege he deemed to be his entitlement.
How or why should a person of such character be allowed to settle here, the netizens asked?
It took a couple of day before a senior political leader spoke out against the obnoxious behaviour. “What this resident did and said was wrong – at some many levels” said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
As he hints, this incident wasn’t about nationality but norms of decent human behaviour. Criticisms of the man should stop at the water’s edge.
(Should Singaporeans get priority when a new job opens? Listen to Labour MP Patrick Tay and CEO of the Economic Development Board Chng Kai Fong unpack the rules, considerations and challenges firms face in CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:)
THE BIG PICTURE: NATIONAL NARRATIVE
Historically, we are not just another immigrant society but one where both long- and short-term residents share the same national narratives.
National narratives, unlike identity markers like NS, are broader and more omnipotent charters that bind us as one regardless of residency status.
The principles we have collectively come to adopt - such as a market-driven economy, and making Singapore a fair and equal society for all - have defined this national narrative, which have in turn centred around resilience, a unique brand of exceptionalism in-spite of being small, open and racially diverse.
Singapore’s national narrative of resilience has deep roots. At the time of our independence, everyone regardless of citizens or foreign nationals, have all committed to make this city-state thrive.
There were conflicts, anger and anxiety over the years, but that did not affect the audacity to dream of a better future.
READ: Commentary: The incredible rise of Forrest Li, modest founder of Singapore’s most valuable listed company
The global standards we have set and strong institutions we have built - a world-class education system, a premium international airline, and a harmonious society the envy of developed nations - are but reminders we have beaten the odds.
Today, we face a generational crisis of confidence. In a world upended by a raging pandemic and saturated with socio-economic uncertainty, narrowing the definition of “us” not only makes for a false sense of agency but can be counterproductive and divisive.
Mr Chew, Mr Pillay and Mr Schooling have made exceptional advances in their respective careers.
They are a part of “us” and we should celebrate their achievements and encourage more to reach for the stars as part of Singapore Inc.
Leong Chan-Hoong is Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Research, Singapore University of Social Sciences. He is the Singapore National Representative for the World Association for Public Opinion Research, and the Chair for the Rae and Dan Landis Outstanding PhD Dissertation Award, at the International Academy for Intercultural Research.