While it makes eminent sense for Singapore as a sovereign state not to take sides in the escalating geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States, this should not mean its citizens must suspend their faculties for critical thinking and not discern fact from fabrication.
It is not an idle pursuit to try and form an informed judgment about which of the two big powers poses the greater threat to peace and stability in this region. Is the US really out to help defend freedom of navigation in this region and a rules-based international order against an increasingly encroaching China – or is that just a ruse to contain the latter’s rise and maintain America’s global hegemony?
There should be no confusion about this. Singaporeans and their Asean neighbours are not mere bystanders who can escape unscathed when the Cold War between the two big powers turns hot. All the more so for Singaporeans if their Government cannot hold the line any more and is forced to choose.
If and when fighting breaks out, Singapore cannot hope to be spared the economic devastation that is certain to follow. Worse, possible physical damage too, if it gets dragged in despite its best effort not to.
But does knowing right from wrong matter? Will it change anything if, in the end, right has to bow to might?
Yes, according to Professor Yuen Yuen Ang, a Singaporean who teaches political science at the University of Michigan. In an article published in The Straits Times last Sept 8, she argued that the rivalry was not a contest over ideology but a battle for elite and public opinion around the world.
She wrote: “For any strategist, it is plain as day no war over narratives in Asia can be won without first winning over Singapore. Though small in size, our island state is the gateway to South-east Asia, and opinions expressed in Singapore can be widely accessed in China.
“Hence, as the geopolitical contest heats up, we ought to guard our independence of mind and independence of expression like a national treasure.”
Well, regardless of whether Washington or Beijing takes serious note of Singaporeans’ views, these should matter a great deal to their Government as it deliberates on what is in the Little Red Dot’s long-term interest. It cannot, should not, ignore what its people, and not just the Western-educated elite, think the world around them is going to look like two decades from now.
However, for Singaporeans to develop that intellectual independence which Prof Ang said they must have, it is critical that they have access to accurate information, to facts, and fair, objective and balanced analyses and commentaries based on these.
This is especially critical for those who understand only English.
Sadly, that objective, even-handed coverage is not always available from most of the Western, especially Anglophone, sources, on which local mainstream media in Asean depends for the bulk of its foreign news. Very often, the reporting from the former is, to put it kindly, at variance with the truth.
Take, for instance, the 2019 riots in Hong Kong. Viewers of CNN and other networks broadcasting in English were shown scenes, hour after hour, of police firing tear gas at “pro-democracy” protesters but rarely, if ever, of young black-clad thugs committing arson, ransacking shops, beating up people who disagreed with them and, in one horrific case, setting an old man on fire.
And there was of course that ignominious clip of a visiting US senator telling the barefaced lie that he neither saw nor knew of any violence! To most ordinary people, including Western expatriates who live in Hong Kong, all this was not just bad journalism but also a deliberate distortion to demonise China and the Hong Kong government.
The only good that came out of that bad episode is that if one were asked to identify a turning point at which the scales fell from the blinkered eyes of many English-educated Singaporeans, that would probably be it. Many, many among them know and love Hong Kong, and they knew, there and then, that this twisted reporting was part of a larger plan to destabilise and contain a rising China.
Or take the example of how Western reports of territorial disputes in the South China Sea invariably refer to a ruling in 2016 against China’s claims and say Beijing continues to defy it and so violates the international rules-based order.
The so-called finding against China was, in fact, handed down by a unilaterally arranged tribunal, initiated by a New York law firm on the Philippines’ behalf, with judges selected by a right-wing Japanese official, and reportedly paid for by foreign funds to the tune of US$30 million (S$41 million). China had challenged the legal basis upon which it was convened and refused steadfastly to attend.
Moving forward, it is unlikely that Western, especially Anglophone, media organisations that have a not-so-hidden agenda when reporting on the US-China geopolitical contest will cease their barrage against Beijing.
True, but that does not mean being blase about their deliberate distortions aimed at creating the “manufactured consent” which linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky talked about and upon which the West might be tempted to use to try and cripple China when it thinks it still can.
What can be done, given that they dominate the market in providing foreign news to local media in this region?
For a start, keep an eagle-eyed lookout for throwaway lines like “assertive China” or “forced labour” or “genocide” in what should be straight news reports (local media that lets through such loaded phrases is taking sides, however unwittingly).
In addition, wherever possible, seek additional, alternative or even countervailing input from other sources. This requires a conscious effort on the part of the English-educated to overcome an induced aversion to turning to non-Western sources, induced because for decades they have been indoctrinated by the Anglophone media into believing that non-Western, especially state-run, media outlets are propaganda machines.
But be equally cautious as some of these are prone to echoing the official Chinese position as well, though empirical evidence suggests that outfits like China Global Television Network do take pains not to practise what they accuse the Western media of doing by giving only a one-sided account.
All this – sifting out false narratives, checking for balance and refusing to be part of any manufactured consent – can be very laborious. Of course it is hard work but who says achieving and safeguarding intellectual independence, the “national treasure” in Prof Ang’s article, is easy!
- Leslie Fong is a former editor of The Straits Times. The views here are his own.