Recent discourse within the U.S. and Singaporean liberal-left has championed “Chinese privilege” as an analytic of power within Singapore and Asia at large. By invoking a Chinese equivalence to whiteness, analyses of “Chinese privilege” not only disavow the material history of racial capitalism in Asia, but appropriate Black and Indigenous critiques of white supremacy to bolster a long history of Singaporean anticommunism in service of U.S. military and ideological supremacy over Asia.
Singapore circa 1941, taken by Harrison Forman
“Postcoloniality is the condition of what we might ungenerously call a comprador intelligentsia: of a relatively small, Western-style, Western-trained, group of writers and thinkers who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery.”
—Kwame Anthony Appiah
“Neocolonialism, like colonialism, is an attempt to export the social conflicts of the capitalist countries.”
Since 2015, Singapore has seen the rise of a new discourse arguing the existence of Chinese racial supremacy. Influenced by U.S. cultural theories of race, critics of so-called “Chinese privilege” sought to formulate a theoretical framework for thinking about inequality in Singapore. Yet short of interrogating the material specificities of Singapore, these critics—composed not insignificantly of Western-educated cultural elites—found inspiration from transposing U.S. frameworks of racial antagonism directly onto Singapore. “I performed a simple experiment,” admitted the self-professed founding theorist of “Chinese privilege”: “I took a paragraph [from bell hooks’ ‘Beloved Community’] and I substituted the words ‘Chinese’ for ‘white.’” So “Chinese privilege” was born.
In Singapore, the terminology of “Chinese privilege” spread like wildfire within the networks of the cultural elite, circulating abundantly in the capital of “woke” discourse, Yale-NUS College (a liberal arts school jointly established by Yale and the Singaporean government). Soon it became more than just an analysis of “privilege”: suggestions of “Chinese racism,” “Chinese supremacy,” and “Chinese settler colonialism” all began to float in the air, plastered together by their plagiarism from North American Black and Indigenous critique.
When pressed, however, the loosely cobbled Singaporean copies began to fall apart: given the geographic, cultural, and political variation amongst Chinese people, who are implicated in the broad idea of the “Chinese”? What does “Chinese privilege” in Singapore mean, against the existence of more than 200,000 mainland Chinese migrant workers who, along with their predominantly Bangladeshi peers, toil daily in Singapore, with no minimum wage, to build the city’s high-rises, wash its public toilets, and serve in its hawker centers? Finally, given the material histories of race under Euro-American colonization, in which white supremacy actualized itself through racial enslavement, indentured servitude, and Indigenous genocide, how can white privilege be commensurable to anything else—in the world?
Given the material histories of race under Euro-American colonization, in which white supremacy actualized itself through racial enslavement, indentured servitude, and Indigenous genocide, how can white privilege be commensurable to anything else—in the world?
As Cedric Robinson wrote, modern capitalism is an extension of European feudalism, built from the very beginning on primitive accumulation established through racial slavery and colonization. Any project that seeks to understand racial capitalism in Asia cannot disentangle capitalism from its definition as a globalized system of value built on and by white supremacy. In Singapore, which for centuries existed both as part of the Indian Ocean world and the Malay archipelago, modern capitalism was ushered in by the British East India Company. From 1819 onward, Singapore became one node in the vast operation of the British Empire, connected by subjugated labor and trade to India, China, Hong Kong, and Britain’s many other colonies in the West Indies and Eastern and Southern Africa.
The history of race in Singapore, then, is a history of racial capitalism. The British colonial government played a key role in facilitating early discourses of race and racial difference in Singapore, producing the racial classificatory system that in Singapore today is known as CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other). Interestingly, the British never elevated the Chinese as a superior class—rather, its initial interests were in cultivating a Malay indigenous elite through whom they could rule by proxy. During the century and a half of colonial rule, the Chinese were most useful for the British as primarily as a cheap labor force extending British empire’s labor imperialism (“coolies”), and secondarily, as a middleman merchant class that facilitated the empire’s trade imperialism (opium, rubber, tea). Though Singapore has been both a British and Japanese colony, it has never been a Chinese one—on the contrary, under British rule, the Chinese population in Singapore was alternately disciplined and neglected, and under Japanese rule, subject to ethnic genocide. In this light, there is no historical ground supporting claims of “Chinese supremacy” in Singapore. To argue for it is to mount a deceit that contradicts the very histories of race and capitalism as they were forged during Singapore’s colonial era.
The history of race in Singapore, then, is itself a history of racial capitalism.
Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has been ruled by the People’s Action Party (PAP), led for 38 years by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, under whose tenure Singaporean “Chineseness” was transformed into an essentialist cultural project in concert with what Lee championed as “Confucian capitalism.” Refigured as a depoliticized, homogenous, and agreeable alternative to the geopolitical and racial Chineseness represented by “Red China,” the Singaporean Chineseness installed by Lee posited itself as a proxy to Weberian Protestant capitalism. Functioning in contrast against the racial and political threat of “90 million Chinese communists in China,” Lee’s carefully-pruned Confucian Chineseness marked Singapore, a Chinese-majority island, as a capable partner to U.S. empire—and Lee himself as a trusted native informant to generations of U.S. imperial architects.
In his prolific public statements, Lee was unabashed about what he believed to be the essentialist characteristics of each “racial” group, and the disciplinary mechanisms supposedly required to harness them into a stable “multiracial meritocracy” that would make Singapore an ideal site of investment for Euro-American capital. In other words, officialized discourses of race in Singapore take on a primarily economic function, shaded by the backdrop of neocolonial U.S.-Singapore relations. In this light, to speak of race in Singapore is to speak of a highly localized phenomenon held in taut relation with historical British rule and contemporary U.S. domination—including the ongoing Cold War of anticommunist containment in Asia.
To speak of race in Singapore is to speak of a highly localized phenomena held in taut relation with historical British rule and contemporary U.S. domination—including the ongoing Cold War of anticommunist containment in Asia.
Yet recently, discourses of “Chinese privilege” have escalated, alighting on a new strategy of manufacturing imperialist antipathy against China and justifying continued U.S. military domination in Asia. Moving beyond Singapore, Singaporean critics of “Chinese privilege” argue that Asia at large is threatened by the looming specter of a “rising China.” Proposing that Chineseness is a universalizing racial category, these critics conclude that “Chinese privilege” and “Chinese supremacy” in Singapore may be extrapolated to Asia-at-large, in which the PRC plots a supposedly imperialist takeover. Of particular vexation to these critics is what they call the “Chinese tankie,” a slur which refers, through a mish-mash of McCarthyite euphemism and garbled identity politic jargon, to anti-imperialist internationalists who oppose U.S. military supremacy in Asia and the ongoing informational war against China.
If the vague, anti-China fear mongering of “Chinese supremacy” discourse feels familiar, it’s because it sounds strikingly similar to talking points of the U.S.-led Cold War on China, and increasingly, the discourse of the Singaporean state. While Singapore has historically framed its foreign policy as a balancing act between the U.S. and PRC, since 2018, a series of secretive arrests authorized by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, working in tandem with the U.S. Pentagon, have signaled the island nation’s shift toward a more diplomatically offensive position against China.
In a speech given to the public in 2019, former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan urged Singaporeans to stand guard against what he called China’s “sophisticated and flexible instrument[s] of influence,” which threaten Singapore’s “foundation of multiracial meritocracy.” Of note, Kausikan pressed, was China’s civilizational threat against Singapore: “China’s identity as a civilizational state,” he said, “finds expression in the work of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office… In plain language, overseas Chinese should identify their interests with China’s interests and work to advance China’s interests. And this represents a deliberate blurring of the distinction made between the hua ren (ethnic Chinese) and the hua qiao (overseas citizen of the PRC).”
By suggesting the always already latent possibility of “ethnic Chinese” being turned into spies for the PRC, Kausikan not only taps into a long history of conjoined anti-Chinese, anti-PRC, and anticommunist villainization in Southeast Asia, but also rehashes the “China creep” discourse of the U.S. and its “Five Eyes” alliance. Case in point, Kausikan’s declarations of “Chinese espionage” startlingly echo the propaganda of such warmongering luminaries as the weapons industry-funded Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Lauding Kausikan’s speech, the conservative U.S. policy think tank Jamestown Foundation (on whose board sits Trumpian architect Robert Spalding) noted: “Singapore has long been a target of CCP united front attention, and the city authorities have a history of combatting CCP propaganda that dates back to the 1950s and 70s, when PRC leaders sought to export communist revolution to Southeast Asia.”
Kausikan’s declarations of “Chinese espionage” startlingly echo the propaganda of such warmongering luminaries as the weapons industry-funded Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
This would certainly be an impressive feat, were it true. While evidence of actual “CCP infiltration” is all but nonexistent, what is abundantly clear is that the United States has spent extraordinary effort covertly manufacturing anticommunist, anti-Chinese propaganda across Asia throughout the last seventy years. Drawing from a dense archive of declassified CIA reports, Operating Coordinating Board (OCB) communiques, and U.S. Information Agency (USIA) documents, historian Wen-qing Ngoei concludes,
[T]he key principle of U.S. Cold War policy toward [Asia] was to harness the interconnectedness of Southeast Asia’s Chinese so that Beijing could not. From mid-1954, U.S. planners began seeking ways to ‘encourage the overseas Chinese’ to ‘organize and activate anticommunist groups and activities within their own communities.’ Beyond this, Washington aspired to ‘cultivate’ overseas Chinese ‘sympathy and support’ for the GMD [Kuomintang]-dominated Taiwan as a ‘symbol of Chinese political resistance,’ to forge one more ‘link’ within the United States’ broader ‘defense against Communist expansion in Asia.’ (9)
Within Singapore itself, accusations of “Chinese communist influence” have served as an expedient lie leveraged by both the British colonial government and the British-backed Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, to effectively rid the country of leftist organizing. In what became known as the 1963 Operation Coldstore, Lee convinced the British colonial government to invoke the secretive Internal Security Act (ISA) to detain some 113 left-leaning politicians of the opposition party, Barisan Socialis. This effective annihilation of Singapore’s popular leftist movement in turn gave Lee, the British heir apparent, a virtually unopposed path to political power in Singapore’s first general election in 1965.1 In 1987, Lee’s government once again leveraged charges of a “Marxist conspiracy” to detain 22 leftist organizers, holding them for up to three years under alleged torture. Reflecting on the arc of anticommunist fervor that has defined post-independence Singapore, historian T.N. Harper writes that since independence, “the PAP government worked resolutely to depoliticize national struggle, to shed it of its old internationalist connections, and to tear Singapore from its alternative pasts” (48).
Given both the history of U.S. covert operations in Southeast Asia and Singapore’s own virulently anticommunist post-independence history, it should be no surprise that the low-hanging fruit of a “Chinese communist conspiracy” and its pseudo-leftist “Chinese privilege” corollary appear so enticing to both Singapore’s cultural elite and its ruling party. Moreover, their naked antipathy toward China is undergirded by Singapore’s deep economic and geopolitical ties to the United States. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, like South Korea and Japan, the U.S.’s client states in East Asia, Singapore’s economic “miracle” has been largely predicated on industrialization via U.S. militarization during the Cold War. After a visit to the United States in 1967, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew wrote to Lyndon B. Johnson, expressing his “unequivocal” support of the Vietnam War. Lee argued, as historian Daniel Chua recounts, that
The United States, by holding the line in Vietnam, was buying time for the rest of Southeast Asia to develop stable economies and governments. The American military involvement in Vietnam[, Lee believed,] helped in maintaining political stability of the non-communist regimes in Southeast Asia and also provided them with the years that were necessary to build their economies. (5)
More than providing Southeast Asian nations like Singapore “with the years that were necessary to build their economies,” the U.S. invasion of Vietnam directly contributed to the economic growth of its neo-colonies in Asia, including Singapore. Just as the U.S. war in Vietnam was critical to “South Korea’s compressed development under military dictator Park Chung-hee,” as Christine Hong has written, so too was it instrumental in developing Singapore’s post-independence economy. This developmental trajectory allowed the U.S. to continue where the British had left off: in 1967, the same year the British formally withdrew its bases from Singapore, “a full 15 percent of Singapore’s national income derived from U.S. military procurements for Vietnam.” Prior to the U.S. entrance into Singapore, British bases on the island had contributed $200 million per year to the Singaporean economy, amounting to 20 percent of Singapore’s then-national income. As the U.S. replaced the British as the guest power in Singapore and escalated its invasion of Vietnam, U.S. private investment in Singapore increased at exponential rates, growing at a rate of $100 million a year by 1971.
In 1990, following the Philippine Senate’s closure of the U.S. and military bases in Clark and Subic Bay, Singapore stepped up to the bat as the U.S. military’s newest and most steadfast dependency south of Seoul. Through a series of “memorandums of understanding” (MOUs), Singapore not only opened its Paya Lebar air base and the port of Sembawang to U.S. forces, but in 1998, built a state of the art naval base in Changi for express shared usage with the U.S. Navy. As a 2016 Brookings Institute white paper acknowledges, Changi Naval Base “is currently the only naval facility in Southeast Asia purpose-built to accommodate an aircraft carrier and was constructed (entirely at Singapore’s cost), despite Singapore having no aircraft carrier of its own.”
In 2020, as the U.S. entertained regime change ambitions in Bolivia, tightened sanctions against Venezuela, Iran, and the DPRK, and waged a hybrid war against China, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote, in a feature article for Foreign Affairs, “Asian countries see the United States as a resident power that has vital interest in the region…. What made Asia’s stability and prosperity possible was the United States.” In other words, Singapore’s supposedly “exceptional” economic achievements, when held under the magnifying glass of historical analysis, reveal a profound entrenchment in the U.S. orbit, as a client state whose imperialist geopolitical, political, and economic orientations were meticulously cultivated during the Cold War. Insofar as Singapore holds the title of being one of the most prosperous nations in the world, its national “privilege” has been built off its role as launch pad for U.S. aggression on Vietnam, Korea, China, and most recently, Afghanistan.
In the face of what can only be understood as blatant, aggressive, and ongoing U.S. imperialization of both Singapore and the Southeast Asian region, both the Singaporean state and its comprador class prefer to harp on a supposed “Chinese communist conspiracy” instead of facing the hegemon literally crouching in their own backyard. Of course, scapegoating China has its perks as well: for the Singaporean state, fervent anticommunism and blithe disdain of China has won it the right to become a vassal state of the U.S. empire; for the Singaporean comprador class, armed with degrees from the imperial core and a taste for “speaking for Global South Asians,” the work of obfuscating U.S. imperialism offers a surefire way to propel oneself to political authority as a model minority in the Global North.
In the face of what can only be understood as blatant, aggressive, and ongoing U.S. imperialization of both Singapore and the Southeast Asian region, both the Singaporean state and its comprador class prefer to harp on a supposed “Chinese communist conspiracy” instead of facing the hegemon crouching in their own backyard.
By delocalizing and decontextualizing a U.S.-based identitarian politics of race, discourses of “Chinese privilege” assiduously delink race from its material conditions, and ethnic formation in Singapore from the complex geopolitical and colonial history of the region. In short, “Chinese privilege” performs a crude racial reductionism that, in its easy recourse to analogy, propels what literary historian Jodi Melamed calls a “race-liberal order” that “fatally limit[s] the possibility of overcoming racism to the mechanisms of U.S.-led global [imperialist] capitalism, even as they have enabled new kinds of normalizing and rationalizing violences.” The comprador class stands most to gain from the discourse of “Chinese privilege,” which, as sociologists Daniel P.S. Goh and Terrence Chong remind us, allows them to partake in a “pleasurable act of Foucauldian confession...to reinforce their feelings of goodness and purity” while cementing their position as intellectual and moral gatekeepers in Singapore’s neocolonial production of knowledge.
Without regard to the historic, geographic, and political dissonances implied within the term “Chinese,” theories of Chinese privilege disavow both the material conditions of British colonialism and contemporary U.S. imperialism which have shaped Singapore’s present, while insisting that Singapore, and postcolonial Asia at-large, appear a historical vacuum through which appears a new regime of racial domination by the ambiguously perilous, yet ever-present “Chinese.”
In this political moment—as the military encirclement of China sees its domestic parallel in anti-Asian violence in the West—uncritical deployments of “Chinese privilege” are dangerous precisely because they fit snugly into a propagandized Cold War redux which paints China as duplicitous, conniving, and invasive.
The race reductionism of “Chinese privilege” is dangerous not only for essentializing, de-historicizing, and dematerializing the workings of race in Asia. In this political moment—as the military encirclement of China sees its domestic parallel in anti-Asian violence in the West—uncritical deployments of “Chinese privilege” are dangerous precisely because they fit snugly into a propagandized Cold War redux which paints China as duplicitous, conniving, and invasive. Contributing to U.S. efforts of informational warfare, the depoliticized and ahistorical fallacy of “Chinese supremacy”—sold, largely, to North American and Singaporean audiences—appropriates the specificity of white supremacy while bolstering the long history of neocolonial Singaporean anticommunism. Ultimately, it seeks to naturalize U.S. hegemony as a benevolent force in the face of impending Chinese “invasion,” manufacturing consent for the further militarization of Asia while obscuring the structuring force of U.S. imperialism in Singapore, Asia, and beyond to the detriment of true anti-imperial struggle.
1. Political prisoners, including Said Zahari, Lim Chin Siong, Lim Chin Joo, Poh Soo Kai, and Tan Jing Quee, have written about their time in captivity, noting both Lee’s strategic collaboration with the British colonial government and his role in engineering anticommunist persecution throughout the 1950s and 60s. In particular, they unanimously agree, Lee was frightened by the popular support of Lim Chin Siong, leader of the Barisan Socialis, who was projected to win the first election prior to his arrest by Lee in Operation Coldstore. In a posthumously-published excerpt from his memoir, Lim Chin Siong was explicit about Lee’s political motives:
Lee Kuan Yew soon became worried about the left-wing within the party because it enjoyed tremendous grassroots support. He was fearful of being replaced or overtaken. In his calculations, the most ideal constitutional arrangement was to let the British continue to provide a safety net for him and to give him time to build up his own base. He would play the role of a moderate while the British could wield the big stick. On this score, Lee Kuan Yew and the British were hand-in-glove in that ‘the British must keep the final say in order to block the communists out.’ (316)