Singapore waters its Chinese roots

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has so far held out against formal ties with the Chinese. But he feels secure enough with them that he can confidently promote Chinese culture among his own people. Ethnic Chinese make up 1.8 million of the island republic's estimated 2.5 million people.

He feels freer now to push Chinese ways in Singapore because of a diminished fear of subversion from the People's Republic of China, some observers feel.

This is one of the first fruits of China's less Marxist foreign policy, which is beginning to reap a harvest of goodwill from its noncommunist southeast Asian neighbors.

The leaders of Malaysia and Indonesia are still fearful that their giant northern neighbor may someday again give major support to communist rebels. But Thailand is welcoming economic ties and Chinese backing against any Vietnamese attack along the border with Cambodia.

Mr. Lee is pushing to see that more and more Chinese Singaporeans speak standard Mandarin (China's unified national language) as a complement to the island's major national language, English. This means the government wants Mandarin spoken in schools, businesses, and homes -- in place of regional Chinese dialects such as Cantonese and Hokkien.

Mr. Lee is also to replace more traditional Romanizations of Mandarin with Pinyin, China's system of Romanization (transliteration of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet).

As of this year kindergarten and first- grade pupils will begin to use Pinyin to Romanize their names. In three to four years all Chinese students up to the university level will have their names Pinyinized. (Use of Pinyin means a student's English-language name won't give away his dialect.) These steps bring singapore into line with practices in China.

The implementation of these steps follows two trips to China by the prime minister, one several years ago, the second in November 1980. In some respects these changes indicate that China no longer seems to be such a revolutionary threat in the region. This is partly because the moderate leadership of Deng Xiaoping seems to be more committed to cooperation in Southeast Asia than to confrontation or major support for Marxist, often Chinese, revolutionaries.

Ten years ago these Singaporean steps would be unthinkable because they might alienate Malay and Indian Singaporeans and fan the flames of Chinese racial chauvinism against Malay and Indian minorities. Since China was more feared then in the region, the steps might also reinforce the view that Singapore was a Trojan horse "third China" and thus a base support for local insurgency.

But Singapore's leaders apparently feel there is now enough of a Singaporean identity to resist being engulfed by "Chinese chauvinism."

Even so Singapore tries to reassure its neighbors by declaring it will not have diplomatic ties with China until Indonesia establishes ties. The other three members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have normalized relations. This means that Indonesia, the other holdout, will have to go first.

But Lee Kuan Yew and other regional leaders also know that at some time in the future China's support for insurrections can be increased.

So Mr. Lee continues to stress Singaporean identity. He also emphasizes traditional, not modern, Chinese values by having the teaching of Mandarin closely integrated with teaching of traditional Chinese culture.

In a Feb. 4 Chinese New Year speech, for example, he called for strengthening of family loyalties and of obligations of the young toward the old. Critizing old-age homes as an inadequate substitute for family loyalty, he also declared the proper Mandarin title should be used when addressing say an older brother, or an uncle or aunt.

This new campaign (just one of many the prime minister pushes) allows more stress on Singapore's basic "Chineseess" while declaring it will not follow China's Marxist model.

In a recent address President Benjamin H. Sheares put it this way, "Singaporeans are maturing as a nation with our own lifestyles and our own aspirations. We can learn from the West and Japan. We want their technology and knowledge, but our basic values, the essentials of our philosophy of life, must be preserved."

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