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Singaporeans slam US senator’s grilling of TikTok CEO Chew Shou Zi’s nationality, links to China: ‘pure ignorance’

In World
February 01, 2024

However, Singaporeans following Wednesday’s hearing online were most incensed by the way Chew was questioned about his nationality and affiliations with the Chinese government.

“You said today, as you often say, that you live in Singapore. Of what nation are you a citizen?” asked Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

US Senator Tom Cotton. Photo: Getty Images/AFP

Despite Chew stating he was Singaporean, Cotton continued to press him. “Are you a citizen of any other nation?” he asked, and followed up with whether Chew had ever applied for Chinese citizenship and if he held a Singaporean passport.

Chew responded no to both questions, adding that he had fulfilled his national service to his home country by serving in the Singaporean military for 2½ years, which is a requirement for all Singaporean men.

Cotton also asked if Chew was a member of China’s Communist Party, to which a visibly frustrated Chew responded: “Senator, I’m Singaporean, no.”

The Singapore government does not allow citizens to hold dual nationalities.

02:32

US lawmakers grill TikTok CEO on app’s alleged ties to Chinese Communist Party

US lawmakers grill TikTok CEO on app’s alleged ties to Chinese Communist Party

A Washington Post technology reporter described Cotton’s line of questioning as “McCarthy-esque”, which refers to accusations of subversion or treason, made without proper regard for the facts, similar to those made by US Senator Joseph McCarthy against alleged communists in the 1950s.

Cotton defended his questioning of Chew’s ties with China’s Communist Party, hours after the hearing concluded. “Singapore, unfortunately, is one of the places in the world that has the highest degree of infiltration and influence by the Chinese Communist Party,” Cotton said on Fox News on Wednesday. “So, Mr Chew has a lot to answer for, for what his app is doing in America and why it’s doing it.”

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Clips of the exchange went viral on social media on Thursday, and the hashtag #Singaporean trended internationally on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Singaporean users called out Cotton over his perceived racism and poor understanding of their country, while others created memes poking fun at the exchange.

“Unsurprised that Americans associate Singapore with China or even a city within China,” wrote one user.

“Paranoia at its highest. And low-key racist,” snapped another.

“Senator, do you know where Singapore is?” one netizen questioned. “Pure ignorance to the highest degree. Just because he looks Chinese does not mean he’s from China,” another said.

One popular meme page, Yeolo.sg, which has more than 78,000 followers on Instagram, posted a snippet of the exchange, along with the caption: “When it’s 2024 but people still think Singapore is in China”.

TikTok is a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese tech firm ByteDance. Western governments have raised concerns that Chinese authorities could force ByteDance to hand over TikTok’s data on its estimated 150 million American users.

TikTok has gone to great lengths to allay these concerns, claiming it does not share American user data with the Chinese government and would refuse if asked. It has also since promised to store data on servers operated by an outside contractor, Oracle Corp, as part of Project Texas.

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The view that Singapore and China hold similar political ideologies among US lawmakers and citizens has long persisted and is not anything new, said Leong Chan-Hoong, a senior fellow for social cohesion research at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“I’m not surprised that some of them are not aware of the geopolitical differences between Singapore and China,” he said. The fact that the city state had an ethnic Chinese majority, and was ruled by one political party for a long time, may also contribute to the impression that China and Singapore shared the same political ideology, he added.

The perception by Singaporeans of the US has been on the decline, said Bilveer Singh, a political scientist from the National University of Singapore. “The US has blundered at home – with political polarisation, racism, government inefficiency and becoming inward-looking – and abroad in foreign policy,” he said, citing examples such as the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

In a 2022 survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre, some 67 per cent of Singaporeans polled viewed China more favourably than the US, a stark contrast to the other 18 countries polled.

Why do Singapore and Malaysia view China more favourably than the US?

Singh added that Cotton’s line of questioning also offended people in the city state, as it seemed to suggest Singaporeans had communist ties just because the population had an ethnic Chinese majority.

Ethnic Chinese residents make up about three-quarters of Singapore’s population, while Malays and Indians make up about 13 and 9 per cent, respectively, according to official statistics.

Singh said the US’ anti-China policies had also “riled up most Singaporeans”, as many interpreted them as racist.

Leong said the perception towards the US was not “completely negative” among citizens of the city state, but that some certainly found US foreign policy and interventionism “disagreeable”.

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