Electoral politics is vulnerable. This is not a new concept. Born and raised in Canada, I have lived in Asia for most of my adult life and in Singapore for the past 40 years. We have a compulsory voting system based on one person one vote, however, since we are essentially a one-party state where the vast majority of seats in our parliament are taken by the People’s Action Party (and have been since independence in 1965), we are not considered by the United States as a democracy and neither would many Singaporeans be bothered by the statement that ‘Singapore is not a true democracy’. On the whole, the governance is reasonable, the people’s healthcare needs are met, our children are educated, our infrastructure is well maintained and so on. But as we look at Western democracies, there seems to be several areas that show signs of weakness, so concern about interference of any kind is reasonable.
Still, the current furore about China’s interference in Canadian politics does seem far fetched. China has enough on its plate with 1.4 billion citizens and the constant haranguing by the United States and other Western countries without being concerned about Canada’s elections. Additionally, the Trudeau Liberal government was in power during the ‘Meng Wanzhou and two Michaels’ incident, so it’s possible that if China could spend time thinking about Canada’s politics, the Liberals might not be their first choice. More likely, they might shrug their collective shoulders and get on with more productive thoughts. Be that as it may, it is of interest to me that the word ‘interference’ has been used. Influence seems a more appropriate charge and here is some historic perspective which may be of use to Canadians trying to find their place in the great big world of geopolitics.
Canada participated in the Colombo Plan from 1950 until 1992. The Canadian government, via the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) funded this program. Students from less developed countries were hosted in Canada to study in universities and were then required to return to their home country to use their education to build up those societies. I’m sure many Canadians thought this a good idea from the point of view of ‘helping’ others. It certainly did help build a network of bright well-educated men and women in Singapore, many of whom moved up in their careers to positions of power and influence. Having lived in Canada for years, and having been trained there, former students would be inclined to use Canadian products and methods of work, which would increase trade. When inviting guest speakers, the natural inclination again is to call on individuals former students knew and that could well be former professors, teachers and graduate students.
By the late 1980s, Canada was withdrawing its support from this plan. This development was met with consternation by the Canadian High Commissioner to Singapore, Mr. Sean Brady, who served in that capacity from 1986 to 1989. In conversations at that time he wanted to see if businesses could be tapped to carry on something like the Colombo Plan to further Canada’s image and provide networks for Canadians who could then do business in Singapore. He pointed to the number of cabinet positions held by Colombo Plan scholars who had received their education in Canada. He also pointed to the very positive attitude that many of these scholars had regarding Canadian society. He saw it as money well spent in terms of its influence on Singapore. Would you call this interference?
Did Canada have alternative motives when they budgeted the expenses of bringing students over, housing them and paying for their tuition? Did funding CUSO (Canadian University Services Overseas) have alternative motives in sending teachers, nurses and doctors to countries to teach young impressionable minds and share their skills with those in emerging nations? People who were secondary school students in Penang, Malaysia in the 1960s remember being taught by Americans from the Peace Corps.
The Confucius Institutes (CIs) that China has funded around the world appear to be similar enterprises. They could just be a method of sharing with other countries what China is. This could be useful to fair-minded Canadians and people in other Western countries who want to know more about the world. It could also be an attempt to convince others of China’s superior way of organizing their society. Certainly, it never hurts to look at alternatives. Is China interested in turning the world into a collection of nations all resembling China? Hardly likely. Anyone who knows much about the Chinese would recognize this as impossible. To manufacture replicas of the United States which has been around for 250 years is already problematic. To produce replicas of China which has a civilization with 3700 years of history is not feasible.
Most people do not understand China’s political structure at all. The Communist Party of China has almost 97 million members. Organizing a society on that scale is just not understandable to people who see chaos in organizing societies of 40 million people. Understanding China’s long history of organization at that scale requires study.
In a paper published by the Yusof Ishak Institute of South East Asian Studies, it was stated that “while CIs have lost momentum in the West over concerns about foreign influence, censorship and academic freedom, they have enjoyed more traction in Southeast Asia”. Perhaps South East Asians are just more pragmatic. Free language lessons, free history lessons do not go amiss in countries that wish to participate in the economic life of China. Many countries have such projects. The United States planted USIS (United States Information Services) around the world. This was abandoned in some measure in 1999 when the United States found it necessary to hide in fortress-like structures, a measure of their vulnerability. The UK still has British Council offices in many countries. France provides similar services through their partial support, about 5 percent, of Alliance Francaise outlets. Perhaps some of these organizations have clandestine purposes besides imparting knowledge about their own home countries, their language, their systems of government and their culture. This requires thought which is not helped by facile analysis by journalists. Unfortunately, Canada suffers from a media with spectacularly uninformed journalists. I listen to CBC on a regular basis and think their international news is probably indicative of much of what Canadians are told about the world. It is sad but it must be admitted that Canadians that don’t search out facts for themselves are ill-served indeed.
Saralee Turner (MLS) is a citizen of Singapore who was trained as a sociologist at the University of Western Ontario. Born and raised in Toronto, Turner spent much of her adult life in Asia working with several libraries in Singapore before her retirement.
Photo Credit via Wikimedia Commons