S'pore must engage China to stay relevant to the fast-evolving nation
By Connie Er, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2012
"ARE you married?" The salvo, from a well-groomed woman in her mid-40s, caught me by surprise.
We had never spoken before. But as classmates in a two-month course on public policy at Peking University, we had shared the coach ride from the campus hostel to the lecture theatre for the past three days.
The mercury had surged to around 38 deg C that week and Beijing was like an oven. Should we not start on a more neutral topic like the weather, I thought.
But it would have been rude to ignore your peer. "Er, no," I fumbled in response.
"I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry!" Her response, clearly from a sense of sympathy, made me feel bad I was single.
How do you ask a person to reveal his salary without batting an eyelid?
If you had put this question to me earlier this year, you would have received a bewildered stare. Thanks to that summer trip to China, I may be in a better position today.
For the Chinese can get up close and personal in a way that will leave us Singaporeans discomfited.
It was an insight that was brought home repeatedly to me and four other Singaporeans - the only foreigners in the course. We joined 47 Chinese officials, ranking from deputy director upwards, who were drawn from the central government as well as almost all of China's 31 provinces and regions.
Members of our cohort were broadly considered the second tier in the state and party, below ministerial level. Presumably, some among them may rise to leadership positions in the years ahead.
In the days that followed, we learnt that direct questions could be a common conversation opener, as I was repeatedly quizzed on my marital status. Every time, they looked sincerely sympathetic at my response.
Another popular conversation opener: "How much do you earn?" The Singaporeans always avoided a direct answer by telling our Chinese classmates the average starting salaries at home. But the Chinese would try all ways and means to wring it out of us - for instance, by going on to ask how many years it would take for us to pay for our apartments.
What was going on was a subtle attempt to gauge Singapore's standard of living, compared with China's.
Having attained a certain level of material comfort, most of my Chinese classmates were very health-conscious. More than half of them took the 20-minute walk daily from the hostel to the lecture theatre, instead of taking the coach. Some even played tennis regularly after their maotai-drinking sessions.
Extra-curricular activities were held at least once a week and everyone had to pick two activities from a list, which included table tennis, badminton, tennis and walking.
As I started to take evening strolls with my Chinese classmates along the 750m-long perimeter of the Weiming (or Unnamed) Lake on campus, I found it was a great way to get to know them better.
Perhaps because of the serene evening mood, with rays of the setting sun glistening on the calm waters of the lake, my classmates were often in a contemplative state of mind. They would tell me their hopes for the country - mainly greater administrative and economic reforms, so more people could benefit from them.
They also shared with me their backgrounds and spoke of their children.
I learnt that quite a few of them made it to where they are largely due to their brilliant academic results, as their parents were rural folk. They said their childhood was often plagued by not knowing when their next meal would come.
Social mobility is generally strong in China. Elite universities keep quotas for students from rural areas. The national college entrance examinations, or gaokao, provide a chance for students who are less well-off or whose parents do not have connections to get ahead based on their results.
To go a step further, the Chinese authorities are now looking into allowing children of migrant workers to sit their examination in the big cities where they work, giving the children a higher chance of entering universities in the cities.
"For all the criticisms that gaokao has triggered, it enabled me to get to where I am today," one classmate told me. The gruelling two-day examination is notorious for the tremendous stress it puts on students and parents, as it is seen as determining their future.
"I got a scholarship in junior high school and moved to the region's capital to study," said another classmate who hailed from generations of herders in Inner Mongolia. Now armed with a doctorate in philosophy, she is a vice-president of the Inner Mongolia Party School.
Like many Singaporean parents, the main concern of many of my Chinese classmates is their children's education.
So when my classmates asked if I was married, they were actually looking for a common topic to chat about - children, who are exceptionally precious to Chinese parents due to the one-child policy in China.
Quite a few of them have sent their children to the United States for their undergraduate studies. Several told me that while they do not mind their children staying on in the US to work for a few years after they graduate, they themselves have no intention of migrating there.
Still, all my Chinese classmates were keen to learn about best Western practices from lecturers flown in from New York's Columbia University, the London School of Economics and France's Sciences Po.
Many of the Chinese officials - mostly in their 40s and some in their 30s and 50s - showed that they were well aware of China's institutional shortcomings and saw a pressing need to improve on social management.
Some also expressed concern over the fact that many Chinese have become rich overnight, either because they received compensation when their land was acquired or because the areas they lived in sat on coal mines.
Noting that many of these newly rich live simply on collecting rental payments on other newly acquired properties, Chinese officials and academics believe such a trend is unhealthy for China's economic development in the long run.
While the Chinese classmates were eager to learn from the West, they were certain too that China could not simply adopt a Western model as its situation is far more complicated. They also said they see Western countries veering towards China's model and heading for re-regulation of the market amid the financial crisis.
For the Chinese, Singapore has provided an alternative source of inspiration for crafting public policies. Many Chinese classmates declared their admiration for Singapore's public policies, including housing.
"Your former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is such a great man. His vision and the use of rule of law have helped Singapore achieve so much," an official from the central politics and law commission said. He had read the Chinese version of the book on Mr Lee, Hard Truths, which we had handed around as gifts.
While we Singaporeans were flattered by the compliments, we also saw an urgent need for our small nation to be more deeply engaged with the Chinese so that we could remain relevant to a rapidly changing China.
Despite viewing us as "Westernised ethnic Chinese", our Chinese classmates reckoned that we do share some similarities with them, such as parts of Chinese history and culture. Several of them told us towards the end of the course that they do not see us as wai ren or outsiders.
It is good to know we are not seen as outsiders by one of the world's oldest civilisations. And I certainly hope, in time to come, we will not be written off as irrelevant by one of the world's largest economies.
The writer attended a course on global public policy at Peking University, co-organised by the Singapore-China Foundation.