Having sideswiped the memory of Calvin Coolidge in Part III and snookered a twisted Navy Seals motto into service in Parts IV and V of this essay series, we now embark upon the last of three promises made back on December 10: Redeeming the claim that Jewish diaspora history can help us understand Singapore.
James Thurber once warned that, “You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backwards,” so we need take care not to exaggerate similarities between the Jewish historic diaspora experience, spanning around 1,800 years in dozens of countries, and the experience of overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, which spans an even longer period—some date it all the way back to the 11th-century BCE Chou Dynasty—in nearly as many countries. That said, there’s no need to exaggerate to discern several striking similarities.
Don’t take just my word for it. It’s not as though commentary on the matter over the years has been scarce. Pronouncements and speculations aplenty, mostly thin and anecdotal but some seriously scholarly, have been offered up by Jews, Chinese, and others. Unsurprisingly, not a few have claimed that overseas Chinese are “the Jews of” this or that Southeast Asian country.
It’s not just overseas Chinese among Asian groups resident in Singapore who have been compared to the Jews. In private conclave some South Asian landsmen have pitched me the metaphor that, for example, Sindis are the Jews of India, and if not Sindis then Gujaratis. Depends whom I’m talking to, and in these cases the conversation typically acquires the tones of a would-be mutual admiration society. Jewcentric stereotypes are everywhere present, but on these curious occasions they’re all wearing what strike me as slightly eerie-looking happy masks.
So maybe the Chinese in Singapore are the Ashkenazic Jews of Asia and the Indians are the Mizrahi Jews of Asia? No, that’s silly. At least no one calls the Malay community here the Jews of anything—but they too are, you might be surprised to learn, mainly a diaspora community despite their being usually labeled ”indigenous.”
When Stamford Raffles showed up in Singapore in 1819, fewer than a thousand people actually lived on the island. Hundreds of years earlier there had been a significant Malay population, complete with a government and military, palaces and fortifications. But by the early 19th century only the Orang Laut—Sea Nomads or Sea Gypsies—loomed around the island, dividing their times between fishing and piracy. Most Malays in Singapore today are 19th and early 20th century immigrants from Malaya, Java, Sulawezi, Borneo, and the Riau Islands, and among them are about a half dozen subgroups distinguished by place of origin and dialect.
Malays aside, what does it mean to say that such-and-such an Asian ethnicity, represented here in Singapore, are “the Jews” of such-and-such a place? Well, to pith it down, it means a group of kindred folk who come from afar and manage to dominate the commercial zones of pre-modern economies, and whose appearance, manners, skill sets, language, and religion set them apart from the majority of society.
The result, often enough, is that while these minority groups have the tacit or explicit consent of governments to operate, because they bring new goods, skills, trade, and investment to the local economy, their economic success joined to their small-minority status generates suspicion, resentment, envy, and sometimes violence directed against them. At some lowest-common-denominator level of historical sociology, the expulsion of more than 50,000 “overseas” South Asians from Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1972, where they owned more than 90 percent of the country’s businesses and paid in more than 90 percent of the government’s tax revenue, resembled closely enough for discomfort the expulsions of Jews from several European countries over the centuries.
So the key questions: What if any social science/historical logic binds these two mostly unconnected historical experiences—the Jewish diasporic and the overseas Chinese—and does that logic have any contemporary traces in Singapore? In short, twice yes. Let’s see—very briefly, despite the complexity of the subject—just how that is.
It’s best to start with obvious differences between the Jewish diasporic experience and that of overseas Chinese. Jews en masse were exiled or fled from their homeland during the Hadrianic persecutions and especially upon the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE, after which no Jewish sovereignty resumed until May 1948. For about 18 centuries too, no Jewish majority existed in Eretz Yisrael except in parts of Jerusalem. Overseas Chinese come not from all of China proportionately, but mainly from its southern regions, and while political upheaval and chaos at various times were important factors in incentivizing emigration, no foreign power ever occupied all of China and expelled most of its population. So there was always a majority-Chinese state and society for wanderers to return to. At least before the 20th century, return flows of overseas Chinese to China was always greater than return flows of Jews to Israel/Palestine.
Certain similarities, however, are really more striking and relevant. First, both Jews and Chinese moved into areas whose populations were significantly less well-educated. The Jews, who became the “people of the book” during and on account of a prior exile—the Babylonian Exile of 586 BCE—were probably the most deep-literate mass society of the ancient world. The Chinese also elevated a written/literary culture over a folk/oral one, albeit for very different reasons. The ambit of the early Chinese state encompassed so many non-mutually intelligible dialect groups that only a pictographic written language could work as a way to communicate from the center out to all provinces. Magnifying this circumstance was the fact that Chinese, as a tonal language, probably has a higher proportion of one-syllable words than any other language, making a phonetic alphabet so cumbersome as to be impractical. The resultant “father language” rather than “mother tongue” outcome shaped the mandarin system, and ordained its emphasis on written language competency.
The common result in both Jewish and Chinese history was an intense elite emphasis on educating children, which, over time, became the belle ideal of refinement throughout both cultures. This was true despite the fact that literacy rates were historically low in Chinese society, “home” and overseas, compared to Jewish society. But the ideal mattered, so that when eventually conditions allowed a vast expansion of deep literacy among overseas Chinese, and hence a greater facility for abstract concepts, that expansion ensued. This cultural facet, which over so much time transformed into an epigenetic characteristic, contrasts dramatically before the modern period with the cultures of nearly all of the host societies within which diaspora Jews and overseas Chinese lived.
Both diaspora Jews and overseas Chinese also enjoyed deep if narrow stocks of social trust. The tightness of their affinity was no doubt shaped by pressures set against their minority status and by the more than occasional distrust of the majority population—all reinforced, of course, by the fact of their having separate language, religious, and customary practices. Add the fact that Jews and Chinese were often prohibited or dissuaded from owning land in their sojourns, and one can see how both turned to mainly urban-based business and trades to survive. That meant becoming involved in monetized economies. We take that for granted nowadays, but subsistence agriculture does not require monetization except at the margins—and this is still true in places, like Cambodia, where more than 75 percent of the population is rural and is engaged in only para-commercial agriculture.
The Jews brought one other advantage with them when they first moved in significant numbers from the Eastern Mediterranean and Visigothic Spain into Europe in the few centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire: the concept of zero. Zero had come to the Jews via India, Persia, and the Arabs to Córdoba in Spain during Almoravid times. (The Arabic word sifr, zero or empty, is a direct translation of the Sanskrit sunya. Thus the English word “cipher,” which has long since shifted meaning, but whose cryptic connotation traces back to its origin.) It is very hard to do long division and calculate inventory and insurance problems using Roman numerals, but the decimal system, with a concept for zero, did not enter Europe until the 13th century—thanks to the great Italian mathematician Fibonacci, who not incidentally grew up in North Africa—and then only slowly.
The Chinese came upon zero from India more directly, the movement of the concept to China being linked—whether historically or notionally is a matter of debate—with the coming of Buddhism during the Han Dynasty, roughly during the 1st century CE.
No matter the details, diasporic Jews and those overseas Chinese who were educated had zero and so were numerate, and for long periods the common folk among whom they lived did not and were not.
General numeracy aided the process of pooling capital, which enabled the formation of informal joint stock companies for purposes of both investment and insurance. Both diasporic Jews and overseas Chinese, in other words, created functional banks for themselves to leverage financial economies of scale before any of their host societies did. And that, in turn, is why Jews in the Middle East and especially in Europe, and Chinese in Southeast Asia, often became moneylenders as a main or side business. There were no publicly accessible banks at the time in these places, only other family/clan groupings that, by and large, remained economically unincorporated.
Joint stock companies are also able to function in, and indeed help to create, larger-scale markets. Both diasporic Jews and overseas Chinese developed the technique of sending scouting parties from central points of operation to more far-flung locations to set up trading posts, learn about local resources and market demand, and link heretofore separated economic zones together. Not infrequently they married local women, had families, and thus created new nodes in their trading networks—hence the origin, notably, of the Peranakan Chinese-Malay culture, which dates to 15th century Malacca, and which had a significant historical influence here in Singapore. Nearly everyone involved prospered from the development of larger markets, but by having countrymen and relatives in control at both ends of the system, for production through to marketing, the Jewish and Chinese business families prospered more.
Finally on this point, it almost goes without saying that to be successful as traders and businessmen, more is needed than luck, location, and relative advantages over the majority population. Certain behavioral traits also matter a lot, among them: a decent work ethic, the ability to defer gratification, patience, self-discipline, and the aforementioned social trust if, as is typical, members of a diasporic group need to be able to depend and count on one another for mutual support.
Now, as a sidebar to the so-called Asian values debate in the early 1990s, which was mainly about political tendencies and not economic ones, some people in Singapore, and elsewhere in the rising Asian Tigers, began to claim that Confucian values explained why Chinese prospered at business, and by indirection why Singapore, as a majority-Chinese society, prospered economically as well. What to make of this?
Well, since diaspora Jews did pretty well at business and trading too, and no one thinks of Jews as being influenced by Confucianism, at the very least one must grant that useful behavior traits can be captured and passed along by more than one cultural system. It also ought to be pretty obvious that while culture works as a receptacle, incubator, and promotor of functional learned behaviors, it is neither static nor determinist. Can what some call epigenetic cultural traits double back and affect genetic endowments proper over a long enough time? The evidence suggests that the answer is yes, but that does not make them the same kinds of things. So the idea that there is something truly innate in Confucian-inflected cultures that necessarily conduces to business success is very close to self-preening racist nonsense. Evidence? If one takes the description of business-positive traits offered up by Max Weber in his famous 1905 essay on the Protestant ethic and sets them side by side with supposed Chinese business-positive traits bandied about during the “Asian values” episode, I defy anyone to discern a huge difference.
The relationship between functional need and cultural adaptation is broadly dialectical. So just as culture can pick up certain traits it can also lose them, as a re-reading of Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism or, for that matter, Ibn Khaldun’s 1377 Muqaddimah—a still-brilliant treatise on the broad historio-cultural oscillation of diligence and decadence—will attest. Singapore is not an exception. Neither is anyplace else.
As a general point, note further that both diasporic Jews and overseas Chinese depended on governmental and other authorities to guarantee basic stability—law and order, in other words—for their trading networks to prosper. This turned out to be a sometimes thing, but differently for the two sets of diasporic communities.
Sometimes authorities would extort the Jews for the “favor” of allowing them to live and operate their businesses. Sometimes they lost control and locals attacked them, often egged on by religious prejudice. Sometimes authorities expelled them, from towns, from provinces, from whole countries.
Overseas Chinese did not have it quite so bad on balance. A sharing of Buddhist faith helped ameliorate tensions in some circumstances, despite the fact that there are three different main schools of Buddhism and overseas Chinese sometimes held to a school not that of the local majority. More important, probably, while Chinese migration into Southeast Asia goes back a very long way in history, the vast majority of it took place within the past 500-600 years, and dovetails with the European arrival in the region. The overseas Chinese mainly piggybacked on European mercantilist colonialism, setting themselves up as middlemen in the China trade. They benefitted from the European projects and the Europeans benefitted from them in ways that lack any direct parallel with Jewish history in Europe during this same period. Jews were inside European metropoles; overseas Chinese plied the European periphery where European authority was looser, its purposes were narrower, and the options of diasporic community tradesmen concerning whom to deal with were often more abundant.
The inherent insecurity of the Jews’ position in Europe led to incentives to gain some protection from extortion by means of anticipatory deference, and some protection from mob violence by showing loyalty to the nobility or the government, as the case may have been. For the Jews this created a smallish sub-class of hofjuden (court Jews). Nothing exactly analogous happened with overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. One reason was that while Jews lived in a Christian-only sea, the more so after the Reconquista of Iberia in the late 15th century, Chinese lived in a far more plural sectarian environment, with Hindus, Buddhists, Christians (in the Philippines, for example), and Muslims from the 12th century onward.
That meant that the Chinese were not the only major source of middlemen and foreign courtiers: Arabs, Persians, Thais, Chams, and others were also active as traders and go-betweens in the regional mix. Only in Thailand, during the final years of the Ayutthya kingdom and later with the Chakri kings (so 18th and 19th centuries) did anything comparable to Chinese “hofjuden” arise. Elsewhere, as already suggested, Chinese middlemen (kapitans), often Peranakans, helped smooth trade between British and Dutch merchants and China. But the pattern differed from place to place and from European group (including, earlier, the Portuguese and Spanish) to group.
Finally in this regard, the rise of modern nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries proved problematic for both diaspora Jewish and overseas Chinese communities. The problem arose sooner for the Jews in Europe, but it followed not long behind—just about a century or so—for Chinese in Southeast Asia. King Vajiravudh (a.k.a. Rama VI) infamously called the Chinese in his country the “Jews of Siam” and wrote a newspaper article in 1914 damning them in terms that any European anti-Semite would have lauded: “Money is their God. Life itself is of little value compared with the leanest bank account.”
Yet when Asian nationalism did arise, most forms took on an anti-colonialist and then later an anti-Japanese attitude. Overseas Chinese communities were not spared to the extent that they were roped in as perceived accomplices or beneficiaries of European colonialism. There were episodic boycotts, intimidation, sabotage and vandalism, petty larceny, kidnappings, and extortions too numerous to count. History also relates a number of “pogroms”—recent examples include Kuala Lumpur in May 1969 and Jakarta in May 1998. Chinese overseas communities have also been particularly vulnerably during periods of general mayhem: in Indonesia in 1965, and in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, for two notably horrific examples. But no national-scale mass murders or mass expulsions of minority overseas Chinese communities have occurred in Southeast Asian countries, whether Muslim-majority or otherwise. That would have had to be a government’s doing, and no government has yet done such a thing.
In truth, most if not all European colonial operations used local Chinese—again, Peranakans in particular—as go-betweens and political deflection shields of sorts to do their dirtier work. True, too, some Chinese business families were eager to be so used, particularly if by so doing they could engage with relative impunity in activities that look rather sordid in retrospect. Yes, the British government imposed opium on China by force of arms in 1838 and thereafter, but not a few Chinese businessmen, including some in Singapore like Cheang Hong Lim (of Peranakan descent) and in Hong Kong, made fortunes not from gambier and spices but from opium and its oft-related “trades” of gambling and prostitution.
Related to these trades were the many Chinese “secret societies” that arose, some organized by dialect group, some by “trade” specialization, some around home-origins in China, some around major business personalities and families, many a mash-up of several factors. There is but a pale parallel to overseas Chinese secret societies in Jewish diasporic history. There are atypical cases of Jewish self-defense organizations rising to deter assault, and there are certainly cases of Jews engaging in outside-the-law trades in, for example, the Polish and Lithuanian regions of the 18th and 19th century Russian Empire, particularly near borderlands like East Prussia where smuggling goods and people seem natural activities. And once transplanted to America, groups of Jewish immigrants often formed impromptu fraternal societies, called landsmenschaften. But these were not secret, never violent, and rarely functioned as covers for or informally facilitated criminal behavior.
Naturally enough, newly nationalistic local communities where ethnic Chinese had long been minorities were none too happy with this sort of business, or with the below-the-law secret societies the helped operate and protect them. Their legacies have not been entirely dispelled to this day largely because new grievances, justified or not, have piled up on old ones. Despite decades of independence, small Chinese minorities still exert vastly disproportionate economic and, in many cases, political influence in every Southeast Asian country (except Laos) in Singapore’s neighborhood.
How disproportionate? In Indonesia about 2.8 million ethnic Chinese, about 1.2 percent of the population, are said to own about 90 percent of the retail economy. Malaysia is a variation on the same theme: About 6.5-7.0 million ethnic Chinese, roughly 25 percent of the population, own nearly as much. Ditto for the Philippines, where the Chinese are only about 1 percent of the population. Indonesia and Malaysia are the countries closest to and most relevant to Singapore, and of the seven ASEAN countries listed above these, along with tiny Brunei, they are the only majority-Muslim ones.
Indonesia and Malaysia have approached their overseas Chinese communities differently. Post-independence Indonesia pressured ethnic Chinese to take Bahasa surnames, and to blend into the majority culture. But with a much higher percentage of Chinese, Malaysian governments have institutionalized instead a kind of permanent affirmative action for Malays, sometimes called “Bumiputra preference,” which ethnic Chinese everywhere, not to exclude Singapore, describe as a form of systematic discrimination.
Until quite recently, too, and still to a considerable extent, Malaysian Islam has been more attracted to orthodox and lately neo-fundamentalist forms exported from the Gulf, while Indonesian Islam has always been more syncretic, Sufi-inflected, tolerant, and relaxed. The reasons for these difference are many, but one has to be that the larger number of Chinese in Malaysia has created a kind of religion-as-identity-politics backlash for Muslims, while the existence of several significant non-Muslim populations in Indonesia (for example, Buddhists in Bali, Christians in the Maluku Islands) has mitigated that effect in Indonesia (but did not prevent bloody Muslim-Christian confrontations in the Malukus, especially in the 1999-2002 period).
Fully 25 years ago Sterling Seagrave, in his masterful Lords of the Rim, estimated that if one summed the ethnic overseas Chinese economic quotient it would come to about $450 billion per annum, and that this “invisible empire” disposed of some $2 trillion in liquid assets. Just to give some sense of scale, Thailand’s GNP for that year, 1995, came only to $169.3 billion. Reliable figures are notoriously elusive, but in 2020 it is likely that the economic power of minority overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia (so excluding Singapore, where ethnic Chinese are around 73 percent of the total) still sum to ownership and liquidity figures larger than those of any single country, even Indonesia with a population of about 271 million. The economic rise of China itself has been a factor in facilitating the growing prosperity and influence of overseas Chinese communities, despite their ambivalent relationships to China itself.
Overseas Chinese economic clout has existed for a long time, and so has the temptation to translate that clout into political influence. Case in point: Sun Yat-sen raised the vast majority of the money he needed to bring down the Qing Dynasty and establish the Republic of China in 1911 from overseas Chinese, not from Chinese in China. Dr. Sun spent a fair bit of time in Singapore in the years before 1911. The villa where he lived is now the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Museum, and its exhibits are revelatory on this point.
Of course, there is no cabal of overseas Chinese leaders that meets in secret rooms to coordinate the concerted use of their money, any more than the sinister conspiracy theories of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were ever true. But some of the larger business families among Teochew, Hakka, and Hokkien dialect groups do manage “bamboo” business networks that spread beyond national borders, just as the Rothschild banking family had offices at one time during the 19th century in London, Paris, and Amsterdam.
In truth, too, the circumstances of overseas Chinese communities vary widely. In Thailand, for example, the community is significantly integrated in the general population and there is much intermarriage; in Myanmar, it is hardly integrated at all. In Vietnam, it is the Hoa dialect group among Chinese that dominates, but Vietnam is a special case also in another sense, since it is the only Sinic deep culture in the region; all the others are Indic. What’s in aggrieved majority-population imaginations often matters more than mere facts, and try as one may, there is no stopping major lava flows of irrationality in mob-like settings once they start, whether those flows threaten diasporic Jews or overseas Chinese.
Do the aforementioned numbers line up with the situation of Jews in Europe in, say, the 12th or 16th or 19th and early 20th centuries? It is an expansive question, to say the least. But if we take, say, 1920 as a snapshot benchmark year—pre-Holocaust but statistically real, so to speak—we see that Jews as a percentage of the population were as high as 18.2 percent in then-newly reborn Poland; 12.5 percent in Lithuania; about 11 percent in Ukraine; 5.8 percent in Romania; but only 3.3 percent in Austria, and just 0.88 percent in Germany. Did Jews nevertheless predominate in the professions in urban areas and in certain areas of commerce in these countries? There’s no genuinely simple answer that gets at complex truths, but a rounded-off answer that doesn’t do too much violence to reality is “yes.” So yes, the overseas Chinese and Jewish diasporic numbers do line up, close enough anyway for folk music and government work, and the admittedly potted comparative historical sociology sketched above, I think, more or less explains why.
When we speak of diasporic/exilic/overseas experiences involving many centuries and more than a dozen major host countries, it is very hard to generalize safely, let alone usefully—particularly when anything like empirical evidence is hard to impossible to come by. But some generalizations about the development of stereotypes that leap out of these histories, and their recent and contemporary implications, can be put forth as speculative for you, dear reader, to make of what you will. Stereotypes arisen out of complex, pluralized histories are as inevitable as death and taxes. No one is obliged to enjoy them. But almost no one is spared from having to deal with them.
Let me post up four stereotypes, each of which, as always, has some scintilla of truth at its core, to be matched against actual observations any sentient person can make here in Singapore: one about the joint diasporic Jewish/overseas-Chinese penchant to business-mindedness, with sideways implications for the place of gambling in these cultures; one about the joint obsession with money and employment of supposed “sharp” business practices; one about the stigma of excessive alcohol consumption combined with a claimed obsession with food; and one about the latter-day nervousness and insecurity, paranoia even, of these two groups of communities.
Intrigued? I’ll just bet you are. But you’re going to have to wait for Singapore the Improbable VII . . . coming soon to a magazine near you.