To make good on the promises tendered as Singapore the Improbable Part VI concluded, we now examine some likely sources of stereotypes concerning overseas Chinese and diasporic Jewish orientations to business, their supposed obsession with money, their ways of dealing with food and alcohol, and their alleged security paranoia.
Alas, these are all sensitive topics about which little genuine empirical evidence can be brought. Life is just like that sometimes, even in data-driven, technocratic Singapore.
Diasporic Jews and overseas Chinese have thought overwhelmingly in terms of business, and not just business but family business, as a way to make a living. This is less the case with Jews in the West these days, where family ties are generally weaker than in Asia, which means there are more Jews in individually-oriented professions like medicine, academia, and law. Singapore partially excepted, Chinese are still proportionately more involved in business in Southeast Asia than are Jews in most Western countries.
As a rule, too, overseas Chinese business strategies are still family-oriented, and some marriages are still either arranged or ratified with business alliance considerations in mind. Dialect group affinities—Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Hainanese, and others, including the special case of the Peranakans—still matter, as well, among overseas Chinese in the ASEAN region.
In Singapore, extrusions of the family business way of thinking are everywhere, and have been generalized up from families to larger institutions, including those of the state itself—as noted, with several examples, in Singapore the Improbable Part III: The Coolidge Proposition. One smaller but illuminating example resides right here at Nanyang Technological University.
Nearly every major university has a semester-abroad or an off-campus semester-internship program, but as the photo below suggests, NTU’s has been consolidated and spun off as a business. It’s cleverly called “NTUitive” and carries the crawl line “NTUitive Pte Ltd”—which in Singapore means “private limited,” in other words, a business. Developed, founded, and directed until just this past month by Dr. Lim Jui, who is leaving to become CEO of SGInnovate (itself an interesting example of the same basic phenomenon of a “private” but government-owned entity), NTUitive Pte Ltd makes a profit and pays taxes. Better, perhaps, it relieves the university administration of having to spend funds in a non-profit mode to administer a semester-abroad program.
Gambling can also be set up as a business, and has been at times by both diasporic Jews and overseas Chinese. This has often worked because, for some reason, Jews seem to love it, and Chinese seem to love it too. Gambling arguably represents a kind of subsection within the business-orientation category. How so?
Both retail business and gambling involve risk. Both kinds of protagonists seek strategic advantages, often through marketed and marketing information, sometimes through deception or misdirection. If one is totally honest in business, profits typically come slower than if one is successfully dishonest. If one is lucky or skilled in gambling, same thing. Minds that calculate winning and losing money in business may be equally adept at calculating winning and losing money in gambling since probability is probability no matter where and how it is applied. Gambling is thus inherent to small business, and small business is in some ways a form of gambling.
I have no gambling-related data on diasporic Jews, only personal anecdotes. My father being one of ten children and my mother being one of seven, I had 15 aunts and uncles—all first-generation Americans—and, as a result, more than two dozen first cousins. Of my aunts and uncles and their spouses, none ever saw the front door of a college or university. All of them worked in retail businesses of one sort or another and, with few exceptions, all of them played poker and vied with slot machines, bet on the ponies—trotters and thoroughbreds—and more. Living mainly in the Washington, DC area, they often visited the one-armed-bandit paradises of Route 301 in Waldorf, Maryland, and they were thrilled when gambling came to Atlantic City, New Jersey, just a few hours’ car-ride away. When, inevitably it seems, many moved to the Miami area, they became enamored with jai-alai, and some virtually camped out at Hialeah. And if jai-alai and horseracing were not enough to sate their animal spirits for betting, the Grayhound racing tracks—recently banned by the State of Florida—provided additional comfort. When my Aunt Sylvia would announce that she was “going to the dogs,” we all knew what she meant; but we smirked anyway since her middle-aged technique of applying makeup reminded us of an unsuccessful expressionist painting.
More than that, my paternal grandfather came from Suwalki, a town today found in the northeastern corner of Poland. But back in the day, Suwalki was part of the Russian Empire not far from the border with East Prussia and its great city Königsburg (today the much less great city of Kaliningrad). Wherever there is a border there are soldiers assigned border guard duty, and wherever there are soldiers—at least in this part of the world—opportunities for money-making in illicit activities such as smuggling booze, tobacco, guns, and drugs, as well as in gambling and prostitution, abound.
Without going into specifics, please, let’s just say that some members of the mishpocha in the Old Country knew about such matters. Oddly perhaps, these skill sets, let’s call them, tend to travel with families when the families themselves pick up and move to a different continent. As it happened, one of my uncles became the bagman for the numbers racket in Washington before the lottery became a government gig. He had a donut delivery route, so I was always glad to see him when he dropped by our house. You can work out for yourself how a donut delivery job works as a cover for being a numbers racket bagman. My father, too, born January 6, 1905, along with some of his brothers, cousins, and friends, came to know the maritime route from St. John’s, Newfoundland to the East Coast of the United States like the back of their hands during Prohibition.
Here in Singapore, Inc., where businesses of all shapes and sizes abound, gambling abounds too, especially, it seems, among the Chinese. As with everything else here, gambling is managed. A high-tone casino exists at the Marina Bay Sands complex, where entry for foreigners is free but Singaporean citizens have to pay S$150 just to get in the door. Those who can’t score that much scratch can play any of three state-controlled lotteries, managed by a company called Singapore Pools established in 1968 to curb what was then massive unregulated gambling, which elided into “private” groups involved in loan-sharking and other indelicate activities. The idea was, apparently, that if you can’t beat something with nothing, create a better something to dry up problematical gambling. And make money for the state off the itch, so what’s wrong with that?
Anyone can buy lottery tickets here, including in the larger grocery stores. When we go into the Fair Price at Boon Lay, the nearest bus terminal and MRT connector to NTU, people are often lined up across the entire back wall of the store waiting to buy lottery tickets, and from the look of those in line at least 95 percent are Chinese.
Singaporeans can also bet on sports matches and horse races both in and beyond Singapore. Singapore Pools pays taxes on profits and, of course, it’s part of the government—the Tote Board is the parent organization—like Temasek companies are ultimately part of the government. Managed gambling generates a prodigious revenue flow, much of which is earmarked for specific charity and philanthropic programs; but try running a high-stakes game without government knowledge and supervision, and you’re asking for trouble.
The next thing I am about to tell you is, possibly, a little sensitive: Cultural crossover exists between aspects of customary Taoist practice and gambling.
One can sometimes see people on their knees in Taoist temples tossing two red crescent-shaped wooden pieces, called jiaŏ bei, on the floor in front of them, usually as incense burns somewhere behind. What are they doing? They are asking the gods questions and, depending on how the jiaŏ bei fall, the answer is either yes or no. So this is like a Chinese ouija board, only it is consulted inside a religious shrine.
Now, one will often notice, too, a cup containing pieces of paper or sometimes square wooden tiles, about the size of small scrabble tiles, with numbers printed or embossed on them. Sometimes the questions asked of the jiaŏ bei are about which numbers are “auspicious” and which are not. Remember that in Chinese the names for numbers are linked to other words because the same syllable can mean different things in different tones—four in Mandarin, more in Cantonese and some other dialects. Unlucky numbers include 4, because one of its homophones means “death,” and less so 5 and 7. The jiaŏ bei are sometimes used to help folks choose which numbers to pick for the lotto, or maybe which number horse to bet on in a particular race, since one’s birth sign and the state of astrological movements in the moment create variability that need be parsed if one is going to win money. This is the Year of the Rat, and any Chinese taxi uncle can tell you that lucky numbers for the lotto in the Year of the Rat will not fall in a similar pattern as will lucky lotto numbers during the Year of the Rabbit. Only young children, fools, and foreigners are unaware of this, I was once duly informed.
Do Jews nowadays, or did they ever, go into synagogues for anything even remotely like this? Well, there is a hilarious well-known joke about Herbie going to shul to ask God to let him win the lottery. But it’s just a joke, so the answer, in the main, is no.
Speaking of religion, I happened to be with my wife Scilla and visiting daughter Hannah at the high-end Marina Bay Sands shopping arcade this past Christmas Eve. There we witnessed what looked like a spontaneous secular ritual the likes of which might only be possible in Singapore.
Best-dressed families, children in tow, were circulating leisurely in and out of the stores, as if on parade for themselves and others. The synchronization of souls was so intense that we could hear them hum. Some were making purchases, others just browsing and present only to be seen. An air of solemnity thickened as the afternoon hurtled toward twilight. The mall took on the hues of a cathedral as an aura of the ersatz sacred filled the scene. Soft, seasonal but anodyne music splashed against the metal and glass surfaces all around, breaking into hushed diaphanous harmonies as the notes wafted down and vanished into the floor.
But where was the deity? Where was the god, and what was his name? The Kiasu god is the god of maximal opulence and impeccable taste. He appears nowhere and everywhere at once. He both is and is not in the shimmering lights of the Louis Vuitton building just outside the mall, seeming to float in the Bay itself. He both is and is not in the Armani, Dior, Bvlgari, Cartier, Patek Phillipe, Chanel, Givenchy, Gucci, Prada, Swarovski, and Tiffany window displays—these are his priests and prophets. He is worshipped, loved, and feared, as are all gods. He abides in silence and demands no words of praise. One knows his demands in one’s heart: to achieve the highest success or, failing that, to seem to achieve it, or failing that to acknowledge one’s betters with all due humility. But one does not speak aloud of this, for it is holy.
For obvious reasons, it’s difficult to separate where business-mindedness leaves off as a mode of thinking and fetish-like concern with money for its own sake picks up. One way to bridge the two perhaps lies in a description of a Singaporean Chinese Lunar New Year tradition called a Yu Sheng.
A Yu Sheng is a food ritual in which a group of people—family members, or office colleagues, or members of a sports club, and so on—join together to make a delicious salad whose ingredients are ordained by tradition. When a person adds an ingredient into a large bowl, according to a specific order, a master of ceremonies reads out a verse connected symbolically, which is to say homophonically, to the particular ingredient. After all the salad elements have been added, everyone squeezes in around the bowl, inserts chopsticks beneath the piled-up ingredients, and at the emcee’s signal begins to toss the salad, higher and higher with every toss. Mercifully, some of the salad usually lands back in the bowl.
There are altogether 17 verses pronounced in a Yu Sheng, 13 for 13 ingredients, three for the tosses, and one at the end. Of the 17 verses, fully twelve have unambiguously to do with business and money. Here they are, in translation:
- Raw fish slices: “Prosperity every year!”
- Dried orange peels: “Good luck and prosperity!”
- Pepper and spices: “Incoming wealth!”
- Pouring out the oil: “May you make a thousand-fold profit from your investment!”
- Drizzling the oil: “May money pour in from all directions!”
- Carrots: “May opportunity strike you!”
- Shredded white radish: “May you rise higher with each step!”
- Shredded cabbage: “May you have success and promotion at work!”
- Shredded green radish: “Stay young forever!”
- Chopped peanuts: “May your house be full of gold and silver!”
- Sesame seeds: “Prosperity go to your business!”
- Crackers (golden pillows): “May your floor be splashed with gold!”
- Plum sauce: “May your life be sweet.”
- First toss: “May everything go good and be smooth.”
- Second toss: “May your body stay strong and healthy.”
- Third toss: “Wishing everyone great wealth!”
- Concluding verse, repeated ever louder: “Get rich and get lucky!!!”
It is also a Lunar New Year custom for older, married people to give money to younger and/or unmarried people in a decorative red sleeve called a hóngbāo. They do not usually give New Years gifts here in Singapore, just cash, and no one thinks this is tacky. Jews only think giving cash in lieu of a gift is not tacky when, as the joke goes, “it is a large amount.”
On the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, rather little of the liturgy and table tradition has to do with material wealth. There is a tradition of having a fish on the festive meal table, so we can pray to “be the head, not the tail” in the coming year. We use apples and honey to ask for a healthy and sweet year. There is a short prayer for livelihood (parnasa) in the synagogue liturgy, but it is only one of many dozens, most of which are more in line with requests like “guard my tongue from evil, and my lips from speaking guile.”
Nevertheless, the stereotype is that Jews love money. Refer to Shakespeare’s Shylock for the classical optic, but if “The Merchant of Venice” is not your style you can consult any of thousands of anti-Semitic cartoons, puppets, and name-calling slurs developed over the years, in Europe. Some can be appreciated as live acts, such as at a recent carnival in Aalst, Belgium. Not even Sacha Baron Cohen could have made that up, or would have wanted to, in his signature style of projectile self-deprecatory barbs.
If softer forms of self-deprecation appeal more to you, any Henny Youngman, Jackie Mason, or Jack Benny comedy routine should do the trick. Classic example: “Why did God create non-Jews (a.k.a. goyem)?” “Because someone has to buy retail.” Henny Youngman: “I got a French dictionary for my wife.” “Good trade!” Or perhaps you prefer song lyrics? If so, note a rhyme in a once-popular Benny Bell tune titled “The First Hundred Years”: “I knew a guy, a friend of mine, a real unhappy bloke; he married just for money, then he found his wife was broke.” See?
Stereotypes of overseas Chinese “money-grubbing” and “sharp” business practices, as with Rama VI’s 1914 contribution cited in Singapore the Improbable Part VI, are not much less scarce, and neither has been the name-calling. Wang Gungwu, who grew up in Malaya, claims that no Chinese-specific slur term existed there when he was a youngster. In Java, however, the phrase Orang Cina, meaning Chinese person, came over time to have a derogatory edge—rather like “Chink” in English. Chinese communal leaders complained about it after independence and got it banned from public usage.
In Khmer, Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese, the pattern seems to have been that the suspicion-laden word for “stranger” in those languages came to apply, more or less loosely, to the most prominent other in their midst: often ethnic Chinese. But connotations have differed from place to place. In Tagalog, for example, several slurs are specifically used to demean Chinese. There is chekwa or tsekwa, which just means Chinaman (but not in a nice way), and the supposedly less harsh linguistic inversion of chekwa, intsik beho, which translates roughly as “dirty low-class laborer.” Then there is the less common kain lugaw (congee eater), suggestive of physical weakness. And finally there is tulo laway (saliva drooler), which neither needs nor deserves further comment.
Negative statements about Chinese money-loving include those made in the United States, some even by a once-prominent Jewish labor leader:
I do not want to exclude the Chinaman from the United States because he is a Chinaman. I am opposed to the Chinese coming to the United States because his ideals, his civilization, are absolutely in antagonism to the ideals and civilization of America. Never in the history of the world have Chinese gone to any country in any considerable numbers without one of two things occurring—first, that the Chinaman has dominated, or he has been driven out by force. The Chinaman is a cheap man.
Thus Samuel Gompers writing in The American Federationist in 1906. How a Jew, and an immigrant Jew at that, could write those last two sentences about another ethnic group without feeling a sledgehammer of irony crashing down on his head I don’t know. Alas, it was not one of Gompers’s finer moments, as he tried, as AFL President, to protect union wage levels against the pressures of mass immigration.
“Friendlies” have from time to time let drop similar allusions about Chinese, even in Singapore where they make up the majority. S. Rajaratnam, Singapore’s first Foreign Minister, once quipped that the real religion of Singapore was “moneytheism.” He did not explicitly mention the Chinese when he coined the term, but he didn’t have to. As a rule, overseas Chinese have not been as openly self-deprecatory in their humor as have Jews, probably because the importance of saving and losing “face” plays a more important role in the culture. But now there is Ronnie Chieng, who is fast trying to make up for lost time.
Chieng was born in 1985 into a Christian Chinese family in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, was schooled here in Singapore, and then went to college in Australia, and since 2015 has lived in California. He is a successful stand-up comedian, so successful that he snagged a part in the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” and in 2019 scored his own hour-long Netflix comedy special, entitled “Asian Comedian Destroys America!” Rather like Sarah Silverman for the Jews, Chieng lives on the edge of propriety when it comes to the Chinese. He says things, loud and in public, that no one says here—and just by the way, there is a popular locally based television show called “Stand-Up Asia” where various Chinese, Malays, Tamils, Filipinos, and others take the stage and try to be funny.
Being “in your face” and causing others to thereby “lose face” is unacceptable in Chinese Singaporean circles, and as far as I can tell in Chinese circles everywhere. This sensibility is hardly unique to Chinese culture. The great 19th-early 20th century Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, who went by the nom de plume the Hafetz Haim, was the epitome of the rabbinic insistence that the dignity of other people must be respected and protected as the highest quality of Jewish ethics. To him, shaming someone publicly was a sin no less grievous than murder. And in some ways, it was worse, for while murder destroys two souls, slander and shaming destroy three.
So is it funny when Ronnie Chieng gets up on stage before the cameras that will send his words across continents and twice tells his ethnically diverse audience of millions that one day Asians will be politically successful in the United States because, like a lot of American minority races, “we beat our children”? Is it funny when he says, spliced around his many f-bombs, that when Chinese parents urge their children to become doctors, the idea of helping people is on the bottom of their list of reasons, if it’s on the list at all? It’s all about “money and prestige.” Chinese are the last to go see a doctor, he tells the audience, because, faux-quoting his mother, “doctors just want to take other people’s money,” and “you should be a doctor so you can take other people’s money.” Chinese “love money,” he says and they even pray to Caishen, the god of money. “Light some incense, make some money,” he intones flippantly. He translates the standard New Year greeting out of Cantonese, “Hope you get rich!” This is no “standard ‘happy New Year’ thing,” he says. We get the point, Ronnie, and for some, the point hurts.
For someone born into a Christian family, Chieng’s ridiculing a Taoist meme might be considered a bit over the line. It surely would be in Singapore, which is hyper-sensitive about not insulting any of the ten “official” faith traditions. But even were he not a Christian I would have trouble thinking this stuff is funny, mainly because the audience is necessarily eclectic given his typical venue and medium. In small doses I can enjoy Jackie Mason’s definition of an anti-Semite as “someone who dislikes Jews more than is necessary,” but I don’t like the thought of non-Jews enjoying it “too much.” Black folk in the United States often use the “n” word in normal banter among themselves, but they are properly unamused if anyone else uses it. So if Ronnie Chieng wants to tweak Chinese for fun and profit in front of a Chinese audience, that’s one thing; but to do so in front of diverse others, in English, embarrasses me for the sake of those of his elders he is face-shaming.
It’s good that Chieng doesn’t live in East or Southeast Asia anymore, because most people around here dislike his kind of comedy. And the irony of it all: Why did Ronnie Chieng decide to live in California? For the love of money, perhaps? I wonder how proud of him his mother is now.
As to food and alcohol, this we can dispense with quickly. Do Jews and Chinese enjoy and cherish food more than other cultures? Doubtful. But both do nevertheless get deep into food and all the appurtenances thereof: exclusive ingredients, fine-tuned recipes, concern with presentation, links with the religious calendar, the whole shebang. This is why Mel Brooks could name a fictional cruise ship the SS Immer Essen and evoke howls of laughter—at least from those who understand that immer essen is German/Yiddish for “always eating.”
But there are some yawning asymmetries here. A lot of Jews like what they think (in America) is Chinese food, but I have never met a single Chinese person who can get a piece of gefilte fish within eight inches of his lips. Not that I blame them.
The other asymmetry worth noting when it comes to food is that Jews, if they’re at all traditional, don’t eat certain meats and seafood items. Chinese have no dietary restrictions whatsoever. Go to a wet market where Chinese predominate as sellers and buyers and you will soon conclude that anything that moves, used to move, or might move in the future is potential food. When your history includes periods of mass acute poverty pockmarked by major famine, you learn as a culture to do that—and even to like and take pride in it.
When it comes to alcohol, however, Jews and Chinese are a lot alike. Not that they relish the same types of firewater. Baijiu, which is a clear form of booze served inevitably at Beijing Duck restaurants in China, is not and will never be anything remotely close to a decent slivovitz. We clueless barbarians are meant to understand that baijiu is “made by mixing steamed sorghum grains, water, and a special fermentation agent called jiuqu (酒曲 jiǔqū), which is then aged in an underground pit or buried jar for anywhere from a month to thirty years.” I fully believe the “buried in an underground pit” part of this description, but in my personal view—and please no one take special offense, it’s just a private idiosyncrasy—rotting underwear must also be one of baijiu’s main ingredients. (My view of durian is similar, as it happens.)
To be clear, baijiu is not popular in Singapore, neither among ethnic Chinese nor anybody else. If you see anyone here drinking it, you reckon that the imbiber is a mainlander either newly arrived as an immigrant or here temporarily on a work visa from China. Prosperous ethnic-Chinese Singaporeans used to go in for brandy and cognac; nowadays, as the level of opulence has risen, the ideal is single malt whiskey—just like at any Orthodox synagogue kiddush. The same discussions you hear in shul—whether peaty is better than soft, Talisker is better than Laphroaig, who drinks Glenlivet anymore?—you hear here among wealthier Chinese after hours. Only the accent differs.
That’s not the end of the similarities. Serious students of the cultural determinants of drinking habits have concluded that certain groups manage to enjoy alcohol without a lot of alcoholism and related dysfunction, while others seem unable to turn the trick.
Studies have concluded that five conditions correlate with non-abusive drinking practices and low rates of alcoholism. First, group drinking is differentiated from drunkenness and associated with ritualistic or religious celebrations. Second, drinking is associated with eating, preferably ritualistic feasting. Third, both sexes and several generations are included, whether all drink or not. Fourth, drinking is disassociated with individuals’ effort to escape personal anxiety or difficult social situations. And fifth, aggression, violence, overt sexuality, and other improper behaviors are absolutely disapproved in circumstances where drinking is occurring.
The key to the five conditions seems to inhere in a general acceptance of some concept of restraint such that drinking is only one of many activities going on, that it is never done solipsistically or with a high level of emotionalism, and that it is not associated with any male “rite of passage.” Thanks to rabbinic Judaism on the one hand and Confucian ethics on the other, Jewish and Chinese cultural mazeways have tamed the demon, says the scholarly/ethnographic consensus, along with those of Italians, Spanish, French, and Greeks. Irish, Germans, Russians . . . Texans, maybe not so much.
Now finally, working up to a cheerful ending, behold the existential insecurities of exilic peoples.
Isaiah Berlin, contemplating the life of Moses Hess, once wrote: “What do you think is common to all Jews? A sense of social unease. Nowhere do almost all Jews feel entirely at home.” This is as true a statement as has ever been made about diasporic Jews, and it applies just as well to overseas Chinese communities.
It’s no picnic to be a minority, and not infrequently enough a despised and despoiled one. Live like that for centuries on end and the culture will absorb a certain minimal quotient of insecurity. A people will then take on the personality of an individual in the sense that Kierkegaard meant when he wrote: “The more original a human being is, the deeper is his anxiety.” Put a little differently, what an individual or a group gives up by way of stability and serenity he or it gains through the intensity of an originality forced by unconventional circumstances.
So, sharp business practices. If a reasonably well-educated Jewish or Chinese shopkeeper, each in his own milieu, is paying close attention to his own interests because his family’s core well-being depends on it, and a more rustic buyer for whatever reason is not, is making a higher-profit sale under such circumstances inherently unethical? What looks “sharp” to some looks fair but efficient to others.
Such merchants historically, Jewish and Chinese, were neither idealists nor liberals in the main because they could not afford to be; note Tomo’s famous line in the recent Indonesian film Firegate: “It’s easy to be an idealist, if you have money.” These merchants could take their own side in an argument or a competition, and they felt no guilt about winning given what they well knew losing looked like. Most took a very simple view of rough-and-tumble social life in an unpredictable world: It was better to have servants than to be servants. Under the circumstances were they mistaken?
Of course, there have been differences. Wealthy Chinese men seemed to have had a thing with acquiring multiple wives and having lots of children; Jews were in agreement about the blessings of having many children but not about having so many wives. But these are mere details. Precious stones and gold are nice, not just because they are shiny but because they constitute forms of wealth that are portable and easily hidden. If one is mindful about maybe one day having to get out of Dodge in a hurry, or about hooligans busting down your door in a fit of infantile anger for purposes of revenge looting, one learns to appreciate these qualities.
Diaspora Jews and also many Jewish Israelis worry about ambient disorder. Their collective memory tells them that “when goyim get angry at other goyim Jews take it in the neck,” as Menachem Begin once colorfully put it. Many are unusually seized with what some have called the Gevult or Chicken Little Syndrome: The sky fell yesterday but you are too stupid to have noticed, or it is falling today, or if not it will surely fall tomorrow. A Jewish optimist, to paraphrase Don Marquis from The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel, is “a guy without much experience.” The same description, with appropriate inserts of a different foreign language, seems to me to fit the general undergirding mentality of overseas Chinese to a tee.
This tilt to a minority group’s situational awareness puts a high priority on intra-communal trust, and the process of building and maintaining that trust (guanxi in Chinese, remember from Part III?) can lead to keeping outsiders—that is, members of the social majority—at arm’s length. After all, if brothers, sisters, and cousins cannot trust and depend on one another, who can they depend on? How many times in their respective histories have diasporic Jews and overseas Chinese thought they were on good personal terms with their neighbors only to later spot them in a fulminating mob? Majoritarian outsiders, meanwhile, have often looked at the cumulative result of respective Jewish and Chinese closing ranks and accused them of being clannish, snobbish, and elitist—and those are the nicer terms they used.
So is most of the rancor that diaspora Jews and overseas Chinese have experienced over the years a mere misunderstanding when you get right down to it? In a way, yes, a misunderstanding; but there has been nothing mere about it.
To the present Singaporean point: Are many Israelis and diaspora Jews security paranoid today because they are, mostly unwittingly, carrying over some kind of invisible shadow from history into the present? Do they harbor overly severe and even irrational beliefs about Arab and Muslim intentions toward Israel, and have they in recent, pre-COVID-19 times anyway, exaggerated anti-Semitism in their own and others’ diasporic back yards? Probably. (Are they exaggerating still now? That remains to be seen.) Do many Chinese Singaporeans harbor overly severe and even irrational beliefs about what some of their neighbors’ intentions toward them are? Maybe. Is it why yours truly, your humble author, sees in the collective Chinese “head” here some of the same foibles that drive me crazy in America and Israel when I behold them among those whom I affectionately call, usually only in private, my fellow Yidiots? Could be.
If so, it’s a problem for both countries and communities, because too much security consciousness can erode or crowd out other values and virtues. Too much of anything that is otherwise good can flip into a problem if sufficiently abused: See Book VIII of Plato’s Republic if you need a reminder of the ur-observation.
Does this pairing of ambient insecurity between Israeli Jews and Chinese Singaporeans help to explain the close relationship that Singapore has developed with Israel over the past 50 years? Is it possible that the historical experiences of both as minority communities adrift in the world for millennia somehow figure into their mutual affinity? Just to speak the question is to hear the answer.
Second-order implications of this stereo-history exist in diplomatic expression, too. The Israeli government thinks long and hard about the personal backgrounds and temperaments of the ambassadors it sends to countries like Egypt, Germany, Poland, and Russia, for example. The Singaporean government usually avoids sending ethnic Chinese ambassadors to Southeast Asian countries in which disproportionately wealthy minority overseas Chinese communities live. Why push on someone else’s real or imagined bruise, when so many excellent Indian and Eurasian candidates are ready and able to fill those posts?
And I wonder: Do overseas Chinese also have the habit of consistently answering a question with another question?