TikTok’s Chew Shou Zi Really Wants You To Know He’s Singaporean
Top image: Screengrab via C-Span / YouTube

Chew Shou Zi, the man in charge of the most popular social media network in the world, desperately wants people to understand that he is as Singaporean as a Merlion-shaped kaya toast at a hawker centre complaining about rising costs.

If there’s anything that could assure US senators that being Singaporean is not synonymous with being a Chinese citizen, do let the man know. He’s having a tough enough time convincing people about it.

In March last year, Singaporeans fawned over the 41-year-old TikTok CEO and his performance before the US Congress. He tried to address concerns over ties between the social media platform and the Chinese government and whether the app could stop harmful content

The novelty of a Singaporean on the global political stage might have worn off, but that doesn’t make Shou Zi’s recent return to Congress any less exciting. Yet again, in the halls of Congress, Shou Zi found himself holding the line against a US Senator. This time, US Senator Tom Cotton puts Shou Zi’s nationality (and, by extension, loyalty) into question.

“Senator, I served my nation in Singapore,” Shou Zi replied patiently, assuring that he is a Singaporean with a Singapore passport. Seconds later, the US Senator questioned his affiliations again—he asked whether Shou Zi had ever belonged to the Chinese Communist Party. 

To which, Shou Zi responds: “Senator, I’m Singaporean. No.”

Singapore has strict laws surrounding dual citizenship, effectively eliminating any doubt that Shou Zi is a citizen of any other nation. Honestly, he should have laid it all out in Congress—how he would have to renounce his citizenship if he ever decided to jump ship abroad. 

But the implication is there. Shou Zi is of Chinese descent and works for a company owned by a Beijing-based parent company—thus the suspicion. But as the TikTok CEO tries and tries to convince the Senator and the rest of the world, he is Singaporean. 

The China Question

As we’ve seen last year, the spectacle of the recent testimony is not surprising. When Congress members asked the TikTok CEO questions about China last year, something similar happened. In the minds of American politicians, Shou Zi is a card-carrying Chinese citizen. 

It was only Shou Zi’s misfortune that he faced US Senator Tom Cotton this time, a Republican senator who once proposed that the US should not give visas to Chinese students to study science

“Senator, I’m Singaporean,” Shou Zi declared multiple times. It would seem that those words didn’t mean anything to Senator Cotton. It’s a strange tact, considering the senator visited Singapore in 2016 and has even met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

It raises valid concerns. On the surface level, it would seem that the senator’s line of questioning leans on the racist side of the fence, a rehash of that old trope of how Singapore is part of China. Or worse, Shou Zi could be a Chinese national because he’s Chinese. SCMP columnist Alex Lo puts it succinctly.

“…since the poor guy looks Asian, he must be a Chinese national, and by extension, a member of the Chinese Communist Party, which in the parallel universe of Washington, is the real puppet master behind the hugely popular social media platform.”

Shou Zi is not the first public Singaporean figure to face questions as if he’s a Chinese citizen. In the ‘60s, the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had to clarify on NBC’s Meet The Press that he couldn’t speak on behalf of China.

But underneath that scrutiny lies another concern—namely, how Westerners view Singapore’s tight relationship with China. Disregarding critiques of racism and geographical ignorance, Senator Cotton defended his line of questioning on Fox News.

“Of course, you can be affiliated with or associated with the Chinese Communist Party anywhere in the world,” he said.

“Singapore, unfortunately, is one of the places in the world that has the highest degree of infiltration and influence by the Chinese Communist Party.”

I’m Singaporean, I Swear

The TikTok CEO appears to be well aware of the association—at least enough to ensure that Singapore is essential to his identity in every moment in the spotlight.

In a recent interview with WIRED, the man made it a point to highlight Lee Kuan Yew as a personal hero.

Rather than naming a more conventional figure who might have influenced someone who grew up here, Shou Zi specifically chose to acknowledge the founding prime minister.

“When I ask Chew who he looked up to as a kid, he doesn’t name music or sports stars, but Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Chew’s home, Singapore. Lee is widely credited with lifting the country from poverty into an economic powerhouse over his 31-year tenure… He’d be an obvious North Star for a certain sort of politician; less so for the head of a social media company that got started with selfie dance videos.”

Whether intentional or coincidental, the homage to his home country is amplified with Lenne Chai, the Singaporean photographer who shot the photos for the WIRED exclusive. 

For a Vogue feature in 2023, Shou Zi was even more unabashed in reminiscing his Singaporean childhood (playing soccer at the void deck), his time in National Service (training in the jungles of Brunei), and, uh, the humidity. 

“You know that feeling when you haven’t been back in Singapore for a while? You touch down at our beautiful airport and then are hit by the humidity the minute you step out onto the street. That’s home.”

All these public declarations of love would have been pretty standard fluff for any other Singaporean in the global spotlight. But for someone like Shou Zi—whose nationality and affiliations are constantly in question—it seems like a deliberate move. 

Some would assume that it’s a calculated campaign to hammer in the separation between TikTok and its Chinese owners, Bytedance. Others might find it a bit tragic that this high-flying Singaporean has to constantly prove he’s actually Singaporean.

Where the Loyalty Lies

If there’s any entity that Shou Zi should be truly loyal to, it’s to his users. Which is what the focus should be on instead. 

While people may have been outraged over Senator Cotton’s questions, some of the distress should be reserved for the people running the world’s most popular social media platforms in their roles to protect vulnerable users from abuse and exploitation. 

There are valid, pressing concerns for TikTok, Meta, Discord, Snap and X—all billion-dollar companies—to step up and prevent harm to teenagers and children. 

It’s the very reason why the CEOs from these companies were called in front of the US Congress in the first place, and why they were grilled hard. Even Mark Zuckerberg made the unexpected move to personally apologise to the families in the hearing room—some of whom were parents of children who killed themselves after being subjected to online sexual exploitation.

Do any of these companies need more oversight and regulation? Any company collecting that much user data should be heavily scrutinised, for sure. By design, these social media platforms want to keep people plugged in. Given their inherent desire for engagement, these services can’t be entirely trusted to operate with unchecked autonomy.

Those are the questions that we should be picking apart rather than turning the focus to issues of nationalities and politics.

It’s in Senator Cotton’s interests to keep people speculating about TikTok’s Chinese links. And Shou Zi would probably prefer that we focus on his Singaporean pride and his clapbacks to the senator, rather than the potential harms of the platform he runs.

Shou Zi’s allegiance to Singapore doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. As the man in charge of the most popular social media network in the world, the only loyalty that matters is his commitment to the safety and well-being of his users.

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