Singaporeans bemoan U.S. Senator’s ‘ignorant’ grilling of TikTok CEO

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SINGAPORE (AP) — After a U.S. senator grilled the Singaporean CEO of TikTok about his nationality and suggested he was affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, Singaporeans are complaining about ignorant — or even racist — views of their country.

TikTok CEO Shou Chew and executives of other technology firms such as Meta, X and Snap testified Wednesday before U.S. lawmakers on online harm to children from social media.

During the hearing, Chew was repeatedly questioned about his nationality and possible affiliations to the Chinese Communist Party by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

TikTok, which is operated by the Chinese firm ByteDance, has over 150 million users in America. U.S. lawmakers have regarded TikTok with considerable suspicion over whether its data can be accessed by the Chinese government and whether the app can be used to expand China’s influence. Chinese companies are required to set up Communist Party cells.

“You said today, as you often say, that you live in Singapore. Of what nation are you a citizen?” Cotton asked.

Chew affirmed that he is Singaporean — which does not allow its citizens to hold dual citizenship — but Cotton pressed on, asking if Chew was a citizen of any other nation, and if he had ever applied for Chinese citizenship. China also does not permit dual nationality, and rarely accepts applications for citizenship.

When Chew responded no to both questions, Cotton asked if he had ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party or have had any affiliation to it.

“No Senator, again, I’m Singaporean,” Chew responded, visibly perplexed. The party requires members to be Chinese citizens.

Cotton’s line of questioning was described as “McCarthy-esque” by The Washington Post. Clips of the exchange posted on social media platforms drew tens of thousands of views.

An Instagram reel of the exchange uploaded by Singapore flagship newspaper The Straits Times drew nearly 2,000 comments, most criticizing or mocking Cotton for his line of questioning.

“Senator, do you know where Singapore is?” one person asked. Another remarked that “just because he looks Chinese, doesn’t mean he’s Chinese.”

About 75% of Singapore’s approximately 5.9 million population is ethnically Chinese, a result of Chinese immigrants moving to Singapore in the 1800s and early 1900s. Many young Singaporeans today do not identify with China as a cultural motherland.

Wednesday’s hearing was Chew’s second time appearing before U.S. lawmakers. He first testified in front of lawmakers in March 2023. That grilling lasted six hours, with lawmakers asking questions about TikTok’s data security and harmful content on the platform.

Jojo Choo, an assistant marketing manager in her 30s, said she was happy to see a Singaporean appearing in Congress at first.

“Initially I felt pride because the CEO of such a huge company is actually someone from Singapore,” she said. “But I quickly realized how ignorant the senator’s questions were.”

Choo said the Cotton’s questions were tinged with racism and it was “narrow-minded” to assume that someone who’s ethnically Chinese would be affiliated with China.

Another Singaporean, Fian Fazlie, said he was “completely baffled yet amused” at the senator’s questioning.

“He’s just being ignorant and he’s still justifying (his words) in his latest Instagram post,” Fazlie, who works in the public transport sector, said about Cotton.

Cotton posted a clip of himself giving an interview on Fox News to Instagram, stating in the caption that Chew had “a lot of explaining to do.”

“Of course, you can be affiliated with or associated with the Chinese Communist Party anywhere in the world,” Cotton said on Fox News, adding that the Biden administration has many cases against U.S. citizens suspected of collaborating or working with the Chinese Communist Party.

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

It’s unclear what Cotton’s claims about Singapore were based on.

The 41-year-old Chew is a native of Singapore, where he lives with his wife Vivian Kao and their three children. Prior to joining TikTok, Chew worked for five years at Xiaomi, a Chinese smartphone company. Before that, he was a partner at the venture capital firm DST Global and earlier worked at Goldman Sachs.

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