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Notes from the Field – Singapore, 7- 15 September 2018

The Research Question (photo courtesy of Terence Lee, 2018)

There was a fair bit of preparation that had to be done prior to embarking on gathering data. Aside from the logistics of equipment and travel, foremost in my mind was three issues:

  • the recruitment of participants
  • the structured and unstructured sections of the interview
  • the dissemination of project aims and findings at seminar

Recruiting

I had broached the first with friends and colleagues from Singapore and followed it up with emails and social media posts on Facebook and WhatsApp prior to my departure. One response online led to three interviews and another, via email, to a recommendation. I also tapped my own networks for participants and was fortunate enough to have interviewed a total of 10 participants. Each of the interviews lasted between 40 to 60 minutes and while most agreed to be audio-recorded, one declined.

All of my participants were Chinese and all were what, in Singapore, is termed educated in the English stream schools. This is an important factor given that language abilities can facilitate or inhibit the use of media. While all the younger participants could read and write Mandarin, three oldest participants had less facility with the language due to the colonial education system they underwent. Instead, their affinity with Chinese culture derived from their regional dialect knowledge, which include Cantonese and Fujianese (Hokkien in Singapore).

Altogether, there were three male and seven femals participants with the oldest participant in their 70s and the youngest a teenager of 15 years of age. Apart from one occasion I arranged to be at participants’ preferred site so they could be more relaxed during the interviews.

Structured and Semi-structured Sections of Interviews

As my area of expertise is internet studies and everyday use, I sought especially to understand what Singaporean users know of, recognise and use of China’s digital technologies. I prepared a set of 20 visuals comprising logos of the more popular digital apps, persons of note and media content originating from China. These served well as ice-breakers and I found participants’ spontaneous responses useful indicators of what direction the unstructured section of the interview could take.

Dissemination

On the second to final day (14 September) of my field trip I delivered a keynote address, ‘Regarding China… in Singapore’, at the Internet and Media in Singapore research workshop 2018, held at Murdoch University Singapore (photo courtesy of Terence Lee, 2018). Several questions raised at the workshop were instrumental to my preliminary analysis and invaluable to my write-up here.

 

Findings and Observations

Much of the data gathered has yet to be analysed but a few preliminary observations struck me as most intriguing.

Un/Mis-recognition

During the interview with my two youngest participants, after they had failed to recognise the logo for Honor of Kinds, Tencent’s most popular game, we started talking about what games they do play. The older sibling enthusiastically whipped out her mobile to show me her favourite game, ‘Rules of Survival’ and when she booted up the game I was surprised to see it was a NetEase (网易) product. I pointed that out to her and she was not impressed so I asked if her newly gained knowledge of the game’s origins made a difference and she shrugged it off as inconsequential. Whether the same knowledge might have discouraged take-up of the game before she started is moot but she made that clear her reason for playing was the game’s popularity among her peers.

After the interview I examined the game briefly and realized that if not for my own familiarity with NetEase it would be easy to miss its Chinese origins. All the avatars are Caucasian/Western-looking and there is little to indicate the presence of Chinese culture. For the game players, then, it was of no significance. Another participant later misrecognized Honor of Kings and associated it with ‘League of Legends’, which is also wholly owned by Tencent through its acquisition of Californian firm, Riot Games.

Given the reported 150 million players of Rules of Survival and 80 million players of ‘League of Legends’ worldwide, the questions this un/misrecognition raises are:

  • Is the elision of Chinese cultural characteristics a key part of ‘Rules of Survival’ success outside China?
  • What does this mean for China’s plan to achieve innovative nation status through its digital technologies?

Infrastructure and Local Substitutes

During the structured part of the interview I also showed participants the logo for AliPay, a ubiquitous mobile payment system in China. Few recognised the logo among the many I showed though a couple of participants found it vaguely familiar. Considering the logo’s presence at airports, taxis and retail outlets in Singapore, this is not surprising. However, the lack of familiarity points to the payment system’s failure to engage the local population. Upon enquiry, I was told by taxi drivers that tourists from China re the only occasional users of these payment systems.

I thought no further of it until after dinner one day when friends mentioned they were all now linked to locally developed payment systems, PayNow (supported by POSB) and PayLah (supported by DBS), two of the largest banks in Singapore. This brought to mind the situation that Chinese users faced when Facebook, Twitter and Google were forbidden for use in China and eBay bowed out. This cleared the way for local firms to develop (some said copy) its own versions, leading to Weibo from Sina and Tencent, WeChat, the Baidu search engine and Alibaba’s Taobao and Aliexpress.

However, Twitter, Facebook and Google as well as WeChat, Weibo, Baidu, Taobao and Aliexpress are all available in Singapore, the financial infrastructure to support payment systems based in China does not as yet exist, as far as I know. This means local Singaporeans banks can develop alternatives to facilitate their existing account holders and perhaps, attract new customers. The situation where local Chinese substitutes developed replaced the gap the absence of Anglo-Western apps in China seems to have reversed somewhat in Singapore. Not, it must be said, through their absence but through the lack of supportive financial infrastructure.

Exactly why none of the international banks and credit firms has bridged the gaping hole in such services remains to be studied but I suspect it has something to do with the restrictions placed on their operation in China. This leads to the question of how digital service products from China can boost the country’s reputation as an innovative nation while constrained by the anachronistic regulations of Beijing. Perhaps this is why joint ventures and acquisitions seem the preferred route to global expansion by China’s tech giants.

There is scope for focus groups in a follow-up data collection exercise in Singapore and I hope to conduct the same interviews in Kuala Lumpur in 2019.

 

 

 

 

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