Halloween celebrations in Asia an invasion of foreign culture? Ong Ye Kung weighs in at forum

Singapore’s Health Minister Mr Ong noted that the festival has its roots in ancient Celtic culture, but took on American characteristics when it was celebrated there with the use of pumpkins and the practice of “trick or treating”.

Lim Min Zhang

Lim Min Zhang

The Straits Times


Health Minister Ong Ye Kung (second from left) speaking at a debate at a youth forum in Beijing on Nov 21. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

November 22, 2023

SINGAPORE – Are recent exuberant Halloween celebrations by young Chinese in Shanghai an invasion of Western values or a sign of cultural confidence and openness in the cosmopolitan city?

Singapore’s Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said that for Singapore, more room can be given for such expression meant for entertainment, but added that each society will have to strike its own balance between personal freedom and the collective good.

He weighed in on the debate at a youth forum in Beijing on Nov 21 organised by Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao, which reported on the issue earlier in November.

During Halloween, some young people in Shanghai reportedly dressed as characters from popular Chinese dramas like Empresses In The Palace; others drew dark circles under their eyes to parody exhausted employees or wore white hazmat suits in a spoof of Covid-19 lockdown enforcers.

These were viewed in some quarters as political commentary.

A Zaobao report on Nov 2 said the “grand parade in Shanghai is not so much an invasion of Western culture, as a collective venting of emotions after three years” of pandemic restrictions, noting that the celebrations were particularly well attended this year.

Mr Ong noted that the festival has its roots in ancient Celtic culture, but took on American characteristics when it was celebrated there with the use of pumpkins and the practice of “trick or treating”.

“We have our Asian style of Halloween, and this is part of what our youth do for recreation. For Singapore, I believe we can give more room for expression,” he said in response to a question from a Chinese student from the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The student said young people see the Halloween celebrations as just a way of having fun.

Mr Ong added: “Every society has its own balance. So in the midst of major changes, we have to continuously find a suitable balance. Differences (in views) are a natural and necessary part of the process.”

How young people can embrace the world while remaining culturally rooted was among the main themes of discussion at the 5th Singapore-China Forum, a one-day event that drew about 300 attendees from the business sector, universities and government agencies from both countries.

Mr Ong had, earlier in a keynote speech, used the Halloween example to make a point about the need for young people to embrace the world and yet be steadfast in holding on to their cultural identity.

He also exhorted the young people of today to tackle the pressing challenges of their generation even in the face of uncertainty such as geopolitical tensions and technological disruptions.

This is possible if young people have the appetite to continually learn and not be caught up in decision-making paralysis on what to study or what jobs to aspire to, amid the abundant choices today, said Mr Ong, who spoke in Mandarin.

Describing the current juncture in history as a pivotal one, he said the youth of today might not believe this, because life is uncertain, competition is tough and dreams appear hard to achieve, giving an example of the slowing Chinese economy.

But China’s situation is unlike the prolonged deflation experienced by Japan in the 1980s, and there remains much more headroom for China to grow, with its per capita income only one-third that of the United States today, he said.

“If China successfully weans itself off the over-reliance on the real estate sector, leverages domestic consumption, invests in technology and continues its strategy to reform and open up, there is no reason to be downcast about its economic future.”

Mr Ong said that in a globalised, connected and multi-polar world, the US will still likely be the leading superpower, with China as the other key strategic and economic anchor, along with other major players such as the European Union, India and Japan.

“The global economic centre of gravity will shift towards Asia,” he said, adding that his vision was one where the region’s economies are tightly integrated, with vibrant economic, cultural and talent exchanges, in addition to linkages outside of Asia.

Other topics discussed included generational differences and the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on work.

In the dialogue with Mr Ong, Mr Liu Yonggang, chief editor of Chinese newspaper The Paper, said every generation will go through this process of thinking that the next one is on the decline.

“(But) this forms a basic driving force for societal change. So let’s not be overly worried about some of the differences in views with the older generation,” he said in the session moderated by Ms Lee Huay Leng, editor-in-chief of SPH Media’s Chinese Media Group.

Commenting on the impact of AI, another panellist, Chinese entrepreneur Cindy Mi, said the role of teachers can never be replaced, but their productivity can be raised with AI tools.

Ms Mi, the founder of an education tech firm that runs online English lessons, said: “The human touch, sparking the curiosity of students – these still have to be imparted by teachers. We can have ‘high tech’, but what is more important is ‘high touch’.”

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