Opinion

Race ... or Erase?

Does race continue to be relevant in modern, diverse Singapore?

Date Posted

14 Jun 2016

Issue

Issue 15, 14 Jun 2016

The Changes Are Real

Recently, the daughter of a Malay friend was asked whether she was “Chinese, Malay or Indian”. She replied that she was “English” — the language they speak most at home. In my own extended family, traditions and practices that started out predominantly Hainanese in character have been gradually blended with those practised by the Peranakans, Teochews and Hokkiens as more relatives marry outside our original dialect group.

While Singaporeans cherish and seek to keep alive our various cultures and traditions over the generations, there is no doubt that they have evolved after decades of life in a diverse society. Things have changed in the last fifty years, and will continue to change in the next fifty. Which lines will blur? What distinctions will lose their lustre? What is core to our identity as Singaporeans?

Singapore takes in new immigrants at the pace of about 20,000 new citizens and 30,000 new Permanent Residents (PRs) each year. Compared to the base of about 3.9 million residents, this is not considered large, but cumulated over the years, we can easily say that Singapore is a nation of immigrants. Few of us can trace our roots in Singapore beyond two generations.

About 2 in 10 marriages in Singapore are inter-ethnic, and 4 in 10 are between a citizen and non-citizen (either PR or foreigner). An estimated 10% of our youths under 18 today are inter-ethnic, and this will only rise.

Multiple identities and more complex sub-ethnicities are increasingly the reality today. Can we then assume the structures of administration and governance — structures that have served Singapore well for the past fifty years — will continue to work in the next fifty? Can we assume that the peace and harmony we have carefully cultivated and defended in society will survive the test of time and change?

Do Our Race-based Policies Continue to Serve Us Well?

Systems and policies do find a way to work themselves out, but the concern is whether our systems and policies perpetuate a false sense of security about the level of social cohesion we have achieved, or whether they serve to create an exclusive identity of what a Singaporean is — permanently excluding anybody who falls outside that definition.


Some differences cannot simply be papered over with labels. I suspect we would all feel very much less Singaporean if we were to remove our collective multiracial identity

For the family from the Philippines who have become Singapore citizens, will their children be forced to learn Mandarin, Malay or Tamil as their mother tongue language, as Tagalog is not offered in our schools? If I am neither Chinese, Malay, Indian nor Eurasian, which self-help group should I approach for help? Should the newly wed Chinese-Indian couple apply for their first BTO flat as Chinese or Indian? Does it matter which race they subscribe to more, or which race allows them an advantage with the quotas and better access to their dream flat? Is this fair to the couples who do not have such flexibility of choice?

In the past, almost everyone had to make accommodations and compromises in order to fit into a nascent society just finding its footing and identity. Today, such sacrifices seem to weigh disproportionately on the newcomers, who may not fit readily into the original categories which our society and governance structures have grown used to. The extent of this mismatch will no doubt increase, as the world becomes smaller and society more diverse.

If racial categorisation conflates issues, over-complicates matters, over-classifies people, and is increasingly irrelevant, why not simply do away with it, and let us all just be Singaporean? This would also free us from the awkward ‘Others’ category applied to all who are not Chinese, Malay or Indian in extraction. Can and should Singapore go this way?

What if We Are Just Singaporean?

Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is not any more comfortable.

Singapore separated from Malaysia and gained independence as one united multiracial nation. We pledged to be one nation regardless of race, language or religion. We also enshrined in our Constitution important protections for the rights of minorities. This was in part to ensure that everyone can be on equal standing, with national representation, regardless of the size of their community. Would glossing over cultural traditions, identities and practices not go against the spirit of treating our cultural differences with respect and sensitivity? The race riots of the 1960s, while a distant memory for most Singaporeans, remain a relevant and dire warning about what could yet happen if matters pertaining to race are not handled with great care.

Countries like France, which has opted for citizens to identify themselves as French, to the exclusion of their racial identities, do not seem to have fared much better at maintaining social cohesion, keeping peace, and ensuring level progress amongst its different communities. Some differences cannot simply be papered over with labels.

Conversely, I suspect we would all feel very much less Singaporean if we were to remove our collective multiracial identity — this is very much a part of who we are, as a society of immigrants from many different parts of the world, who somehow get along and made it work against the odds.

Striking a Balance

So this is an issue with no clear comfortable landing spot. The status quo belies some inconvenient loopholes, and keeping to it risks policy obsolescence. Seeking to make changes risks de-stabilising the current hard-won equilibrium, a risk with a price that may be too high to pay. Instead, what we might pursue is perhaps a model of multiculturalism in which a few principles are upheld.


Disproportionate effort should be made to integrate smaller and newer social groups into Singapore society. It follows that resources may be disproportionately allocated, depending on need. The influence one wields should not depend on the size of one’s demographic group in society.

First, equality. This means that we are Singaporean, regardless of race, language or religion. All citizens should enjoy equal standing and legitimacy as members of society, regardless of individual background and affiliation. Every Singaporean committed to our country has an equal right to belong, and the colour of one’s skin does not make us any more or less Singaporean, nor more or less deserving of the rights and responsibilities of being Singaporean. This also means that disproportionate effort should be made to integrate smaller and newer social groups into Singapore society, including our naturalised citizens who have made the decision to become Singaporean. It follows that resources may be disproportionately allocated, depending on need, as smaller groups may not have the economies of scale enjoyed by the larger groups. The influence one wields should not depend on the size of one’s demographic group in society.

Second, there should be reasonable accommodation of differences. Individuals and cultures have different needs and these should be accommodated as long as it does not impose undue hardship. Of course, reasonableness is subjective, as is the definition of ‘undue hardship’. Yet Singapore has, by edict or by natural instinct, been practising our own unique form of reasonable accommodation: we are accepting of and cater for different dietary restrictions, different cultural beliefs, practices and even superstitions; we have evolved our own ways of managing our national life around these differences. While we might debate what is reasonable, or whether these accommodations may have unintended consequences, this has served to bring greater awareness of the diversity and difference in our midst. This process towards reasonable accommodation is important and should never be taken for granted. Instead, we need to nurture a more open and consultative process for recourse and consensus building.


The administrative policies or governance structures we construct will influence the definition of what makes a Singaporean.

Finally, we need an inclusive national identity. Two options present themselves. We can choose a national identity anchored on our ancestry and heritage, symbolised by the physical characteristics, language, traditions and practices typical of our founding racial groups. Such an identity may be comforting in its familiarity and sense of security to those already included within its ambit. The common space is substantial, and the shared memories plentiful. On the other hand, we could also anchor our national identity on attainable values (e.g., kindness, civic-mindedness, equality), rather than on immutable traits such as skin colour, race and place of origin. This may offer less assurance to the in-group, and values can be tenuous, hard to define, shift with time, and influenced by newcomers. However, this offers the potential for a broader, more far-reaching definition of what it means to belong, and allows the adoption of newcomers into the Singapore family. The question is: which approach would result in greater national resilience and better help Singapore to weather the complexities and realities of the world?

Our choices could have unintended consequences. The administrative policies or governance structures we construct will influence the definition of what makes a Singaporean. A society in which relations are tense places a strain on good sense and common courtesies. My favourite example is that of Joseph Schooling, an accomplished national swimmer. He is Singaporean born and bred, and is Eurasian, one of the original, longstanding groups in Singapore. Despite his excellent contributions to his sport on behalf of Singapore, the fact that he does not carry a more common Chinese, Malay or Indian family name gave rise to accusations that he was not a true-blue Singaporean. How we progress as a nation, comfortable both in our own skins and our shared national identity, will be reflected in how we view and treat our future ‘Joseph Schooling’s’ — and by extension how we treat anyone else who is committed to Singapore and contributes to our collective success.

False Dichotomy

At the end of the day, the choice between being defined by our race or by our nationality is a false dichotomy: we should not pretend that we even have a choice in this matter. Fundamentally, we cannot help being both members of a particular racial group as well as being Singaporean — we can take neither out of an individual, nor should we ever try to do so.


We cannot help being both members of a particular racial group as well as being Singaporean — we can take neither out of an individual, nor should we ever try to do so.

What we can do, however, is to subscribe to a fair and just societal system, based on a common set of principles. In everything that we do and in every policy we create, we should ask ourselves: are we upholding the principles of equality, reasonable accommodation, and does it allow newcomers to be included? These principles are not new; they are already deeply enshrined in our Constitution and pledge. If we can maintain a balance on all three fronts, I believe we will be assured of a future society that is generous in spirit and resilient in the face of any challenges or changes to come.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ngiam Siew Ying is Senior Director in the National Population and Talent Division. The views expressed in this article are her own.