Race categorisation too rigid for increasingly diverse S'pore?

For some, it is an annoying part of form-filling, though for most others it comes as no big deal. That is the part of Singapore forms that asks you to categorise yourself as either Chinese, Malay, Indian or Others.

The classification, commonly known by its acronym CMIO, is one where the Government categorises people - be it citizen, permanent resident or work permit holder - into one of these four racial groups.

Residents have been classified by race ever since the first census in 1824.

One bugbear has been that the rigid model glosses over the increasing diversity of a Singapore with more mixed marriages and immigrants.

It ignores the cultural differences between Singaporean Chinese and mainland Chinese, for example.

National University of Singapore social anthropologist Lai Ah Eng points out that some local Chinese find they have hardly anything in common with newer Chinese immigrants. She and other observers also feel that Singaporeans of various races often find they have more in common among themselves than with more recent immigrants from similar ethnic backgrounds.

There have also been concerns that it is dehumanising to be lumped under the broad "Others" category, which ignores the rich heritage and diversity of those who do not squarely fit into the Chinese, Malay or Indian groups.

Sociologists tell Insight that the CMIO model is potentially constraining as it pigeonholes people and, to a certain extent, perpetuates racial stereotypes.

Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) sociologist Mathew Mathews adds that the model creates expectations of how to fulfil one's identity as a person who is "supposed to be a member of one of the racial groups".


The CMIO model is a relic of Singapore's colonial past when British rulers dealt with diversity by assigning residential districts to respective ethnic groups, and generally splitting labour along ethnic lines.

Some argue the CMIO model is now irrelevant in an increasingly diverse Singapore, even as it was modified in 2011 to allow double-barrelling for Singaporeans of mixed parentage.

Inter-racial marriages have been rising. Last year, they comprised 20.4 per cent of 28,400 marriages, compared to 13.1 per cent a decade earlier. Singapore also takes in between 15,000 and 25,000 new citizens yearly.

As Singapore becomes more cosmopolitan, the proportion of "Others" is also increasing and brings with it its own challenges, as members of different groups seek to be identified on their own merits rather than labelled as one of the three main ethnic groups, let alone "Others".

However, experts caution against discarding the framework entirely, defending the model as necessary to give tacit recognition to minority communities of their distinct cultures, religions and languages.

Associate Professor Eugene Tan of Singapore Management University's law school, who has done research on ethnic relations, points out: "Due recognition is, ultimately, a vital human need and an important political and legal measure; it's not just a courtesy owed to the racial groups."

But Dr Nazry Bahrawi, a humanities lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, disagrees, and argues that the CMIO model should be banished, saying its drawbacks outweigh any potential advantages.

Removing it does not necessarily mean that race is no longer important, nor make minority groups anxious, he stresses. That is, if Singapore is "serious about preserving diversity in all its manifestations and uphold the importance of equal cultures".

Then again, thought leader Ho Kwon Ping, who was the first IPS S R Nathan Fellow, said in an April lecture that the CMIO's rigid racial categories should be "consciously blurred or even abolished", as they reinforced stereotypes.

But Mr Ho rescinded his opinion that the CMIO model should be abolished at a panel last month held by sociopolitical website Inconvenient Questions.

This came as several of his minority friends told him that, were the CMIO model abolished, they were worried about a situation where "the Government says, we are all one happy people, let's not talk about the need to send a signal that there is a Malay minority and an Indian minority".

Immigration has exacerbated these issues.

While the Government has been conscious about maintaining a relatively stable ethnic balance, there are concerns among some in the Malay community, aired at grassroots dialogues, that their proportion of the population is slipping.

Latest data for the resident population - which comprises Singapore citizens and permanent residents - show they make up 13.3 per cent of the population this year, down from 13.9 per cent in 2005.

Comparatively, the proportion of Indians rose from 8.4 per cent to 9.1 per cent, and those in the "Others" group went from 2 per cent to 3.2 per cent.

However, the mix of citizens has remained relatively stable - 76.2 per cent Chinese, 15 per cent Malay, 7.4 per cent Indian and 1.4 per cent Others.


But regardless of whether CMIO stays or goes, experts who spoke to Insight agree a more nuanced approach is needed, as opposed to the "uncritical" collection of data based on ethnicity.

Prof Tan, a former Nominated MP, notes that collecting ethnic-based data can provide a pulse of how the different groups are faring. But he questions the release of annual data of how different ethnic groups perform at national examinations, which he says can lead to unintended consequences like the reinforcement of racial stereotypes.

He says: "Would a Chinese professional household face the same educational issues as a Chinese household on public assistance? Probably not. The latter household is more likely to have more in common (with) a non-Chinese household on public assistance." .

And Dr Nazry says: "A number of such surveys have positioned Malays as the most problem-riddled group - high divorce rates, weakest academic performance and most susceptible to obesity."

Such issues, he adds, are better gauged using metrics such as socioeconomic status and household incomes, rather than ethnicity.

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad says removing references to race will not make any difference, especially as ethnic minorities will still be identified by names or skin colour.

"You can't run away from your background," he says, pointing out that while the United States has its first black President, it still sees heightened unrest due to race in areas such as Ferguson, after an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a white policeman.

"It shows the divide is still there, no matter how hard you try to hide the race aspect."

Observers say above all, the retention of the CMIO model should never impede the building of a strong, shared Singaporean identity.

"Instead of pulling out the old chestnut of CMIO, let's see how we can further strengthen our civic identity and loyalty as Singaporeans," says Prof Tan.

Mr Ong Ye Kung, now Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), also wrote in a commentary in April that people should look beyond labels, be it "Singaporean" or "CMIO".

But this does not mean "CMIO" is no longer relevant, he added.

"The truth is no label can adequately capture the complex essence of a person, nor is it meant to," he wrote. "My label as a Singaporean is inadequate in describing who I am as a person. Likewise, being CMIO cannot be an adequate description for a stronger national identity, but that does not mean it should be de-emphasised or discarded."

He added: "We are better off if we respect and appreciate each other for all our rich diversity, treating everyone as equal, striving for a common destiny. As members of our respective community, we are also citizens of Singapore, with a lifetime of common experiences, creating an identity as one united people."

Race matters: What lies ahead?

Seven years ago last week, the United States elected its first black President.

Mr Barack Obama's historic win got Singaporeans thinking: When, if ever, will Singapore be ready for a non-Chinese prime minister?

This question was put to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong days after the win. His reply: that he thought it was possible, but it may not happen soon. He also acknowledged that attitudes towards race had shifted as English provided more of a common ground.

This was reiterated by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam this year: "It seems to me inevitable that, at some point, a minority prime minister - Indian, Malay, Eurasian, or some mixture - is going to be a feature of the political landscape.

"We've got a meritocracy, it is an open system."

He noted that people share experiences like national service and are educated largely in English.

Thought leader Ho Kwon Ping, who is the first Institute of Policy Studies S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore, believes the country will accept a non- Chinese prime minister put forward by a "leading party" like the People's Action Party (PAP).

He added, speaking at a public lecture in April: "I honestly believe, and I hope to be naive enough to believe, that if that person was of calibre, we would accept this."

Indeed, the issue of race hardly figured during the recent general election. And a post-election survey of voters by the Institute of Policy Studies, released last week, showed that 83 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the ethnicity of the candidate they chose was not an important consideration.

However, several opposition candidates, like the Singapore Democratic Party's Mr Damanhuri Abas, did call for greater representation of Malays in sensitive combat positions within the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

Most Singaporeans may not give much thought to such issues - which observers refer to as "legacy" ones that should be carefully managed - on a day-to-day basis. But they are likely to continue to crop up as national issues at times.

Take the perception of under-representation of Malays in the SAF. Mr Damanhuri's comments prompted the PAP's Dr Maliki Osman, who is now Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs, to reply: "Our Malay servicemen have been recognised year after year, quietly and based on their competency."

Dr Maliki also noted that Malay SAF officers now hold various vocations, including commandos, armour officers, pilots and naval combat systems operators.

Former Nominated MP Eugene Tan, a law professor who has researched ethnic relations, tells Insight that despite the great strides made by Malay servicemen in the SAF, a perception persists that security matters are oriented on race, given Singapore's position in a predominantly Malay neighbourhood.

Prof Tan says: "Where the Malay/Muslim servicemen are concerned, national service as an institution of multiracialism, if not carefully managed, could accentuate perceptions of a less-than-inclusive multiracialism.

"This is why it is important to continue to work on strengthening the national identity so that the concerns that sectarian loyalties will trump civic, national ones, will be less challenging."

Looking at the big picture, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute sociologist Terence Chong sees a challenge in "preventing ethnic divisions from being a proxy for class divisions".

"In Singapore, the Malay community is still over-represented in prisons, drug rehab centres and financial assistance schemes," he tells Insight. "The reasons for this are complex but the result obvious - there are relatively fewer of them in the middle class."

Several Indian Singaporeans have also voiced concerns about a divide in the community between the well-off and those who lag behind in areas like education and employment, noting that minority Singaporeans tend to be over-represented in certain lower-paying service-sector jobs.

Moving forward, one potential issue is the lack of racial diversity in many boardrooms, says Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad. While he does not expect the imposition of any quotas, he believes that the conversation - largely centred on gender equality today - could still shift to include race as well.

Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Janil Puthucheary says that the form and nature of race-based challenges will continue to change over time.

The rise of online interactions is both a platform and a "trigger for behaviour" as the time between a comment and the reaction has shortened, says Dr Janil, who chairs OnePeople.Sg, the national body focused on promoting racial and religious harmony.

"So there will always be a need to remind ourselves and our children about the need for tolerance and understanding. To go further towards through (to) harmony and not stop at tolerance," he adds.

Meanwhile, humanities lecturer Nazry Bahrawi of the Singapore University of Technology and Design also sees fault lines increasingly being drawn along sociopolitical orientations - such as over greater acceptance of homosexuality.

With all these issues in mind, Singapore cannot be lulled into a false sense of security given its relative state of harmony today.

"Our stability and harmony cannot be founded on the shallow foundations of tolerance," Prof Tan says. "We really need to go beyond tolerance and forbearance to seek genuine understanding, recognition, and protection of the diversity that is an integral part of Singapore."

Nonetheless, Singapore's move to sign the United Nations convention to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination is significant, and will boost Singapore's standing in the international community.

There may be some policies on race that could be deemed by others as at odds with this commitment - but the Government also has the opportunity to make known its position on these areas, and make the point that they have the overall aim of preserving racial harmony.

As Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob said last month: "The signing of this convention attests to our confidence and the strength of our race relations here, as member states signing this convention will have to submit reports regularly and be subject to UN scrutiny.

"We are already practising the principles enunciated under the convention, so signing it is a logical step."

But addressing matters of race, and tackling discrimination, cannot be about the authorities alone, even though they play a key role.

Mr Baey Yam Keng, Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth, tells Insight: "We recognise the need to continually review and adjust our policies, in consultation with the community, if changes are warranted."

"We would like to call on every Singaporean to do his part, too, to strengthen racial harmony and combat racial discrimination. Together, we can ensure that racial discrimination will have no place in Singapore; and that our future generations will value and respect diversity."


This article was first published on November 8, 2015.
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