The race issue: How far has Singapore come?

The date is July 21, 1964 - barely a year since Singapore became part of the Federation of Malaysia.

A procession is held to mark Prophet Muhammad's birthday, starting at the Padang and ending in Geylang.

But the festive occasion will soon turn sour. A scuffle breaks out between Malays in the procession and Chinese bystanders, escalating into nationwide violence.

By the time a 13-day curfew was lifted, 23 people died and 454 people were injured. Singapore would later learn it was an orchestrated attempt to stir up racial tensions.

Two months later, another riot breaks out after rumours spread that a Malay trishaw rider was killed by a group of Chinese men, with 13 dead and 106 injured.

Fast forward to today and modern, independent Singapore is celebrating 50 years of prosperity and relative peace. Now, July 21 is notable as Racial Harmony Day, when young generations of Singaporeans go to school decked in racial garb and are taught the virtues of respecting diversity.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last month that no matter the progress over the last 50 years, it would be "complacent and dangerous" to be lulled into a false sense of safety that race and religion matters are no more the divisive issues they once were.

The Constitution of a newly independent Singapore had set the tone of what was to come. Article 152 says it is the responsibility of the Government "constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore".

It also recognises the "special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore".

Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had, in 1965, promised to build a multiracial nation. He said on Aug 9 that year: "This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion."

He also rebuffed language agitators who were lobbying for a constitutional guarantee of the status of the Chinese language in spite of assurances that all four major languages are official and equal.

But developments in neighbouring countries continued to have some effect in the early years. When severe rioting between Malays and Chinese broke out in Kuala Lumpur on May 13, 1969, tensions spilled over, but the authorities acted quickly to contain the disturbance.


Various policies implemented over the years have enabled the peaceful co-existence that Singapore has come to be known for today - the Republic emerged top out of 142 countries in the annual Legatum Prosperity Index, released last week, for tolerance of ethnic minorities.

A bilingual policy was started in 1966, with English becoming the lingua franca. And in 1970, the Presidential Council for Minority Rights was established to scrutinise laws, so as to ensure there is no discrimination against any ethnic minority groups.

To ensure adequate minority representation in Parliament, the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system has been in place since 1988. It requires political parties to field at least one minority candidate in each GRC team.

The Housing Board in 1989 also introduced the Ethnic Integration Policy that mandates a quota for minorities in HDB estates, so as to prevent racial enclaves from forming.

Although economic growth had benefited Singaporeans from all communities, by the 1980s, Malay community leaders were concerned that theirs was lagging behind in education. This led to the formation of self-help group Mendaki to help lift the community.

In the 1990s, other ethnic-based self-help groups were set up - the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda), the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) and the Eurasian Association. There have been questions over the need for such self-help groups, but the Government has said it would not be a good idea for them to merge or operate under one umbrella. This is because certain community problems can be dealt with only by leaders from those communities.

It is still a work in progress - there are concerns that while the Malay community has made many strides, they still lag behind in areas like education and employability. To its credit, Mendaki has made much progress in helping the community through programmes catering to lower-income groups.

The ethnic-centric focus of the four self-help groups, however, has not stopped them from joining forces to help the wider community. They recently said they will set up a joint venture to run 30 school-based student care centres to better support the holistic development of children, especially those from less-advantaged backgrounds, by tapping the resources of all the groups.

This, in a sense, is a microcosm of Singapore, which pledges to be colour-blind in its meritocracy and economic growth by providing opportunities for all. And for the most part, Singaporeans have been happy to share the fruits of the Government's economic growth policies and not rock the boat.

A study on race by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and OnePeople.Sg in 2013 found that more than 90 per cent of the 2,000-plus Chinese respondents said they were comfortable with Indians and Malays as neighbours and employees - and about 85 per cent as close friends.


Yet as the country becomes more affluent and the racial wounds of decades past are increasingly forgotten, some are voicing dissatisfaction at other racial groups, and their views are amplified by social media.

This has also generated a pushback, notably from minorities. Independent scholar and activist Sangeetha Thanapal has used the term "Chinese privilege" to refer to behaviour of Singaporean Chinese, which she says is akin to "White privilege" in Western countries - not being able to see things from the viewpoint of others who are not in the majority.

Sociologist Mathew Mathews of the IPS also observes in a recent commentary that some minority Singaporeans are not comfortable in their own skin. He says: "They are more likely to be sensitive to the fact that they have physical attributes and cultural practices which differ from those of the majority. Minorities often consider how those of the majority view them."

And time and again, cracks have appeared. At least 16 people have been investigated, either under the Sedition Act or the Penal Code, for race or religion-related offences in the last 10 years.

This, after the section of the Sedition Act making it an offence "to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population" had been dormant from its inception in 1948 until 2005.

In 2012, former National Trades Union Congress employee Amy Cheong was sacked for her online diatribe against Malay weddings in void decks, and she fled to Australia after the resulting furore.

Some criticised the authorities' reaction in these cases as heavy-handed, but officials have always been mindful that isolated incidents can easily get out of control.

And two years ago, they did: the death of a foreign worker run over by a bus in Little India sparked a riot by about 300 people. In the process, 54 officers and eight civilians were hurt, 23 emergency vehicles were damaged, including five that were torched. It was contained within a few hours, and while the riot was not linked to race, some of the ensuing online rhetoric vilified the South Asian rioters on account of their race.

Just last week, a Facebook post that was critical about the Malay language drew a stern rebuke from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Zainal Sapari, who wrote: "In today's age, racism is beyond basic comprehension and should not be allowed to take root in our society."

That these sentiments are hidden under the surface of a seemingly cohesive society is a sign that Singapore, despite the progress made, is "nowhere near being a race-blind society", says law don Eugene Tan, who has done research on ethnic relations here.

"Bubbling beneath our civil veneer, there are prejudices and stereotypes which occasionally surface to trigger bouts of soul-searching," adds ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute sociologist Terence Chong.

Starkly, the 2013 study also made headlines for the finding that more than one in two Singaporeans did not have a close friend of another race.

"We have sound principles in place but practice and realisation is the real challenge in some domains more than others," says social anthropologist Lai Ah Eng of the National University of Singapore.

"Some people and groups are downright ignorant and biased, others merely tolerate, but others are proactive in understanding and being appreciative."

As Singapore moves forward, it should seek to reduce the number of those in the first category and expand on those in the last.

Regardless of race

To young Singaporeans brought up in an environment of racial harmony and social cohesion, the two race riots of 1964 that left more than 30 dead must be unimaginable.

But achieving today's multiracial society has not been an easy road, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last month stressed that it is still a work in progress.

At a forum held by, which is a national body focused on promoting racial and religious harmony, he told community and religious leaders: "For the younger ones who are lucky, who have never seen such racial strife before, we have to constantly remind them how precious this harmony is, how unusual and rare it is."

Indeed, even after 50 years of independence in which the pioneer leaders' vision of a multiracial society, where everyone is equal, has long been part of the Singapore identity, cracks still appear.

That vision was enshrined in the National Pledge: "One united people regardless of race, language, or religion." But, just last week, a comment on Facebook about the Malay language drew widespread ire - including from at least one People's Action Party MP, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC's Mr Zainal Sapari, who gave it a stern rebuke.

Yet another sign of room for improvement in racial awareness is how Eurasian Singaporeans have been mistaken for foreigners because of their features and Western-sounding surnames. Netizens were quick to label Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling an "ang moh", prompting his father to tell The Straits Times last year in Malay that he is a "true son of Singapore".

The latest census data for this year shows the Chinese comprise 74.3 per cent of the resident population. Malays constitute 13.3 per cent, while Indians form 9.1 per cent. The "Others" comprises 3.3 per cent.

Last month, Singapore inked a United Nations pact to eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin. It expects to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 2017.

The move "further entrenches our commitment to this end, to unequivocally show that racial discrimination has no place in Singapore", said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu.

Racially charged incidents which make headlines, such as racial profiling, are virtually unheard of here today. But is Singapore's brand of "racial harmony" merely one of peaceful coexistence? How far has the Republic come in eradicating racial discontent? Insight finds out.

What could be tweaked?

Of all the race-based policies implemented here, the group representation constituency (GRC) scheme is, by far, the most controversial.

Under it, political parties must field at least one minority candidate in each GRC team they put up for contest.

The intent of the policy, which began at the 1988 polls, was to ensure adequate minority representation in Parliament.

But in every election year - including at the recent general election - critics have complained that the system is unfair, saying that it allows some candidates to ride on the coat-tails of their more prominent or established running mates.

As such, they claim it gives the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) an edge over opposition parties.

Observers acknowledge the merits of a GRC system, but say it will "breed cynicism" if not managed properly and if there is no constant public education.

Institute of Policy Studies sociologist Mathew Mathews says the GRC system is an important safeguard which preserves the rights of minorities and ensures their representation in legislation.

This is something that cannot be taken lightly, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in an interview with The Straits Times in August: "There's always a risk that race can be exploited or become relevant during a campaign, and minority candidates getting squeezed out or finding that their representation is substantially reduced. And, if that happens, is that good for Singapore?"

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad tells Insight that it tends to be more challenging for a first-term Malay candidate to connect with non-Malay residents.

But he adds: "There are many permutations - the system could be tweaked or enhanced. Today, there has been a move towards making GRC sizes smaller."

The average size of GRCs at the 2015 General Election was 4.75, down from five in the 2011 polls.

Social anthropologist Lai Ah Eng of the National University of Singaporewould like the maximum number of members for each GRC capped at three, as in 1988, and also be reviewed at each general election, if not scrapped.

She also calls for a review of the quotas imposed under the Housing Board's Ethnic Integration Policy.

She thinks its roll-out has been inconsistent: "Should it still apply for rental cases when there is a disproportionate number of Malays and Indians in the rental population and queue? Or the minority quota is already filled for sale flats?

"If we are really worried about integration, why not have ethnic quotas for all Singapore residential areas? The rich are too exclusive and excluded from having to integrate."

Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute sociologist Terence Chong adds that "prescriptive policies" such as the bilingual policy should be looked at.

This broadly requires Chinese students entering school to learn Mandarin as their second language, Malay students to study Malay, and Indian students to take Tamil or another Indian language.

"Prescriptive policies often have an ideal ethnic culture in mind and seek to maintain this ideal through rules and regulation," Dr Chong says. As for the bilingual policy, it could be problematic because it "assigns culture and language to the colour of your skin".

Mr Zaqy says integration can be better fostered if Singaporeans are encouraged to pick up a third official language - beyond English and their mother tongue.

"Giving minorities the option to learn Mandarin, and for Chinese to take up Malay or Tamil, will enhance racial integration as people can start understanding, through language, the different cultures."

Then there are constitutional bodies such as the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR), which comprises 18 members of the racial and religious mix of Singapore. It scrutinises laws to ensure there is no discrimination against any ethnic minority group.

The current council is led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, and includes former Cabinet ministers Othman Wok and S. Dhanabalan, as well as Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Dr Lai notes that the council has not done or said anything about perceived discrimination here. She calls for a more diverse group of representatives on the council, hailing from more varied backgrounds and all walks of life.

But law don Eugene Tan, a former Nominated MP, says, while the PCMR has not issued any negative report in its 45 years since its founding in 1970, "imagine the disquiet it would cause to the minorities if the PCMR is abolished".

The PCMR, as well as other laws, such as Article 152 of the Constitution that protects minority rights, should be seen as "sentinels to maintain and enhance the quality of multiracialism in Singapore", he adds.

This can be likened to a "symbolic but powerful shield, rather than a sword, that the minorities can assert collectively against the Government of the day if it fails to care adequately for them".


Mr Baey Yam Keng, Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth, tells Insight that the Government recognises the need to continually review and adjust its policies, in consultation with the community, if changes are warranted.

But the backdrop is that racial and religious integration is an ongoing effort by everyone. "While we have various platforms such as the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles, the harmony we have today is the result of efforts from all to build trust among our different ethnic and religious groups," he says.

"In Singapore, we accept our ethnic differences and celebrate our ethnic and cultural diversity.

"The broad theme of the Singapore Government's policy on matters of ethnicity, in the context of our multiracial society, has consistently been to expand common spaces and to minimise divides while preserving our cultural heritage," he adds.

This article was first published on November 8, 2015.
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