ⓘ Race in Singapore


ⓘ Race in Singapore

The concept of race or ethnicity in contemporary Singapore emerged from British colonial attitudes towards race. Today, the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others model is the dominant organising framework of race in Singapore. Race informs government policies on a variety of issues such as political participation, public housing and education. However, the states management of race, as well as the relevance of the CMIO model, has been a point of contention amongst some in recent years.


1. Historical background

The practice of classifying the local population based on their races or ethnicities was born out of British colonial practices. Race categories were enshrined through local censuses and the issuance of identity cards. In the early British censuses of British Malaya, ethnic lines were often drawn by birthplace and linguistic or linguistic group. In these censuses, labels such as Hokkien’, Boyanese’ and Bengali’ were being used. In the 1891 census, races began to be grouped into broader categories such as Chinese, Malay, and Indian.

Up till the 20th century, the largely first and second-generation immigrant population retained strong ties to their respective homelands. These communities continued to be influenced by the ideological movements in their homelands. Such movements included the Chinese civil war, the struggle for independence in then-British India, and the decolonisation efforts in peninsula Malaya and Indonesia. As such, each immigrant community maintained their own sense of nationalism.

When Singapore was part of the Federation of Malaysia from 1963 to 1965, inter-racial tensions were rife, culminating in incidents such as the 1964 Race Riots. At the same time, Singaporean political leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew began to advocate for a" Malaysian Malaysia”, opposing the Malaysian Federal Governments vision of an ethnic-based Malay Malaysia.

After Singapores split from Malaysia, the Singapore government pushed for the development of a" Singaporean Singapore” identity based on racial equality, with race acting as a secondary identifier alongside the Singaporean national identity. Special rights for Malays were legislated into the Singapore Constitution, symbolically recognising the community as the indigenous people of the land. Singapore also formally adopted four official languages - English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil - and implemented a multilingual education policy.


2. Government policies

According to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority ICA, the childs race registered on their Birth Certificate" can follow that of the childs father, mother or an acceptable mixed race if the parents are of different races.” The race field cannot be left blank during registration. If parents cannot decide on their childs race at the time of registration, the childs race is provisionally recorded as the fathers.

The option to record a childs race as double-barrelled e.g. Chinese-Indian was introduced in 2010 by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Previously, mixed-race Singaporeans were allowed to choose between either of their parents races and no allowance was made for mixed-race children, with the exception of Eurasians. For relevant Government policies e.g. the Ethnic Integration Policy, the first component of a double-barrelled race is used.

Singaporeans are allowed to change their race twice: once before the age of 21, and once at or after the age of 21. They would have to execute a Statutory Declaration stating their reasons for the change, and undertaking not to change their race again.


2.1. Government policies Constitution

Racial equality and non-discrimination are set out in Article 12 of the Singapore Constitution, which states:

The Constitution also recognises the special position of Malays as the indigenous people of the land in Article 152:


2.2. Government policies Language policies

The four official languages are recognised in Article 153 the Singapore Constitution. English is the language of administration, and is also seen as a common language for the different races to communicate with one another. Chinese, Malay and Tamil were designated as the Mother Tongues’ of the three respective ethnic groups. The then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in particular, believed that learning ones Mother Tongue helped maintain ones understanding of cultural values.

A bilingual education policy was also introduced, mandating that students learn English as their first language and their respective Mother Tongues determined by their officially registered race. Today, all students are expected to learn an official Mother Tongue Language. However, Singaporeans who have lived abroad for extended periods, as well as international students, may be granted exemptions from the Mother Tongue language requirement on a case-by-case basis.


2.3. Government policies Presidential Council for Minority Rights PCMR

The Presidential Council for Minority Rights PCMR is a non-elected government body which examines legislation to ensure that they do not discriminate against any racial or religious communities.


2.4. Government policies Parliamentary and presidential elections

According to the Parliamentary Elections Act, each Group Representation Constituency GRC must include one member of the minority race such as a Malay or Indian. However, a by-election need not be held to fill a vacancy in any GRC triggered by the death or resignation of an MP, even if there are no other minority candidates in that GRC, for any other reason.

From 2017 onwards, the presidential elections will be reserved for a racial group if that racial group has not represented for five terms. If there are no eligible candidates from that group, the election would be opened to candidates of all races, and the" reserved election” would be deferred to the next Presidential election. The first reserved Presidential Election was held in 2017.


2.5. Government policies Public housing

The Ethnic Integration Policy implemented by the Housing and Development Board HDB sets a quota on who can reside in a public housing flat in a particular block or neighbourhood. The policy was first introduced 1989 to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves and encourage a balanced racial mix in HDB estates. According to the HDB, the proportion set for a block or neighbourhood" is based on the ethnic make-up of Singapore”.


2.6. Government policies CPF contribution to community funds

By default, all employees are required to contribute to self-help groups’ funds, namely: Chinese Development Assistance Council CDAC Fund, Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund MBMF, Singapore Indian Development Association SINDA Fund and Eurasian Community Fund ECF. Contribution to the self-help group depends on the race and/or religion of the employee which is indicated on the National Registration Identity Card NRIC. Contributions are deducted from an employees wages as well as their share of their Central Provident Fund CPF contribution. However, employees have the option of opting-out from contributing to their respective self-help groups.


2.7. Government policies National service

Malays were virtually excluded from conscription from the beginning of the draft in 1967 until 1977 and, after the policy was eased, were assigned mainly to serve in the police and civil defence fire brigade, not active combat roles. In The Roar of the Lion City 2007, military analyst Sean Walsh claimed that "official discrimination against the Malay population remains an open secret". The Ministry of Defence contests the charge, noting that there are "Malay pilots, commandos and air defence personnel", and stating that "the proportion of eligible Malays selected for specialist and officer training is similar to the proportion for eligible non-Malays."


2.8. Government policies Racial Harmony Day

Racial Harmony Day is celebrated on 21 July, on the anniversary of the 1964 Race Riots. First launched in 1997 by the Ministry of Education in schools, the event has since expanded in reach. Today, grassroots organisations such as the Peoples Association and the Community Development Councils also celebrate Racial Harmony Day.


3. Debate

The Singapore states treatment of race has also faced criticism from some academics. Scholar S. Velayutham argues that the states constant focus on the" spectre of racial violence has literally erased the notion of racism from public and official discourses”. Velayutham also argues and that" the need to maintain racial harmony, social cohesion and tolerance is repeatedly voiced to render racist practices as non-occurrences”. Other scholars such as N. Purushotam take issue with the orientalist underpinnings of the CMIO classification, and argue that continued adherence to the model merely avoids reconceptualisation of the term" race”. The" Others” category has also been criticised, with scholar Elaine Ho contending that the grouping of ethnic groups into the category" glosses over their social heterogeneity and different needs”.

Nevertheless, CMIO framework retains majority mainstream support among Singaporeans. A 2016 joint survey by Channel NewsAsia and the Institute of Policy Studies showed that a majority of respondents believed that the CMIO classification helps build trust between the races 69%, fosters greater interaction between races 69% and safeguards minority rights 71%. In a 2017 interview with local newspaper TODAY, the surveys lead researcher Mathew Mathews said that" he answer is not dismantling the framework, the answer is to ensure that all the communities continue to be embracing of others.”


4. Academic Research

A literature review in 2018 found 13 studies that investigated racism in Singapore. Given the limitations of the studies, the review made four recommendations for future research: a develop a reliable and valid instrument to assess racism, b conduct experimental research to examine racism perpetuated by the majority or institutions, c examine the negative effects of racism, and d develop and evaluate interventions for racism. Following the recommendations, racism was examined in an experimental study. In a simulated hiring decision task, Singaporean Chinese participants rated a Malay job applicant as less competent, less suitable for the job, and recommended them a lower salary $2890.94 vs $2992.73 than an equally qualified Chinese applicant. The study provided the first and only experimental evidence of racism in Singapore.

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