Diversity in S’pore society is not just about having 4 racial groups

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | May 20, 10:47 am


Living with Myths in Singapore, published in 2017 by Ethos Books, is a collection of essays written by academics, on the development of Singapore’s society and politics for the past 50 years.

Edited by Loh Kah Seng, Thum Ping Tjin and Jack Meng-Tat Chia, the book, which you can buy a copy of here, examines the myths and paradigms that have formed the overarching framework in Singapore’s public discourse.

Laavanya Kathiravelu contributed an essay titled “Rethinking Race: Beyond the CMIO categorisations” as a chapter in the book.

Her essay examines the effect that the CMIO categories have had on shaping race-relations in Singapore and the local population’s attitudes towards foreigners.

We produce an excerpt from her essay here.


By Laavanya Kathiravelu

Due to accelerated immigration trends in recent years, the landscape of race has been fundamentally altered.

Over the past 15 years or so, Singapore has aggressively increased its population through extensive naturalisation of middle class immigrants.

Presently more than a quarter of the resident population of Singapore are new citizens or permanent residents. If the numbers of temporary migrants on employment passes and work permits are counted, the proportion of ‘foreigners’ increases further.

This migration has changed the face of demographic diversity in Singapore and has significant implications for the management of race and other demographic factors such as socio-economic class, gender, immigration status, and country of origin.

Hosting a large proportion of migrants and foreign-born residents is, in itself, not problematic.

Singapore is a nation that was built on migrant labour, and there are many other countries that have successfully socialised migrants into citizens.

However, the widespread and vocally xenophobic sentiments against Singapore’s recent migrants demonstrate a breakdown in race relations. The rise of anti-foreigner sentiments in the past decade can be seen as a sign of the failure of Singapore’s multiracial model.

Are our OB markers defined too narrowly?

The model limits social diversity to four pre-defined racial groups and denies the possibility of meaningful interaction, accommodation and influence across cultures.

Although multiracialism is celebrated as a mark of Singaporean culture, issues of racial tensions, inequalities and discrimination are also rarely discussed in public.

Instead, they are defined as “OB (out-of-bound) markers” by the state, deemed too sensitive, with the potential to disrupt a fragile racial harmony.

Although Singaporeans are seen to have become politically more mature in recent decades, many political leaders and senior civil servants  still espouse paternalistic views about what is appropriate public discourse.

As the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kishore Mahbubani, warned,

“In Singapore, on some things, we need to widen out-of-bounds (OB) markers. But on issues involving race and religion, I would say, make the OB markers narrower. I actually believe that, because we’re too small to afford the kind of ethnic strife that other countries have suffered.”

This narrow demarcation of OB markers has pushed discontentment over racial issues to the less regulated spaces of popular discussion – that is, Internet forums and citizen journalism sites. Mainstream, open and honest public discussion suffers as a result.

Increase in population, but not much change in racial composition

The Singapore state, in supporting high rates of naturalisation, perceived the inclusion and assimilation of foreigners as a relatively unproblematic process, given the shared heritage and culture of a large majority of recent immigrants.

Most of them come from India, other parts of South Asia, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, all origin countries of most early migrants to Singapore.

So, despite the large increase in the population of almost 20 per cent in the past 15 years, the racial composition of Singaporeans and Permanent Residents has hardly changed. The proportion of categories defined as ‘Chinese’ and ‘Malay’ have decreased, and that of the ‘Others’ and ‘Indian’ categories have increased, but each only by less than 2 per cent.

This remarkable stability in the racial composition of the population – despite large-scale immigration – can be explained by two factors.

The first is the maintenance of the CMIO classification system, rather than adopting a more pluralist model that differentiates within and across categories.

The ‘Others’ category, for instance, does not distinguish between distinct groups such as ethnic Koreans, white Americans and Filipinos – groups with unique cultural histories.

The CMIO model homogenises a growing range of new immigrants in order to maintain the appearance and semblance of continuity in the racial make-up of the population.

Within the C, M and I categories, the model also does not differentiate between local-born and foreign-born Chinese, Malays and Indians.

Glossing over differences within the same racial groups

The second factor is that the state largely incorporates immigrants who can be readily identified by their physical attributes as Chinese or Indian. This classification is an important criteria for granting citizenship and permanent residency, in addition to the economic value potential new citizens are perceived to add to the country.

In selecting people with shared languages, religions, cultural practices, foods, and physical appearance as locals, the problem of integration is presumed to be diminished.

However, this is a fallacious supposition, which is being exposed with intra-racial strain becoming more prominent.

Chinese and Indians are hugely heterogeneous groups. Coming from different national backgrounds, and strands of immigration, they are shaped by different national histories and the policies of various nation-state regimes.

This is in additional to regional differences within the geographically large origin countries of China and India.

The problems with further homogenising communities of Chinese and Indians – racial groups whose internal differences have been unacknowledged thus far – are now growing.

Within the ‘Indian’ category, for instance, highly-paid new immigrants from North India are seen as skewing demographic realities. With higher educational and income levels, this group contrasts with the existing South Indian core, which has a larger percentage of lower income families.

Yet, because of the immigrant Indian group, the Indian community is held to be upwardly mobile, and therefore less in need for welfare, while in fact the class positions of most local-born Indians have not changed.

We need to be more mindful of integration policies in the 21st century

It is important to emphasise here that I am not advocating an anti-foreigner agenda.

Instead, in taking anti-foreigner sentiments seriously, we must acknowledge the need for change in Singapore’s race and integration policies.

This is true not just in relation to immigrants from India and China, but also foreigners from other parts of the world, as well as temporary low-wage migrants such as construction workers and domestic helpers, who also live in the everyday spaces of the nation.

The historical lessons of inter-race conflict can no longer be the myth on which the Singaporean nation builds its multiracial identity in the 21st century.

These myths, constantly re-created and invoked, do not have the same meanings or appeal to a contemporary population that does not share the ethnic heritage and genealogy of early migrants to Singapore.

The state must come to terms with the fact that classifying diversity in terms of four simple ‘racial groups’ is not sufficiently nuanced or representative given the current migration from around the world and changing demographic realities within the population.

Multiracialism must go beyond limited ideas of race

A new starting point for multiracialism is necessary to deal with changing levels of social diversity in Singapore, in order to accommodate the influx of foreign professionals and workers in the past 15 years.

National identity cannot be based on an exclusionary and limited concept of race, as the nation is increasingly composed of citizens, semi-permanent residents and transient migrant groups.

The changing demographics also pose obstacles to building strong ties between citizens and foreign residents.

What seems to be emerging, in one instance, is a two-tiered citizenship: locally-born Singaporeans are expressing a sense of entitlement to civil service jobs and coveted places at local universities, while newly naturalised foreigners are seen as less deserving.

Socio-economic distinctions sometimes more divisive than race

Here, the state’s measures of race-based assimilation have proven inadequate, in failing to consider that economic and cultural divides may outweigh any perceived racial affinity between local-born Singaporeans and naturalised foreigners.

Increased competition for jobs and higher education has made socio-economic class distinctions between working class and middle-class residents much more visible and deeply felt.

Economic stratification, in many instances, thus needs to be acknowledged as more crucial than race.

This factor is also played out in relation to xenophobia towards temporary migrants in Singapore, who comprise of both low-income workers and middle class professionals.

These groups face differing forms of discrimination, much of which has to do with the fact that Singaporeans are feeling the impact of the increased costs of living, decreased social mobility and the increasing infrastructural squeeze.

Classification by race can be harmful

A first step towards a new framework for multiculturalism is to acknowledge that race is a political way of marking identity that has undesirable consequences in everyday life.

In classifying people into distinct racial groups, one’s identity is made to seem permanent and unchangeable, and differences between communities become fixed.

This does not mean that we should deny or appreciate less our cultural and racial diversity, but it is necessary to discuss the artificiality and adverse effects of such categorisations. The state has to encourage and facilitate these discussions as it moves towards dismantling outmoded racial classifications.

What will it mean to be “S’porean” in the future?

A second step is to establish a new basis for social belonging that can build a strong consensus and sense of community along the lines of an inclusive national identity.

Rather than relying on unchanging and pre-defined categories, the basis of Singaporeanness should be truly multicultural and multiracial.

This means moving away from top-down and state-centric categories, by allowing Singaporeans to identify themselves in ways that they are comfortable with.

This is possible, as evidenced in the opening vignette of this article that described how a group of Singaporeans spontaneously organised the ‘Cook a pot of curry’ day – in celebration of multiracialism and what it means to be Singaporean.

The nation is made up of more than just these four groups

There is much that is positive and heartening about how various cultures and peoples interact and co-exist in Singapore today.

There is a general level of tolerance and even pleasure in living in a place that is composed of vibrant differences – Singlish, uniquely local foods and love of a shared heritage are all markers of our national identity.

Singaporeans are also increasingly cosmopolitan in embracing peoples and practices from other parts of the world. We should build on these existing qualities to further emphasise the need for greater solidarity, respect, and shared investment in the nation.

This starts with re-thinking the basic CMIO categorisations. In emphasising racial differences, we are also denying our commonality as members of the same nation.

Being Chinese, Malay or Indian, means that we cannot just be Singaporean. The nation is made up of more than just these four groups, and its strengths are in banding across them.

As we envision the kind of country that we want future generations of Singaporeans to live in, let us create new national myths around the importance of looking past racialised differences and respecting one another as equal members with a shared national identity that is more significant than individual race.

Top image from Lee Hsien Loong Facebook

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