Race was the main topic that Workers' Party's Sylvia Lim focused on during her first speech on Sep. 1 as part of Singapore's 14th Parliament.
Noting how Singapore's formative years under former Deputy Prime Minister S Rajaratnam was a "unique experience of multiculturalism", Lim said that the Singaporean identity during that time was emphasised, regardless of race, language and religion.
However, she has since observed a shift where "talk of race was discouraged", to the current era of "heightened race consciousness".
Lim highlighted the report by the Constitutional Commission formed to review the Elected Presidency, which stated that "the ultimate destination for our society should be a risk blind community where no safeguards are required to ensure that candidates from different ethnic groups are periodically elected into presidential office", but Singapore had not yet arrived.
Based on this, Lim said that there seems to be "no real quarrel that we want to arrive at the destination of being a race-blind state".
To that end, Lim targeted three existing policies and systems that would need to be addressed.
1. Ethnic classifications and data
The Singapore population is currently classified as Chinese, Malay, Indian or Others, a system known as the "CMIO" classification system, which Lim said the government has defended as being "necessary to ensure that minority rights are safeguarded".
However, "the concept of 'minority rights' itself is problematic", Lim said, adding that "it would be better if we could simply talk about citizenship rights".
Furthermore, as more and more interracial marriages occur, Lim questioned how this system, first used in 1824, will withstand the test of time.
According to Lim, this delineation of races has also led to the formation of ethnic self-help groups such as the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), Mendaki (Council for the Development of Singapore Malay/ Muslim Community), the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), and the Eurasian Association.
While Lim acknowledged the work done by these groups to help the less privileged, she also said that they "reinforce racial consciousness".
Lim suggested pooling resources to form one central self-help group which provide aid to the less privileged on a race-blind basis.
To facilitate this, data on race should be released "with a view to narrowing the differences".
"Such serious matters deserve wider study by persons outside the government, such as researchers. There should be public awareness of any challenges faced by particular communities, and a whole-of-society approach should be encouraged. We should strive to foster a national culture, where every Singaporean is a stakeholder in the lives of fellow citizens."
2. Elections along ethnic lines
In the second point of her speech, Lim targeted the requirements for minority representation in Parliamentary elections.
Minority candidates are required to file applications for certification that they belong to the relevant communities, a procedure which puts them in an "uncomfortable spotlight".
Lim described it as a means to check if the candidate is “Malay enough” or “Indian enough”.
Bringing up some details of her personal life, Lim said that she was brought up in an English-speaking family and attended a mission school.
Her grasp of Chinese was inadequate and her knowledge of Chinese customs and practices were lacking before she joined politics, Lim revealed.
In such a case, she wondered how she would fare if she, a member of the Chinese majority race, was held to the same requirements as minorities, and if she had to take a test examining her "Chinese-ness".
Lim highlighted the increased scrutiny of minorities during elections under existing laws, and questioned if there are other ways to ensure candidates of diverse backgrounds are fielded.
3. HDB Ethnic Integration Policy
Lim called attention to the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), first introduced in 1989 to ensure there is a balanced mix of ethnic groups in HDB estates, and to prevent the formation of racial enclaves.
Lim highlighted that in the 30 years since the policy was implemented, it has caused economic hardships, such as when sellers from one minority group are only able to sell their houses to another buyer of the same community, as they are subject to ethnic quotas.
One family she encountered faced a price difference of as much as S$100,000 due to this restriction.
Lim added that families had free rein to move into different HDB estates prior to the introduction of the EIP, and highlighted areas such as Bedok, where the number of Malay families exceeded the existing quota, but did not appear to have increased tensions or disorder.
The effects of the EIP have in some cases, been "discriminatory", and Lim suggested relaxing, or even removing it, echoing a position previously held by the WP.
"Fourteen years ago when the Workers’ Party suggested removing the EIP, it was met with a robust response from the ruling party. The suggestion was labelled a 'time bomb'. We were also aware that some Singaporeans did not agree with our suggestion. Today, half a generation later, I hope we can have a more progressive discussion on this issue."
To move towards the ideal of a race-blind society, Lim called for a nationwide conversation on race issues.
While she said she did not pretend to have the answers needed, Lim said that this review should include a variety of stakeholders such as academics, and ensure a fair representation of citizens across demographics.
Lim said that the scope of the review could include:
- The relevance of existing ethnic classifications such as CMIO;
- The scope for more public disclosure of race-based data;
- How not to reinforce tribal instincts in public policies and surveys;
- Whether the current self-help groups should be amalgamated within a unifying national body, to pool national resources on a race-blind basis;
- Whether multiracialism in elections should be preserved under the current framework or can less intrusive methods be used;
- Whether the HDB’s Ethnic Integration Policy should be retained and if so, how it can be modified for fairness.
Lim ended her speech with a mention of the previous debate surrounding Singapore's readiness for a non-Chinese Prime Minister.
"When will Singaporeans be ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister? Many would argue that we already are.
Is a race-blind Singapore a fantasy? Singaporeans have already risen above tribal instincts on many occasions. We can go further, with the right policies and signalling at the official level."
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Top image via Sylvia Lim on Instagram