A long debate in Parliament on July 5 saw National Development Minister Desmond Lee, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh of the Workers' Party (WP) and Leader of the House Indranee Rajah tussle over the merits of the government's Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) in housing.
Following Lee's prepared answer to Parliamentary Questions on the EIP, Singh rose to speak. He thanked Lee for his "very nuanced" answer on the EIP.
"I think it's been the most nuanced reply that I've heard from a government minister on the EIP, considering on the one hand the realities of racial integration and other policies that can assist, and on the other, the fact that there are people who actually pay a price for the EIP."
Three supplementary questions
Singh had three supplementary questions for Lee.
Was there a review in 2020?
The EIP limit for the Indian and Others communities was reviewed in 2010, but there remain a large number of appeals coming from these groups.
As the then-National Development Minister suggested to have a review in 2020, Singh asked if that review had taken place, and if so, were the EIP limits changed.
Could HDB share details of neighbourhoods from 1989?
In 1989 when the EIP was introduced, 28 per cent of neighbourhoods had already breached the established guidelines. Over the years this has fallen, but in neighbourhoods like Kaki Bukit, there's "nothing untoward" about race relations there.
He asked if the government is prepared to share details on the breakdown by ethnic groups of all HDB neighbourhoods, both new and old, on an annual basis from 1989.
Could HDB be more flexible in light of requests for EIP waivers?
In response to a question he filed in 2013, HDB revealed that administratively for rental flats, it adds up to 10 percentage points for the block limits. Would HDB consider a similar approach for all flats and exercise greater flexibility at the neighbourhood levels?
Singh also suggested removing precinct and block quotas, in favour of a larger area of coverage, in view of the increasing numbers of waiver requests.
Desmond Lee: EIP acts as a bulwark against socio-economic forces
Lee stood up to address Singh's supplementary questions. First, the review is ongoing and the authorities will make adjustments where necessary.
Second, in 1989 there were 125 neighbourhoods, and 35 neighbourhoods reached one or more limits. In June 2021, out of 173 neighbourhoods, 24 have done so, a drop in both proportionate terms and absolute numbers, Lee observed.
Third, back in 2013, then-Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that to accommodate families applying for rental housing, there will be a 10 per cent increment for administrative purposes.
On this, Lee said the government is aware that the EIP acts as a bulwark against strong socio-economic forces, and a case-by-case approach is better than an increase across the board, even when such appeals already push at the boundaries of what the policy seeks to achieve.
What is the WP's position on the EIP?
Lee then addressed Singh with a query of his own.
"I looked at your manifestos and the Workers' Party has said unequivocally from 2006 to last year, that the Workers' Party wants the EIP to be abolished, and people should be able to stay wherever they want in our estates," he said.
WP's previous manifestos called for EIP to be abolished
He referred to the WP's manifesto for the 2020 general election, and quoted from it (page 28):
"The ethnic quotas governing citizens’ home ownership of HDB flats should be abolished. This would address the disadvantage faced by ethnic minority HDB flat resellers.
Abolishing the quotas will not cause racial disharmony amongst Singaporeans. After more than 50 years of nation-building, our society has evolved and achieved multi-racial integration that has gone beyond the need for mandating proportionally mixed neighbourhoods.
Singaporeans should be therefore given the freedom to choose where their homes will be without taking into account race."
Lee said that the WP has taken similar positions in 2015 and 2011. He said he looked at speeches made by Singh, the WP's chairman Sylvia Lim and other members, and wanted to understand their rationale, and their position.
Lee: WP has not taken a clear position in parliament that it wants EIP abolished
He said the WP has not taken a "clear and unequivocal position" in Parliament that it wants the EIP abolished because Singapore has reached such a high level of multi-racialism, so it is no longer necessary.
Lee said the PAP takes a different position, and that the recent racist incidents over the years are reminders to keep working on promoting racial harmony, and not to take away the mechanisms so easily.
He asked if it is the WP's position that there won't be racial concentrations if the EIP is abolished.
Lee also asked if Singh believes Singapore has reached a level of integration that society won't change if there are entire blocks and neighbourhoods, predominantly of one race. And if there are such ethnic concentrations, Lee asked what would Singh's position be then.
Singh: We sense frustration from those affected by the EIP and have problems selling their flats
In reply, Singh said that the WP's manifesto position is "undergirded by the frustration we sense from ethnic minorities who cannot sell that flats." He asked if the EIP is the only "pre-emptive policy" the government has to encourage racial integration. He pointed out places like Chinatown and Little India with ethnic concentrations, but said they don't bother Singaporeans.
Singh added that he could not speculate on "one or two episodes" and conclude that they are evidence that Singapore is "descending" on its journey towards greater racial integration.
He said his own sense is that the EIP policy, one generation on, needs to be revisited in the context of Singapore today and in the future. He pointed to factors such as immigration of non-Chinese, Malays or Indians, and the more common mixed marriages taking place.
However, he said that the "heartbeat" of the WP's position is the economic loss to minorities who have to lower the price of their flat because of the EIP. He said it is "particularly painful" because he heard that from many people, including an incident recounted by Sylvia Lim, of someone who had to sell a flat at a loss of S$100,000.
"I mean, that is shocking. And that's really where we're coming from," Singh said.
He made a last point about other policies of integration in schools, workplaces and National Services, and how these compared to the EIP. He said that the EIP may backfire in the sense that people aggrieved about selling their flats at a loss may be resentful about it.
"And for that reason, the EIP, as it stands, needs to reviewed, and we need to keep in focus the prospect of endeavouring towards a race-neutral society, where race-based polices like the EIP are no longer needed," he said.
Lee clarifies case of person who supposedly lost S$100,00 in selling a flat
Lee pointed out that the EIP was not a "pre-emptive policy" and was put in place after the lessons learned from the 1960s, "paid for with blood, sweat and tears." The policy is therefore based on such lessons.
Lee acknowledged that the EIP has its "rough edges", and it "causes pain" when a hard cap has to be enforced. However, the Chinese are also affected as well, not just minorities. Lee gave an anecdote of Chinese couples unsuccessfully applying for BTOs in popular neighbourhoods like Bishan and Ang Mo Kio, due to the limit being reached.
However, the authorities try to explain the rationale, seek understanding and Singaporeans of all races have broadly accepted the policy, and approach appeals on a case-by-case basis.
Lee referred to Singh's recount of a person "losing S$100,000" on the sale of a flat. He said that this has been checked, and that person did not lose S$100,000. Rather, the resident said anecdotally she had received offers S$100,000 less than what others nearby appeared to be getting.
He revealed that in Aug. 2019, HDB agreed to waive the EIP for a period of time to allow the family to sell the flat. However, for their own reasons, they decided not to take up this offer and requested that the HDB acquire their flat.
"So I think (it's) better (to) put these cases which are raised as anecdotal examples to rest," Lee said.
Lee then reiterated his questions.
Does the WP still want to abolish the EIP? And if abolished, does the WP believe that the estates will remain multi-cultural and representative? Or does the WP believe that it doesn't matter, because of other policies that help racial integration.
Lee & Indranee: Does the WP want to abolish the EIP?
Singh went next again, and stated:
"I think the point really, again, is the philosophy that we want to aim towards, towards a race neutral society. And we continue working towards this assiduously, and keeping in mind that you don't want the policy to become a barrier to that vision, to that journey to become a race neutral society. That's why we took the position that we had."
Pritam pointed out that because of the HDB's flexibility on appeals and accommodation for rental flats, it showed the arguments made by Lee were not "cast in stone". "There is flexibility beyond looking at individual cases and moving the boundaries," he said.
Singh also asked if the HDB has discussed any changes to the EIP internally, instead of just looking at individual cases.
Lee: A need to understand WP's position
Lee went next, and again asked whether the WP still wanted to abolish the EIP, as it raises important questions about WP's position on multi-racialism and if WP has considered what society would be like after that.
He also pointed out that Singh talked about a race-blind, race-neutral society, but over the years, the WP has been asking "lots and lots of questions" specific to individual minorities or races. He added:
"And in fact, I understand the member Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC MP) has asked the PQ before, asking for assurances that we will ensure that the ethnic mix in Singapore will remain, and wants to keep a very close eye on ethnic issues."
Indranee: I still don't know what the WP's position is
Leader of the House Indranee Rajah then interjected, referring to Singh's remarks so far:
"I think he had started out by saying that the EIP should be revisited. Then he said, reviewed. He then mentioned that in their manifesto, they took a philosophical position. But I'm sorry, because I still don't know what the WP's position is.
So could the Leader of the Opposition clarify? Is he saying today that the EIP should be abolished? Is the answer to that yes or no? That's all I want to know. Or is he saying that it need not be abolished? We can just look to see how we improve it. That's all I want to understand."
Singh replied that it was a "very nice way to close off discussion on a topic." He said the philosophical position and target remains, the WP aims towards a race-neutral society.
However, Singh feels the government wants to retain the EIP for reasons that are "not totally illegitimate". But having said that, how should the government go forward knowing there are people affected by this policy.
That's why, he said, he asked for annual data of the neighbourhoods to get a sense of which ones have breached EIP limits, and see what's unique about those neighbourhoods.
"Is it very different from any other neighbourhood in Singapore?" he asked.
Lee: WP's position on EIP has changed
Indranee then replied that Singh's answer, while "erudite", had failed to address her question.
Indranee said that the PAP and WP both want a race-neutral society, but the question is how to get there. She added that one of the things that the PAP government has put in place is the EIP.
Indranee subsequently asked Singh again,
"I just want to know today: Is the WP saying we should remove the EIP? If you are saying that we should do that, say so.
On the other hand, if you're saying that keep the EIP, but let us improve it and ameliorate the impact on minorities, say so. Then I think we know where we both stand, and where we are in agreement".
Singh replied that while the WP aims to remove it, but until we get there, its rough edges needs to be smoothened out as much as possible.
Lee then made a response, observing that there has been a "clear change" in the WP's political position.
He claimed that in 2006 until 2020, the WP believed that Singapore has reached a level of multi-culturalism that meant that the EIP should be abolished.
"The Workers' Party position today in 2021 is that we still need the EIP, we work towards a race-blind society, and we endeavour to reach there, and at some point hopefully, (may not need) the EIP," Lee said.
"That is a clear change in political position and I thank the Member for that," he said.
Top image from MCI's YouTube channel.