Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean and Leader of the Opposition, Pritam Singh of the Workers' Party (WP), may differ on the methods of achieving racial integration, but both agree that no one should exploit racial or religious issues for political gain.
During the end of a marathon debate on racial issues in Parliament, PAP Member of Parliament (MP) Sitoh Yih-Pin took it upon himself to ask Culture, Community and Youth Minister Edwin Tong to explain the relevance of the government's CMIO model of ethnic classification system (i.e. Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others).
Tong took the bat and ran with it, saying the WP has questioned the continued relevance of the CMIO model and called for its removal.
Tong: WP MPs question CMIO model but ask questions based on CMIO model
However, he pointed out that at every Parliamentary sitting, there are several questions filed on issues pertaining to specific racial groups, such as WP MP Raeesah Khan asking for a breakdown of the number of Malays entering university, and how this compares to other races.
Tong gave more examples of questions of a racial nature filed by other WP MPs like Faisal Manap, Leon Perera and He Ting Ru.
Tong said he's not suggesting that the questions should not be answered. However, it shows that in reality, both sides of the House realise that it is important to look at these outcomes by segments of society. Tong said:
"And it is only if you have the CMIO classification and break down, that you will be able to track (the) performance of relative segments of society to gauge the outcomes, and to gauge ourselves the efficacy and outcomes of these programs that we have in place."
Tong gave the example of the percentage of Malays in Primary One going on to post Secondary education doubling in the past 25 years, and that Malay students in Singapore outperform international students.
This, Tong said, allows the government to assess whether its policies are helping segments of society, and whether targeted help is needed.
He then invited the WP to state whether it sees the CMIO model as a relevant consideration today, and added:
"And I will suggest, Mr Speaker, that certainly from the nature, type, and range of questions that they have asked in Parliament, I think that would appear to be so."
Singh: More opposition MPs can propose alternatives
In response, Singh said that the WP had to accept the terms dictated by the government of the day, which is the PAP.
However the WP, and Singh said he believes the PAP is also on the same page, wants to "level up" everyone so that no race feels that government policy doesn't reach out to them, in the progress towards a race-neutral society.
He said that they wanted a situation where they can tell government policy is improving outcomes, especially for communities which are not doing well.
However, Singh pointed out that immigration after 1990 has changed the complexion of Singapore society that the CMIO model may not be as useful as before.
Tong: Wouldn't the CMIO classification remain relevant & necessary?
Tong asked that if Singh agreed that the government needs to assess whether certain segments of society need to be uplifted, and therefore the CMIO model and classification is "relevant" and "necessary", and should remain for now, at least until Singapore reached a race-neutral society.
Singh said that he can agree that to work towards that goal, the government needs to see how it is performing on these indicators. He added:
"And eventually, with more opposition MPs in the house, looking at these numbers and figures, and asking more pointed questions and even alternatives, putting up alternatives for debate and discussion. Hopefully, we can reach that end state, which will be beneficial for all Singaporeans, not just this generation, but those that come after us."
Teo weighs in
However, this seemed to elicit a response from Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean.
Teo, the Coordinating Minister for National Security, asked whether Singh thought ethnic enclaves should be allowed to form, and if he thought Singaporeans would be more likely to learn live together in an integrated estate, or a segregated one.
He also asked if Singh thought government policy should ignore racial differences and treat everyone neutrally, and asked what impact this would have on government efforts to provide targeted support for specific communities.
Teo also asked if Singh agreed that these are matters of "great sensitivity" and have to be handled carefully, rather than being "exploited for political purposes", referencing Singh's statement that more opposition MPs would lead to better outcomes.
Singh: WP does not politicise racial or religious issues
Singh answered that no, the WP does not use these episodes for political purposes.
He also said that in response to Teo's "hypothetical" situations, moving from one extreme to the other is probably not the best approach.
Hence, he spoke earlier about "evolving the EIP to suit the needs of this current generation".
Singh also pointed out that the WP's goal of a race-blind society may not be very far away from what the PAP is aiming for, despite their different approaches. He added:
"We of course, have the harder job of trying to second guess what is reasonable in the way we move there, because we don't have the information and the broad sweep of facts that the government has.
But I think by and large, we accept that we have to move forward in a way where Singapore as a country as a society is strengthened. And that should make things clear."
Teo: WP manifesto position on EIP is untenable
In response, Teo said there's a lesson to be learned between philosophy and methods. While Teo agreed with the philosophy, in that both parties want the same end result of a race-neutral society, the methods differ.
Teo said, "And we're more likely to get there with the HDB policies that we have today, with EIP, rather than what the Workers' Party is proposing."
He points out that while their manifesto says to abolish the EIP now, Teo observed that Singh appears to have shifted away from that, "because he realises that's untenable."
Teo concluded by saying that he is glad to hear Singh say that no one should exploit the issues of race and religion for political purposes.
"I applaud that," he said.
Top image from CNA video.