Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Race and Singaporeans, what’s all the fuss about?

The Singapore government requires that a child's race be registered at birth. Not to worry, the race is 'changeable' until the first national identity card (NRIC) is issued!
It's true, one can go from being Malay to a Chinese overnight; just like I went from being a Pakistani to a Singaporean overnight.

Is a legalistic and explicit definition of race a positive or negative contributor to social integration?

To what extent does a legalistic notion of race define an individual? It can be a great tool for organizing society.
But so is orthodox Hinduism's caste system, another way of 'boxing' people into categories. A sweeper is always a sweeper and a warrior always a warrior. Everyone knows their place and function in society. Society functions smoothly.
The dangers associated with stereotyping are real. The Chinese can't speak English well, hence the large number of Indian lawyers. The Malays are not economically ambitious. And so on.
These same stereotypes play a part in individual self-perceptions, negative and positive. A Malay child may grow up thinking a career in Singapore's armed forces is not a wise choice as advancement is limited for religious reasons.
Repeat a mantra often enough and people will believe it.
To be fair, 'racial profiling' helps Singapore's housing policy. Racial quotas are implemented by the authorities in assigning public housing. The quotas ensure that there is an adequate racial mix in public housing estates. In turn, mixed housing estates encourage, nay force, integration.
Racial enclaves are avoided.
In 2008, mixed marriages between persons of different races were almost 17% of all registered marriages. Put another way, almost one in five marriages last year was a 'mixed' marriage.
In 1990, the same number was approximately 8%. The doubling corroborates a slow but steady breakdown of thinking in terms of race.
To date, Singapore has adopted a conscious top down strategy in addressing racial sensitivities. As a result, people are super aware of racial (and religious) sensitivities.
However, as Singapore becomes a more cohesive nation with its own national identity an easing of the policy is in order. For starters, race should not be mentioned on one's NRIC. I fail to understand how printing the information on an NRIC helps to achieve any public policy goals.
Race on a national identity document is a relic of yesteryear.

A diversified gene pool is a healthy gene pool

Singapore's Immigration and Checkpoints Authority records have almost 100 distinct race categories registered in Singapore. I did not know so many races exist – perhaps some of them are fakes?   
On the flip side, at least we can look forward to a becoming a nation of decent mutts!


  1. Hi, I agree with your views regarding racial stereotyping. It may be already too late to stop it, as it is already widely "practiced". For instance, as far as jobs are concerned, there's a general perception that Malays are always "relaxing at void decks playing guitars", working as technicians or despatch riders, and are always taking things too easy (read: lazy).

    There's another problem with registering one's race: a person of a particular race may not be fully connected, if at all, to the cultures and languages to that race. Russell Peters, a world-famous comedian from Canada, used himself as an example. He is Indian by descent, but being brought up and having lived in Canada nearly all his life, he does not speak any of the Indian dialects, nor practice any of the Indian traditions. Does that still make him Indian? Or anyone else in the same boat?

  2. The perception that 'Malays are lazy' is significantly contributed to by its contrast with the Chinese 'life as a means to work' perspective. That which is predominant tends to simultaneously serve as the preferred paradigm from whence all good and evil is identified.

    Personally, I've said for quite some time to my chinese mates, 'the malays aren't lazy, they just have a more balanced view of the work-life interrelationship'.

  3. Hi Mustafa,

    Thanks for visiting and taking the time to write a comment.

    I hope it is not to late to break down stereotypes. Each one of us has to fight the profiling in our own small way. It may not change the entire world but it may change our own world - and make us feel better in the process.

    Your point about the relevance of race to a person's background is extremely pertinent. In the Singapore context, the race may be chosen more on the basis of practical implications (e.g. mother tongue at school) than relevance to identity. I am sure there are many people in situations similar to Russell Peters. (I have not heard of him before but will be looking him up in the future.)

    I hope to hear from you again soon.

    Kind regards,


  4. Hi Ed,

    It's great to hear from you. Thanks for taking the time to pen a comment.

    You are so right in highlighting the relevance of paradigm in defining the positive and negative - which is relative. Like in most things, too much work or too much play is not a good place to be.

    I speak for myself as a Libran, it is really difficult trying to find a balance! We seem to always be swinging from one extreme to another.

    I look forward to hearing from you again soon.

    Kind regards,