This is part 3 of 4. To read part 2, click here.
It saddens me that racism and xenophobia have been on the rise over the past few years.
But we need some perspective. Xenophobia is on the rise across the world. Consider the UK. From 2001 to 2010, the UK’s net annual migration rate averaged 0.3% of the population.
What happened there? Nationalism, xenophobia, the rise of Nigel Farage. Right now, there is a refugee crisis in Europe, and the UK is the most obstinate of all.
How about Singapore? Well, from 2001 to 2010, our migration rate was more than six times the UK’s.1 Six times!
This is not an apology for racism and xenophobia. We must always fight it. But we need to understand why these feelings emerge.
So, why has xenophobia been on the rise? One has to point the finger at the PAP. The party failed to manage inflows, infrastructure, integration and social equities.
Why did it fail? Many reasons, including politicians’ obsession with GDP growth at all costs.
Never discount the power of incentives. Politicians’ salaries have been tied to GDP growth—and it has been much easier for them to grow GDP by pumping in more inputs such as labour rather than through productivity improvements. (Oh, and of course it helps if the attendant property boom increases one’s net worth.)
Personal incentives, I guess, made it easier for Singaporean politicians to ignore all the negative externalities that growth-at-all-costs entailed.
So I always have a good laugh when my foreigner friends in Singapore cheer on the PAP while scolding Singaporeans for not being open. You can observe migrant integration challenges elsewhere. With the PAP’s policies, what did you expect might happen here?
But the truth is that the PAP has a long record of mismanaging populations policies. In the 1970s it told us to Stop at Two. In the 1980s it told graduates to procreate. In the 1990s it told us all to procreate. By 2000, it said that only mass immigration can save Singapore.
Antiquated ethnic worldview
The PAP’s ethnic policies are also problematic. Why must we continue to be labelled as Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others?
What a ridiculous situation we are in. Half of the people in this country are shoehorned into these fixed stereotypes of race, of language, forced to live according to quotas in housing estates.
The other half of the people here, including all the foreigners and many in private homes—they can do whatever they want. Speak whatever dialect. Live wherever they want.
Two halves. One side forced to accept the government-sanctioned identity. The other side free to be whoever they want. Is this what a global city looks like?
Well, the PAP will tell you that its ethnic policies are the base for Singapore’s success. Let me challenge this idea head on by referencing our idol, the one Singaporean revered the world over.
Yes, Tharman. I’m sure you remember the Youtube video of Stephen Sackur interviewing Tharman at St Gallen. My entire Facebook Feed was filled with Singaporeans gushing over Tharman. It certainly filled me with pride.
But let me challenge what Tharman said then about race. He claimed that the primary reason for Singapore’s ethnic harmony is because the PAP forces people of different races to live together.
Really? You mean that before the PAP came along, Chinese, Malays and Indians were fighting each other?
No. For centuries, Chinese, Malays and Indians co-existed harmoniously in Singapore, even though we lived apart. We ate each other’s food, we adopted each other’s dress, language, many people spoke Malay. Singapore is so small, that even if you don’t live together, you will see every race, every religion, every day.
Singapore’s first ever race riot was in 1964.2 Why? Partly because the PAP broke a promise and contested an election in Kuala Lumpur. This upset Malay nationalists. In other words, Singapore’s first ever race riot was partly the PAP’s doing.
To be fair, the 1950s-60s were unpredictable. Post colonialism, identity politics, tribalism, nationalism. And we are all grateful that the PAP wanted to challenge UMNO’s pro-Malay bias. But when Tharman says that ethnic harmony is the PAP’s doing, I think he needs a deeper appreciation of history.
Justifying media controls, Tharman then suggested that Singapore needs to guard against the kind of ethnic tensions seen in the French banlieues.
This is an absolutely absurd comparison. In France you have deep-seated animosity between a former coloniser—the French—and their former subjects—North Africans. How is that similar to the situation between Chinese, Malays and Indians in Singapore?
Similarly, last year PAP supporters cried, “Oh! Look what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri—conflict between blacks and whites. If we are not careful, Singapore might become like that.”
Really? In the US you have deep-seated animosity between former slave owners and former slaves. How exactly will Singapore become like that?
In a place like the US, we have seen constant racial tensions for centuries. In Singapore, by contrast, the status quo has been peace and harmony among the three races. If anything, the 1960s were a blip. Tharman and the PAP have co-opted our long-standing racial harmony as proof of their methods.
Now we should never be careless about race or religion in Singapore. We have a wonderful ethnic harmony here that must be preserved. But let’s not make ignorant, lazy assumptions about the roots of our harmony.
In fact, the PAP’s misguided worldview has resulted in THE most racist policy in the developed world: the need to maintain our Chinese majority.
I know a lot of new migrants from India, some are good friends. They are the PAP’s biggest fans (the feeling is mutual, if Bukit Batok is any indication).
But I like joking to them: do you know every time the PAP allows an Indian into Singapore, it has to import seven Chinese just to make sure Singapore doesn’t become too Indian?
A Malay friend told me he feels like he’s “living under apartheid”.
The funny thing is the main tensions in Singapore are not between the local Chinese, Malays and Indians, like the PAP has always warned us about. Many tensions are with the new Indian migrants and the new Chinese migrants, who are here in such big numbers because of the PAP.
And the biggest tension is social, between class and income groups.
But the PAP is blind to all this. It still tries to manage society with its 1960s worldview: Chinese, Malay, Indians, Others.
(Both the SDP and the WP, incidentally, call for an overhaul of this ethnic worldview.)
One final thought about population. We shouldn’t slam the migrants who come here. They are fellow humans, just like you and me. Even though the PAP’s immigration policies have been bad, the right response today is not to close our doors.
Yes, we must slow down the inflow. Yes, we must give preferences to citizens, just like every country in the world does. But please, we must never close our doors to migrants. Singapore must always remain open.
Let me finish this section with Tharman. For all his achievements, his could be seen as an ironic, tragic story of failed ambition. Many of us feel he deserves to be prime minister.
Instead, he chugs along, valiantly—and oh so eloquently—defending the very system that discriminates against him, that prevents him from fulfilling his potential.
This is part 3 of 4. To read part 4, click here.
2 Other riots before 1964, notably the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, were anti-colonial or class struggles
12 thoughts on “GE2015: Final thoughts (3 of 4)”
I enjoyed your analysis hugely, but my only problem is with this essay.
I think you overestimate how natural this peace is. As Malaysia shows (not just recent events, but events over its entire history), the peace between the 3 races are not a given. Sure, it’s exacerbated by the racial politics, but Malay-Chinese relations in many parts of SEA show that tension is natural and real.
Every time you have a culturally/racially diverse population, you need to manage the power relations between each component. And that is not easy. I think in this case the mainstream narrative is right. You can’t wish it away, and you can’t leave it to chance. You have to actively manage it.
I think your argument would be made stronger if you said “in addition to the current racial paradigm, Singapore has to figure out how to manage both class and global elite”.
Thanks for the feedback. I might have agreed with this in the 1960s-80s. But in today’s world I find it hard to. The costs (of ethnic classifications and quotas) are starting to outweigh any benefits. I do, however, agree with the government cracking down on extreme hate speech (race, religion, otherwise). Although at the moment we are too sensitive. Thanks again!
ignoring the fact that some religions are basically hate movements against certain genders, races and other religions too? No matter what their proponents may claim about being “peaceful” or “all-accepting”, their opposition against liberal movements and views about gender, women and the concept of the family betray what they preach.
i’d say we are way too sensitive! religion is but an idea, not an unchangeable trait such as race or sex – gender is admittedly changeable but that’s another debate.
I like most of your analysis. However I feel the examples you cited for ethnic tension are cherry-picked, even if that wasn’t intentional, to highlight those where there was a historical hierarchical relation of master vs dominion. There are other ethnic tensions without such history (in Malaysia bumiputera vs the rest, in Indonesia the marginalisation of ethnic Chinese, in many parts of the Western world the Moslem and the non-Moslem).
I don’t agree with Singapore’s current 4-ethnic way of managing the situation, but I do believe the concern on ethnic harmony is valid, and your examples citing France and USA don’t give a realistic weight on the probability of such risk.
Fair enough. My point, whose clarity was perhaps hampered by my inadequate explanation, is that we should think about ethnic tensions here in a reasoned way. Not by making comparisons to places such as France (Tharman) and the US (tons of people last year).
We all want ethnic harmony. But an accurate diagnosis is first needed. Which the PAP doesn’t give.
Thanks for the feedback, will elaborate better next time.
In fact, I would argue that Singapore was a more integrated society before the Mother Togue emphasis and the SAP schools came into being. Our parents who don’t know English picked Malays and made freids with Indians, Malays and Chinese including others.
“Singapore’s first ever race riot was in 1964.2 Why? Partly because the PAP broke a promise and contested an election in Kuala Lumpur.”
While true, it is worth noting that UMNO and the PAP had a mutual agreement to keep out of the other side’s politics. In 1963, UMNO was the first to break that mutual agreement by backing the SAP in our 1963 general elections, though it failed to win a single seat.
Could the PAP not have retaliated? Maybe. But I feel more secure knowing that the PAP took up the stand that if they messed with us, they had better deal with the consequences. Else, it would be a case of them pushing without being pushed back – until we fell and cracked our skulls.
I enjoy reading your article. However, I believe that the quota system is still relevant and important in today’s world. It is human nature to stay in their own group and race for security reason. Leave it to the people you will see certain race residing in Woodlands, Geylang Serai, another in Little India etc. In the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese were unwilling to stay in Marsiling as there were too Malay in that area (no disrespect to the race), they were afraid that their children will be influenced by them. The value of the flats were at that time the lowest in Singapore.
On Sunday in Orchard, do you see foreign workers like Filipinos, Indonesians, Chinese, Indians etc mixing and make friends with each other ? Many Singaporeans also don’t have good friend of another race.
What we are today is not achieved overnight, without the quota system we will slowly drift back to the same situation in the 80s and 90s again.
I do agree that PAP has to tweet their immigration policies, they hope that the 2nd and 3rd generation of the migrants will sink root in Singapore. Unlike our forefathers, many of them even their 2nd or 3rd generation may not sink root in Singapore. Thus, the immigration policies is not the answer to maintain or increase our population.
The only thing I disagreed with you on was the view that the housing quota is irrelevant. Here’s a pretty good simulation that shows that even a small preference to live with one’s own race, played out in a large scale, ends up leading to significant racial segregation.
Parable of the Polygons: http://ncase.me/polygons/
There is nothing wrong with ethnic neighborhoods Singapore’s ethnicity policies mean that most everyone lives in a Chinese neighborhood. If immigration is necessary there is no reason that China should be prioritized. There are many in India and Indonesia who could do the the same jobs equally as well.