According to the 2000 census, ethnic Chinese make up 76.8 percent of the population. The largest group are descendants of Hokkien-speaking migrants from southern Fujian Province in China. The second largest group are descendants of Teochiu speakers from northeastern Guangdong Province in China. The third largest group are those whose Yue-dialect ancestors came from the Guangzhou area of Guangdong Province. The Chinese population also includes Hakka (guest family) from upland areas of both Guangdong and Fujian and other groups from coastal areas of Fujian. The remainder of Singapore’s population is Malay (13.9 percent), Indian (mostly Tamil, 7.9 percent), or other (1.4 percent).

Since the city's foundation in 1819, Singapore's population has been polyglot and multiethnic. Chinese have been in the majority since 1830 but have themselves been divided into sometimes antagonistic segments speaking mutually unintelligible Chinese languages. The colonial society was compartmented into ethnic and linguistic groups, which were in turn associated with distinct political and economic functions. Singapore has never had a dominant culture to which immigrants could assimilate nor a common language. This was the foundation upon which the efforts of the government and ruling party to create a common Singaporean identity in the 1970s and 1980s rested. *

On July 1989 Singapore's 2,674,362 residents were divided into 2,043,213 Chinese (76.4 percent), 398,480 Malays (14.9 percent), 171,160 Indians (6.4 percent), and 61,511 others (2.3 percent). The proportions of the ethnic components had remained substantially unchanged since the 1920s. Although the ethnic categories were meaningful in the Singaporean context, each subsumed much more internal variation than was suggested by the term "race." Chinese included people from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as Chinese from all the countries of Southeast Asia, including some who spoke Malay or English as their first language. The Malays included not only those from peninsular Malaya, but also immigrants or their descendants from various parts of the Indonesian archipelago, such as Sumatra, the Riau Islands south of Singapore, Java, and Sulawesi. Those people who in Indonesia were members of such distinct ethnic groups as Acehnese, Minangkabau, Buginese, Javanese, or Sundanese were in Singapore all considered "Malays." Indians comprised people stemming from anywhere in pre-1947 British India, the present states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and from Sri Lanka and Burma. Singapore's Indian "race" thus contained Tamils, Malayalis, Sikhs, Gujaratis, Punjabis, and others from the subcontinent who shared neither physical appearance, language, nor religion. *


Ethnicity in Singapore

Because Singapore was a small society open to influence from the West through the English language and subject to the homogenizing effects of modernization and industrialization, the persistence of ethnicity as a fundamental element of its social structure was by no means assured. By the late 1980s ethnic affiliations were in many ways less significant than they had been in 1970 or 1940, and the lives of members of distinct ethnic groups had more and more common elements. In Singapore, as elsewhere, the forces of standardized education, impartial application of laws and regulations, common subordination to the impersonal discipline of the factory and the office, common pursuit of leisure activities, and exposure to international mass media resulted in many shared attitudes among ethnic groups. [Source: Library of Congress]

Studies of factory workers in Malaysia and Singapore, for example, found no marked differences in the attitudes and performance of Chinese and Malays. Psychological profiles of a cohort of poorly educated young Chinese who had held a succession of unskilled jobs before induction into the armed forces resembled those of equally poorly educated and unskilled Malays. Foreign popular culture seemed equally tempting or equally threatening to young Singaporeans of all ethnic groups. Ethnic boundaries persisted, especially where they corresponded with religious distinctions, and were evident in the continuing low rate of ethnic intermarriage. In daily life, however, the significance of ethnic affiliation had apparently diminished from the levels of previous generations. *

Most people marry within their ethnic group. There is some intermarriage, particularly between Chinese and Indian. "Gaps" in income and education levels exist between Singapore's different ethnic groups. In the early days of Singapore, ethnic groups lived in their own little enclaves. That is less the case today. Every public housing unit is like a microcosm of Singapore because law mandates that they be 75 percent Chinese, 15 percent Malay and the remainder Indian and other ethnic groups—the same ethnic make up Singapore as a whole. A report on making Singapore less boring and more creative, urged promoting ethnic identity.

Ethnicity and the Government in Singapore

Singapore's main ethnic communities have generally co-existed peacefully since independence in 1965, with the Government placing a high priority on promoting racial harmony.

Government policies were a major factor in the continuation of ethnicity as an organizing principle of Singapore's society. On the one hand, the government and the ruling party acted to break up ethnic enclaves, to provide public services to members of all ethnic groups, and to reshape society with the network of People's Association Community Centers, Residents' Committees, and Members of Parliament Constituent Advisory Groups. On the other hand, the government's ideology defined Singaporeans as members of component ethnic groups, and its various ministries listed everyone's "race" on their identity card and all official records, and remained very concerned with such matters as the ethnic mix in apartment complexes. Official statistics usually included breakdowns by "race," indicating an assumption that such categorization was significant. National holidays featured displays of the distinctive traditional cultures of the major ethnic groups, represented by costumes, songs, and dances. Pupils in secondary schools took required courses in the ethics and religion of their designated traditional culture — Confucian ethics for the Chinese, Islamic studies for the Malays, Hindu or Sikh studies for the Indians, and Buddhism or Bible study as options open to all. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Although state policies reinforced ethnic boundaries and the habit of ethnic categorization, they had little effect on the content of the ethnic categories. Ethnic identity was acted out on a daily basis through an extensive network of ethnically exclusive associations. Many Malay and Indian associations took a religious form, such as mosque and endowment management committees, sharia (Muslim law) courts, Hindu temple committees and the high-level Hindu Advisory Board, which represented Hindus to the government. An example of the reinforcement of ethnic identity was provided by the groups of Indian employees in one government department who distinguished themselves from their Malay and Chinese coworkers by jointly sponsoring festivals at a major Hindu temple. All ethnic groups had their own education and charitable associations as well as higher-order federations of such associations whose officers were the recognized community leaders. Singapore law required all associations of ten or more persons to be registered with the government, which supervised and could dissolve them. Trade unions, financial, education, and religious bodies were supervised by the appropriate government departments, and the catch-all Registry of Societies listed all associations that did not come under the authority of a specialized department. In 1987 3,750 associations were under the Registry of Societies. *

Malays in Singapore

The Malay made up 15 percent of Singapore's population and were, like the Chinese and the Indians, descendants of immigrants. They or their ancestors came from peninsular Malaya, Sumatra, Java, and the other islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Although very much a part of Singapore's modernizing society, the Malays conspicuously occupied the bottom rungs of that society; their position illustrated a correlation between ethnicity and class that presented a major potential threat to social stability. [Source: Library of Congress]

Some Malays say they are second-class citizens. Malays lag behind ethnic Chinese and Indians in terms of income and higher education, while there are complaints that Muslim men are excluded from sensitive military roles.

With the lowest level of educational attainment of any ethnic group, the Malays were concentrated at the low end of the occupational hierarchy and had average earnings that were 70 percent of those of Chinese. Malays had a higher crime rate than other groups and in 1987 accounted for 47 percent of the heroin addicts arrested. The 1980 census showed that 86 percent of the Malay work force was in the clerical, service, and production sector; 45 percent of all employed Malays worked on assembly lines, largely in foreign-owned electronics factories. Only 8 percent of all professional and technical workers (including schoolteachers), and 2 percent of all administrative and managerial personnel were Malays. Malays dropped out of the competitive school system in large numbers, and those who continued past primary school were concentrated in vocational education programs. In 1980 they made up only 1.5 percent of all university graduates and 2.5 percent of students enrolled in higher education. *

In sharp contrast to neighboring Malaysia with its policies of affirmative action for the Malay majority, Singapore's government insisted that no ethnic group would receive special treatment and that all citizens had equal rights and equal opportunities. The potential threat, however, posed by the overlap between Malay ethnicity and low educational achievement and occupational status, was clear. Demonstrating the Singaporean propensity for discussing social affairs in terms of "race," both government spokesmen and Malay intellectuals tended to attribute the Malays' economic position and educational performance to something inherent in the Malay personality or culture, or to their supposed "rural" attitudes. The ways in which lower income and ill-educated Malays resembled or differed from the very many lower income and ill- educated Chinese, who had very different cultural backgrounds, were not addressed. *

History of Malays in Singapore

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Java was much more densely populated than peninsular Malaya, and its people had a significantly lower standard of living. From the mid-nineteenth century to the period just after World War II, many Javanese migrated to Singapore, attracted both by urban wages offering a higher living standard and by freedom from the constraints of their native villages, where they often occupied the lower reaches of the economic and social order. Singapore Malay community leaders estimated that some 50 to 60 percent of the community traced their origins to Java and an additional 15 to 20 percent to Bawean Island, in the Java Sea north of the city of Surabaya. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The 1931 census recorded the occupations of 18 percent of the Malays as fishermen and 12 percent as farmers; the remaining 70 percent held jobs in the urban cash economy, either in public service or as gardeners, drivers, or small-scale artisans and retailers. The British colonialists had considered the Malays as simple farmers and fishermen with strong religious faith and a "racial" tendency toward loyalty and deference; they preferentially recruited the Malays to the police, the armed forces, and unskilled positions in the public service. In 1961 more than half of Singapore's Malays depended on employment in the public sector. Although the colonial stereotype of the Malays as rural people with rural attitudes persisted, Singapore's Malay residents were for the most part no more rural than any other residents. Malay identity was couched in religious terms, with Malay being taken almost as a synonym for Muslim, and most Malay organizations taking a religious form. *

After independence, the government regarded the Malay preponderance in the police and armed forces as disproportionate and a potential threat to security and acted to make the security forces more representative of the society as a whole, which meant in practice replacing Malays by Chinese. The government's drive to break up ethnic enclaves and resettle kampong dwellers in Housing and Development Board apartment complexes had a great effect on the Malays. Evidence of the convergence of Malay patterns of living with those of the rest of the population was provided by population statistics, which showed the Malay birth and death rates, originally quite high, to be declining. In the 1940s, Malay women had married early, had many children, and were divorced and remarried with great frequency. By the 1980s, Malays were marrying later, bearing fewer children (2.05 per woman for mid-1986 to mid- 1987), and divorcing less frequently. By the 1980s, a large proportion of Malay women were working outside the home, which was a major social change. Many young women in their late teens and early to mid-twenties were employed in factories operated by multinational corporations, which, unlike the small-scale Chinese shops and workshops that had dominated the economy into the 1960s, paid no attention to ethnicity in hiring. Even Malay fishing communities on the offshore islands, which appeared to preserve the traditional way of life, were in the 1980s losing population as young people moved to Singapore Island, attracted by urban life and unskilled jobs that offered higher and more reliable incomes than fishing. *

Efforts to Raise Education Levels and Status of Malays in Singapore

In 1982 the prime minister defined Malays' educational difficulties as a national problem and so justified government action to improve their educational performance. The colonial government had provided free but minimal education, in the Malay language, to Malays but not to Chinese or Indians, on the grounds that the Chinese and Indian residents of Singapore, even those born there, were sojourners. In the colonial period most English- language schools were run by churches or missionaries, and many Malays avoided them for fear of Christian proselytization. Although after independence schooling in Singapore was not free (fees were generally low, but the government felt that people would not value education if they did not pay something for it), Malays continued to receive free primary education. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In 1960 that benefit was extended to secondary and higher education, although the free schooling was offered only to those the government defined as Malay, which excluded immigrant Indonesians whom the Malays regarded as part of their community. Throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s, most Malay children continued to attend schools that taught only in Malay, or, if they taught English at all, did so quite poorly. Opportunities for secondary and higher education in the Malay language were very limited. Although many Malays were employed in the public service or as drivers or servants for foreign employers, in almost all cases the language used at work was the grammatically and lexically simplified tongue called Bazaar Malay. *

Throughout the 1970s, relatively few Malays knew English, a language that became progressively more necessary for high-paying professional and technical jobs. Substantial numbers of the Chinese knew no more English than the Malays, but they found employment in the extensive sector of Chinese commerce and small-scale industry where hiring demanded command of a Chinese regional language and personal recommendation. The former Malay economic niche in the military and police forces was eliminated in the late 1960s and 1970s, and the large number of Malays who had been employed by the British armed forces at British naval and other military facilities lost those secure and well-paying positions when the British withdrew from Singapore from 1970 to 1975. Such factors as poor command of English, limited availability of secondary and postsecondary education in Malay, and the loss of public-sector jobs accounted for much of the low economic position of the Malay community in 1980. *

In 1981 Malay community leaders, alarmed by the results of the 1980 census that demonstrated the concentration of Malays in the lower reaches of the occupational hierarchy, formed a foundation called Mendaki, an acronym for Majlis Pendidikan Anak-anak Islam (Council for the Education of Muslim Children). Mendaki (ascent in Malay), devoted itself to providing remedial tuition classes for Malay children in primary and secondary school, offering scholarships for living expenses and loans for higher education, attempting to encourage parents to take a more active role in their children's education, and holding public ceremonies to honor Malay students who excelled in examinations or graduated from academic secondary schools or universities. Government support for Mendaki took the form of financing the organization through a special voluntary checkoff on the monthly contribution of Muslim workers to the Central Provident Fund, and through unspecified other public donations. *

Throughout the 1980s, both the number of Malay students in selective secondary schools and institutions of higher education and the proportion of Malays passing and scoring well on standardized examinations slowly increased. As with the changes in birth rates, it was difficult to separate the effects of such government-sponsored programs as those of Mendaki from other factors, including increased female participation in the work force, residence in apartment complexes rather than kampong housing, exposure to television and radio, smaller family size, and better teaching in the schools. *

The use of a voluntary checkoff on the monthly Central Provident Fund contribution as a means of raising Malay educational funds was characteristic of Singapore in the 1980s. Malays, like other Singaporeans, were assumed to have regular employment and salaries, and their distinctive Malay and Muslim concerns were efficiently and equitably addressed through a computerized government program. *

Indians in Singapore

The Indians, although a component of Singapore's society since its founding, were in the 1980s its most immigrant-like community. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Indian men had worked in Singapore, sending money home to families and wives in India, whom they would visit every few years. Indian women and complete Indian families were rare before World War II, and the Indian sex ratio in 1931 was 5,189 men for every 1,000 women. The 1980 census showed 1,323 Indian men for every 1,000 women; most of the surplus males were over age 60. In the 1980s, the "Little India" off Serangoon Road contained many dormitories where elderly single men lived, as well as some shops and workshops whose owners, in the traditional pattern, housed and fed a workforce of middleaged and elderly men who might or might not have wives and children in India or Sri Lanka. Significant issues for the Indian community included securing residence status, citizenship, or entrance for the Indian families of men who had worked in Singapore for decades and for the Brahman priests who were necessary for Hindu religious life. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The main group of Indian in Malaysia and Singapore are Tamils. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the Indian population of Singapore are Tamils originally from southeastern India's Tamil Nadu state and to a lesser extent from Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. Many came from South India and Sri Lanka during the 20th century to work as laborers at rubber, palm and tea plantations. Many Tamils are now professionals.

The great diversity of the Indian populace was indicated by the census category "other Indians," who made up a substantial 19 percent of the group, followed by Malayalis (8 percent); Punjabis, mostly Sikh (8 percent); and Gujaratis (1 percent). There are also significant numbers of Telugus, Pathans and Malayalis. The number of Bengalis is relatively small.

Like the Straits Chinese, some of Singapore's Indians adopted English as a first language, a change facilitated by the widespread use of English in India, where it had become another Indian language. Indians were the most religiously diverse of Singapore's ethnic categories; an estimated 50 to 60 percent were Hindu, 20 to 30 percent Muslim, l2 percent Christian, 7 percent Sikh, and 1 percent Buddhist. Indian immigrants, like those of other nationalities, had been primarily recruited from among poor farmers and laborers, which meant that they included a large proportion (perhaps onethird ) of untouchables. In Singapore untouchables were usually referred to by the more polite Tamil term Adi-Dravidas, meaning pre-Dravidians. Although Tamils made up nearly two-thirds of the Indian population and Tamil was one of the country's four official languages (along with English, Malay, and Mandarin Chinese), by 1978 more Indians claimed to understand Malay (97 percent) than Tamil (79 percent). The 20 to 30 percent of the Indian population who were Muslims tended to intermarry with Malays at a fairly high rate and to be absorbed into the Malay community, continuing a centuries-old process of assimilation of Indian males to Malay society. *

The linguistic and religious diversity of the Indian population was matched by their high degree of occupational differentiation. Indians were represented at all levels of the occupational hierarchy in numbers roughly proportional to their share of the total population. Within the Indian category, occupational and education attainment was far from equitably distributed. The untouchables for the most part did unskilled or semiskilled labor, while the Jaffna Tamils and the Chettia caste, who were traditionally moneylenders and merchants, were often professionals and wealthy businessmen. After World War II, caste received no public recognition in Singapore. Untouchables were free to enter Hindu temples, and food was distributed at temple festivals without regard for relative degrees of purity and pollution. Members of the Indian community were reluctant to discuss caste in public, but it continued to play a decisive role in marriage arrangements. The Indians were the most likely of all ethnic groups to attempt to arrange marriages for their children, or at least to restrict the choice of marriage partners to acceptable caste categories. Although the relatively small size of the Indian population and the disparate mixture of local caste groups from large areas of southern India made it difficult for most families to insist on strict caste endogamy (marrying only within the caste), Hindu marriages were made within a tripartite hierarchy. The highest level was occupied by Brahmans and Chettias, who attempted to maintain caste endogamy or at least to marry only members of other high castes. Mid-level caste Hindus intermarried with little difficulty, but the marriages of low-caste or outcaste category of former hereditary washermen, barbers, and untouchables were restricted to their own circle

Muslims in Singapore

Muslims make up about 14 percent of the population, making Islam the second-largest religion in Singapore after Buddhism. They are mostly Muslim Malays but also including some Muslims of Indian decent. Muslims have their own religious and civil organizations such as the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore and Registry of Muslim Marriages. According to the Financial Times government officials have said they have promoted Islam by paying for the building of mosques and subsidising Islamic schools. But critics note limits are placed on the number allowed to attend religious classes, while the state funding of Muslim organisations means greater government control over them.

The Singapore Muslim Religious Council (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura) played a very important role in the organization of Islamic affairs and therefore of the Malay community. Authorized by the 1966 Administration of Muslim Law Act, the council, composed of members nominated by Muslim societies but appointed by the president of Singapore, was formally a statutory board that advised the president on all matters relating to the Muslim religion. It acted to centralize and standardize the practice of Islam. The council administered all Muslim trusts (wafs); organized a computerized and centralized collection of tithes and obligatory gifts (zakat harta and zakat fitrah); and managed all aspects of the pilgrimage to Mecca, including registering pilgrims, obtaining Saudi Arabian visas, and making airline reservations. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The council also helped the government reorganize the mosque system after redevelopment. Before the massive redevelopment and rehousing of the 1970s and 1980s, Singapore's Muslims were served by about ninety mosques, many of which had been built and were funded and managed by local, sometimes ethnically based, communities. Redevelopment destroyed both the mosques and the communities that had supported them, scattering the people through new housing estates. The council, in consultation with the government, decided not to rebuild the small mosques but to replace them with large central mosques. Construction funds came from a formally voluntary contribution collected along with the Central Provident Fund deduction paid by all employed Muslims. The new central mosques could accommodate 1,000 to 2,000 persons and provided such services as kindergartens, religious classes, family counseling, leadership and community development classes, tuition and remedial instruction for school children, and Arabic language instruction. *

The government had regulated Muslim marriages and divorces since 1880, and the 1957 Muslim Ordinance authorized the establishment of the centralized Sharia Court, with jurisdiction over divorce and inheritance cases. The court, under the Ministry of Community Development, replaced a set of government-licensed but otherwise unsupervised kathi (Islamic judges) who had previously decided questions of divorce and inheritance, following either the traditions of particular ethnic groups or their own interpretations of Muslim law. The court attempted to consistently enforce sharia law, standard Islamic law as set out in the Quran and the decisions of early Muslim rulers and jurists, and to reduce the high rate of divorce among Malays. In 1989 the Singapore Muslim Religious Council took direct control of the subjects taught in Islamic schools and of the Friday sermons given at all mosques. *



Discussions of race are a sensitive subject in Singapore. There are laws against saying anything negative about religious and ethnic groups. People of European descent used to be called “ang moh”. It literally means redhead bit was used to describe any non-Asian-looking foreigner.

In April 2012, Associated Press reported: Singapore's prime minister warned against growing anti-immigrant sentiment inflamed by a Chinese student's insults, telling his countrymen Thursday to avoid stereotypes and not feel resentment toward foreigners. Sun Xu, a student from China who was on a Singapore government scholarship, was fined last month by the National University of Singapore for calling the city-state's citizens "dogs" on his blog. Sun apologised, but was ordered to work three months of community service and had his scholarship revoked. "We shouldn't because of one incident make that into an issue, that all immigrants are like that, or that all Singaporeans should feel like that toward non-Singaporeans," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview on state-owned Channel NewsAsia. [Source: AP, April 5, 2012]

The government in recent years has faced a growing backlash against a surge of foreigners who now account for about a third of Singapore's work force. Resentment toward the government's loose immigration policies helped lower the vote won by the ruling People's Action Party to its lowest level since independence in 1965 during parliamentary elections last May. Since the election, the government has sought to quell discontent by pledging to favour Singaporeans in education and housing policies. Singapore bans public speech about race and religion, arguing the restrictions are necessary to maintain peace in the multi-ethnic island nation of 5 million people.

See Bus Strike, Foreign Workers

Race Riots in Singapore in 1964

The 1950s and 60s in Malaysia and Singapore were characterized by political battles between Chinese and Malays, violent race riots and street battles and a Communist insurgency that had racial and religious overtones. Singapore was embroiled in a fierce struggle between communists and Lee Kuan Yew's anticommunist People's Action Party.

There were two race riots in 1964. On July 21, 1964, fighting between Malay and Chinese youths during a Muslim procession celebrating the Prophet Muhammad's birthday erupted into racial riots, in which twenty-three people were killed and hundreds injured. In September Indonesian agents provoked communal violence in which 12 people were killed and 100 were injured. Frustrated Malay immigrants sparked the riots. In Singapore, which normally prided itself on the peace and harmony among its various ethnic groups, shock and disbelief followed in the wake of the violence. Both Lee Kuan Yew and Tengku Abdul Rahman toured the island in an effort to restore calm, and they agreed to avoid wrangling over sensitive issues for two years.

Discrimination Pervasive in Singapore Rental Market

In November 2011, Sam Holmes and Shibani Mahtani wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “A three-bedroom condominium for rent in Singapore’s cosmopolitan Claymore Hill area in the central part of the island boasts a pool, a gymnasium, and proximity to the Orchard Road shopping district. It would be a great catch for any high income family – unless you happen to be Indian. The listing, which appeared November 3 on the Property Guru classified listings website, beckons prospective tenants to “search no more” but adds the following caveat: “Accept all race, except indian sorry no offence (sic).” [Source: Sam Holmes and Shibani Mahtani, Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2011 ]

“While multiracial Singapore has established an enviable reputation worldwide for its social harmony in recent decades — especially compared with its more conflict-prone regional neighbors – racial discrimination remains an unabashed fact of life in the city-state’s residential rental market. A significant number of property advertisements on rental websites such as Singapore-based Property Guru or Craigslist specify that no Indians, ‘PRCs’ (from the People’s Republic of China) or Malays be allowed to rent various properties. Some ads also specify that Japanese, Caucasian or Chinese tenants are preferred. Although the number of listings with such requests varies over time, a recent search for rental ads on one property site that stated preferences against tenants from mainland China alone yielded an estimated 200 such listings from over the past month.

“Such specifications are not illegal under Singaporean law, though they are officially discouraged for rental properties and are, at times, questioned by residents. “Certainly, the ads’ specification against people of certain races or nationalities is discriminatory. It flows from certain stereotypes of specific categories of people,” said Eugene Tan, a professor of law at the Singapore Management University. But “it is not illegal in the Singapore context as landlords are free to specify their requirements.”

“Singapore’s Council of Estate Agents, a statutory board under the purview of the government’s Ministry of National Development, says it doesn’t condone racial discrimination. It also said in a response to queries from The Wall Street Journal that it has advertising guidelines in place to prevent discrimination, but “some landlords have explained that they face practical considerations renting out their properties, leading to certain requirements in rental transactions.” It did not specify what those considerations were.”

Housing Rules and Ethnicity in Singapore

In November 2011, Sam Holmes and Shibani Mahtani wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The government has long used strict rules governing who can buy properties – though not over who can rent them – to help ensure social order and encourage racial and cultural integration. Most of the city-state’s residences – about 80 percent — are government Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, which are Singapore’s version of public housing. Such flats can only be sold to Singaporeans or permanent residents, and are regulated by an Ethnic Integration Policy, which sets limits on the number of Chinese, Malays and Indians – Singapore’s three main ethnic groups – in each public housing block and neighborhood so as to maintain a roughly even ethnic distribution across the island.” [Source: Sam Holmes and Shibani Mahtani, Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2011 ]

“In 2010, HDB added newer rules that limit the number of units in a building that can be sold to some permanent residents, which includes foreigners who have met many, but not all, of the requirements to become full citizens. While discriminatory in practice, the government’s policies on ethnic integration in the public housing market have generally been accepted both locally and internationally as their broader aims are seen as working toward a greater degree of social harmony and cultural acceptance. However, these quotas and limits do not apply to either the public or private rental markets, nor for purchases of private residential units outside the HDB scheme.

“The local Council of Estate Agents’ guidelines include admonitions against marketing tactics that “indicate preference for any race or religion in all advertisements, unless it is to comply with the Ethnic Integration Policy which aims to achieve a balanced ethnic mix among the various ethnic communities living in public housing estates.” However, there are no hard laws on the matter and no punishments.

“Despite those guidelines, advertising considered discriminatory by some residents in both the public and private rental markets is still very visible on many property-listings websites. Property Guru says it employs a team to moderate the more than 100,000 listings on its site to check against “racist or anti-social content” that contravenes Singapore’s anti-sedition and racial harmony laws. But it still makes allowances for clients to request their preferences even when it comes to race and ethnicity. “We understand that agents have to take care of their clients’ preferences,” said a spokesperson from Property Guru, adding that if any listing is found to be racist or anti-social, agents are contacted and told to amend the information.

Discriminatory Housing Rules Often Reflects Worries About Cooking Styles

In November 2011, Sam Holmes and Shibani Mahtani wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “In some cases, the discrimination revolves around worries about residents’ cooking styles, which sometimes rely heavily on odor-intensive oils and spices. In those instances, Property Guru suggests agents and landlords use less-divisive language to address such concerns but its policies stop short of prohibiting such ads outright. Instead of saying ‘No Indian or No Malay Allowed,’ (the ad) can be put as ‘light cooking allowed’ or ‘owner prefers (tenants) who do not do Asian cooking,” the spokesperson explained. [Source: Sam Holmes and Shibani Mahtani, Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2011 ]

“Even if those changes are made, though, discrimination can still occur in other ways. For example, a Canadian professional of Indian origin who works in Singapore said even landlords and agents that don’t explicitly discriminate in advertisements still do so later on in the application process. “It’s understandable if they have an issue with Indians who cook, for example, but to generalize based on just your ethnicity is unfair,” the Canadian, who chose to remain anonymous, said. The man recalled one incident in which an agent said, “but you look Indian, let me check with the landlord if Indian is okay.”

“Agents will also often ask prospective tenants to provide details of their race in their rental applications. “Many times they are still willing to meet if you respond ‘Indian’ but sometimes they say ‘profile not suitable’,” he continued. Experts say that while the “market decides” on rental properties in Singapore, the government can exert moral suasion on landlords not to discriminate, though it is hard to legislate in such an area. “The issue is more an ethical one than a legal one,” said SMU’s Mr. Tan. “To be sure, such ads do work against existing efforts at racial and religious integration here in Singapore (and) also work against Singapore’s efforts to attract immigrants to live and work here.”

Online Racial and Religious Taunting in Singapore

In November 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported: “Singapore prides itself as being a harmonious multiracial metropolis, but a spate of controversial Internet postings hints at simmering tensions beneath its rosy façade. Police are currently investigating three offensive Facebook posts, all of which are directed against the island nation’s minority Malay Muslim community. The complaints have stirred public hand-wringing on the character of racial and religious relations in the city-state. [Source: Wall Street Journal, November 25, 2011 ]

“The former UK (British) colony, home to a broad historical migrant mix mainly from China, the Malay archipelago and India, retains bitter memories of racial turmoil in 1950s and ’60s, when deadly riots contributed to Singapore’s exit from Muslim-majority Malaysia in 1965 to become an independent state. Its current resident population of 3.79 million citizens and permanent residents is about 74 percent ethnic Chinese, 13 percent Malay and 9 percent Indian.

“While no major ethnic violence has occurred here since 1969, discord has surfaced intermittently. Some incidents have even drawn the use of colonial-era anti-sedition laws, most recently in 2009, when a couple was jailed for eight weeks for distributing Christian tracts that portrayed the Prophet Mohammed negatively to a number of Muslim Singaporeans. Singapore law broadly defines sedition as acts agitating against the government and the administration of justice, fostering discontent among citizens, and promoting hostility between ethnic groups. Formal charges have yet to be brought in the latest complaints, which aren’t the first allegations leveled against offensive online postings. Nonetheless they have drawn attention to official policy on race and religious relations, and the travails of policing a fast-evolving social media landscape.

“The first involved Jason Neo, a 30-year-old member of the ruling People’s Action Party’s youth wing, who posted on Facebook a photograph of Malay Muslim schoolchildren captioned: “Bus filled with young terrorist trainees?” The second involved a conscript in Singapore’s military, Christian Eliab Ratnam, who posted on Facebook an image criticizing Islam, including claims that it is an “authoritarian, political doctrine.” Blogger Donaldson Tan, 28, became subject to police inquiries last week after re-posting an image of a pig — pork is taboo in Islam — superimposed on the Kaaba, a sacred Islamic building in Mecca, prompting even the Ministry of Home Affairs to release a rare statement on the issue. In a similar case early last year, two teenagers were detained and issued warnings for malicious remarks made against Indians on a Facebook group.

On similar posting In 2012, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “A senior executive of National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Amy Cheong made a racially-insensitive rant on Facebook against Malays holding long, noisy weddings at public void decks. One posting was laden with expletives that have become all too familiar online these days. The Malaysian-born Australian was fired a day later as NTUC assistant director in the membership department despite her public apology. It drew criticism from ministers, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who called on Netizens to show respect to each other. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, November 3, 2012]

“The right to free speech does not extend to making remarks that incite racial and religious friction and conflict. The authorities take a very serious view of all instances of racial and religious incitement,” a government statement on the matter said. “The public should let the investigations take their course and refrain from adding comments that may further inflame the situation.”

Mr. Neo, who posted the photograph in February before he joined the Young PAP, has since apologized and quit the party, while Mr Ratnam offered a mea culpa and has deactivated his Facebook account. Mr Tan, however, denied wrongdoing, saying he re-posted the image to warn against such deliberately provocative acts.

But some observers argue social media had less to do with the latest incidents than the government’s own paternalistic and restrictive approach to race and religious relations. “The real reason true harmony in Singapore has remained superficial is because the state does not permit mature discourse to address the reality of racism, choosing instead avoidance of any remarks on race- and religion-related issues,” sociopolitical blog the Online Citizen said last week in an editorial.

Michael Barr, an academic and Singapore expert at Australia’s Flinders University, said official policies like the establishment of Chinese schools and the focus on ethnicity in public administration have undermined the government’s genuine efforts to promote harmony. “Through ignorance and lack of interaction, many young people in the Chinese majority actually don’t know any non-Chinese…the only way that many of them know anything about Malays and Muslims is through what they read and hear – and it isn’t a pretty picture,” Mr Barr said.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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