Commentary: Here’s how far Singapore has come in making 'regardless of race' a lived reality for all
Singapore has become more accepting of other races and there are plans to enshrine anti-discrimination into law. The Institute of Policy Studies’ Mathew Mathews and Samantha Nah give their take on our journey to a society free from racial discrimination.
SINGAPORE: “Regardless of race, language or religion” – we affirm our collective aspiration for Singapore every time we recite the national pledge. More than 55 years after the pledge was rolled out, how far have we come?
A series of high-profile racist incidents in 2021 shook Singapore, including a former lecturer making racist remarks to an interracial couple and a man charged over a racially aggravated attack against a 55-year-old Singaporean Indian woman.
We aren’t the only ones struck by the gap between our aspiration and lived reality. These incidents put minority experiences in the workplace, on the rental market and other parts of daily life back into the spotlight and renewed public discussion.
Still, we think there is reason to believe our society isn’t that far from making “regardless of race” a lived reality for all in Singapore.
About half of respondents believe there is no longer racial discrimination in Singapore or that this can be achieved within the next 10 years, according to data from the recently concluded 2021 CNA-IPS Survey on Race Relations. Crucially, this view was consistent across Chinese, Malay and Indian respondents.
Where racial discrimination can take on myriad forms and be felt in everyday aspects of our lives, it’s worth taking a closer look at where we’ve made progress (or not) since 2016, when this survey was first conducted.
POSITIVE SIGNS WE’RE HEADED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Significantly, more people have become accepting of other races in various roles in the private and public spheres, such as a new family member, a business partner or positions of public office.
Minorities have generally been more accepting of the Chinese in such roles, partly as a matter of proportion of the population. The Chinese tend to be less accepting of minority races in such roles, but even then, the 2021 data shows progress.
Almost twice as many Chinese respondents would accept a Malay (47 per cent) or Indian (48 per cent) person marrying into the family, up from 24 per cent and 21 per cent respectively five years earlier. More Chinese would also accept a Malay (52 per cent) or Indian (53 per cent) person helping to manage their business, up from 38 per cent and 42 per cent respectively in 2016.
One important finding is that a large majority of the Chinese are now comfortable with a Singaporean Malay (79 per cent) or Singaporean Indian (80 per cent) President. This marks a rise from 59 per cent and 68 per cent respectively in 2016.
The reserved presidential election in 2017 sparked many conversations about minority representation in politics. At the time, much was made about how the Chinese were not accepting of a non-Chinese leader.
But over time, seeing President Halimah Yacob on the world stage and weighing in on topics of national interest may have helped galvanise this shift towards greater acceptance and put earlier apprehensions to rest. We cannot underestimate how signals from government policy can shape racial sentiments and help society achieve greater equality.
EFFORTS STILL NEEDED TO COMBAT DISCRIMINATION
Greater acceptance certainly does not mean discrimination no longer happens.
Respondents were still most accepting of Singaporeans of the same race, but this can be problematic when about a fifth of Malay and Indian respondents indicated they had lost out on a job due to their race at least once (for example by requiring Mandarin speakers when it is unclear if this is a genuine business requirement), compared to 5 per cent of Chinese respondents saying the same.
Workplace discrimination needs to be dealt with head-on and legislation is one such systemic way.
So the recent announcement that the Government will enshrine anti-discrimination Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) guidelines into new laws is significant. There are currently no specific laws which directly regulate workplace discrimination.
Though our survey shows that 38 per cent would not report being treated unfairly in any context to the authorities, new legislation gives the guidelines “more teeth”. It increases awareness of actions that can be taken against workplace discrimination, provides clarity of process and protections for those who level complaints against employers.
LAWS ALONE WON’T ADDRESS OUR BLIND SPOTS
Ultimately, laws focus on bad behaviour. We can only progress to be more racially equal if we also challenge and address the underlying racist tendencies in our society.
More people (56 per cent) now consider racism an important problem, compared to 46 per cent in 2016. This does not necessarily mean racism is on the rise, but that there is greater awareness of racial bias and injustice in our lives and possibly, greater will to challenge it.
Since 2016, in fact, people perceive the level of racism to have fallen, with 39 per cent indicating that most Singaporean Chinese were at least mildly racist (down from 56 per cent) and similar drops in this sentiment toward Singaporean Malays and Indians.
We seem to have become both more likely to be aware of and account for others’ cultural needs and are able to determine what constitutes racism per se in our local context.
Fewer of us think it is never acceptable to offer food to someone of another race without considering if they have dietary requirements, likely chalking it up to being impolite instead of racist.
From colleagues speaking in Mandarin or non-halal food at parties, sensitivities about race can be stoked by small things, says Sabrina Shiraz on CNA's Heart of the Matter:
But one glaring potential blind spot is that we tend to see ourselves and our close circles as less racist than others in society.
A pessimistic view of this might be that people are deluded when evaluating their own level of racism. But it’s not new that context and familiarity can influence whether we perceive people and actions as racist.
The challenge will be in how we, as individuals, view unacceptable actions with more maturity and address them even if they come from those closest to us. As a society, we need to continue soliciting views from diverse groups, including those who bear the brunt of racial discrimination.
Another contradiction that we’ve observed is that some, though slightly fewer in 2021, objected to having more conversations about race, on the basis that it may cause unnecessary tension to arise in society. Slightly more than half of the respondents indicated they were tired of talking about race and racism.
But we can take heart that a large majority want political leaders to talk openly about racism to help work through societal problems, and that younger respondents tend to want more public dialogues.
PARADOX OF A MULTICULTURAL MERITOCRATIC SOCIETY
Between increased public attention to and personal reflection on racism, we are in an ideal position for making further strides toward racial equality. But we also have to be clear about what being “regardless of race” really means to most people.
When presented with a variety of potential future developments to do with race, survey respondents generally favoured multicultural policies over those that can be characterised as “post-racial”. For example, 63 per cent welcomed deeper intercultural understanding but a lower proportion was comfortable with policies moving in a “race-blind” direction.
It seemed important to respondents that race not limit anyone’s opportunities, but that it could still be appreciated and acknowledged.
In other words, Singaporeans want to look beyond race, but also continue to hold it in high regard as something that roots us in our communities and cultures. This is the paradox of living in a multicultural and meritocratic society.
It may seem like a fine line to walk, but it hasn’t and should never stop Singapore from trying to do this together.
Dr Mathew Mathews is principal research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore and head of its Social Lab. Samantha Nah is a research assistant at the same institute.