Race classification must give way to new social realities

Pupils at Anchor Green Primary School turn up for their classes dressed in their ethnic costumes to mark Racial Harmony Day on July 21, 2015.
Pupils at Anchor Green Primary School turn up for their classes dressed in their ethnic costumes to mark Racial Harmony Day on July 21, 2015. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

The call for more inclusive policies towards fostering greater racial and social harmony among our diverse communities is most timely ("Debate on whether race classification model is still relevant"; Tuesday).

At a time when divisive race politics is driving communities apart elsewhere, it is imperative that we safeguard the only thread that holds us together - racial harmony.

I sometimes get uneasy when I see the word "race" being bandied about innocently, because it could unwittingly create adverse reactions and reinforce negative perceptions and stereotypes among our various ethnic groups.

Rightly or wrongly, people accept the biological features of other people as a reality, and so, act in accordance with their belief.

The Government, too, uses the word "race" freely, and our communities see it as normal to regard themselves and other groups as "races".

Stratifying the main ethnic groups into the simplistic and rigid "racial" categories of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others was strategically the most practical way for the Government to construct a Singaporean identity and promote integration, racial harmony and economic survival.

Pragmatically, it has also guided the nation's policies since independence.

Unfortunately, it has also resulted in the unintended presumption of fixed and rigid boundaries. For example, each "race" is identified with a language, a culture and a religion.

Consequently, a nationalism based on such manifestations appears to highlight the differences among the various communities, adding to the distance between them and accentuating racial stereotyping.

I do not agree that discarding the existing race classification model would impinge on minority rights or have an adverse effect on national identity.

While this tenet of multiracialism has served the nation well in the past, demographic changes and social mixing of the various community groups through inter-marriages and immigration have diluted their homogeneity.

As Singaporeans, we should feel proud to belong to a particular ethnic group, but we should also do our part to de-emphasise our Chineseness, Malayness, Indianness and Eurasianness, appreciate diverse viewpoints, respect cultural differences,work together to stress commonalities and forge an identity that is more integrative and cohesive.

The sooner we move away from classifying communities, the better for our nation's future.

V. Subramaniam (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2016, with the headline 'Race classification must give way to new social realities'. Print Edition | Subscribe