SINGAPORE - There is certainly room for discussion on how Singapore can move towards a race-blind society and on the role of race-based policies like the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong.
But in having such discussions, Singaporeans should not forget the "overarching and overriding" concerns - to build a nation that respects each race, that every race has a place at the table, and for every race to share the common Singapore identity.
Mr Tong was responding to Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim on Thursday (Sept 3) during day four of the debate on the President's Address.
Ms Lim had on Tuesday called for a national exercise to discuss how Singapore's journey towards becoming a race-blind society can be hastened, and proposed an open review of race-based policies such as the EIP and ethnic self-help groups.
Two days later, Mr Tong cautioned in a speech that while Singapore has become less race-conscious and more tolerant of differences, Singaporeans must not think that they have arrived at an ideal "post-racial state", or that no more effort will be needed to bridge different groups. He also said that consciousness of race in Singapore cannot, and should not, be erased.
To this, Ms Lim clarified that she does not take Singapore's multiracialism for granted, and acknowledged the difficulties the Government faces in fostering a Singapore identity in a heterogeneous population.
"But at the same time, I think my point was that we should not keep talking ourselves down or be held back by the past," she said, adding she was calling for Singapore to refresh its conversations on matters of race from time to time as it cannot be "ossified by the past".
Responding, Mr Tong assured Ms Lim that the Government's minds are not closed on issues of race.
Raising the overriding concerns on the matter, he said: "And within that constraint, we can have the conversations that Ms Lim spoke about, we can look at the priorities that she spoke about, and we can look at the different considerations."
Ms Lim then reiterated her concerns about the EIP, noting that the policy has, in some instances, led to economic hardship for minority families due to limitations placed on them when they try to sell their flats.
The EIP specifies the proportion of units in an HDB block and precinct that can be owned by a particular racial group to ensure a balanced mix. If a block reaches an ethnic quota for a the Chinese race, for instance, a minority seller can sell the flat to only people from minority races, which may reduce the pool of potential buyers.
The policy, Ms Lim feared, could lead to festering resentment if unhappiness over such economic consequences is not addressed.
Mr Tong replied that the Government will consider the trade-offs of the policy while taking into account its purpose and objective.
The debate on race continued after Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Maliki Osman's speech, with Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran and Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary also weighing in.
On ethnic self-help groups, Ms Lim acknowledged the good work done by these groups but asked if similar or better outcomes can be achieved by amalgamating the groups under one national umbrella, which would allow for the pooling of national resources from the whole population.
In response, Dr Maliki said that while the self-help groups work together on different platforms, having unique self-help groups enables them to better serve respective communities as they have a better understanding of each community's cultural nuances and history.
Mr Iswaran, who was the first chief executive officer of the Singapore Indian Development Association, said that self-help groups have not been "ossified" but rather have evolved according to the needs of the different communities.
He asked if Ms Lim was asserting that Singapore is better off without the self-help groups.
To this, Ms Lim said she was not implying this. Rather, she had called for an open conversation on whether the self-help groups should remain distinct.