To many younger Singaporeans, the "Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others" (CMIO) categorisation of races may seem irrelevant after 50 years of nationhood, former ambassador and professor Chan Heng Chee said yesterday.
But she urged against abolishing the model, saying it is what sets minority communities here at ease.
For these communities, knowing that they will be treated equally is very important, she said, adding: "You have to keep emphasising it is equal language, equal religion, equal culture, equal race. Every race has the same standing; it is very important to emphasise that."
You have to keep emphasising it is equal language, equal religion, equal culture, equal race. Every race has the same standing; it is very important to emphasise that.
PROFESSOR CHAN HENG CHEE, on the importance of Singapore's minority communities knowing that they will be treated equally
Prof Chan made the remarks at a conference on racial and religious harmony at the Grassroots Club in Ang Mo Kio.
She told community and religious leaders that the model was necessary in 1965, and remains so today. That year, when Singapore separated from Malaysia, the Singapore leaders underlined that all races were equal, and no one race should have more privileges.
That is why when Singapore gained independence, it was important for founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his team of ministers to assure every racial group of equal status.
If they had not, many from the Malay and Indian communities would have felt uncomfortable, as Chinese formed three-quarters of the population, she said, adding that it would be the same now.
Doing away with the categorisation could also lead to the culture becoming dominantly Chinese, given that Chinese Singaporeans are the majority group, she said.
"I think we should think carefully... When things work, don't jettison it too quickly," she added.
Prof Chan, who chairs the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities in the Singapore University of Technology and Design, also said that contrary to Western liberal-social thought, acknowledging one's race is not "bad".
"(Recognising) our race is okay, being racist is not okay," she said.
Identifying with a race is not incompatible with developing a Singaporean identity, she said, adding that what makes a person feel Singaporean is shared experiences such as attending local schools and serving national service.
"There is the supra-ethnic identity we all share: We are Singaporeans. That is on top of CMIO," she said.