Race matters: What lies ahead?

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Exploring the possibility of a non-Chinese PM, legacy issues, and the implications of UN pact

Seven years ago last week, the United States elected its first black President.

Mr Barack Obama's historic win got Singaporeans thinking: When, if ever, will Singapore be ready for a non-Chinese prime minister?

This question was put to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong days after the win. His reply: that he thought it was possible, but it may not happen soon. He also acknowledged that attitudes towards race had shifted as English provided more of a common ground.

This was reiterated by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam this year: "It seems to me inevitable that, at some point, a minority prime minister - Indian, Malay, Eurasian, or some mixture - is going to be a feature of the political landscape.

"We've got a meritocracy, it is an open system."

He noted that people share experiences like national service and are educated largely in English.

Thought leader Ho Kwon Ping, who is the first Institute of Policy Studies S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore, believes the country will accept a non-Chinese prime minister put forward by a "leading party" like the People's Action Party (PAP).

He added, speaking at a public lecture in April: "I honestly believe, and I hope to be naive enough to believe, that if that person was of calibre, we would accept this."

Indeed, the issue of race hardly figured during the recent general election. And a post-election survey of voters by the Institute of Policy Studies, released last week, showed that 83 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the ethnicity of the candidate they chose was not an important consideration.

However, several opposition candidates, like the Singapore Democratic Party's Mr Damanhuri Abas, did call for greater representation of Malays in sensitive combat positions within the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

Most Singaporeans may not give much thought to such issues - which observers refer to as "legacy" ones that should be carefully managed - on a day-to-day basis. But they are likely to continue to crop up as national issues at times.

Take the perception of under-representation of Malays in the SAF. Mr Damanhuri's comments prompted the PAP's Dr Maliki Osman, who is now Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs, to reply: "Our Malay servicemen have been recognised year after year, quietly and based on their competency."

Dr Maliki also noted that Malay SAF officers now hold various vocations, including commandos, armour officers, pilots and naval combat systems operators.

Former Nominated MP Eugene Tan, a law professor who has researched ethnic relations, tells Insight that despite the great strides made by Malay servicemen in the SAF, a perception persists that security matters are oriented on race, given Singapore's position in a predominantly Malay neighbourhood.

Prof Tan says: "Where the Malay/Muslim servicemen are concerned, national service as an institution of multiracialism, if not carefully managed, could accentuate perceptions of a less-than-inclusive multiracialism.

"This is why it is important to continue to work on strengthening the national identity so that the concerns that sectarian loyalties will trump civic, national ones, will be less challenging."

Looking at the big picture, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute sociologist Terence Chong sees a challenge in "preventing ethnic divisions from being a proxy for class divisions".

"In Singapore, the Malay community is still over-represented in prisons, drug rehab centres and financial assistance schemes," he tells Insight. "The reasons for this are complex but the result obvious - there are relatively fewer of them in the middle class."

Several Indian Singaporeans have also voiced concerns about a divide in the community between the well-off and those who lag behind in areas like education and employment, noting that minority Singaporeans tend to be over-represented in certain lower-paying service-sector jobs.

Moving forward, one potential issue is the lack of racial diversity in many boardrooms, says Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad. While he does not expect the imposition of any quotas, he believes that the conversation - largely centred on gender equality today - could still shift to include race as well.

Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Janil Puthucheary says that the form and nature of race-based challenges will continue to change over time.

The rise of online interactions is both a platform and a "trigger for behaviour" as the time between a comment and the reaction has shortened, says Dr Janil, who chairs OnePeople.Sg, the national body focused on promoting racial and religious harmony.

"So there will always be a need to remind ourselves and our children about the need for tolerance and understanding. To go further towards through (to) harmony and not stop at tolerance," he adds.

Meanwhile, humanities lecturer Nazry Bahrawi of the Singapore University of Technology and Design also sees fault lines increasingly being drawn along sociopolitical orientations - such as over greater acceptance of homosexuality.

With all these issues in mind, Singapore cannot be lulled into a false sense of security given its relative state of harmony today.

"Our stability and harmony cannot be founded on the shallow foundations of tolerance," Prof Tan says. "We really need to go beyond tolerance and forbearance to seek genuine understanding, recognition, and protection of the diversity that is an integral part of Singapore."

Nonetheless, Singapore's move to sign the United Nations convention to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination is significant, and will boost Singapore's standing in the international community.

There may be some policies on race that could be deemed by others as at odds with this commitment - but the Government also has the opportunity to make known its position on these areas, and make the point that they have the overall aim of preserving racial harmony.

As Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob said last month: "The signing of this convention attests to our confidence and the strength of our race relations here, as member states signing this convention will have to submit reports regularly and be subject to UN scrutiny.

"We are already practising the principles enunciated under the convention, so signing it is a logical step."

But addressing matters of race, and tackling discrimination, cannot be about the authorities alone, even though they play a key role.

Mr Baey Yam Keng, Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth, tells Insight: "We recognise the need to continually review and adjust our policies, in consultation with the community, if changes are warranted."

"We would like to call on every Singaporean to do his part, too, to strengthen racial harmony and combat racial discrimination. Together, we can ensure that racial discrimination will have no place in Singapore; and that our future generations will value and respect diversity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'Race matters: What lies ahead?'. Print Edition | Subscribe