Regardless of race

Anchor Green Primary School pupils celebrating Racial Harmony Day on July 21, which marks the 1964 race riots. On that day, young generations of Singaporeans go to school decked in racial garb and learn the virtues of respecting diversity.
Anchor Green Primary School pupils celebrating Racial Harmony Day on July 21, which marks the 1964 race riots. On that day, young generations of Singaporeans go to school decked in racial garb and learn the virtues of respecting diversity. ST FILE PHOTO

How far has Singapore come on the issue of race in the 50 years since the National Pledge vowed the creation of one united people?

To young Singaporeans brought up in an environment of racial harmony and social cohesion, the two race riots of 1964 that left more than 30 dead must be unimaginable.

But achieving today's multiracial society has not been an easy road, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last month stressed that it is still a work in progress.

At a forum held by OnePeople.sg, which is a national body focused on promoting racial and religious harmony, he told community and religious leaders: "For the younger ones who are lucky, who have never seen such racial strife before, we have to constantly remind them how precious this harmony is, how unusual and rare it is."

Indeed, even after 50 years of independence in which the pioneer leaders' vision of a multiracial society, where everyone is equal, has long been part of the Singapore identity, cracks still appear.

That vision was enshrined in the National Pledge: "One united people regardless of race, language, or religion." But, just last week, a comment on Facebook about the Malay language drew widespread ire - including from at least one People's Action Party MP, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC's Mr Zainal Sapari, who gave it a stern rebuke.

Yet another sign of room for improvement in racial awareness is how Eurasian Singaporeans have been mistaken for foreigners because of their features and Western-sounding surnames. Netizens were quick to label Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling an "ang moh", prompting his father to tell The Straits Times last year in Malay that he is a "true son of Singapore".

The latest census data for this year shows the Chinese comprise 74.3 per cent of the resident population. Malays constitute 13.3 per cent, while Indians form 9.1 per cent. The "Others" comprises 3.3 per cent.

Last month, Singapore inked a United Nations pact to eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin. It expects to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 2017.

The move "further entrenches our commitment to this end, to unequivocally show that racial discrimination has no place in Singapore", said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu.

Racially charged incidents which make headlines, such as racial profiling, are virtually unheard of here today. But is Singapore's brand of "racial harmony" merely one of peaceful coexistence? How far has the Republic come in eradicating racial discontent? Insight finds out.


The race issue: How far has Singapore come?

The date is July 21, 1964 - barely a year since Singapore became part of the Federation of Malaysia.

A procession is held to mark Prophet Muhammad's birthday, starting at the Padang and ending in Geylang.

But the festive occasion will soon turn sour. A scuffle breaks out between Malays in the procession and Chinese bystanders, escalating into nationwide violence.

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What could be tweaked?


About 5,000 people took part in the first Orange Ribbon Run, themed the Race Against Racism, in 2013. It was organised by OnePeople.sg, a body that promotes racial harmony. ST FILE PHOTO

Of all the race-based policies implemented here, the group representation constituency (GRC) scheme is, by far, the most controversial.

Under it, political parties must field at least one minority candidate in each GRC team they put up for contest.

The intent of the policy, which began at the 1988 polls, was to ensure adequate minority representation in Parliament.

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Race categorisation too rigid for increasingly diverse S'pore?

For some, it is an annoying part of form-filling, though for most others it comes as no big deal. That is the part of Singapore forms that asks you to categorise yourself as either Chinese, Malay, Indian or Others.

The classification, commonly known by its acronym CMIO, is one where the Government categorises people - be it citizen, permanent resident or work permit holder - into one of these four racial groups.

Residents have been classified by race ever since the first census in 1824.

Read more here

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'Regardless of race'. Print Edition | Subscribe