Nuance needed in nation's racial categorisation system

The debate over Madam Halimah Yacob's "Malayness" is an unfortunate by-product of the bluntness of the Government's so-called Chinese/Malay/Indian and Others (CMIO) policy, which has created rigidity in how many Singaporeans view race and ethnicity.

No doubt, the policy's chief virtue is in regulating the racial composition of our neighbourhoods and thereby promoting inter-racial cohesion. However, its definition of race and ethnicity lacks nuance, resulting in many (if not most) Singaporeans not understanding the important difference between the two.

A person can be born Indian (race), but through circumstance, acquires the customs, beliefs and cultural identity of a different community, for example, the Malay one (ethnicity); this is perhaps most commonly seen in cases of inter-racial adoption.

Madam Halimah's situation is rather more interesting as her parentage is racially mixed (although her ethnicity is in no doubt). Many are saying that her CMIO racial category should definitively be that of her father's. This is an archaic, patrilineal view. A person's genetic make-up is acquired equally from both parents.

Furthermore, an embryo spends nine months in its mother's womb drawing its very essence from her body.

Therefore, the specious claim that Madam Halimah is "not Malay" on account of her father's race reflects an unsound understanding of ethnicity, and is sexist and scientifically flawed.

I hope the debate that the reserved presidential election spurs, will encourage the Government to update its conceptualisation, communication and implementation of the CMIO policy.

Joel Chua Wei Ming

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2017, with the headline 'Nuance needed in nation's racial categorisation system'. Print Edition | Subscribe