Thinking Aloud

Of race and national identity

It's hard to build a national identity that is inclusive. Focusing on who to exclude based on race and religion can be a dangerous short cut.


In the five weeks since Madam Halimah Yacob was sworn in as President on Sept 14, I witnessed two incidents that showed how race continues to colour the way Singaporeans view each other.

The first took place at a concert at which President Halimah was the guest of honour. When she entered the concert hall with her entourage, there was a stir of excitement. Some people whipped out their smartphones to snap photos of her.

A young boy sitting in front of me - intrigued by the adults' reaction and wondering who the celebrity was - climbed up on his chair for a better look. On seeing the President, who was as usual wearing a tudung and on this occasion accompanied by a group of men in batik shirts, he exclaimed to his sister: "It's just a bunch of Malay people!"

The second incident involved a cab driver zooming past a young Indian man who had flagged his taxi. I was standing nearby waiting my turn, and I had a sense that the cab driver would have stopped for me if I had raised my hand. I chose not to.

During a recent visit to New York City, I had seen cab drivers refusing to pick up a black man. Still, I found it disturbing to see a similar instance of casual racism here in Singapore, and in my neighbourhood.

There is no denying that race and religion shape many people's sense of identity, and how they view and choose to interact with others in society.

Recent events both here and in other countries have also cast a spotlight on how race and religion underpin some people's sense of national identity. These events include the recent federal election in Germany, the presidency of Mr Donald Trump which is now into its 10th month, and closer to home, the plight of the Rohingya people and Singapore's own presidential election.


In Germany, the recent election saw the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany(AfD) party - now the third largest party in the Bundestag - after a campaign in which its leaders and members vowed to "take back our country and our Volk!" and said the country should stop apologising for the Nazis; as well as an election manifesto with a section setting out why "Islam does not belong to Germany".

In the United States, President Trump has both stirred outrage and pumped up his electoral base with his anti-immigrant, anti-Islam stance and his failure to condemn the racist values of white nationalists and supremacists, including those behind an August rally in Charlottesville that left one woman dead.

Here in South-east Asia, the Myanmar government's refusal to recognise the Rohingya people as citizens - even though they have resided for decades in an area in Rakhine state located within Myanmar's borders - exploded in a fresh round of violence in August. That has in turn triggered loud protests in several of the region's Muslim-majority countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia, as an expression of solidarity with the Rohingya who are Muslim, unlike the majority of Myanmar people who are Buddhist.

And last but not least, Singapore's presidential election, which was reserved for Malay candidates and thus, in the eyes of some citizens, a repudiation of two founding national values, namely multiracialism and meritocracy.

How do race and religion relate to national identity? The latter is a fuzzy concept that serves to unite members of nation states in ways that can be either inclusive or exclusive. In a thought-provoking piece on the Rohingya crisis for The New York Times' Interpreter series, journalist Amanda Taub wrote: "It is easy enough to define a 'state' - a place with borders, territory and a sovereign government. But a 'nation' is a hazier concept - a group of people bound together by some common characteristic, which may or may not match up precisely with state borders. That is where things get tricky.

"Most countries have a majority ethnic or religious group whose customs, culture and religion dominate public life. But ethnic or religious definitions of the 'nation', when translated into political priorities, put minority citizens at a disadvantage. If the majority group wins self-determination, the resulting state will not be designed to represent minorities, even if they technically have full citizenship."

Alternatively, nations can also be defined in terms of "civic nationalism", she wrote.

"Civic nationalism, which is based around citizenship and shared political beliefs rather than ethnicity, is more inclusive. But that same inclusivity can make it challenging to create a strong, cohesive sense of national identity. When that happens, focusing on outsiders - identifying who is not part of the nation, rather than who is - can seem an expedient shortcut."

A good example of a backlash against inclusive nationalism was that against German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her 2015 decision to admit a million immigrants and refugees. She believed Germany had a humanitarian duty to offer asylum to those fleeing war, and thought the German public would agree. But large segments of German society disagreed so vehemently with her stance that she was forced to backtrack; and even after she did, her Christian Democratic party still lost considerable ground to the exclusivist AfD in the election.

Singapore too has been in the throes of debate over a core tenet of national identity - multiracialism. The debate centres around changes to the Constitution to provide for reserved elections for the presidency, so members of minority races have a chance to be elected. Former Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob emerged as the only qualified candidate and was sworn in as President last month, making her the first Malay head of state since President Yusof Ishak more than 50 years ago.

Some Singaporeans are unhappy with the reserved election, regarding it as a step backwards towards racial politics, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a recent dialogue that the opposite was true, as the reserved election is necessary to strengthen Singapore's multiracial system.

"Sometimes we think we have arrived, and that we can do away with these provisions and rules which feel like such a burden," he said, referring to ethnic quotas in housing estates and group representation constituencies, among others. "But in fact, it is the other way around. It is precisely because we have these provisions and rules, that we have achieved racial and religious harmony. We have not yet arrived at an ideal state of accepting people of a different race. Yes, we have made progress, but it is work in progress."

Multiracialism is Singapore's founding ideal. On Aug 9, 1965, in the very first hours of Singapore's independence, Mr Lee Kuan Yew pledged that : "We are going to have a multiracial nation in Singapore. We will set the example. This is not a Malay nation, this is not a Chinese nation, this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion."

Singapore thus rejects national identity defined in terms of the majority race and its language and culture. That is no small commitment, in the light of how the race and religion cards are being played in other countries as parties campaign on the basis of exclusivist identity politics.

Yet this ideal of multiracialism has itself become a source of tension because as society matures, people's interpretations of what it means to be multiracial have begun to more obviously diverge. That is not to say differences did not exist from the start. Singapore's first foreign minister S. Rajaratnam, who penned the National Pledge that summons us to become "one united people, regardless of race, language or religion", famously disagreed with founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew on the realisability of this aspiration.

Today, Singapore seems divided between those who believe we have become a post-racial society and thus no longer need race-based provisions and rules - whether to ensure minority representation in government, prevent the formation of racial enclaves in housing estates or direct language use through policy - and those like the Government who believe we still do.

This is a gap that the Government and people will have to try and bridge going forward. To do so, we need to remain open to listening to each other and be respectful of each other's views. There should be room for open and sincere dialogue on matters of race and religion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 22, 2017, with the headline 'Of race and national identity'. Subscribe