Structuring national identity around racial affiliations is a recipe for social disaster in a cosmopolitan city. But trying to wish away ethnicity from questions of identity in heterogeneous societies is a naive effort that is likely to fail. Singapore's efforts to acknowledge the reality of ethnicity, while emphasising simultaneously that all are bound by a common destiny, has produced the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other (CMIO) model.
That framework is not cast in stone but is a means of integrating the different races. It has its shortcomings: for example, it cannot account for the hyphenated identities of children produced by inter-ethnic marriages. However, it is a useful way of conceiving of racial relations - the whole being greater than the sum of its parts - whereas a zero-sum equation might mean the loss of some individual cultural integrity.
The latest indications of the state of relations are provided by an Institute of Policy Studies and Channel NewsAsia study on ethnic identity and inter-ethnic interactions. People were asked how important nearly 40 ethnic identity markers were for consideration as a Singapore Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian. Vernacular language proficiency and the observance of key festivals featured prominently in the answers. Interestingly, about 80 per cent of respondents in each of the three main ethnic groups viewed speaking good English as important to being considered a Singapore Chinese, Malay and Indian. Indeed, this ability was accorded more weight than ethnic lineage and heritage markers, such as tracing one's ancestry. English has become an ethnically neutral link language in a way that would have been inconceivable in colonial Singapore, when it was the language of state power in a plural society which largely identified race with economic function.
The survey reaffirms the anecdotal truth that ethnic identity still resonates with Singaporeans, but not at the expense of their national identity. If anything, nation superseded race when respondents had to choose between the two affiliations. This difference is important especially because the growing power of countries such as China and India, and accompanying prospects of Western decline, could test the sinews of Singapore's multiracial fabric. While the city-state will always be a price-taker in international relations, the price it decides to accept will be determined by the state of ethnic relations within its borders.
The CMIO model will need to evolve accordingly. It should help to develop but not define the Singaporean identity, let alone contain it. As the population grows more diverse, the test of nationalism should transcend racial boundaries and encompass founding values, such as multiracialism and meritocracy, tied to local history, a cosmopolitan culture, and the solidarity produced by the everyday experience of being Singaporean.