SINGAPORE - Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) has called for an open review of various race-based policies, including the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other (CMIO) model of ethnic classification and the Housing Board's Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP).
This policy sets the proportion of flats in a public housing block and precinct that can be owned by a particular racial group.
During the debate on the President's Address in Parliament on Tuesday (Sept 1), Ms Lim suggested six areas that could be reviewed to move Singapore along in its "journey towards being a race-blind society".
"I am agnostic about the exact form of the review I'm asking for. We should include academics with relevant expertise, and also ensure that there is fair representation of citizens across different age groups," she added.
"The scope of the review should involve a wide collective reflection of where society is today on multiracialism, and what steps we can take towards this journey of being race-blind."
Ethnic classifications like CMIO
Ms Lim noted that the CMIO model was first used in colonial Singapore in 1824.
She said the Government has recognised the increasing number of mixed marriages by enabling the children of such marriages to be registered under a double-barrelled ethnicity.
But she said that although the Government has defended the CMIO model as necessary to safeguard minority rights, the concept of minority rights itself is problematic, as it would be better to discuss citizenship rights.
She added: "Furthermore, with more and more inter-ethnic marriages, where the bride and groom are themselves of mixed parentage, I wonder how the CMIO classifications can withstand the test of time."
Race-based self-help groups
The four race-based self-help groups, namely the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda), the Council for the Development of Singapore Malay/Muslim Community (Yayasan Mendaki) and the Eurasian Association, are informed by the CMIO model, said Ms Lim.
"Over the years, these self-help groups have made significant contributions to uplift the less privileged, especially children.
"Notwithstanding the good work they have done, the fact is that they reinforce racial consciousness."
She further said the different sizes of the ethnic groups contributing to these organisations may affect the amount of resources they have, with the CDAC likely having the most resources. She noted the CDAC has since opened up some of its programmes to the wider community on a race-blind basis.
She suggested amalgamating the self-help groups into a national body to pool resources without regard to race.
"There is an opportunity here to come together as Singaporeans and contribute to a national pool, helping the less privileged on a race-blind basis," she added.
"I'm aware of an effort to collaborate in this direction in Yishun called the Self-Help Groups Centre, and hope we can go much further. "
More public disclosure of race-based data
Ms Lim said the Government collects extensive data on race but is selective on what it chooses to make public.
She acknowledged there may be reasons for this selectivity, but data on race is needed, she said, to understand issues that affect particular communities to narrow the differences.
Ms Lim recalled a parliamentary question she had filed, asking for the composition of the prison inmate population broken down by ethnic group. This information is released by other governments "as a matter of course", she said.
"The answer given was that the prisons department was unable to share the statistics. No explanation was given," she added.
"Society at large should have an interest in whether those serving jail sentences are a microcosm of society or whether certain ethnicities are disproportionately being in prison. Why people land up in jail is often related to the state of their lives, such as whether they have stable income and family relationships."
Ms Lim said these matters deserve wider study by researchers outside the Government, and there should be greater public awareness of challenges faced by particular ethnic communities.
"We should strive to foster a national culture where every Singaporean is a stakeholder in the lives of fellow citizens."
The role of race in elections
Since 1988, Singapore's GRC system has required political parties to field candidates from designated minority communities, and more recent changes have been made to the elected presidency to introduce an ethnic requirement, she noted.
But in an ideal situation, no such safeguards would be needed, as the electorate would be race-blind enough to elect candidates of different ethnicities naturally, she said.
"These issues have been debated in the past with arguments for and against ethnic requirements. However, that does not mean that these issues should remain as they are over time and forever."
Ms Lim noted that such requirements put a focus on minority representation, which can put an uncomfortable spotlight on minority candidates who must file an application to show they are "Malay enough" or "Indian enough" to qualify for an election.
She added that Chinese candidates like herself are not required to prove they are Chinese to stand in elections.
"Whether having a multiracial Parliament needs to be maintained through the existing laws on minority candidates, or whether there are other ways to ensure candidates of diverse backgrounds are fielded can be an area for review."
HDB ethnic quotas
The HDB's EIP was introduced in 1989 to ensure a balanced mix of ethnic groups in HDB estates and prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves, Ms Lim said. There is no such requirement for private estates like landed houses or condominiums.
Ms Lim said the EIP has caused economic hardship, as residents from minority communities can buy or sell only from other members of their own community when the quotas have been reached.
"This can significantly reduce the numbers of offers available. It can also affect the transaction price by as much as $100,000, in one case I came across. Such a price differential could make all the difference to a family in financial need."
She noted that some residents could also be left in "limbo" for months if they are stopped from buying or selling owing to the ethnic quotas.
She said HDB estates with families who moved in before the EIP was introduced, like Bedok, have not seen extraordinary tensions or disorder despite some areas where the Malay population has exceeded the EIP quotas. This suggests that some relaxation of the policy could be possible, she added.
The WP had suggested removing the EIP 14 years ago and the PAP then called the suggestion a "time bomb", said Ms Lim. Many Singaporeans also did not agree with the WP's suggestion.
"Today, half a generation later, I hope we can have a more progressive discussion on this issue," she added.
"While the Government's position is that the EIP was instituted for a noble purpose, its effect in particular cases has been discriminatory and needs to be addressed."
Avoid reinforcing tribal instincts
Ms Lim said Singaporeans have risen above tribalism on many occasions, but the country can go further with the right policies and signals from officials.
She said the question of how not to reinforce tribal instincts in public policies and surveys should be reviewed.
Ms Lim noted that there were encouraging signs from the recent general election, in which several political parties fielded GRC teams with a majority of non-Chinese candidates and polled well.
She thanked Aljunied GRC voters for re-electing her team which included three minority candidates out of five - Mr Pritam Singh, Mr Leon Perera and Mr Faisal Manap.
"I believe that Singaporean voters are not fixated with race, and there is cause for optimism for the future."
Ms Lim added: "In choosing to speak on this topic, I am acutely aware that there are different perspectives on matters of race as DPM Heng Swee Keat acknowledged in this House on Monday.
"Nevertheless, I believe it is essential for us to move this conversation along so that we inch ever closer towards the ultimate destination of being a race-blind society."