Ethnic housing policy should be abolished, but not before S'pore reaches race-neutral state, says WP's Pritam Singh

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and National Development Minister Desmond Lee debated on the policy in Parliament on July 5, 2021.
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and National Development Minister Desmond Lee debated on the policy in Parliament on July 5, 2021.PHOTOS: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on Monday (July 5) said that his Workers' Party aims to remove the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) one day, but not before Singapore reaches a state of being race neutral, where such initiatives are no longer needed.

He was speaking towards the end of a 30-minute debate with National Development Minister Desmond Lee on the policy, which sets quotas for flats owned by each racial group in a block or precinct.

Their exchange, which saw question time in Parliament being extended by more than an hour, also drew comments from Leader of the House Indranee Rajah and later, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean.

But it was Mr Lee who had the last word. "In 2006 and all the way till last year, WP's position is that we have already reached a level of multiculturalism; and therefore unequivocally called… for the immediate abolition of EIP," he noted.

"The Workers Party's position today, in 2021, is that we still need the EIP (as) we work towards a race-blind society, and we endeavour to reach there and at some point hopefully we'll not need the EIP. So that is a clear change in political position."

Mr Lee was referring to the WP's election manifestos over the years. Earlier, he pointed out that its most recent manifesto, for the polls last year, had argued that doing away with the EIP would address the disadvantage faced by ethnic minority HDB flat resellers, without causing racial disharmony.

He noted similar messaging in the WP's manifestos for the 2006, 2011 and 2015 elections, with the 2011 manifesto making an additional point on the EIP contradicting the policy of encouraging young families to live closer to their parents.

Mr Lee called on Mr Singh, who is WP chief, to clarify the party's stance today.

"Is it your position that there won't be racial concentrations if we abolish the EIP?" the minister asked. "If you have neighbourhoods predominantly of one ethnic group, that will, of course, cascade into pre-schools, into our national school system, the services in the heartlands, the shops, the markets, the hawker centre food choices. They will adjust to reflect the proportions of the clientele in the neighbourhood."

Wider race matters

Mr Singh said the WP's position was undergirded by the frustration it sensed from ethnic minorities unable to sell their flats.

"The question is, is the EIP the only policy, among a whole gamut of policies that the Government has to encourage racial integration? Bearing in mind that it is a pre-emptive policy introduced in 1989," he said.

Mr Lee replied: "If you look back in history… It was a policy that was put in place because of the lessons learnt from the 1960s - paid for with blood, sweat and tears; real pain in families grieving for lost loved ones; and a country newly formed, wracked by racial riots and disharmony, distrust."

The efforts of the HDB to ensure Singapore learnt from these lessons then led to allocating a racial mix in every block.

Mr Singh said his call for the EIP to be revisited and reviewed was in the context of - but not limited to - five points.

First, a larger national conversation on race relations in Singapore and what it means to be Singaporean.

Second, the effect of immigration into Singapore, leading to families in Housing Board flats that fall outside of the traditional Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other (CMIO) model of ethnic classification.

Third, the experience and impact of mixed marriages.

Fourth, the economic loss to minorities who have to lower the market price of their flats due to the EIP.

And fifth, a reassessment of Singapore's lived experiences which acknowledges policies and guidelines that have successfully encouraged racial integration, such as national schools, anti-discrimination guidelines at the workplace and national service, among others; and how these compare with the EIP.

"The current policy as it stands has a larger impact on minorities, penalising them in the pocket when they have to sell their flat. By minorities, I mean not just racial minorities (but) those who are affected by it, including Chinese, Malays... and this may perversely interact with the stated objective of the policy of racial harmony, thereby breeding resentment amongst those who are affected by the policy," said Mr Singh.

"The EIP quotas should either be further loosened to ameliorate the prospects of further economic loss for sellers, with HDB committed to buying back the affected flat at the evaluation price - or a larger geographical area representing the anchor for the EIP, rather than the precinct and block quotas."

Mr Lee accepted that the EIP could cause some degree of pain and unhappiness.

"We address that through appeals, we look at and scrutinise very carefully to help the affected seller," he said. "Bearing in mind that we have to be very judicious, otherwise the lessons that we've learnt will all unravel."

In response, Mr Singh said: "Beyond these cases where HDB looks at it on a case-by-case basis, we have a rental housing regime where HDB is prepared to administratively lift block limits. So it's not as if... the arguments that were made by the Minister of National Development are cast in stone. There is flexibility beyond looking at individual cases and moving the boundaries.

"What sort of schemes, changes has HDB discussed internally?"

Mr Lee said that these were important details, but secondary to fundamental questions of the WP's position on multiracialism, bulwarks such as the EIP, and the CMIO model.

"You have talked about a race-blind society, a race-neutral, race-blind multicultural society, but yet over the years we've been tracking, Workers' Party has been filing lots and lots of questions specific to individual minorities or races," said Mr Lee.

"Mr Faisal Manap had asked a PQ (parliamentary question) before, asking for assurances that we will ensure that the ethnic mix in Singapore will remain and wants to keep a very close eye on ethnic issues."

'Even out the rough edges'

At this point, Ms Indranee stepped in to press Mr Singh to clarify whether he was calling for the EIP to be abolished.

"Is the answer to that yes or no, that's all I want to know. Or is he saying that it need not be abolished; we can just look to see how we improve it?" she said.

Mr Singh replied: "That's a very nice way to close off a discussion on a topic."

He said the Government's reasons for retaining the EIP were not totally illegitimate, and added: "How do we move forward with the EIP as it is, knowing that there are minority communities, knowing that even the majority, the Chinese community, are affected by it. Is there a better way forward?"

Ms Indranee said Mr Singh's answer, while "erudite", had failed to address her question.

"Both the WP and we agree, we do want a race-neutral society. We want a society where everybody can live happily together. It's a question of how do we get there. And one of the things that the PAP government has put in place is the EIP," she said.

"I just want to know today: Is the WP saying we should remove the EIP? If you are saying that we should do that, say so. On the other hand, if you're saying keep the EIP, but let us improve it and ameliorate the impact on minorities, say so," Ms Indranee repeated.

Mr Singh then confirmed that the party still endeavoured to abolish the policy.

"But until we get there, we have to, as the minister said, even out the rough edges as much as possible. And at some point, I hope in my generation… we reach that place where we are race neutral," he said.

"It doesn't mean that... sometimes things don't bubble over. But there are more important things that remind us that we are Singaporean, and we ought to look beyond our skin colour."