SINGAPORE - Singaporeans strongly support multiracialism and meritocracy, with nearly all saying they respect people from all races and that all races should be treated equally, according to a survey.
But almost half of them recognise that racism can be a problem and are aware that there are a significant number who are at least mildly racist.
About 70 per cent of respondents found that outright discrimination such as not hiring someone because of their race or religion, or insulting others because of race, was never acceptable. They also viewed such acts as racist.
The survey also found Singaporeans are comfortable interacting with people from another race but have a strong preference for a Prime Minister or President from their own race.
This preference for one's own is seen in personal relationships as well: Singaporeans would rather their family members marry someone of the same race.
They also feel more at ease sharing their personal problems with a friend from the same race.
These differing attitudes of Singaporeans towards other ethnic groups, depending on activity and setting, were among the findings of a Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey of 2,000 Singapore residents aged 21 and older.
Their racial composition and types of homes they live are reflective of the Singapore population, but an extra 500 Malays and Indians were polled so that their views were properly represented.
The survey was commissioned by Channel NewsAsia for its TV documentary titled Regardless Of Race, and released by the IPS on Friday (Aug 19).
A key finding is that all races strongly believe in meritocracy and racial equality.
Nine in 10 agree that anyone who works hard can become rich, no matter their race.
Two out of three disagree that the interests of the majority race should be looked after before those of the minorities.
This was the case even among the Chinese who, however, have different perceptions of how strongly other races are pushing for their cultural rights.
Nearly 30 per cent of Chinese feel minority races are demanding more cultural rights, a view shared by almost 40 per cent of Malays.
At the same time, 40 per cent of minority respondents feel the Chinese demand more rights.
While the support for multiracialism is strong, many said they have experienced racism or indicate they hold racist attitudes.
Six in 10 had heard racist comments, with almost half saying the comment was made by a colleague.
Singaporeans also showed a sharp contrast between accepting other races on a casual, social level, and preferring their own race in personal and political settings.
Two-thirds of Chinese would invite Indians and Malays to their home for a meal.
More than 80 per cent of Malays and Indians would invite people of other races to their home for a meal.
Similarly, seven in 10 Chinese are comfortable with Indians and Malays playing with their children or grandchildren.
Race matters in picking top leaders
When electing their top leaders, Singaporeans show striking differences in attitudes.
Half the Chinese said a Malay Prime Minister is acceptable, and six in 10 are fine with a Prime Minister who is an Indian.
The results are largely the same when asked about the elected president: 59 per cent of Chinese find a Malay President acceptable, and 68 per cent said the same for an Indian President.
Malay and Indian people are also less accepting of a President or Prime Minister of another race than of one from their own race.
Those who are more open to a President or Prime Minister of another race tend to be younger, more educated and interact more with other races, the IPS study noted.
For instance, 64 per cent of Chinese under the age of 30 would accept a Malay president, compared to 48 per cent of Chinese older than 60.
Observers said the finding on political leaders is significant in light of the review of the elected presidency. It looked at, among other areas, how to ensure minority representation in the office.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong received a report this week from the constitutional commission appointed to study the issue, and is likely to talk about it in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday.
IPS senior research fellow Mathew Mathews, who led the study on race, told The Straits Times: "We know there are racial preferences which might unfairly disadvantage qualified minority persons from being elected."
He said in a presidential election, if voters have not had the opportunity over a long period to learn about the candidate, then racial preferences might set in.
"This will be a problem for minorities who stand in a presidential election," he said, adding that it was important to ensure minority races do not go unrepresented in the highest office of the land for too long.