Singapore is unusual among developed capitalist countries because its social system and its system of governance rest on the twin principles of multiracialism and meritocracy.
Multiracialism in this context is not the same as multiculturalism as it is usually understood. In Singapore, multiracialism refers to the conceptual division of society into discrete communal groups and the conviction that the only way to ensure peace, stability, and fairness between and among these groups is through close government management of communal relations and affairs. It is presumed that without heavy-handed interference the Chinese (76.8% of the population) would oppress the minority Malays (13.6%), Indians (8.7%), and others (2.1%), and that the minorities—especially the Muslim community (14.9%, mostly Malays)—would be a disturbing, if not a seditious, influence. Concerns about racial harmony are reinforced by the undisputed existence of a racial hierarchy in educational, professional, and financial achievement, in which Chinese lead, followed by Indians and then Malays.
R. Quinn Moore argued in 2000 that the operation of multiracialism has itself perpetuated and reinforced the communal divides by insisting that people see themselves and operate as members of their ethnic communities. This is achieved through the operation of race-and-religion-based self-help groups, race-based quotas in public housing estates, and language-cum-race-based allocation of resources and places in education (with Chinese receiving most resources). Michael D. Barr and Jevon Low went further in 2005, arguing that since the beginning of the 1980s the operation of multiracialism has acted as a cover for a deliberate policy of privileging the Chinese majority. They also argued that since about 1978 the nation-building mythology has been increasingly based on a Chinese-centered ethno-nationalism that the minorities can only mimic from the sidelines, and that this has replaced racially blind civic nationalism as the social foundation of the country.
Multiracialism operates in close harmony with meritocracy, between them assuring the minority communities that the system is fair to all regardless of race, religion, language, or socioeconomic background. The Singapore system of “meritocracy” rewards people on the basis of their academic performance in school. The government claims that selection into the economic, administrative, and political elites in adulthood is based on a level, “meritocratic” playing field, but these claims do not withstand close scrutiny. The socioeconomic status of one’s parents is of tremendous importance in determining success in school, and scholars such as Lily Rahim (1998) have demonstrated unequivocally that there is no level playing field across ethnic boundaries, with Chinese children enjoying immense advantages.
It would be misleading, however, to suggest that this program sets out to create an economic or social underclass of minority races. Alongside discrimination in favor of the majority Chinese, the minorities are cajoled and coaxed to become more “like the Chinese” and so to share more fully in the fruits of this prosperous society. They are not under pressure to adopt the outward manifestations of being Chinese (diet, religion, language), but they are pressured to adopt a set of supposedly superior values that are routinely identified with Singapore’s Chinese population: being materialistic, concerned with education as measured by grades and certificates, obsessively concerned with social mobility and, above all, being kiasu —a Chinese word meaning “afraid to lose.” Children are pressured to immerse themselves in these values from nursery and kindergarten onward. Indian and Malay children who succeed under the system of meritocracy and who are successfully assimilated are appointed in adulthood as leaders of their communities, ensuring that the minorities are led by people who have a stake in maintaining the status quo.
Yet the irony is that even members of minority communities who immerse themselves in these values still suffer discrimination and marginalization because of their race, sometimes because of their ethnic dress (especially Muslim women wearing headscarves), and—most commonly—their language. Language is highly significant because this element arises as a direct result of the operation of multiracialism itself, whereby members of minority communities are generally not given an opportunity to learn Mandarin (the language of the dominant majority) in school and are forced to learn their racially ascribed mother tongue in an effort to reinforce their communal identities. These minority languages (Tamil and Malay) are of little economic value and make Indians and Malays vulnerable to social and economic exclusion from mainstream society (though the effects of this policy are diluted by the promotion of English as a lingua franca across the communal divide). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who took office in 2004, hoped to discourage discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, dress, or language, but he was unwilling to consider an end to the language policies and the celebration of “Chinese values” that generated the problem in the first instance.
The Singapore example indicates how policies of assimilation and discrimination against ethnic minorities can be pursued in a modern capitalist society without either lapsing into overt persecution or provoking destabilizing reactions.
Barr, Michael D., and Jevon Low. 2005. Assimilation as Multiracialism: The Case of Singapore’s Malays. Asian Ethnicity 6 (3): 161–182.
Lai Ah Eng, ed. 2004. Beyond Rituals and Riots: Ethnic Pluralism and Social Cohesion in Singapore. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.
Moore, R. Quinn. 2000. Multiracialism and Meritocracy: Singapore’s Approach to Race and Inequality. Review of Social Economy 63 (3): 339–360.
Michael D. Barr