Two speakers at a Workers’ Party (WP) youth forum on race issues on Sunday called for the institution of anti-discrimination laws, as well as a re-look at some of the government’s key race-based policies.
“There has been some lobby for anti-discrimination laws, but Singapore does not yet have any specific anti-discrimination legislation, even though the Constitution actually guarantees no discrimination,” said independent civil activist Nizam Ismail, one of two panel speakers alongside recent WP member and lawyer Terence Tan.
Speaking at the WP YouthQuake forum held at the party headquarters in Syed Alwi Road, Nizam and Tan raised the issue of race classification in Singaporean identity cards, and the policies that are built upon the classification — something in Nizam’s view is increasingly becoming problematic with Singapore’s ever-more cosmopolitan society and the rise of inter-racial, inter-national marriages here.
“If we see 6.9 million people by 2030 or more, it will be a very different Singapore,” he said. “There will be a very cosmopolitan society, there’ll be people from all over the world, and your CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) model, which is already so problematic at this stage, will become utterly meaningless in 2030, because there’s no way you can put people in CMIO.
“So what happens to the rest of your race-based government policies that you have? It makes it even more meaningless,” he added.
Spotlight on race-based policies
The two highlighted examples of race-based policies to include the Group Representative Constituency (GRC) system, as well as the HDB ethnic integration programme, both of which are affirmative actions that ensure sufficient minority representation, and in the latter initiative, the prevention of racial enclaves in certain residential areas.
“People will question (in the case of GRCs) whether someone coming in comes in on his own merit or because he has an easy passage... so it creates conceptual difficulty because effectively, you are having an exception to (the ruling party’s) meritocratic principles in the GRC system,” said Nizam.
Nizam also noted that where inter-racial marriages are concerned, the order in which races are listed also impacts their treatment under the HDB ethnic integration policy.
“If you call yourself Chinese-Indian, you are treated as Chinese for the purposes of the EIP, but if you call yourself Indian-Chinese, then you are treated as an Indian. To me, it’s totally meaningless because this is a case where you have an immediate policy implication that has a dollars-and-cents (outcome) but that depends on how you are classified in your IC,” he said.
“Race is institutionalised in Singapore. It’s there in your ICs. Government policies talk about race, and that very descriptor in your IC is necessary for the government to implement a lot of their policies,” he added. “These policies actually accentuate differences and make it easier for stereotyping to happen.”
Ethnic community self-help groups questioned
Both speakers also questioned the relevance and usefulness of ethnic community self-help groups, which were initially formed to provide focused educational assistance to Singaporeans of specific races — these include Mendaki, SINDA and CDAC.
“It encourages a cultural deficiency fallacy, and what this means is that you create the perception that maybe there’s something about Malays and that’s why they need special help in terms of education — that there’s something inherently wrong with them,” said Nizam. “In my view, these community-based self-help groups tend to reinforce those stereotypes.”
Nizam argued further that these groups, alongside affiliated volunteer organisations, lack the expertise and experience to deal with the complexity of issues that educational difficulty and disadvantages stem from.
“The education problem is just one aspect of a whole set of complex problems, so for intervention to be really meaningful, you don’t just conduct tuition classes and think everything will be well,” he said. “You need to also devise social programmes to help the parents, to assist them in financial management, to make them realise the importance of education and social mobility and to keep motivating the students that there is room for them to do well in the system.”
Tan added that the existence of self-help groups accentuate the differences between the different races, when in his view, this is not necessary.
“Could we have a slightly more homogenous construct where potentially any Singaporean is deserving of financial or educational assistance? (Could) we target it from that perspective?” he asked.
Nizam also noted that the efforts of Mendaki, in particular, have not quite yielded “meaningful results” for students in the Malay community.
“I don’t think the system has reduced the gap between Malay students and non-Malay students, and it just hasn’t worked... and the question is whether you’re still going to have another 30 years where you see those lines (charting academic performance by race), and the Malay line keeping at the bottom,” he said. “Even for this year, some of the gaps are widening... because in my view you are not really addressing the core problem when you have the approach that (self-help groups) take, which is purely education.”
Turning to the issue of jobs, Nizam said existing race-based guidelines are not enforceable at work and a lack of legislation in this area will not encourage fairer practices.
“So if you think about it, there’s a disconnect. The Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, is supposed to govern all other laws in Singapore, but yet we are shying away from having a specific anti-discrimination law,” he added.
Nizam shared the reasons given by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices, which cited experiences in other countries that do have such laws to show that “legislation alone may not adequately change mindsets in this area”, adding that “employment relations are complex, and anti-discrimination legislation makes the labour market more rigid and less competitive”.
“But if you think about it, how effective can that be when you talk about enforceability and having consistent application? That argues for the presence of anti-discrimination laws,” he said.