Can discrimination be positive?

Discrimination is usually seen as a negative concept.

Whether it’s refusing access to a job, denying entry to a location, or reinforcing inequalities, discrimination can take many forms and can be found in all areas of life.

It can be explicit or implicit: “No Indians” in property ads or “must speak Mandarin” in job descriptions. It can be intentionally demeaning or unconsciously propagated: stereotypes such as “Asians are bad drivers” or “women are emotional”. In some cases, it can even originate from a good intention: “this older employee won’t be able to cope with the new technologies we use, we’re actually doing him a favour by firing him”.

But these past 20 years have seen a rise in practices that favour “positive discrimination”, or the act of giving an extra push to those who need it by giving them preferential treatment or by giving them access to specific aids.

In France, la discrimination positive is enforced at various levels of the government to make sure those that were born without social or economic advantages get the same opportunities as those that did.

Some schools and Universities are required by law to reserve spots for students from poorer neighbourhoods or families. Government organisations are required to reserve some jobs for the physically handicapped. Some companies can receive tax breaks if they re-employ older workers or accommodate mothers’ schedules.

Despite such practices, many in France see the measures as merely cosmetic, as they don’t really go as far as they could to bring equal opportunities to all.

In the US, affirmative action originally meant any “action that promotes non-discrimination”, but was progressively extended to mean “policies and practices that benefit an underrepresented group in employment, education, and business”.

Nowadays there are many different types of affirmative action and the practices can be found in all aspects of life. So much so that many have even criticised the negative side-effects of the well-meaning policies.

Closer to home, in Malaysia, the New Economic Policy (NEP) has been described by specialists as a form of affirmative action, since it secures a certain number of subsidies, jobs, and privileges to the ethnic Malays.

The Malays constitute the ethnic majority of the country but represent a minority in terms of income and wealth, as the Chinese have traditionally been involved in lucrative businesses and industries. The system has been adjusted many times, but its removal has not really been considered.

So could Singapore benefit from such policies? Maybe. Will Singapore policy-makers ever consider implementing such a system? Very unlikely.

If Singapore were to import some of the principles or the ideas behind “positive discrimination” and apply them to very specific fields in a very controlled environment, then perhaps it could be a beneficial initiative.

Hard-working students from all backgrounds would be able to access the school or University of their choice, as opposed to the one their parents can afford. Seriously motivated workers of all ages and genders could build the career they aspire to, as opposed to taking the jobs employers think they should do. Generally speaking, people of all creeds, physical abilities, and family backgrounds could become ambitious businessmen and entrepreneurs.

But the risk would be for the policies’ unpredictable side-effects to disrupt the principles of meritocracy that Singapore has worked so hard to instil.

Even worse, they could also affect the delicate balance of racial relations in Singapore.

And that is a risk that no government or policy-maker is willing to take. And why should they? After all, the country has reached first-world status without such policies, right?

Maybe this is a conversation that will take place someday, but for now it seems unnecessary to fix something that isn’t broken.

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