It seems like more people are openly talking about race these days and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It could strengthen the social fabric of our society if there are constructive dialogues. But if we’re not careful, it may also undermine the ethnic coherence that we have achieved as a nation together.
As much as we would like to think that we have made significant progress over the last 50 years, we are still not race-blind. Not yet.
Just because our last racial riots between the Chinese and Malays happened sometime back, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen again.
racial riots in 1964
In July 1964, there was a procession to celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s birthday which was attended by some 25,000 Malays. It started at the Padang and was to end at Geylang.
However, along the way, a few Chinese onlookers jeered and threw items at the Malays, sparking off the worst racial riot recorded in Singapore history.
Another riot took place in September 1964 and by the end of both riots, 36 people have died and 560 suffered from injuries.
Surely these painful episodes have taught us to explore models where inclusion comes from top-down, rather than left to natural forces.
At the 45th annual St. Gallen Symposium two years ago, DPM Tharman linked Singapore’s economic success to our diverse society.
He stated that our inclusive society was deliberately engineered by the Government’s intrusive housing policies.
The natural workings of society would not have led to that happening. Not just in Singapore but anywhere in the world. The natural workings of society would have just as easily and more likely led to mistrust, discomfort, bigotry and what we see in abundance in many countries around the world today. The most intrusive social policy in Singapore has turned out to be the most important, and it has a level of intrusiveness that doesn’t come comfortably to the liberal mind.
And he explained why the most intrusive social policy in Singapore has turned out to be the most important.
It was done because…and it was intrusive, but it turned out to be our greatest strength, because once people lived together, they’re not just walking the corridors every day, taking the same elevator up and down. Their kids go to the same kindergarten, they go to the same primary school, because all over the world, young kids go to school very near where they live. And they grow up together. The lessons coming out of Baltimore, the lessons coming out of France’s large cities, the lessons coming out of all our societies show that neighbourhoods matter, place matters, where you live matters. It matters much more than economists thought. It matters tremendously in the daily influences that shape your life, and the traps you fall into.
intrusive housing policies
The ethnic integration policy didn’t happen overnight. It was implemented in 1989 to address the (then) growing issue of communal clustering.
Back then, Malay households made up more than 30 percent of the estate population in Bedok and Tampines housing estates. In Hougang, 90 percent of the households were Chinese.
Today, 85 per cent of Singapore lives in public housing with established ethnic quotas for HDB neighbourhoods and blocks.
DPM Tharman elaborated on this ethnic balance.
Once a particular ethnic group gets beyond a certain quota in that block or that precinct, the resale market has to adjust. You can’t just get more and more of the same people concentrating themselves in the same neighbourhood. And when it was first done, I don’t think we knew how important it was going to be.
The entire issue of how social inclusion needs to be managed, is perhaps best explained by DPM Tharman himself.
If we believe in social inclusion, if we believe in opportunities for all, we have to accept it doesn’t happen automatically because of the invisible hand of the market or the invisible hand of society. It happens because you’ve got policies that seek to foster and encourage it.
We can’t deny that Singapore’s multi-ethnic housing policies have created a non-violent and inclusive society. And it didn’t happen naturally.
The same can be said about why a reserved Presidential Election is necessary.
Until societies have completely evolved to a state where humans no longer judge each other by race or religion, there will be a need for social intervention policies.
That is, if we want and we choose to build a harmonious society.