Race in Singapore is complicated. I am in no position to provide either a full or an authoritative account, but allow me to share some interesting things I have learned and noticed.
Singapore is multi-racial and multi-religious. Given its location and history as a trading hub, this should not be at all surprising. Around half the population at any given time are foreigners – the local residents are a mix of ethnic Chinese (around 74%), Malay (13%), Indian (9%) and Eurasians and others (4%). Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are all well represented, as are Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews.
On the one hand, there is a zero-tolerance attitude towards anything that offends Singapore’s multi-racial, multi-religious status. Recently, for example, a union chief made an insensitive comment about Malays on her Facebook page and was fired within 24 hours as a result of the public backlash. Comments that promote ‘ill will and hostility’ between races are prohibited under the Sedition Act, which has resulted in occasional fines and imprisonments.
This tough stance is partly due to the 1964 race riots which loom large in the national consciousness as an event no-one wishes to see repeated. Singapore at that time had recently become independent of British rule and had merged to become a state of Malaysia. Tensions were caused between Malaysia’s policies of pro-Malay affirmative action and Singapore’s advocacy of a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ backed by its largely Chinese population. These Malay/Chinese tensions ultimately spilled onto the streets during celebrations of the prophet Muhammad’s birthday. In the ensuing riots, 23 were killed, several hundred injured and 3,000 people were arrested.
Explicit racial ‘segregation’ goes back further to the early days of British settlement, when Singapore was becoming unruly and unsafe as a result of rapid and uncontrolled growth. The city was divided into four ethnic enclaves as part of the 1822 Raffles Plan – a European Town, a Chinese kampong (village), an area for Malays, Arabs and Muslims called Kampong Glam, and Chulia Kampong for ethnic Indians. Present-day Kampong Glam, Chinatown and the city’s downtown core still echo these planning decisions, while most of the ethnic Indian population gradually relocated to what is now Little India.
So, different races and religions by and large co-exist distinctly but peaceably in Singapore, which is no small accomplishment. That most Singaporeans are bilingual and speak a common language (English) no doubt helps. However, that is only half the story. Continue Reading →