“For one thing, the traditional racial categories of “Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other” oversimplify Singapore’s diversity, he said” (Singapore Must ‘Embrace Diversity As Its Strength’, Charissa Yong).
Few would disagree with criticisms that the traditional racial categories of “Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other (CMIO)” oversimplifies the diversity within each domain and is increasingly incompatible with the ubiquity of inter-racial, inter-ethnicity unions, but beyond calls for Singaporeans to abandon “stereotyped presumptions and expectations [so as to] treat people as individuals and not categories” per se (Apr. 10) government structures should be dismantled if we were to move beyond the antiquated CMIO model.
The pervasiveness of these rigid structures perpetuates the cognitive dissonance described by businessman Ho Kwon Ping and could even facilitate institutional discrimination, such as perceptions of unequal opportunities – articulated in the 2013 Suara Musyawarah report – for Malay men in the armed forces for instance. CMIO may have made sense right after independence, in a historical context, yet the classification system and its corresponding boundaries makes little sense with growing multiracialism and multiculturalism.
These are hardly new calls for systemic change. Remember in 2010 when nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan suggested in Parliament to relook the system of racial categorisation in areas such as ethnic self-help groups? Since then similar proposals to de-emphasise racial divisions have surfaced, with race-based self-help groups CDAC, Mendaki, and SINDA in the spotlight. It makes even less sense for the Ministry of Education to present aggregated results of national examinations along racial lines, when indicators such as the socio-economic status of a household or performance within a particular neighbourhood and constituency appears to matter more for changes. Or even the consequences of poor policy decisions. Other structures such as the GRC, the Special Assistance Plan programme, and the ethnic integration policy in public housing estates should also be reviewed.
At the very least involve more in a national conversation of sort, with discussions on these complex issues. Without a sense of public opinion moving forward remains difficult.
At the same time the bigotry of individuals cannot go unchecked. If the government seeks to “strengthen cohesive diversity” Singaporeans should consequently be attuned to instances of racism in their own lives, calling others out for their ignorance or insensitivity. And the Chinese majority must challenge entrenched assumptions too. In this vein both government policies and individual agency matter, since the former could influence the implications of the “fundamental primeval differences” that the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew referred to when explaining motivations for the group representation constituencies (GRC), through which at least one member of parliament (MP) in each GRC must be Malay, Indian, or a member of another minority community.
And in this sense, on the other side of the equation, the conduct of individuals matters too. To an extent government structures are crafted to meet the purported needs of its people. Engagement in these discursive endeavours can therefore guide future trajectories, and our day-to-day actions affect the lived experienced of others. First subject ourselves to greater scrutiny, and shed our apathy in the face of abuse and discrimination.