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What can we Learn from Singapore? Lessons on Multiculturalism

A state system based on the classification of race actually works? Martin from Bulgaria studied for one year in multicultural Singapore and discovered the key to its social cohesion. Find out how the country benefits from its diversity, but also consider: are there disadvantages? Could a similar approach work in Europe?

Reassessing Multiculturalism

After the two terrorist attacks in Paris last year, more and more people started voicing what had been floating in the air for some time. “Multiculturalism” has failed. It was admitted by Sarkozy and Cameron. Even Merkel had to agree.

But what does this mean? Is multiculturalism an unachievable theory and is the co-existence of different religions and cultures inevitably doomed to fuse into violence? Is multiculturalism practically impossible? Or is it only its implementation by the European leaders and politicians that has failed?

I will take Singapore as a case study and show that multiculturalism is, in fact, possible and achievable. In what I attempt to be an objective representation of the “Singaporean model”, I deliberately separate fact and value judgment. Differently said, I attempt to paint the picture present in Singapore. Whether the model should be implemented in Europe, whether Europe should learn lessons from Singapore, whether the “Singaporean model” is incompatible with European values – I leave all these questions to the reader.

The Path to Social Harmony

When asked by the famous author Fareed Zakaria what is the country’s biggest pride and success, the deputy prime minister of Singapore, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, neither mentioned the country’s fascinating economic progress, nor its unsurpassable safety. No, the answer was in fact “social harmony”. For the fifty years of its existence, Singapore has witnessed very few instances of inter-racial tensions and certainly no major terrorist threat. According to the government census, there are currently 74.3% Chinese, 13.3% Malays, 9.1% Indians, and 3.3% “Others”. Furthermore, according to a recent survey, more than 90% of Singaporeans are comfortable with having people of other races and religions as neighbors or colleagues. In an interview for International Herald Tribune, Singapore’s founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, lectured the US on social cohesion and equality, attributing his country’s economic success to the racial harmony in the society.

Logical questions follow. How did Singapore achieve this? What is the key to success? And what is the price? Fortunately, we can easily examine the early history of the country, going back to the 1960s. Up until the middle of the 20th century, Singapore was a colony of the British Empire. Following a Merger Referendum in 1962, Singapore joined The Federation of Malaya (today, Malaysia). However, tensions between Singaporean and Malaysian leaders occurred promptly.

Nurturing Social Cohesion

In 1964, after a procession to commemorate Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, violence broke out between the Malays participating in the procession and the Chinese bystanders. The sad result was 23 dead and 454 injured people. A month later, another Sino-Malay riot occurred. When Singapore finally declared its independence from Malaysia the very next year, the first preoccupation for its leaders was guaranteeing social cohesion.

In a country surrounded by hostile neighbors and populated by a great number of immigrants, with various different cultures and religions, it was of great importance to establish a peaceful multiracial society. In the same year, Lee Kuan Yew stated: “This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equally: language, culture, religion.” This is what constitutes the uniqueness of Singapore’s case. The nation is not based on ethnicity and language as we see in Europe, rather is Singapore a country of immigrants.

United Nation of Immigrants

The stated words of Lee Kuan Yew profoundly marked the way Singapore was going to follow in the next decades and became its most perfect embodiment. Specifically, the government pledged to provide equal footing and status to every constituent race in Singapore. The ultimate goal of the policy was not only to recognize the differences in the society, but also to maintain them. “The state strives to maintain and strengthen the cultural identities unique to each race, giving them a sense of identity.” The government had the difficult task to transform the various groups of immigrants into a united nation, which embraces differences and promotes diversity.

Fostering Cultural Identities

This is why forming separate ethnic and racial groups with strong identity would boost the trust in the government, create a sense of security and ameliorate the tensions. When it comes to real laws and practices, this ideal materialized in the creation of the “CMIO” classification. Each citizen in Singapore is classified under one of these categories – Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others, as this “tag” is explicitly written in the person’s identity card. What is more, each particular race has their own race-language (Chinese = Mandarin, Malay = Malay language, Indian = Tamil) and race-religion (Chinese = Buddhist, Malay = Islam, Indian = Hindu).

Sustaining Harmony through Policy Frameworks

All subsequent policies regarding racial and religious harmony in Singapore are heavily based on this classification. For instance, in 1966 a bilingual policy was launched. It requires that every student in school learns both English and their “assigned” mother tongue, which is the language of their associated race. In 1970, the Presidential Council for Minority Rights was established to monitor and oversee laws, ensuring that there is no discrimination against minorities.

Self-help groups for the different ethnicities were soon formed to provide assistance – MENDAKI (Council for the Development of Singapore Malay/Muslim Community) in 1982, followed by the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda), the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) and the Eurasian Association in the 1990s. The reason for having four different self-help groups was simple: each community has different needs, problems and solutions. In addition to these measures, in the realm of politics the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system was established in 1988. It required the parties to name at least one minority candidate in each GRC team. This was envisioned to ensure representation of all ethnic and religious groups in the country.

Singapore’s Model of Multiculturalism

With so much emphasis on the differences, one question remains: how is social cohesion accomplished? The first part of the answer lies in the Ethnic Integration Policy, implemented by the Housing Board in 1989. In the country more than 80% of the population lives in public housing. With the Ethnic Integration Policy, “every block, precinct and enclave has ethnic quotas.” This translates into “maximum ethnic limits for neighborhood” and “maximum ethnic limits for block,” where the number of Chinese, Malays and “Indians and Others” has a specified cap in accordance with the country’s demographic situation.

Ethnic Integration Policy

The same deputy minister from Zakaria’s conversation admits that “the most intrusive social policy in Singapore has turned out to be the most important, … people do everyday things together, become comfortable with each other, and most importantly, their kids go to the same schools.” Furthermore, the government works hard to promote cohesion – 21st July is the ‘Racial Harmony Day’ with different activities in the country and neighborhoods.

Safeguarding Religious Harmony

Finally, the comfort of each religion is secured by the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. It empowers the Minister for Home Affairs to make a restraining order against a person who is “causing feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different religious groups.” According to the media, in the past decade, at least 16 people have been investigated for race or religion-related offences, either under the Sedition Act or the Penal Code. And while there are always tensions in a society and a room for improvement, all this has helped Singapore reach the top position out of 142 countries in the annual Legatum Prosperity Index, for tolerance of ethnic minorities.

So, is multiculturalism possible and achievable? If we take out all other factors and define success as “absence of direct and violent confrontation between the different races,” then the answer for Singapore is a resounding “yes”.

Martin with his friends.

Martin with his friends (photo: private)

Then, should Europe take on Singapore’s example and copy its policies? Definitely not. Do some of these policies contradict Europe’s principles? Most likely yes. Nevertheless, I am sure that at least some lessons can be learnt.

The author and the editorial team would love to hear what is your view on multiculturalism. Is it doomed to failure in Europe? Can we learn from Singapore? How do you perceive compatibility of strengthened cultural/language/religious identities with the goal of social cohesion and peace?

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