Race in Singapore

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The concept of race or ethnicity in contemporary Singapore emerged from British colonial attitudes towards race. Today, the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) model is the dominant organising framework of race in Singapore.[1] Race informs government policies on a variety of issues such as political participation, public housing and education.[1] However, the state’s management of race, as well as the relevance of the CMIO model, has been a point of contention amongst some in recent years.

Historical background[edit]

The practice of classifying the local population based on their races or ethnicities was born out of British colonial practices.[2] Race categories were enshrined through local censuses and the issuance of identity cards. In the early British censuses of British Malaya, ethnic lines were often drawn by birthplace and linguistic or linguistic group. In these censuses, labels such as ‘Hokkien’, ‘Boyanese’ and ‘Bengali’ were being used. In the 1891 census, races began to be grouped into broader categories such as Chinese, Malay, and Indian.[3]

Up till the 20th century, the largely first and second-generation immigrant population retained strong ties to their respective homelands. These communities continued to be influenced by the ideological movements in their homelands. Such movements included the Chinese civil war, the struggle for independence in then-British India, and the decolonisation efforts in peninsula Malaya and Indonesia. As such, each immigrant community maintained their own sense of nationalism.[4]

When Singapore was part of the Federation of Malaysia from 1963 to 1965, inter-racial tensions were rife, culminating in incidents such as the 1964 Race Riots. At the same time, Singaporean political leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew began to advocate for a “Malaysian Malaysia”, opposing the Malaysian Federal Government’s vision of an ethnic-based Malay Malaysia.[1]

After Singapore’s split from Malaysia, the Singapore government pushed for the development of a “Singaporean Singapore” identity based on racial equality, with race acting as a secondary identifier alongside the Singaporean national identity.[1] Special rights for Malays were legislated into the Singapore Constitution, symbolically recognising the community as the indigenous people of the land. Singapore also formally adopted four official languages - English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil - and implemented a multilingual education policy.

Government policies[edit]

According to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), the child’s race registered on their Birth Certificate “can follow that of the child's father, mother or an acceptable mixed race if the parents are of different races.”[5] The race field cannot be left blank during registration. If parents cannot decide on their child’s race at the time of registration, the child's race is provisionally recorded as the father's.[6]

The option to record a child’s race as double-barrelled (e.g. Chinese-Indian) was introduced in 2010 by the Ministry of Home Affairs.[7] Previously, mixed-race Singaporeans were allowed to choose between either of their parents' races and no allowance was made for mixed-race children, with the exception of Eurasians. For relevant Government policies (e.g. the Ethnic Integration Policy), the first component of a double-barrelled race is used.[8]

Singaporeans are allowed to change their race twice: once before the age of 21, and once at or after the age of 21. They would have to execute a Statutory Declaration stating their reason(s) for the change, and undertaking not to change their race again.[8]


Racial equality and non-discrimination are set out in Article 12 of the Singapore Constitution, which states:

"12.—(1) All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.
(2) Except as expressly authorised by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.
(3) This Article does not invalidate or prohibit —
(a) any provision regulating personal law; or
(b) any provision or practice restricting office or employment connected with the affairs of any religion, or of an institution managed by a group professing any religion, to persons professing that religion."[9]

The Constitution also recognises the special position of Malays as the indigenous people of the land in Article 152:

"152.—(1) It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore.
(2) The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language."[10]

Language policies[edit]

The four official languages (English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil) are recognised in Article 153 the Singapore Constitution.[11] English is the language of administration,[1] and is also seen as a common language for the different races to communicate with one another. Chinese, Malay and Tamil were designated as the ‘Mother Tongues’ of the three respective ethnic groups.[12] The then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in particular, believed that learning one’s Mother Tongue helped maintain one’s understanding of cultural values.[13]

A bilingual education policy was also introduced, mandating that students learn English as their first language and their respective Mother Tongues (determined by their officially registered race).[1] Today, all students are expected to learn an official Mother Tongue Language.[14] However, Singaporeans who have lived abroad for extended periods, as well as international students, may be granted exemptions from the Mother Tongue language requirement on a case-by-case basis.[15][16]

Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR)[edit]

The Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR) is a non-elected government body which examines legislation to ensure that they do not discriminate against any racial or religious communities.

Parliamentary and presidential elections[edit]

According to the Parliamentary Elections Act, each Group Representation Constituency (GRC) must include one member of the minority race such as a Malay or Indian.[17] However, a by-election need not be held to fill a vacancy in any GRC triggered by the death or resignation of an MP, even if there are no other minority candidates in that GRC,[18] or for any other reason.

From 2017 onwards, the presidential elections will be reserved for a racial group if that racial group has not represented for five terms.[19] If there are no eligible candidates from that group, the election would be opened to candidates of all races, and the “reserved election” would be deferred to the next Presidential election.[19] The first reserved Presidential Election was held in 2017.

Public housing[edit]

The Ethnic Integration Policy implemented by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) sets a quota on who can reside in a public housing flat in a particular block or neighbourhood. The policy was first introduced 1989 to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves and encourage a balanced racial mix in HDB estates.[20] According to the HDB, the proportion set for a block or neighbourhood “is based on the ethnic make-up of Singapore”.[21]

CPF contribution to community funds[edit]

By default, all employees are required to contribute to self-help groups’ funds, namely: Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) Fund, Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund (MBMF), Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) Fund and Eurasian Community Fund (ECF).[22] Contribution to the self-help group depends on the race and/or religion of the employee which is indicated on the National Registration Identity Card (NRIC).[22] Contributions are deducted from an employee’s wages as well as their share of their Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution. However, employees have the option of opting-out from contributing to their respective self-help groups.[22]

National service[edit]

Malays were virtually excluded from conscription from the beginning of the draft in 1967 until 1977 and, after the policy was eased, were assigned mainly to serve in the police and civil defence (fire brigade), not active combat roles.[23] In The Roar of the Lion City (2007), military analyst Sean Walsh claimed that "official discrimination against the Malay population remains an open secret".[24] The Ministry of Defence contests the charge, noting that there are "Malay pilots, commandos and air defence personnel", and stating that "the proportion of eligible Malays selected for specialist and officer training is similar to the proportion for eligible non-Malays."[25]

Racial Harmony Day[edit]

Racial Harmony Day is celebrated on 21 July, on the anniversary of the 1964 Race Riots. First launched in 1997 by the Ministry of Education in schools, the event has since expanded in reach. Today, grassroots organisations such as the People’s Association and the Community Development Councils also celebrate Racial Harmony Day.[26]


The Singapore state’s treatment of race has also faced criticism from some academics. Scholar S. Velayutham argues that the state’s constant focus on the “spectre of racial violence has literally erased the notion of racism from public and official discourses”. Velayutham also argues and that “the need to maintain racial harmony, social cohesion and tolerance is repeatedly voiced to render racists practices as non-occurrences”.[27] Other scholars such as N. Purushotam take issue with the orientalist underpinnings of the CMIO classification, and argue that continued adherence to the model merely avoids reconceptualisation of the term “race”.[2] The “Others” category has also been criticised, with scholar Elaine Ho contending that the grouping of ethnic groups into the category “glosses over their social heterogeneity and different needs”.[28]

Nevertheless, CMIO framework retains majority mainstream support among Singaporeans. A 2016 joint survey by Channel NewsAsia and the Institute of Policy Studies showed that a majority of respondents believed that the CMIO classification helps build trust between the races (69%), fosters greater interaction between races (69%) and safeguards minority rights (71%).[29] In a 2017 interview with local newspaper TODAY, the survey’s lead researcher Mathew Mathews said that “[t]he answer is not dismantling the framework, the answer is to ensure that all the communities continue to be embracing (of others).”[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Tan, Eugene (2004). ""We, the Citizens of Singapore …": Multiethnicity, its Evolution and its Aberrations.". In Lai, Ah Eng (ed.). Beyond Rituals and Riots: Ethnic Pluralism and Social Cohesion in Singapore. Institute of Policy Studies and Eastern Universities Press. pp. 65–97.
  2. ^ a b Purushotam, Nirmala (1998). "Disciplining Difference: "Race" in Singapore". In Khan, Joel S. (ed.). Southeast Asian Identities: Culture and the Politics of Representation in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Singapore: ISEAS. pp. 51–94.
  3. ^ Hirschman, Charles (1987). "The Meaning and Measurement of Ethnicity in Malaysia: An Analysis of Census Classifications". The Journal of Asian Studies. 46 (3): 555–582. doi:10.2307/2056899. JSTOR 2056899.
  4. ^ Chua, Beng Huat (2005). "Taking Group Rights Seriously: Multiracialism in Singapore (Working Paper No.124)" (PDF).
  5. ^ "Immigration & Checkpoints Authority - FAQs >> Birth/Death Registration - Birth Registration". Immigration & Checkpoints Authority. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  6. ^ "Immigration & Checkpoints Authority - FAQs >> Birth/Death Registration - Birth Registration". Immigration & Checkpoints Authority. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  7. ^ Hoe, Yeen Nie. "Singaporeans of mixed race allowed to "double barrel" race in IC". Channel NewsAsia. Archived from the original on 6 February 2010. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  8. ^ a b "ICA - Greater Flexibility with Implementation of Double-Barrelled Race Option from 1 January 2011". Immigration & Checkpoints Authority. Archived from the original on 29 July 2017. Retrieved 29 July 2017.
  9. ^ "Article 12, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore". Singapore Statutes Online. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  10. ^ "Article 152, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore". Singapore Statutes Online. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  11. ^ "Article 153A, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore". Singapore Statutes Online. Archived from the original on 2017-11-08. Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  12. ^ DIxon, L. Quentin (2005). "Bilingual education policy in Singapore: An analysis of its sociohistorical roots and current academic outcomes". International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 8: 25–47. CiteSeerX doi:10.1080/jBEB.v8.i1.pg25.
  13. ^ Sim, Cheryl. "Bilingual Policy". Singapore Infopedia. Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  14. ^ "Corporate Brochure" (PDF). Ministry of Education (Singapore). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-06-17. Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  15. ^ "Returning Singapore: General Information on Studying in Singapore". Ministry of Education (Singapore). Archived from the original on 2018-04-10. Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  16. ^ "International Students: General Information on Studying in Singapore". Ministry of Education (Singapore). Archived from the original on 2016-06-08. Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  17. ^ "Article 8A, Parliamentary Elections Act". Singapore Statutes Online. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  18. ^ Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh (7 Feb 2017). "No by-election if minority MP leaves GRC, says Chun Sing". The Straits Times. Archived from the original on 22 July 2017. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
  19. ^ a b "Article 19B, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore". Singapore Statutes Online. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  20. ^ "Ethnic Integration Policy is implemented - Singapore History". HistorySG. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  21. ^ "Ethnic Integration Policy and SPR Quota - Housing & Development Board (HDB)". Housing and Development Board (HDB). Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  22. ^ a b c "Contributions to Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and SHARE Donations". Central Provident Fund Board. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  23. ^ A Question of Loyalty: Ethnic Minorities, Military Service and Resistance by Alon Peled, 3 March 1993. Seminar Synopses of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard. Archived 6 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ Walsh, Sean P. (26 July 2016). "The Roar of the Lion City". Armed Forces & Society. 33 (2): 265–285. doi:10.1177/0095327X06291854.
  25. ^ "US soldier takes potshots at SAF". Today. 12 March 2007. Archived from the original on 16 July 2007. Retrieved 17 September 2008.
  26. ^ Han, Jamie; Loh, Pei Ying. "Racial Harmony Day". Singapore Infopedia. Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  27. ^ Velayutham, Selvaraj (2009). "Everyday Racism in Singapore". In Wise, Amanda; Velayutham, Selvaraj (eds.). Everyday Multiculturalism. New York: Palgrave Macmilan. ISBN 978-0-230-24447-4.
  28. ^ Cheng, Kenneth; Chua, Joey Xue Ting (8 August 2017). "Debate over CMIO model as diversity grows". TODAYonline. Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  29. ^ Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies (CNA-IPS) Survey on Race Relations (PDF). Institute of Policy Studies. 2016.
  30. ^ Mokhtar, Faris (8 November 2017). "CMIO model still relevant as S'poreans 'value importance of race': Study". TODAYonline. Retrieved 10 April 2018.