Race in Singapore

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The concept of race or ethnicity in contemporary Singapore combines British colonial attitudes with the approach taken by leaders of local anti-colonial movements. The definition of 'race' in Singapore has changed little since the 1960s. However, the Singapore approach to race does closely mirror the approach taken by its closest neighbour Malaysia. The majority population are Chinese, with almost 75% of the total population.

Race in Singapore[edit]

Historically, the word race in Singapore was used to describe a great multiplicity of ethnic groups. These include 'Shanghainese', 'Japanese', 'Sikhs', 'Armenians', 'Arab' and 'Javanese', amongst others. Clearly, these were broad and sometimes overlapping groups, and they were drawn along various geographical, linguistic, religious and political lines. Often, these were the terms in which ordinary people identified themselves in relation to others, and would often have constituted their primary ethnic identity.

In early 20th century Singapore, the largely immigrant local Asian population was influenced by and caught up with the rise of modern ideological movements in their ancestral homelands. These included nationalist and anti-colonial independence movements, as well as cultural and religious reformist movements. These movements, especially in China, India and Malaya, tended to emphasise wider 'national' identities, over more narrow traditional caste, clan or dialectse identities. Thus, 'Chinese', 'Indian' and 'Malay' became important identities for Singapore residents, transcending older loyalties.

By the mid-20th century, the consolidation of Chinese and Indian identity was matched by the growing Malay nationalism, and its concomitant anxiety about the large Chinese and Indian communities in Malaya. Consequently, these three identities became of primary importance in political discourse and how people saw themselves. Government texts and statistics also began to match these new, more important identities, which continued to be called by the old name, 'races'.

Initially, some ethnic groups, usually more privileged minorities, which had historically maintained some distance between themselves and other similar groups, were resistant to the new 'racial' identities. The Peranakans, for example, were slightly hesitantdubious claim about being absorbed into the 'Chinese' community, as were the Sri Lankan Tamils into the 'Indian' group. However, with time, this has happened, and many of these old communities have started to dissolve into the larger groups[citation needed]. Inter-marriage between sub-racial ethnic groups is, anecdotally[citation needed], far more common than across racial lines. For example, it would be more common to find a Malayalee marrying a Tamil, or a Hokkien (Min Nan speaker) marrying a Cantonese, than to see a Chinese marrying a Malay or Indian, although inter-marriage does occur in some numbers as well.

In the case of the Chinese, allied or related racial groups like the Japanese have always been counted as a separate category in Singapore, and they continue to be counted in the 'other' races category. Likewise, Thais and Filipinos are categorised as such, rather than as the, presumably ethnically similar,[1] Malays. Only among the Indians, who ironically would appear to display greater internal racial diversity, have all the countries of South Asia been grouped under a collective 'Indian' racial category rather than 'South Asian'.

In 2010, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that mixed-race children would be able to choose to identify themselves using both ethnicities, for instance as Chinese-Indian, with the father's race first.[2] Previously, mixed-race Singaporeans were allowed to choose between either of their parents' races, and no allowance was made for contemporary mixed-race children, except for Eurasians, who existed as a fairly well established racial category prior to independence. Thus Eurasians and their descendants are classified as Eurasian, rather than as 'European'. This was a rule applied by the British, to discourage too much 'dilution' of the European race in Singapore, and to maintain distance from the Asian community.

The race recorded on a person's identification card is relevant, among other situations, when purchasing a HDB flat.[3]


  1. ^ "Browse by Language Family". 
  2. ^ "404". Channel NewsAsia. 
  3. ^ "Ask HDB - HDB InfoWEB". askhdb.hdb.gov.sg.