Friday 13 September 2013

Singaporeans' attitudes to race: survey 2013

Colleagues of another race OK, but not spouses: Survey
By Leonard Lim And Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2013

MORE than nine in 10 Singaporeans accept colleagues and neighbours of a different race but fewer are willing to marry or welcome an in-law of another race.

A recent survey on race relations here has found that while Singaporeans are generally open to other races in the public sphere, this attitude does not always extend to the private space.

For instance, among non-Malay respondents, just over three in 10 said they would be comfortable with a Malay spouse. The numbers were similar when non- Indian respondents were asked about marrying an Indian person, and just slightly higher - five in 10 - for a parallel question on Eurasians.

The finding was characteristic of the bigger picture on race relations painted by the study of more than 4,000 Singaporeans by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and racial harmony advocacy group The country has made good progress, but there is still some way to go.

IPS director Janadas Devan said the results show "an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans are ideologically committed to the idea of Singapore being a multiracial society". But he sounded a note of caution, especially as fewer than half of the respondents said they had a close friend of another race.

And there were other gaps as well. Those born here were much less comfortable with workmates who are new citizens of a different race. While 94 per cent of non-Chinese accept a local-born Chinese as their boss, that share falls to 74 per cent for a boss who is a new citizen originally from China.

There was also a significant number who said that minorities are disadvantaged at work. Some 36 per cent of respondents felt Malays had to work harder or much harder than someone of another race to reach the top spot in their company. For Indians, the figure was 31 per cent.

The Chinese had marginally different attitudes to race relations compared to minority ethnic groups. They were, for instance, the least keen to learn from other races.

IPS research fellow Mathew Mathews, who headed the survey, said the results indicate that racial bias "has not been removed across the board".

This survey is the first to create 10 indicators to measure inter-racial and inter-religious trust. The aim is to pose the questions again in future to gauge shifts in attitudes. The results were presented yesterday at a forum, which saw a lively discussion on topics ranging from social exclusion to discrimination. chairman Zainudin Nordin, also an MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, called for further dialogue on race. He said: "Let this not be the end but the start of a meaningful conversation that we can translate into positive action for the good of our country and society."

Gap in ethnic groups' views of race relations: Poll
Minority groups more likely to trust Chinese in crises than other way around
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2013

SHOULD a crisis like the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) break out again, Singapore's Malays, Indians and other minority groups say they trust that most of the Chinese will lend a helping hand.

But a recent poll has found that the trust is not always reciprocated.

While over 60 per cent of non- Chinese said they trust a majority of Chinese to help in a crisis, that proportion drops to around 50 per cent when the Chinese were asked about Malays, Indians and Eurasians.

The difference between the attitudes of the Chinese majority and the other races was not confined to situations of crisis. The findings from a recent study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and racial harmony advocacy group point to a narrow but noticeable gap between the majority and minority ethnic groups in their attitudes towards race relations.

The Chinese were not just less willing to trust other races in a crisis, a small but significant number also said they did not feel they could learn from other racial groups or that it is good for Singapore to be made up of different races.

The results sparked a lively discussion yesterday on the dynamics of majority and minority group relations at a forum on the findings.

Reflecting on the 10-point gap in the responses on national crises, IPS research fellow Mathew Mathews said the minority races are more likely to trust the Chinese as they would probably have more chances to interact with them. Whereas it is likely at least some portions of the Chinese - being the majority - would have less experience with the minorities.

This is also the case in other societies, where the majority group will always treat the minority group with "a little bit more suspicion", said Dr Mathews, who led the study.

He added that the disproportionate chances for interaction between the majority and minority races might also explain other findings.

One was that while respondents generally affirmed the importance of Singapore being multiracial, the Chinese were slightly less positive.

Some 59 per cent of Chinese respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "You can learn a lot from other racial groups", compared with 69 per cent to 75 per cent of respondents from the other races.

Some 71 per cent of Chinese respondents agreed or strongly agreed that it is a good thing for Singapore to be made up of people from different racial groups, compared with 79 per cent to 82 per cent for the other races.

Former Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan, one of four panellists yesterday, wondered if there were "structural issues" in Singapore, such as Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, which have a focus on Chinese culture. People from SAP schools have lamented to him about the lack of opportunities to mingle with other races, he said.

The panellists and audience also discussed what responsibility the majority and minority groups should bear in integration.

"The thing to do is to make yourself assimilate," said an audience member who studied in the United States and is the only Chinese working in an Indian firm, citing how she wears kurtas to work.

But Nominated MP and panellist Eugene Tan felt that in the local context, it is crucial for the Chinese, as the majority community, to "take the lead in... trying to bridge the gap and trying to reach out to the minorities".

Sociology Professor Kwok Kian Woon agreed, saying that it can be common for Chinese Singaporeans to speak in Mandarin even though non-Chinese are around. While there will always be an "asymmetrical" relationship between the majority and minority in a society, there should be more effort on the part of the majority to relate, he said.

The first step, said Dr Mathews, is to develop sensitivity and understanding. Removing stereotypes is also key to building trust, he added.


You look at the survey findings, you will find an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans are ideologically committed to the idea of Singapore being a multiracial society. If you had told me 30 years ago or when I was in school 40 years ago that we would have achieved so soon a sense of the Singapore identity, I would have been surprised.

- Mr Janadas Devan, director of the Institute of Policy Studies, on how far Singapore has come, although he said there were also grounds for caution


I cannot tell you to have close friends from a different race, neither can the Government tell you to do that. You make those choices, you are the one who is going to decide, but how are you going to have close friends if you don't interact in the first place?

- Mr Zainudin Nordin, chairman of, as he urged people to use the study to bridge gaps

Concerns raised at forum on racial relations
By Tan Weizhen, TODAY, 12 Sep 2013

While relations between different races here appear to be good on the surface, as borne out by a recent study on racial and religious harmony, panellists and participants at a forum yesterday felt that things may not be as rosy if one scratches beneath the surface.

They cited some of the detailed findings of the study which were released yesterday.

In July, the broad findings of the study — which was conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies and — found that Singapore did well on most of the indicators on the scorecard, including the absence of minority discrimination in using public services, absence of interracial and religious tension and absence of minority discrimination in the workplace. The study surveyed 3,128 households of all ethnic groups.

At a forum yesterday, where the detailed findings were shared and discussed, panellists voiced concerns over, for instance, the stereotyping of races. About 80 per cent of the respondents agreed that when they know a person’s race, they have a “good idea” of what some of their behaviours and views are like. The study also found that 95 per cent of the Chinese respondents said that they have at least one close friend of the same race but only 23.3 per cent said they have close Malay friends, for instance.

And should a national crisis like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome of 2003 strike, about 63 per cent of the respondents from the minority races believed that they could trust more than half of Singaporean Chinese to help them. In comparison, the trust of minority races was slightly lower.

Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Eugene Tan, who was one of the panellists, said while the survey results were not alarming, they showed that the foundation for racial and religious harmony was not as strong as one might have hoped.

The others on the panel were former NMPs Zulkifli Baharudin and Viswa Sadasivan, as well as Nanyang Technological University sociologist Kwok Kian Woon. Associate Professor Tan said: “There is still a lot of work to be done ... we seem to be exhibiting a state of tolerance rather than one of appreciating differences. Are we sleepwalking our way to disharmony?”

Mr Zulkifli added: “You may like nasi padang cooked by the Malay guy, but does it translate into something deeper?” He noted that while about 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in the heartlands, and should have the opportunity to interact with other races, an “unacceptable” proportion of respondents do not. In fact, about 16 per cent said they would not try to get to know people of other races and religions even if they were given the opportunity. The panellists felt that people of different races were too careful or sensitive around one another, leading to a lack of honesty in relationships.

A forum participant, who is a lecturer from a polytechnic here, related an incident where he asked the school authorities if prayer areas can be situated in areas that are more convenient.

“Their response was this is religion ... we don’t go into this whole area. Let’s see what the civil service does. So if everyone is waiting for someone else to take the lead, then where is the lead?” he asked. “How much of this so-called comfort, that the majority population has, is the result of some subtle exclusion that they cannot see?” He added that nursing students at the poly have to remove their tudungs when they go to hospitals for clinical attachments, ostensibly for clinical control, but he argued that this was not “the real reason”, as the tudungs can be sterilised.

Dr Mathew Mathews of the IPS, who led the study, said the drive to appreciate other cultures is still work in progress, borne out by the fact that just over half of the respondents were interested in meeting or understanding people of other races or religions.

He said: “I think the majority of Singaporeans are rather comfortable with the good state of racial and religious relations here which makes them see little need to actually go the extra mile to seek to understand and appreciate other cultures.” He said that for the next study, which will be conducted in 2016, the researchers could explore deeper the areas where respondents did not score well in.

Some of the panellists pointed out that race is not the only issue creating fault lines here. Mr Sadasivan said: “Today, it is about socio-economic differences, class, foreigners, and it is no longer about racial lines.” More opportunities need to be created for people to make friends, “talk straight and not be so cautious with each other”, he said.

The study also found that Singaporeans are even less comfortable with new citizens of a different race in both the public and private spheres.

Spotlight on tudung ban and racial harmony
Participants at race forum discuss headscarf issue for nurses
By Leonard Lim And Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2013

A POLYTECHNIC lecturer asked at a race forum yesterday why nurses were barred from wearing tudungs, sparking a discussion on whether frontline officers here should be allowed to wear the Muslim headscarf and the practices in other countries.

Mr Chong Ching Liang, the first of 11 forum participants to share their thoughts on racial harmony, said nursing students had to remove their Muslim headscarves before going on clinical attachments or starting full-time work in hospitals.

"How much are we as a society willing to tolerate differences that different members of a population bring?" he asked.

The topic was also raised recently by a committee tasked to collect feedback on the concerns of Malays.

The Suara Musyawarah committee, in a report released in July, pointed out that there are scores of girls coming out of madrasahs who would gladly work as nurses if they could wear the headscarf.

The reason given for not allowing this is that tudungs are not part of nurses' uniforms.

At yesterday's forum, former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin observed that the headscarf issue is one that other countries like France are also grappling with. He was one of four panellists in the forum at The Grassroots Club in Yio Chu Kang.

He said he believed that this was a lost cause in Europe, and that immigrants had to make an effort to integrate into their new homeland.

Still, he expressed optimism that nurses here will probably be allowed to wear tudungs in the future, though "deep perceptions" have to be removed first. "It's not something that you can legislate and say, this matter is over," he added.

Nominated MP Eugene Tan, who was also a panellist, called for further discussion on the "unwritten state policy" that frontline officers working in the police force, nursing and at immigration checkpoints not wear the tudung.

Most of the panellists yesterday - with former Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan and academic Kwok Kian Woon rounding up the quartet - agreed that there was scope to move beyond rigid classifications of race.

Associate Professor Kwok, a sociology don, said it has become almost instinctive for Singaporeans to think of race, language and religion as "primordial dark forces" and as being highly sensitive. In his view, it is better to move away from terms like "race", which suggest something biological and frozen, to a fluid concept like "ethnicity".

Mr Sadasivan, meanwhile, asked if Singapore can move beyond the "crutches" of self-help groups like Mendaki, and the Group Representation Constituency system, which guarantees minority parliamentary representation.

"Do we have enough confidence as a people to say - let's give ourselves a chance, and see if we can survive, see if we can enhance trust by trusting our basic instincts?" he asked.

Sleepwalking to disharmony?
By Eugene KB Tan, TODAY, 13 Sep 2013

Independent Singapore was born out of the political quest for civic identity and loyalty to trump narrow sectarian identities. But are we now sleepwalking to disharmony, even as we continue to affirm the value of multiracialism in Singapore?

This provocative question is pertinent in light of the findings from Indicators of Racial and Religious Harmony, a joint Institute of Policy Studies and survey. The survey is probably the most comprehensive study on the state of ethnic relations here: Generally healthy, although there are areas of concern to pay attention to.

After close to 50 years of nation building, multiracialism cannot be just a mere slogan or a factual descriptor of the presence of different races. It has to be about the fundamental commitment to fair and equal treatment of all races at all levels of society. Beyond our laws, public policies and institutions being race-blind, Singaporeans have to be committed to these values.

The survey demonstrated that we did well in indicators that had a strong public sphere/space element. However, we did not do as well in indicators that had a closer nexus to the private sphere and how we viewed Singaporeans of other races.


Singaporeans appreciate and value social harmony, denominated in the survey by the absence of inter-racial and religious tension. But this premium on harmony need not mean that there must always be an absence of disagreements and unhappiness, which are inevitable in our heterogeneous society in the throes of socio-economic transformation.

Unless it poses a clear and present danger, tension can be healthy and should not be seen as something that needs suppressing. The process of managing conflict is important: How we seek to restore equilibrium can either be instrumental (harmony at all cost) or purposive — in the latter, we strive to improve our understanding and attend to the underlying causes of tension.

Don’t get me wrong — harmony is to be preferred over conflict. But let us not valorise harmony such that tension is portrayed solely as a threat. This prevents us from using it as an opportunity for meaningful engagement.


Have we learnt the lessons of multiracialism and harmony well, but without having imbibed the core values of multiracialism?

The four indicators where we did not fare as well (but still positive overall) suggest a lack of meaningful engagement or interest in colour-blindness, intercultural understanding and interaction.

If our harmony is built on tolerance only, then our ethnic relations are fragile and might not withstand severe stresses, such as in the event of a terrorist attack or a prolonged economic crisis.

As such, we should be concerned about the minority perception of exclusion and discrimination in our society. For example, close to 20 per cent of respondents believed that Indians and Malays had to work harder compared to other races to have a basic, decent life in Singapore.

Slightly more than 30 per cent of respondents believed that Indians and Malays had to work harder to reach top positions in their organisations. The undermining of our meritocratic ethos subverts our multiracial credentials.

A robust multiracialism is predicated on our having cross-cutting ties. It is worrying that only 45 per cent of respondents had at least one close friend of another race.

What is astonishing is that almost 80 per cent of respondents either somewhat agree, or agree/strongly agree that when they know a person’s race, they have a good idea of what some of their behaviour and views are like!

Collectively, these findings suggest that we know how to conduct ourselves in the public sphere that is aligned with the multiracial stance. But, in the private sphere, the innermost thoughts and values that we hold may imperil multiracialism, since they invariably affect how we will act, particularly in a crisis.

It is these enclaves of closed minds — in which we seek to exclude others who are different or to exclude ourselves from others — that will work against the endeavour to build a cohesive society. We really need to go beyond tolerance and forbearance to seek genuine understanding and protection of Singapore’s diversity.


The survey consistently found that minority respondents, compared to Chinese respondents, held more positive attitudes towards embracing diversity, colour-blindness, inter-cultural understanding, social acceptance and cross-racial friendships.

While minorities are more likely to be sensitive to issues surrounding diversity, relations can take on a new level if the majority ethnic Chinese community takes the lead in improving inter-ethnic understanding.

Much less is at stake, and it’s always easier for the majority to reach out, as their actions are less likely to be seen as threatening or undermining the status quo. Given that three-quarters of the population are ethnic Chinese, it is crucial for Chinese-Singaporeans to appreciate that they may, unwittingly, be less sensitive of the interests, concerns, and fears of the minorities.

Certain groups generally outperform others on the various measures in the survey. Attributes include being young, better educated, living in better housing types. If so, is there an age and class dimension to the ethnic state of play? Are some groups more predisposed to the desired behaviour for harmony? I am not so sure, and we could examine why that is so.

Or, is this a situation in which survey respondents from these groups tended to give the politically correct answers (that is, this is how we ought to conduct ourselves), rather than answers that are closer to their true feelings. In short, is there a gap between belief and action? Knowing the “right”answers must be accompanied by doing the right thing.


The survey makes it quite clear that, for most Singaporeans, race and religion still matters. But let us not be fixated by them. We all have multiple identities, with context determining when one identity is more relevant at any given time.

Let us see, rather, how we can further strengthen our civic identity as Singaporeans — this must be the over-arching identity that takes precedence. Let us endeavour to appreciate and celebrate our commonalities, even as we manage the differences.

The management of markers of race, language and religion in Singapore has been characterised by top-down, coercive control and pre-emptive strikes against threats to harmony. This control by the State should not result in our not taking personal responsibility for ensuring that diversity works for us.

Let us strive to entrench equality, inclusiveness, non-discrimination and fair play as integral to what Singapore stands for.

Eugene KB Tan is an associate professor at the Singapore Management University School of Law. He currently teaches a course on the governance of ethnic relations in Singapore. He is also a Nominated Member of Parliament.

Measuring race relations: Half full or half empty?
Some people seem to wish the challenge of multiracialism would just go away
By Zuraidah Ibrahim, The Sunday Times, 15 Sep 2013

Half empty or half full - this is the usual way to describe the state of race relations in Singapore.

For the longest time, I took comfort in gauging it this way. It was an effective coping mechanism, whenever one comes across Singaporeans who fall back on stereotypes when dealing with one another, or who make insensitive remarks betraying ignorance about minorities. This was not representative, and not the only way to look at the situation, I could tell myself. My closest friends from the majority race are nothing like that. It was all a state of mind: the glass was still half full.

But sometimes things cause you to reappraise that position. A survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies and was one such prompting.

First, the good news is that Singaporeans tend not to have a problem working with colleagues or having neighbours of another race. The survey did find that Malays and Indians feel they have to work harder to prove themselves at the workplace, but perhaps this is inevitable among minorities.

They also appear comfortable about having friends from another race but the figures decline markedly when it comes to other private- sphere decisions like accepting a spouse or in-law from another ethnic group. The gap between the public and private space comfort levels is not too unsettling, one could argue. As a country, we are told repeatedly our unity is fragile and that beneath us is a tinderbox of ethnic emotions that could go up in flames if an irresponsible person lights a match. So, we have been taught to tread carefully in the public space.

Indeed, the survey confirms the findings of a similar study done six years ago by two academics showing that when it came to public- sphere activities, racial and inter-religious ties are consistently sturdy.

But there are other findings from this recent survey that are harder to fathom.

Only 71 per cent of Chinese believe it is a good thing that Singapore is made up of people of different racial groups. The corresponding figures for Malays and Indians were 80 per cent and 79 per cent respectively. Although they make up a clear majority, it is astonishing to discover that three in 10 of the majority race would still prefer an all-Chinese nation.

Perhaps it is because of an innate preference for racial purity. Or maybe it is because our national messaging has misfired with its repeated warning that our multiracial makeup is and always will be a fault line threatening our stability. Instead of developing the conviction that this calls for multiracialism to be carefully managed, there are people who wish the challenge would just go away.

Whatever the explanation, the fact remains that, as Singapore approaches its 50th year of nation-building, a sizeable number still do not accept the central pillar of that project.

To make the picture more depressing, only 59 per cent of Chinese believe they can learn a lot from the other racial groups. Significantly more minorities were open-minded, with affirmative answers coming from 75 per cent of Malays and 69 per cent of Indians.

The numbers of those prepared to say that they see no value in other cultures are too large to be dismissed as due to new citizens from mono-racial motherlands.

Yes, it may be because as the majority race, the Chinese have not had to reach out. Minorities have had to wrestle with the existential question of their place in this country. But is this good enough? Are we happy with what we have achieved?

Another set of figures confirms this gap - more than 62 per cent of non-Chinese believe they can trust more than half the Chinese in a crisis. By contrast, only about 52 per cent of Chinese believe they can trust more than half the Malays or Indians in a crisis.

Clearly, Chinese Singaporeans lag in their trust of other races and their appreciation of multiracialism.

This is not terribly surprising. Chinese who start out with stereotypes or outright animosity can basically retreat into a Chinese world. It is possible for them to pick schools, neighbourhoods, workplaces and leisure avenues with the racial homogeneity they seek.

This is virtually impossible for minorities, who are forced to interact with other races regardless of how they feel about it at first. In most cases, this results in a softening of views and even a genuine appreciation of others.

Thus, there is a racial imbalance in levels of commitment to multiracialism. Yet, it has been the minorities who are disproportionately at the receiving end of messages that they must make the effort to integrate and fit in.

The survey results suggest minorities have made headway. The other hand needs to clap now.

Had I been polled, I believe I would have answered in the affirmative for all the questions. It is not out of naivete but because I see hopeful signs even as I lament the latest results. One in particular stands out and it was during the dialogue that followed the release of the survey last week.

A polytechnic lecturer stood up to ask why nurses were barred from wearing the tudung. He was sharing what he knew from his students in a health sciences school. They had been instructed to remove their headscarves before going on clinical attachments or starting full-time work in hospitals.

He wondered aloud: "How much are we as a society willing to tolerate differences that different members of a population bring?"

He was spotlighting an issue that goes beyond individual-level prejudice. It is about a questionable institutional practice that is a cause for consternation among the many young Muslim women who want to enter a noble vocation in which Singaporeans are in short supply.

And so here was a Chinese man, publicly speaking up for his female Muslim students, with no agenda of political point-scoring but just a desire for fairness - this tells me that we can count on Singaporeans to stand up for the core principles for which the Republic came to being.

It was the kind of sign that suggests that the glass of Singaporean multiracialism is far from empty.

At the same dialogue, scholar Kwok Kian Woon went beyond this metaphor to paint the picture of a good society, which lives by certain values, including how it embraces minorities and the vulnerable.

It can be a Singapore commitment, "a project that we can all proudly share in", he said.

Individuals and institutions may want to do some soul-searching about whether they are committed enough to this ideal.

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