Thursday, December 15, 2011

Diversity in Singapore.

This is what you get when trying to talk about Singapore to outsiders. :)
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Singapore is made up of multiple ethnic groups which, for the sake of political brevity, are often condensed into CMIO, or Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other. The pervasiveness of ethnicity, or race, in the politico-social context implies that there are deep-seated, primordial characteristics of each race that transcends national boundaries. The purpose of such political classification become clearer when one looks at how various issues relating to social peace are handled in Singapore.

In the last five years or so, there has been a dramatic influx of Chinese immigrants to Singapore. This migration has been largely government-encouraged, if not directly government-sponsored through the provision of educational subsidies, scholarships and offers for permanent residency and citizenship. The government puts the reason for largely favouring Chinese migration over Malaysian or Indonesian migration as incredulously simple: the population of Chinese in Singapore needs to be maintained at 75 percent against the increasing numbers of Malays and Indians who are having bigger families than the Chinese. 

Politically, no distinction is made between Chinese from China and Chinese Singaporeans. Much like how I feel completely Singaporean and far from being Indonesian despite having Javanese roots, Chinese Singaporeans feel separate from the new members of their Chinese community.

Furthermore, while new Chinese immigrants are given permits to stay in Singapore and the public is reassured that their second generation will be as Singaporean as anyone else, other migrant workers are not favoured in the same way. One million, or half of the total labour force in Singapore is made up of foreigners, who are then further classified based on their countries of origin. 

There are thus, in descending order of income: ‘expats’ or high-skilled workers, and ‘foreign workers’ or low-wage transient workers such as male construction workers from mostly Bangladesh, and female live-in migrant domestic workers from mostly Indonesia and The Philippines. The latter group form the bulk of all foreigners in Singapore.

The rhetoric of ‘racial harmony’ in Singapore focuses mainly, on as the term suggests, race. Riots that occurred between Malays and Chinese in 1964 are commonly referred to as ‘racial riots’, and today children celebrate Racial Harmony Day on 21 July to commemorate these riots and work towards it not happening again. On this day, Singaporean children in virtually all schools dress up in their traditional costumes (or they borrow a friend’s) and learn about the games, cuisines, and practices of the other two main ‘races’.
Government-led interfaith initiatives focus on race and religion (often conflated with race, in the case of Malay Muslims). I think that therein lies one of the biggest challenges in promoting peace in Singapore. Political rhetoric is far removed from social reality, where people in Singapore are not only divided by ethnicity, but also by migrant status, nationality, and class (among other aspects). 

Increasingly, there are more reports in the heavily-censored mainstream media about various other conflicts that are not primarily based on ethnicity. Examples are those between foreign domestic workers and employers (migrant status), a Chinese immigrant family wanting their Indian neighbours to stop cooking curry (nationality), and a murder of an Indonesian female domestic worker by a male Bangladeshi migrant worker (gender).

In short, where there are relations of power there is inevitably a potential for conflict, and to focus on religion and race in Singapore at the expense of other intersections of power makes these other conflicts invisible. I feel that grassroots initiatives would be more effective in promoting peace among different groups in Singapore, because people identify the power relation that is under strain. 

In conclusion, ‘diversity’ in Singapore encompasses much more than ethnicity and religion; there is also great diversity in other aspects, of which I have addressed that of mostly nationality and migrant status in this statement. While official rhetoric promotes thinking solely along the lines of ethnicity and religion, grassroots initiatives often show a more nuanced understanding of peace and social cohesion.

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