The event was a screening of Singapore short films. During the Question & Answer session at the end, a member of the audience, a Korean man, offered an observation: “Despite the fact that Singapore is a multiracial country, why are the films shown tonight all in Chinese?”
His query provoked an immediate response from a lady in the audience. Before the microphone could be passed to her, she had shouted out, almost defensively, ‘Majority, what!’
There is of course a certain undeniable logic to the woman’s outburst. The Chinese are an overwhelming 75% of Singapore’s population. This is a very sizeable majority, if we compare it to other ‘multiracial’ countries: Malaysia (65% Malays and Bumiputra groups), Fiji (55% Fiji Islanders) and Guyana (44% Indo-Guyanese). If there were more media representations of the Chinese than the other races in Singapore, it was a matter of simple arithmetic.
But that was the woman actually saying with that phrase? Was she peeved that this ‘foreigner’ dared to suggest that Singapore’s ‘multi-racial’ ethos was superficial, even fraudulent? At the same time, I couldn’t help but be struck by a glib sense of entitlement that accompanied her prickly response.
Recently, the Straits Times ran a feature article asking whether minorities in Singapore deserve a ‘special position’. What the article failed to recognize, however, was the ‘special position’ enjoyed by Chinese Singaporeans.
Simply put, these are the privileges that come from being members of the majority race.
When I was younger, I used to question why local advertisements rarely featured non-Chinese faces (bank and credit card companies were notorious for projecting images of well-heeled Chinese yuppies). I wondered why TVMobile showed Chinese programmes, which only served to marginalize those of us sitting in the bus who didn’t understand the language. But I came to realize that equal representation was simply not possible in a country where one particular ethnic community formed the bulk of the target market. I began to appreciate the difficulties of any minority, no matter how entrepreneurial, to penetrate communal business networks, where guanxi links have ossified over several generations.
It’s not simply economic supremacy that the majority enjoys, but also political hegemony. Singapore practices a form of electoral democracy, which by its definition establishes rule by a majority. Because of the HDB quota system, which mandates that the ethnic composition in each estate should mirror that of the nation as a whole, minority communities do not form any significant electoral bloc.
While areas such as Kembangan, Geylang Serai and the Southern Islands used to be Malay-dominated strongholds, this has been diluted over time. We can contrast this, for example, with the state of Pulau Pinang in Malaysia, where the Chinese actually form the majority. Ironically, the attempt to prevent certain neighborhoods from becoming Malay or Indian enclaves has actually resulted in each ward becoming a Chinese enclave.
However, it is the privilege of the majority to be exempted from accusations of forming ‘enclaves’ (or for that matter, ‘ghettoes’) in areas where they are concentrated, simply because those words are inextricably linked with minorities.
Thus it was with a sense of bewilderment that I read Minister Mentor’s agitated rebuttal to NMP Viswa Sadasivan’s speech in Parliament. According to Lee, “Our Constitution states expressly that it is a duty of the Government not to treat everybody as equal.” He made particular reference to Section 152 of the Singapore Constitution, which reads as such:
‘Minorities and special position of Malays
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.’
The implication is that the ‘special position’ accorded to Malays in Singapore is an obstacle to true racial equality. This was Lee’s argument to supposedly bring the house ‘back to earth’ and demolish Viswa’s ‘highfalutin’ ideals. But it seems as if Lee has got the whole thing backwards.
While there has been talk about jettisoning Section 152, especially by some Malays who feel that they have been unfairly scapegoated, we should bear in mind that the section consists of two parts. The first part attempts to provide some means of redress for minority communities who are structurally disadvantaged.
The fact is that inequalities already exist in any society where there is a dominant ethnic majority. In other words, instead of sabotaging the idea of racial equality, this remedial clause actually tries to promote it—by recognizing that minorities do not enjoy the economic and political clout of the majority, and would require special attention and assistance. Lee has labeled Viswa’s speech as ‘false and flawed’. The same should actually be said for his rebuttal.
A concrete example of this ‘remedial clause’ can be found in the television industry. In Singapore, there are dedicated channels for ethnic minorities, namely the Suria channel for Malays and Vasantham channel for Indians. It would be extremely difficult for these channels to survive on revenue from advertising alone. Not only do they suffer from lower viewership than say, Channel 8 and Channel U (the dedicated Mandarin channels), but advertisers would also recognize that the demographic profile of their viewers is hardly appealing (the Malay community, for example, is predominantly working-class, and for advertisers, this would mean lower purchasing power).
Thus, much of the budget for programming on Suria and Vasantham is derived from television licensing fees. This is a practice commonly known as public service broadcasting, acknowledged on the website of the Media Development Authority: “These (licensing) fees are essential in helping with the production of public service programmes as they are less commercially viable and require funding support.”
Without constitutional safeguards for minorities, a multiracial country like Singapore risks sliding into majoritarianism. Sri Lanka is a prime example of a country whose tragic history is a direct result of majoritarian trends. In 1956, 8 years after Independence, the Sinhalese majority (74%) passed an act to recognize Sinhala as the only official language, effectively sidelining the Tamil minority. A new constitution enshrined Buddhism as the state religion, and pro-Sinhalese preferential policies in education and employment were instituted. The result was a protracted civil war that has claimed thousands of lives.
It is enlightening to revisit the part in Viswa’s speech which addressed the tenet in the pledge which reads as “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion”:
“…We, as a society, need to address apparent contradictions and mixed signals. Examples are the issue of Malay-Muslims in the SAF, SAP schools and cultural elitism, the need for ethnic based self help groups, the need for us to maintain the current racial distribution in society, and whether Singapore is ready for an ethnic minority Prime Minister.”
With the exception of ‘ethnic based self-help groups’, all the examples he listed represented the dangers of majoritarian impulses in Singapore. And out of this entire list, the Minister Mentor, in his rebuttal, chose only to respond to the issue of ethnic based self-help groups.
Lee’s explication of the second part of Section 152 is also notable for its selective omissions. Lily Zubaidah’s ‘The Singapore Dilemma’ provides an excellent analysis on the Singapore government’s ‘minimalist’, rather than ‘interventionist’ approach to Section 152. While the section calls for the government to exercise pro-active measures with regards to the Malay community, it does not detail what these measures should be.
Thus the government has elected to interpret the clause in narrow terms, restricting this to providing free tertiary education for the Malay minority. A more generous interpretation, for example, might have considered granting a Special Assistance Plan status to Malay-medium schools (such as the Sekolah Menengah Tun Sri Lanang and the Sekolah Menengah Sang Nila Utama), a privilege that was offered to 10 Chinese-medium schools.
In some instances, one can even argue that the government has acted in violation of Section 152. In the year 2000, the expropriation of Istana Kampong Glam, a symbol of Malay sovereignty on the island, surely did not demonstrate the political will to ‘safeguard (Malay) cultural interests’. The banning of the tudung in national schools in 2002 cannot be considered an act that ‘fosters (Malay) religious interests’. And the fact that the madrasahs in Singapore do not receive adequate funding from the Ministry of Education contravenes an obligation to ‘support (Malay) educational interests’.
As such, one wonders about the actual constitutional force of Section 152. Lee has raised Section 152 as some kind of stumbling block to equality. Yet the section itself has been subjected to unequal and arbitrary application in state policies.
As I write this, I find myself wondering why it is so difficult for someone in the majority to appreciate his or her privileged status in Singapore. How is it possible for someone to yell out ‘Majority, what!’, in the same breath unapologetically disclaiming any responsibilities towards fellow citizens who are minorities? I imagine a giant flattening villages as it stomps along its carefree path. When asked to account for his actions, he answers, ‘I can’t help it, I’m big what!’
I believe there are two factors that can explain this lack of majority-consciousness among Chinese Singaporeans. The first is the fact that the Chinese did not come to the region as colonial settlers. Their arrival was facilitated by colonial capitalism, which often relied on indentured labour. Thus the Chinese do not see themselves as responsible for dispossessing native populations of their status and territories, and exploiting indigenous resources. As such, they do not carry the baggage of what has often been referred to as post-colonial guilt.
Secondly, there are some who believe that the Chinese-educated community has itself been marginalized, a phenomenon that has led sociologist Chua Beng Huat to coin the term ‘the minoritisation of the Chinese community’. I do have sympathy for such sentiments, although sometimes I wonder if a distinction needs to be made between government subjugation of leftist and communist activities (which tended to be associated with the Chinese-educated) and an actual repression of Chinese culture. Nevertheless, this sense of ‘minoritisation’ has led to a certain attitude in majority-minority relations: ‘how can the Chinese, who are themselves oppressed, be seen as the oppressors?’
No matter what the Chinese here feel about their status as the majority, the fact remains that this is a status that is not likely to change. Lee Kuan Yew himself has hinted at the need to maintain this ‘racial balance’ in a speech given in mid-August:
“By race, the fertility rate is 1.91 for Malays, 1.19 for Indians and 1.14 for Chinese. If we continue this way without the new immigrants and PRs and their children doing national service, the composition of our SAF will change. So please remember that”.
The tendency of any majority, if left unchecked, is towards tyranny. The tendency of any minority, if left unattended, is towards alienation. The presence of Section 152, a constitutional guarantee of minority protection, goes a long way towards alleviating the damaging forces of such vectors in our society. Far from undermining equality, Section 152 is an attempt to rectify asymmetries of power, to achieve parity, among those who are not born equal. It takes a particular form of genius to observe the reverse.