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Race Issues in Singapore: Is the HDB Ethnic Quota becoming a farce?

By Lisa Li

It was a passionate open discussion and debate on race issues that lasted for more than 3 hours, and continued over dinner at a coffee shop nearby.

“David Marshall–a Jew–was our elected Chief Minister in 1955, in the middle of Malay States! How come now Lee Kuan Yew says Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese as our Prime Minister?” Lawyer M. Ravi asked the roomful of people, rhetorically.

Yes, there were the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950, between Malays and European/ Eurasian communities. Yes, there were riots in the 1960s between Chinese and Malays.

Yet, anecdotally, so many of us remember the 1950s, 60s and 70s as a time when our parents and grandparents lived and mingled with different races, spoke each other’s languages, and celebrated each other’s festivals–all without nudging from government regulations. The question we came back to repeatedly was: What went wrong in the last 20 years?

This is not to paint a completely gloomy picture. A forum participant pointed out that when she was travelling with friends, a foreigner correctly identified them as Singaporeans, because “Indian and Chinese travelling together… must be from Singapore!” This peaceful multicultural life has indeed been the experience for many of us as well, and it should not be taken for granted.

HDB’s Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP)


One issue that many forum participants spoke about was HDB’s Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) of  ethnic quotas for public housing, a policy implemented in 1989 ‘to promote racial integration and harmony‘.

Some, like NSP Secretary-General Goh Meng Seng, felt that the ethnic quotas for public housing should remain. He cited his own experience in a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school, which tends to be all-Chinese, and pointed out that racial enclaves of any sort could lead to stereotyping and division.

A teacher by the name of Sean also supported the ethnic quotas. He shared that when his students were given a choice to form their own groups, his students tended to gravitate toward their own race. With this parallel, he felt that people would tend to gravitate toward their race in housing. The forming of racial enclaves, in his opinion, would be detrimental to Singapore’s harmony.

Modification of the EIP?

However, Sean also suggested that the categories and quotas be re-examined and modified. The current HDB quota system has three categories: ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian and Others’, so one modification could be to create another category for ‘Others’ instead of subjecting ‘Indian’ and ‘Others’ to the same quota.

It is worth noting that these HDB ethnic quotas were revised on 5 March 2010, yet they do not seem aligned with our current racial mix. The maximum ethnic limit in the neighbourhood for Chinese and Malay residents is approximately 10 percent higher than their actual percentage in Singapore’s resident population (2010), while the maximum ethnic limit for ‘Indians and Others’ is 0.5 percent less than the actual percentage in resident population (2010).

Given that the population of ‘Others’ has increased from 46,400 (1.4 percent) in 2000 to 125,800 people (3.3 percent) in 2010, shouldn’t the HDB’s ethnic quotas and categories kept pace with this trend in Singapore’s racial mix?

Another suggestion by a forum participant was to keep the concept of ethnic quota, but to relax it further. He asked: If we can allow blocks to have 80 percent Chinese and 20 percent Indian occupants (as a loose estimate), why not allow blocks to have 80 percent Indian and 20 percent Chinese occupants? This would loosen the quota to give people more choice of housing, while still preventing the formation of racial enclaves.

Mr Alsagoff, another forum participant, questioned the assumption that the removal of ethnic quotas would result in the formation of racial enclaves.

He explained that in the past, many Malays congregated in Geylang Serai due to their work on Alsagoff plantations. His view was that most people tended to choose their housing location based on economic reasons, that is, the location of their work or housing prices, not necessarily because they wanted to live with people of the same race.

EIP: The creation of differential pricing based on race

For a quick look at the current EIP situation, The Online Citizen spoke to two recent buyers of HDB flats.

A few years ago, Tay Jin En was browsing for flats in a particular district that had reached the Chinese quota. Based on information from her housing agent, she recalls that “Malays [were] selling at valuation price because they could only sell to other Malays” but “Chinese sellers who freed up the Chinese quota could set almost any price they wanted”. As a result, some of these Chinese-owned flats were priced at $80,000 over valuation.

K, an Indian Singaporean, is also a recent flat buyer. The district she preferred had not reached the quota limit for ‘Indian and Others’, so she was able to select from buyers of different races. She felt that the buying market was to her advantage because non-Chinese flats tended to be cheaper. However, she acknowledged that if the Chinese quota limit was reached, she would have to be patient in order to find an Indian buyer for her flat.

The implicit problem here is if buyers do not have the patience for this, for example in cases where flat owners default on mortgage payments. Those caught in such financial difficulties are forced to either quickly sell it on the open market (subject to ethnic quota restrictions) or have their flats seized by HDB at 90 percent of the market valuation price.

Parliamentary Secretary for National Development Mohamad Maliki Osman

When questioned about this in Parliament by Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan, Parliamentary Secretary for National Development Mohamad Maliki Osman asserted that “sellers who are affected by the EIP limits should have no problem finding buyers from the eligible ethnic groups as long as they are realistic in setting their asking price… There are sellers who are affected by EIP restrictions, who are able to sell at…even $30,000 above market valuation.”(Click here for the Parliamentary exchange)

The PAP government’s unwillingness to admit that EIP can negatively affect public housing prices based on race merely sweeps it under the carpet. At the very least, they need to admit that some Singapore do suffer under these race-based policies in order to genuinely discuss how to minimize these problems.

Moving beyond racial divisions

Another feature of Singapore today would be the increasing number of inter-ethnic marriages. In 2010 (based on records from the Women’s Charter and the Muslim Law Act), there were 4,928 inter-ethnic marriages, that is, 20 percent of the total number of marriages for the year.

Perhaps in response to this trend, it was announced in January 2010 that a child of mixed heritage would be allowed to take on either a double-barrelled race, the father’s race, or the mother’s race. However, in cases where two people with double-barrelled race classifications marry, they will have to choose two of the four races to be declared as their child’s race.

To add on to this over-simplification of race, the current HDB EIP Policy states that “only the first race component of a double-barrelled race will be used. For example, for an individual with double-barrelled race of “Indian-Chinese”, only Indian will be used.”

Does it make sense for a Singaporean child who, having a Malay-Eurasian father and a Dutch-Chinese mother, is officially classified as Malay-Dutch, and therefore is subjected to HDB’s ‘Malay’ quota and all its restrictions in the name of preventing racial enclaves?

As Singapore becomes increasingly racially ambiguous and cosmopolitan, is our classification of race and ethnic quota for housing slowly but surely becoming a farce?

And given Singaporeans’ general mobility in this geographically small island, are we really in danger of forming racial enclaves, lacking in understanding and friendship with other races whom we interact with on a daily basis in school, at work, and everywhere else?

This article is the second part in a two-part article about Race Issues in Singapore. The first part was about the need for great discussion of race, based on reports by Dr James Gomez (presented on 12 February) and UN Rapporteur Mr Githu Muigai.

This article was written after conversation with Mr Alsagoff, Sean, Rakesh, Sha Najak, Nina Chabra and Roderick.

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