Hard truths about integration

Mohd Nizam Ismail

The recent brouhaha over remarks made by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in his book “Hard Truths” on Islam and integration shows that the issue of integration is one which is well alive in Singapore.

MM Lee has since “stood corrected” in his statement issued on 7 March 2011, accepting comments made by his parliamentary colleagues that the Malay/Muslim community (MMC) “have indeed made special efforts to integrate with the other communities, especially since 9/11, and that (his) call is out of date.”

Putting aside the issue of the timing of MM’s statement (made more than a month after PM’s earlier statement) and whether it amounted to an apology or not, what is clear is that there are still two important (and fundamental) questions relating to integration that needs to be addressed:

1)    Who should bear primary responsibility for integration?  Whilst MM’s statement has mentioned the fact that the MMC has made “special efforts” to integrate, what about the responsibility of the State and majority communities?

2)    What is end state of integration in Singapore (if there is one)?  What are we working towards?

Who is responsible for integration?

Turning to the first question on who should have responsibility for integration, I would argue that the State should carry the primary responsibility. It would be in the interest of the State to ensure that there is integration between the different ethnic and religious communities that it governs.

Whilst we have seen efforts at fostering integration (including the setting up of OnePeople.sg, which is tasked to ensure racial harmony), more can be done.

I would argue that policies such as having “race” mentioned in our identity cards, publication of data along racial lines and other forms of racial-based policies tend to highlight or even exaggerate racial differences. This is putting aside other inherent difficulties of force-fitting “race” of children of mixed marriages. In some countries, it is illegal to make reference to the race of a person in relation to certain practices.

Another factor that needs to be seriously relooked is the current model of relying on ethnic-based self-help groups (for example, MENDAKI, CDAC, SINDA, or even AMP) as the primary provider of self-help to different communities.

A lot of the issues, such as education underattainment, dysfunctional families, juvenile delinquency, cut across different ethnic communities. Oftentimes, the argument that help is best administered through someone of the same race is exaggerated. A counsellor who is sensitive to the needs of someone of a particular race is equally effective in giving help to a family in need. Also, it matters not whether a tutor who is helping an underachieving student comes from a different ethnic background.

Having a race-blind approach in coming up with self-help programmes could avoid any perception that a disadvantaged community comes from a particular ethnic background, and that help can only be provided by someone from your same ethnic background. This is over and above efficiencies that can be gained by pooling together counselors/educational experts.

I now turn to the role of majority community in integration. Here, the odds are always inherently stacked against the minority communities to do their bit to integrate. It would be far easier for the majority community to facilitate integration by reaching out to minority communities. This is not to say that the MMC (or other minority communities) should shirk away from any responsibility to integrate. If the MMC has made “special efforts” to integrate with other communities, surely there has to be a greater expectation on the majority community – being in a more advantageous position - to facilitate integration.

What is the end state of integration?

The more fundamental question that has yet to be addressed is this – what exactly are we working towards? What is the end state of integration? Can we reach a stage where we can happily conclude that Singapore has achieved integration, and therefore there is no pressure on any community to put in place “special efforts” to integrate?

The absence of clarity of an end state of integration is an omission that may cause confusion, as different groups may end up working in different (or worse, conflicting) directions.

It may be easier to define what integration is by stating what it is not.

Integration is not assimilation. Integration is not an end-state where Singaporeans adopt only one Singaporean identity and put aside whatever ethnic or religious identities that they have.

If it is at all possible to have an end state to integration, there must be a rich diversity of practices.  Different ethnic and religious communities will still proudly display their respective ethnic and religious identities.

I prefer to imagine an ideal state of integration as one where there is free association of people from different racial or religious backgrounds. There is equal opportunity to all irrespective of ethnic or religious backgrounds. A manifestation of such an ideal state of integration would be to see minority communities being actually represented in terms of employment, political influence, socio-economic standing, educational attainment. The State draws on the richness of diversity of different groups and sees that as a strength rather than a liability. There would be no need to force conformity of any particular group to the identity of a broader community.

If we accept this ideal state of integration, then it becomes clear that the role of the State in achieving this ideal becomes critical. This is because achieving such an ideal only becomes possible if policy changes are made to remove barriers to integration.

To reach this end state, the focus would be on looking at areas where there are impediments to equal opportunity, and how we can strengthen minority communities such that they will be able to meaningfully seize the opportunities that are present.

In this light, I think it important that an Integration Forum be held, where there can be an open and constructive discussion on how we can foster integration in Singapore and remove or mitigate impediments to integration. The Forum can be represented by political and community leaders representing the various ethnic and religious groups in Singapore, including Malay/Muslim organisations.

We are also considering tabling the issue of integration at AMP’s upcoming Convention, as it is clearly an important issue that impacts the MMC.

Mr Mohd Nizam Ismail is the Chairman of the Association of Muslim Professionals’ (AMP). The above article is written in his personal capacity.


Picture source.