Singapore’s tax on race


By Masked Crusader

Most Singaporeans, like me, have been making monthly contributions to the so-called self-help organizations Yayasan Mendaki, Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), or the Eurasian Association (EA) based on their ethnicity. I have done so for more than 20 years despite a certain queasiness which the little voice in my head had struggled to properly articulate. I, therefore, figured it would be prudent to go with the tide.

Earlier this week, the press reported that SINDA, CDAC and EA had increased the contribution rates by varying amounts ranging from a modest $0.50 to as much as $23 because some of the organizations have had to dip into their reserves to tide themselves over—which, in Singapore, is a cardinal sin.

While, in most organizations, a situation such as this might result in introspection and belt-tightening, the self-help groups decided it would sanction increases in contributions to break even since they had not done it in quite awhile. Then, a few days later, the government announced that they were going to increase funding to all the self-help groups (except Mendaki) to levels which would then far exceed the shortfalls the groups had given as the reason to increase the contribution levels. According to the reportage, the extra funding was for the groups to “expand their outreach and tackle new areas of need in their respective communities.” No details were provided about what these new initiatives may be.


In light of these developments, I thought perhaps I should re-examine my discomfort to see if I could now put a finger on what it is that always nagged me about the notion of ethnic and religious based self-help groups.

Examining the history of these organizations yields interesting insights. Mendaki was established in 1982 when Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister at the time, presented data showing that the Malay community was under-performing in all areas, in particular, educational performance which impacted its economic mobility and contribution to society. Possibly in response to opposition to channeling public money for initiatives targeted at a single ethnic group, which had up till that point already been receiving assistance in the form of free education and bursaries, Lee convinced all Singaporeans that:

“It is in the interests of all to have Malay Singaporeans better educated and better qualified and to increase their contribution to Singapore’s development.”

Though no one could disagree with Lee’s statement, there were murmurings that Mendaki was not the most appropriate way to solve the problems of the Malay community. Among the critics were both Deputy-Prime Ministers at the time, S. Rajaratnam and Goh Chok Tong. Minister-in-Charge for Muslim Affairs, Ahmad Mattar—Mendaki’s founding Chairman—also acknowledged “risks” with this new arrangement.

A staunch multiculturalist, Rajaratnam’s concern was that the establishment of Mendaki would make society more conscious of race which could lead to racial divisions. This proved true, at least to the extent that pockets within other communities were starting to demand reciprocity for their own kind. It was inevitable then that SINDA would be formed in 1991 followed a year later by CDAC. In 1994, the Eurasian community, which made up less than one per cent of citizens, formed EA. All of them would ultimately start programs to give underachievers in their communities a leg up in education—something that was already the mandate of the Ministry of Education.

My main beef with these self-help groups is the underlying presumption that Singaporeans would—or should—contribute towards the development of people of their own race. I consider myself a Singaporean first and, thus, am concerned only with causes, not the ethnicity of those in need. After all, if we were to donate to the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped we do not—in fact, cannot—specify that it be used to benefit only the visually handicapped of a certain race.

I find it especially galling that the government has not only decided which causes I should make a contribution to but also what the amount of my contribution should be. What gives them that right? This makes my contribution a tax based on race. It is a particularly discriminatory tax since the amount is determined on the basis of ethnicity. As can be seen in the graphic above, minorities are taxed more than the Chinese.

Singaporeans pay this "race tax" by default. To opt out, one has to jump through hoops. And face the looks of derision from whom one requests and submits the necessary forms. What is especially disingenuous is that while it is possible to make additional contributions at websites of the self-help groups, there is no electronic way to opt out of the monthly deductions from one’s salary. While I am able to grudgingly accept the cynical techniques companies such as Singtel use to make it harder to unsubscribe from their services than when coming aboard, I find it regrettable that organizations with charity status would do likewise.

Some may argue that it is a donation, not a tax. If so, they must have a different dictionary than the one I use. A donation is given voluntarily. They may point out that it is not a tax since you can opt out and avoid paying. But they would be wrong. There are many forms of indirect taxes one can avoid paying. I could avoid paying the Certificate of Entitlement and Electronic Road Pricing for vehicles and the Foreign Worker Levy if I choose not to buy a car, take a taxi into the CBD, or hire a domestic worker.

In the coverage of the recent hike in monthly deductions, it is amusing to see reporters in the local media all struggle to find a way to express the “contribution” conundrum.

At asiaone.com, for example, the article is entitled: “Self-help groups ask better-off to chip in more” suggesting it is an appeal. But just below, in the subheading, it reads: “From next year, the Chinese, Indian and Eurasian self-help groups will raise monthly contribution rates. High-income earners face the largest increases.” This confirms that the contributions are anything but donations and contradicts the headline.

I have written previously about the politicization of the self-help organisations, all of which have been helmed since their inceptions by PAP ministers and MPs. In fact, Goh Chok Tong himself seemingly acknowledged this when he accused the Malays of disloyalty to the PAP after the 1988 general elections—never mind the government’s constant refrain that voting is secret—and wondered aloud if it was in the government’s interests to continue funding Mendaki. This state of affairs casts unnecessary aspersions both on the government's motives as well as the intentions and independence of Mendaki, SINDA, CDAC, and EA.

Some practices I observe within the race-based self-help groups should be a cause for concern to society. There is an obsession, akin to an arms race, with academics and funding of education—presumably because no ethnic community wants to fall behind in the all-important economic stakes. Yet, there is a conspicuous dearth of initiatives to preserve cultures. Even when the government's recent rhetoric has been to downplay the importance of the paper chase, it has increased funding to the self-help groups.

Also, there is a sense that the groups are more accountable to the government than the communities they are mandated to serve. And, perhaps not even to the government since funding is not based on a review of performance and the cost and value of initiatives but on the arbitrary basis of matching funds which each group raises.

SINDA appears to have a Tamil-centric culture that hinders the integration of new Singaporean Indians many of whom do not come from South India and hence are not Tamil-speaking. This divide is already a cause for concern amongst the Indian community in Singapore. The politicization of CDAC may have prevented it from advocating for what is close to the hearts of many in the Chinese community—the lifting of the discriminatory curbs on Chinese dialects. Mendaki is not only an ethnic-based group but also one based on religion creating serious issues for a small silent minority with Malay ancestry but who no longer identify themselves as Muslims. No other religious group in Singapore receives taxpayer’s money. Also, Mendaki is not the only Malay/Muslim self-help group that is funded by the government. There are others such as the Association of Muslim Professionals.

Racial discrimination is institutionalized within these organisations. A cursory glance at their staff directories will show that close to a hundred percent of their staff are of the same ethnicity. This would be a cause for concern in any other organization in Singapore. One might say, “Duh, of course SINDA hires primarily Indians, it’s an Indian organization.” Except it is funded by taxpayers of all ethnicities including those not represented by any of the current four major self-help groups.

This then begets the question: Should not there be a Filipino self-help group since it is apparent that there are significant numbers of ethnic Filipinos—possibly as many as Eurasians—who are Singapore citizens? Which begets a plethora of other questions. Who helps disadvantaged Caucasian Singaporeans? Might a Chinese Muslim who contributes to CDAC feel conflicted? After all an Indian Muslim can choose between contributing to SINDA or Mendaki. Since 2010, the government has allowed parents of different races to include both races in their children’s identity cards. Why should these children have to choose to which self-help group their “race tax” should go to? The list of questions goes on. This is because the government in its short-sightedness has been determined to squeeze the proverbial square peg into a small round hole. And, for the most part, Singaporeans of the four main ethnic groups who are beneficiaries of public funds have not thought too much of the issues since there have been reciprocal arrangements in place since 1994. Those outside of these groups or those who are conflicted have kept their thoughts to themselves.

Just to be clear, I do not object to self-help organizations formed along racial or religious lines. Just to the use of taxpayers money to fund them.

Ngee Ann Kongsi, for example, is a self-help group with which I would have few issues as they raise money through donations (and business ventures) to benefit their own kind. Nor would I be opposed to the Filipino Association of Singapore raising money to support people of their own race. Or of religious groups asking for donations to build a place of worship or fund their faith-based initiatives.

I shall be filling the necessary forms to cease the monthly deductions from my salary. I can think of far worthier causes to give my money to. Especially now that the government has increased funding to the self-help groups.

This post was first published at maskedcrusader.blogspot.sg