Many would argue that the mainstream media is fond of jumping to conclusions when it comes to interpreting surveys and it seems apparent again in the latest survey on the issue of race relations. Admittedly commissioned by Channel NewsAsia (CNA) itself, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) which is a part of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, had reportedly surveyed 2,000 respondents between June and July this year.

The survey supposedly explored perceptions of racism and experiences of discrimination and the findings were widely reported over three news reports on CNA’s website. In one article entitled ‘Racism still a problem for some Singaporeans, CNA-IPS survey finds’, the following figures were loosely cited with regard to experiences of discrimination:

  • “Two-thirds of Malay and Indian respondents who had experienced such differential treatment claimed that race was the basis of such treatment.”
  • “Among Malays who had perceived such differential treatment, nearly half said they were treated differently because of their religion, or because of their income or education.”
  • “Among Indians, 62 per cent said they were treated differently because of their skin colour.”
  • “While many minority respondents attributed these negative experiences to race, comparatively few – about 30 per cent – felt that they had been racially discriminated against.”
  • “nearly half of minority respondents saying someone had shared their experiences of racial discrimination or prejudice with them.”
  • “About 60 per cent of all respondents had heard racist comments…”
  • “…under half of the respondents noting that such comments were made by workplace colleagues and friends…”

In case you can’t see it, these seven points translate into the following table:

 Issue  Type  Proportion
Differential Treatment? Lived Experience 66% of Malays and Indians
Treated Differently Because of Religion, Income or Education? Lived Experience 50% of Malays
Treated Differently Because of Skin Colour? Lived Experience 62% of Indians
Feelings of Discrimination? Perception 30% of Minorities
Told About Experiences of Racial Discrimination? Lived Experience 50% of Minorities
Heard Racist Comments? Lived Experience 60% of All Respondents
Heard Racist Comments by Colleagues? Lived Experience 50% of All Respondents


Of all these points, six are objective experiences – they either happened or did not happen, while one is subjective – it depends on the context. For example, if you were shown the story of what Nelson Mandela went through during his days of struggle and then asked if you think you are being racially discriminated against in Singapore, you might feel silly saying yes. Unsurprisingly, the headline (and the article) conveniently latches onto this single subjective notion and declares it’s not a big issue after all.

Ignoring the Real Problem

But just look at the experiences being revealed. There is clearly differential treatment of Malays and Indians, according to this survey. The minorities are being treated differently because of religion, skin colour, income and education, according to this survey. There are plenty of stories being shared of racial discrimination, according to this survey. There are plenty of racist comments being thrown around at work, according to this survey.

Perhaps these are ordinarily acceptable in a cosmopolitan society but isn’t Singapore the self-proclaimed success story of a multiracial society, developed over half a century now? So how come there is racist behaviour being experienced to such proportions? These are questions that ought to be asked in the mainstream, discussed and addressed by both government and society, but instead, the article concludes conveniently using the lead researcher’s soundbite:

“Overall, the survey findings highlight that Singaporeans espouse the values of multiracialism and try to live out these multiracial ideals,” said Dr Mathews, adding that most Singaporeans are “self-aware and acknowledge that there is some racism in the community”.

Truth in the Survey

The survey findings actually show that people behave in racially discriminatory ways without actually realising that’s what it is. The bigger damage is not the employer who says I won’t hire a Malay candidate because the chances are high that the candidate will be lazy. It is the employer who thinks this while looking at the Malay candidate’s CV, and sees a year gap between finishing his studies and starting his first job. The conclusion (fuelled by said discriminatory thinking) will be that the candidate must have been lazy and slow to look for a job. And this employer would likely be prepared to choose a less qualified candidate if he sees a better fit in terms of (the presumed) work attitude.

You can easily call out the first employer and condemn him for his discriminatory actions, but how do you even begin to confront the second employer on those same grounds? These are the implications that we ought to be fighting against, not rejoice that we self-censor very well and don’t articulate our decisions in terms of obvious discrimination. Rest assured that the second employer will give you a thousand and one reasons why the first candidate doesn’t fit the requirements as well as the less qualified candidate. The true root cause of that decision – of pure racial discrimination – is meanwhile left to persevere intact, and eventually harm some other candidate or colleague another day.

Search for the Truth

All is not bleak though, since the surveys themselves are mirroring the reality of society, no matter how hard you try to dress it up as something else. Often, as can be seen in this survey, they capture what is happening on the ground, in reality. But in order to see the truth, you will have to look past ‘reading the right thing’ and exercise critical thinking for yourself. You will need to see the numbers and ask why is that so instead of accepting the answers that are conveniently being shoved in your face.

For instance, if you look at the published summary of the survey findings that include more of the statistics (but unfortunately, still not the full picture), the perception of racial discrimination (i.e. point #4 in the list of seven points above), is represented by the following table. As you can see, it is not “about 30%” as mentioned in the CNA article but rather 35.7%. More alarmingly, the disparity between the 17% for Chinese respondents and double that figure for the other races gives a snapshot of how racial discrimination is perceived by minorities as compared to the majority race, even though we are told time and time again that all races are equal in Singapore.


We are not sure why such a straightforward question as ‘have you ever felt racially discriminated against’ needs the option of ‘not sure’ but if one is unable to say ‘no’ outright, then it would be logical to assume that some incident must have transpired that hinted at racial discrimination, at least. Looking at it more simply, only 40% of Indians and 48% of Malays could say that they have never felt racial discrimination in Singapore while a healthy 63% of Chinese can say this. And that, again, is something to think about in terms of the ‘undeniable racial equality’ in Singapore.

While the published summary on the IPS website does not provide the full statistics at this time because, according to the lead researcher involved, “I try to save some things so I can write academic pieces and put that out subsequently” (see full reply at the end of this article), there are still many nuggets of truth to find and form your own impressions about race relations in Singapore. Unfortunately, another nationwide poll conducted in 2015 suggests that it is likely that 69.9% of the populace might not care to do so.

Our email correspondence with Dr Matthew Matthews is as follows:

Aug 18, 2:49PM by TOC to Dr Matthews

Hi Dr Mathews, I am trying to understand the findings of the survey that has been quoted extensively in CNA’s reports of the findings as referenced below:

I would like to know the methodology used and the survey questions to illicit responses, as these will go a long way towards understanding the conclusions made in the above news reports. I have tried to source for this information on the IPS website but there seems to be none even though the full accounts are presented for similar studies conducted by your office in the past.

We would like to comment on the findings and having the full circumstances will enable us to consider all aspects in our article. Thank you for your attention and we hope to have your response by Friday so that we can prepare the article by Monday, thanks.

Aug 19, 10:22AM by Dr Matthews to TOC

Thanks for the email.

I believe that my slides will be out at the IPS website sometime today along with a short write up that I have put out (which is probably on my profile page). I will be happy to answer specific questions as much as possible (though I will be away today/tomorrow overseas). I don’t think I will be able to provide additional breakdowns of information though (which I know everyone will be asking for). I try to save some things so I can write academic pieces and put that out subsequently.


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