Cherian George on racial and religious intolerance in Singapore

With the recent debates swirling again about race and racism in Singapore, Professor Cherian George weighed in on Twitter to highlight a chapter from his book Singapore, Incomplete: A reflection on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development which addresses the issue of justice and equality.

Chapter 2 of Singapore, Incomplete which was published in 2017 is available for free on the website incomplete.sg.

In the chapter, Prof George notes that Singapore isn’t a country with an excess of idealism. In fact, he notes that Singaporeans are “realists to a fault, limiting our reach to what is already within our grasp and always finding reasons not to aim for loftier goals.”

Tying that attribute to the nation’s approach to race and religion, the professor suggest that this mindset is why Singapore hasn’t done enough to combat the persistence of racial prejudice or the rise of religious intolerance.

The issue of race

Before going further into the subject of race, however, Prof George takes a moment to note a caveat in the discussion. He says, “race religions in Singapore are healthier than in many other societies and that minorities can success regardless of the colour of their skins.”

However, he cautions that this should blind us to the lack of minority protection against prejudice. Quoting a survey by the Institute of Policy Studies, Prof George highlights that 25% of non-Chinese in Singapore said they felt racially discriminated against when seeking a job or promotion and that 40% of Malays and 30% of Indians felt the government should give preferential treatment to minority races. Even so, most said they were confident in Singapore’s freedoms from racial tensions.

What this demonstrates, said Prof George, is that minorities face impediments but are prepared to live with them as they accept the reality that the majority will always enjoy certain advantages. This doesn’t make the situation right, says the professor.

Prof George posited that one contributor to this problem is the government’s pro-business doctrine, meaning they are reluctant to burden employers with anti-discrimination laws.

Another, he notes is Lee Kuan Yew’s views of race and genes which have “contributed some unsavoury aspects to our national culture”. He pointed out that while LKY did protect minorities from “the worst case scenario of a majoritarian chauvinist takeover”, he also “indulged in racial stereotyping while has helped cultivate an environment that’s hospitable to prejudice”.

Prof George urges that the onus is on the People’s Action Party (PAP) to correct this strand of the LKY legacy.

He added that while Singaporeans did push back against LKY’s eugenics policies, LKY’s conviction that group differences in academic performances are genetic and beyond repair somehow lingered, thus making it easy for society to ignore the problem of lower average score among minorities, simply leaning on the argument that they are ‘born that way’.

“The problem with this view is not that it’s impolite or politically incorrect. The problem is that it’s irrational and irresponsible,” wrote Prof George.

Prof George explains that there is research which shows that while intelligence is influenced by genes, not all differences between ethnic groups are due to race. In fact, they are often about class. Ethnic minorities tend to be poorer and that makes it more difficult for them to keep up with the advantages that the upper middle class can give their children.

He also notes the average performance of any group is not predictive of individual performance and that there are other forms of intelligence, some of which are not as influenced by genes or recognised in IQ tests.

And even if it is proven that intelligence differs across groups, Prof George argues in his book that it is unethical and inefficient for policies to reinforce that unevenness as it wouldn’t maximise the available human potential.

“Even if nature is found to have a bigger impact of nature, we can still choose to invest more in nurture”, argued the academic.

He adds that the genetic explanation has “justified an insufficiently interventionist education policy which hurt poorer Singaporeans of all ages” and has “contributed to the socioeconomic divisions we see today.”

In the face of these issues, some have suggested that we should transcend race altogether. However, Prof George says that closing our eyes to race isn’t the answer. “Many people consider race and important part of their heritage. Treating them fairly doesn’t require rendering their race invisible.”

He continued, “Furthermore, it’s a mistake to think we can replace race with a common national culture that’s somehow neutral or fair to all. Such projects – like the French-style nationalism – end up favouring the dominant culture and marginalising weaker groups.”

Prof George notes that removing the racial lens entirely would lead to losing all insight into the systemic problems affecting racial groups.

The answer, he says, is not to bury racial categories but rather to make sure they are not used to disadvantage any one person. “This is where anti-discrimination laws come in,” he notes.

Rising religious intolerance

The other challenge that Prof George feels Singaporeans have been complacent about is the rise of religious intolerance. On this front, the professor feels that the government’s management of religious diversity has been “relatively sound”.

No one faith commands a majority, thereby limiting an electoral incentive, and the country’s first three Prime Ministers have not had any religious affiliations which has allowed the government to be “quite clinical in its handling of religious controversies”.

Even so, Prof George laments that some religious doctrines have managed to seep in, making some Singaporeans more intolerant of different religions and sects. Even as a handful of preachers expressing contempt for other faiths have been exposed on social media, the threat has not been contained.

Prof George says that while some atheist argue that the problem is religion itself, he thinks it’s an “ahistorical fallacy” as religious groups have been an indispensable force behind the advancements of social justice and equal rights. Prof George singles out several examples including the Quakers leading the movement against slavery, Churches at the forefront of the American Civil Rights movement and Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama helping to ensure that the power lost by Suharto wasn’t captured by Islamists.

Unfortunately, recent decades have seen the rise of certain religious sensibilities that are too easily upset by alternative beliefs and lifestyles. Prof George laments that these groups have chosen to ignore the golden rule at the core of all world religions: that we should treat each other how we wish to be treated.

In the context of Singapore, Prof George the country’s macro policies may be sensible but social attitudes at the micro level are not. Using the example of Singapore’s 14% Muslim population in the face of growing international Islamist terrorism, Prof George notes that part of the irrational fear of terrorism translated into unwarranted suspicion of Muslims in general.

Again, this goes back to LKY’s comments back in the day when he identified as a danger sign the growing number of Muslims in Singapore declining alcohol and non-halal food. However Prof George cautions that those who are quick to criticism Muslims should recognise that rising religiosity isn’t confined to Islam.

He continues by saying that a multiracial and multireligious country like Singapore cannot simply accept intolerance as the natural outcome of diversity. “We must choose the only path that guarantees the conditions of social peace. That is the path that gives everyone the equal right to act, love and worship as they wish, as long as it doesn’t restrict the rights of others to do the same.”

On that note, Prof George urged that the government has to take a stronger stand against unfair discrimination of all kinds, including racial, religious, gender or sexual orientation. As for the people, the professor’s advice is that we have to accept the baseline rule that we shouldn’t treat others how we wouldn’t want to be treated.