PAP ministers, Leader of the Opposition spar on Ethnic Integration Policy’s relevance in today’s Singapore

Minister for National Development Desmond Lee and Leader of the House Indranee Rajah on Monday (5 July) sparred with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on the relevance of the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) in present-day Singapore.

People’s Action Party Members of Parliament (MPs) Cheryl Chan and Chong Kee Hiong had asked the Minister for National Development whether the Government will consider reviewing the role of the EIP in today’s context.

Ms Chan also asked about the steps taken by the Government, if any, to help minority race individuals who may have difficulty in selling their HDB flats.

Mr Chong had asked if the Government will look at adjusting EIP proportions for blocks and neighbourhoods.

Giving the House a preamble on the EIP’s history, Mr Lee said that under British colonial rule, Singapore was divided into separate geographical zones for each ethnic group.

“Malays, Chinese, Indians and Europeans lived in different areas and apart from each other. This segregation was not conducive to promoting interaction and integration between the races. That was our colonial history,” he said.

In the aftermath of such a colonial history, on top of circumstances that led to Singapore’s emergence as a sovereign state in 1965, Singapore’s founding fathers were “determined to learn these lessons”.

Singapore’s governance, said Mr Lee, was not premised on a belief in “blindly papering over the differences between the different ethnic groups”.

“We also did not take a melting pot approach by forcing different races to blend or conform artificially to one uniform national culture,” he added, highlighting that a slew of policies were introduced to foster trust and understanding among the various ethnic communities.

The EIP is among such policies, said Mr Lee.

“For instance, when HDB (Housing and Development Board) built new towns and estates to provide public housing for Singaporeans, we consciously allocated flats in such a way that every HDB block all over Singapore reflected the ethnic mix of the general population … This was so that people of different races could interact and form bonds with one another,” he said.

Mr Lee noted that the Government did not initially impose such restrictions on resale transactions, which were first allowed in 1971.

However, that changed when ethnic concentrations started to re-emerge in particular areas as more transactions took place.

“For example, by the late 1980s, we started to observe an increasing concentration of Chinese buyers in Ang Mo Kio, and Malay buyers in Bedok and Tampines.

“We could see that without intervention, there would over time, once again, the ethnic enclaves which would separate us. And that is why we introduced the EIP in 1989 for both new as well as resale flats to ensure that public housing estates remain inclusive and diverse even beyond initial flat allocation,” said Mr Lee.

Touching on inter-ethnic households, which Mr Lee noted “are becoming increasingly common in our social landscape”, the minister noted that such households “can choose which ethnic order to be considered when buying a flat”.

“This choice is then fixed until they sell the flat to be fair to other flat owners,” he said.

While the EIP is by no means “a perfect” system in terms of building a cohesive society characterised by diversity, it remains “an important part of this effort”, said Mr Lee.

“Because left entirely to social that market forces, ethnic concentrations will start forming in different areas again. Now there are many reasons for this, even beyond instinctive preferences.

“For example, family members may wish to live near each other for mutual support. Or residents of certain ethnic groups may prefer neighborhoods with a higher concentration of specific amenities and services or larger flat types. Or they may find different locations more suitable for their households financial situation,” he said.

Such preferences, on an individual level, “are completely understandable and reasonable preferences and very personal ones”, said the minister.

On a collective degree, however, such tendencies “could inadvertently lead to segregation among our races”.

“Is the EIP still relevant today? Let’s look at the facts today. Nearly one out of every three HDB blocks, and 14 per cent of HDB neighborhoods have reached one or more of the EIP limits, which means they’ve hit for that particular ethnic limit more than the national proportion already,” he said, adding that such a situation “happens across all ethnic groups”.

“So just imagine how much more the different ethnic groups will concentrate in different neighborhoods if we did away with the EIP, and how much harder it would be then to promote mixing and understanding across ethnic groups in the home environment?” Mr Lee questioned.

He acknowledged that while some may argue that having neighbours of a different ethnicity or religion will not guarantee harmonious relations, the EIP nonetheless “remains critical because so much of our lives and our children’s lives revolve around our homes and our neighborhoods”.

“And if you don’t live with each other, it makes it much harder to empathise with other communities and understand the challenges that they face. And so much easier to stereotype or assume the worst of the other the people we don’t see, or don’t see so of them,” said Mr Lee.

Citing racial segregation in major cities across Europe and the United States and one of the studies that examined such a phenomenon, Mr Lee quoted: “The places we live affect not only our access to resources but also who we meet interact with and become friends with. The nature of segregation in the US means that we only end up seeing and learning about what our own groups experience, making it hard to understand the lives of people outside our own group.”

“Similarly, after I spoke about the EIP at an overseas conference, some years back, a mayor of a big city that suffered from serious racial segregation and conflict came up to me.

“He said he wished that his city had implemented a version of the EIP much earlier on to foster harmony and avert the unrest that they now regularly face,” he recalled.

Mr Lee also cited London mayor Sadiq Khan’s statement on how an unintegrated society will bear greater economic and social costs in the form of extremism within the Muslim community or the far-right, and how housing and planning laws are crucial in constructing “integrated communities and institutions where neighbors have real reasons to come together”.

Such is why government intervention such as via the EIP is crucial in encouraging integration from the start, said the minister.

“If we wait until racial tensions have started to bubble to the surface and develop and become entrenched, it will become so much harder to heal those fractures and rebuild trust among different communities,” he added.

Citing a recent survey by REACH, Mr Lee said that over 60 per cent of Singaporeans agreed that implementing racial quotas in public housing was an important way of promoting racial integration, which indicates that most Singaporeans “understand and support the EIP and recognise its purpose”.

“Similar levels of support were seen across all races. About 30 per cent were indifferent to this and less than ten percent disagreed,” he added.

Mr Lee stressed that the EIP “may cause difficulties for some owners looking to sell their flats” presently, as seen in the 500 appeals for an EIP waiver received by HDB last year — around two percent of the 23,100 resale applications filed last year.

“And when the EIP limits are reached for an ethnic group, sellers from other ethnic groups are unable to sell to buyers of the constraint group.

“With a smaller pool of eligible buyers, sellers may have to lower their asking price or they may take longer to market and sell their flat,” he said.

Such an outcome, however, affects all races, including Chinese sellers who are affected by the non-Chinese EIP limits, said Mr Lee.

“We do see more appeals from sellers from the minority races, because Chinese buyers form a larger proportion of the market simply from the demographic mix of society. And the impact on individual non-Chinese sellers is therefore larger and the Chinese EIP limits are reached,” he said.

While a buyer from an eligible race will benefit from a lower resale price and will be less affected if and when they sell the flat in the future, Mr Lee noted that “this brings little comfort to affected sellers, particularly those who bought the flat from HDB or on the resale Market before the EIP limits were reached and yet are now caught by EIP limits”.

“And this is a group who can be financially disadvantaged. And I understand how they feel. Aggrieved they may feel, it is unfair that they are personally shouldering the cost for a policy that benefits all of us in society,” he said, noting that MPs on both sides of this house have raised these concerns.

Such is why HDB has been granting flexibility to EIP-constrained owners “on a case-by-case basis”, said Mr Lee.

“For instance, HDB will give the household more time to sell their flat and even waive the EIP limits if there are exceptional circumstances. In fact, the percentage of successful EIP-related appeals have risen from 14 percent in 2018 to 21 percent in 2020,” he said.

However, whenever HDB waives the EIP limits to address this impact on certain households, this “may lead to even higher imbalances in the concentrations of certain ethnic groups in some areas”, Mr Lee said.

“So we’re studying the situation carefully and are looking at what more can be done to help affected sellers,” he said. “We are very conscious of the trade-offs and we’ll keep working to smoothen its sharper edges.”

Leader of the Opposition questions Desmond Lee on review of EIP limits for Indian, Other groups; asks for breakdown on ethnic groups across HDB neighbourhoods from 1989

Branding Mr Lee’s answer as “the most nuanced reply” he has heard from a government minister on the EIP, Mr Singh however questioned if a review of EIP limits has been carried out last year in the wake of a large number of EIP appeals that continue to come from the Indian and Others communities.

Mr Singh highlighted that the overall EIP limit for the Indian and Other communities — at 59 per cent — were reviewed in 2010, adding that the EIP limit for that category was 10 per cent and 13 per cent at the neighborhood block level, which was then increased to 12 and 15 per cent respectively.

On the number of appeals for EIP waiver from Indian and Other households, Mr Lee said that review is ongoing.

Mr Singh further asked if the Government is prepared to “share details on the breakdown by ethnic groups of all the HDB neighborhoods, both new and old on an annual basis from 1989”.

“And if it is, then we’ll file the question,” the Workers’ Party chief added.

He noted that 28 per cent of neighbourhoods had breached EIP limits at the inception of the policy.

While the numbers have fallen over the years, Mr Singh said that there is no “clarity” regarding the decrease.

Touching on the breakdown asked by Mr Singh, Mr Lee affirmed that in 1989, 35 neighborhoods out of 125 neighborhoods then had reached one or more EIP limits.

“In June this year, out of 173 neighborhoods — because we’ve been building our towns and increasing the number of neighborhoods — 14 per cent have breached one or more EIP limits. So that’s 24 (neighbourhoods),” he added, highlighting the decrease.

Mr Lee attributed the shrinking number of breaches to “a whole variety of factors”, including HDB providing a whole range of flat types, programs for different budgets, and programs that help to integrate society together across races.

Citing an answer to a Parliamentary question he filed in 2013, Mr Singh then said that the HDB shared that it had reviewed the EIP limits for rental flats and administratively added up to 10 percentage points for the block limits for HDB rental flats.

He then questioned Mr Lee if the HDB would consider a similar approach for all flats and to “exercise greater flexibility at the neighborhood level as a means of loosening the EIP criteria as a compromise, or even remove precinct and block quarters in favor of a larger area of coverage”,

“This is in view of the rising number of EIP waiver requests over the last few years, Singapore’s changing demographic profile, and for policy equity considerations towards communities that are adversely affected by the EIP,” said Mr Singh.

Reiterating the aim of EIP “as a bulwark against very strong, socio-economic forces born out of choices of individuals”, Mr Lee replied that it is crucial to “look at individual cases in order to determine whether we should waive the limit as opposed to an inexorable increase in EIP limits for all races across the board”.

“Which for some cases would bring it close to a hundred percent, because for Chinese, the EIP limit is already 87 percent.

“So the question is, how much more do you want to raise the cap? And in doing so, even when we allow appeals on a case-by-case basis, we’re already pushing at the boundaries of what the policy seeks to achieve,” said Mr Lee.

PAP ministers question Pritam Singh on Workers’ Party’s stance on EIP

Citing the Workers’ Party’s manifesto from the last general election in 2020, in which the party listed the abolishment of ethnic-based quotas in public housing as one of its goals, Mr Lee and Ms Indranee later questioned Mr Singh as to whether the alternative party had changed or maintained its stance since.

“In 2015, you didn’t cite the impact on minority resellers. But you say, that society has now attained a level of multiracial integration and therefore there is no longer a need for EIP.

“In 2011, that’s the same position, except that in addition to saying that Singapore had reached a high level of multiracial integration, the Workers’ Party goes on to say that the ethnic quota system also contradicts the policy of encouraging young families to live closer to their parents and prevent young Malay and Indian families from buying homes close to their parents,” said Mr Lee.

“I would dare say that also applies to Chinese families who are constrained by EIP, even if they wish to live in the same block as their parents,” he posited.

Mr Lee said that between 1989 to 2006, “we have no record of any position the WP has taken”.

“In the House, there has been no clear and unequivocal position taken by the Workers’ Party that you want the EIP abolished,” said Mr Lee.

Mr Singh replied that the WP’s opposition to the ethnic-based public housing quota is “undergirded by the frustration that we sense from ethnic minorities who cannot sell their flats”.

“Is the EIP the only policy among a whole gamut of policies that the government has to encourage racial integration, bearing in mind that it is a pre-emptive policy introduced in 1989?” he questioned.

Mr Singh also referenced areas such as Chinatown and Little India where there are concentrations of a particular race, yet such areas do not bother Singaporeans.

The EIP, he said, needs to be revisited in different contexts such as within “a larger national conversation on race relations in the context of Singapore today” and the “effect of immigration into Singapore from the 1990s”.

“After the EIP was introduced, (there appeared) a larger Singapore family living in HDB flats that include communities outside the traditional CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) categorisation, such as naturalised Singaporeans from Myanmar, the Philippines, and non-Tamil ethnic Indians,” said Mr Singh.

Mixed marriages among Singaporeans, and separately between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans and its impact on traditional racial categorisations, must also be taken into account when revisiting the EIP.

Mr Singh brought back the House’s attention to economic loss suffered by minorities under the EIP, who have to lower the market price of their flats due to rules under that policy.

“And that is particularly painful, because we hear that from many people who were in that position. The Workers’ Party, in the opening of parliament for this session, referred to one individual who had to sell the flat at a loss of S$100,000. I mean, that is shocking,” he said.

“The current policy as it stands as a larger impact on minorities, penalising them in the pocket when they have to sell their flat,” said Mr Singh, adding that this may erode the objectives under the EIP and instead cause “resentment amongst those who are affected by the policy”.

The EIP quota, said Mr Singh, should “be further loosened to ameliorate the prospects of further economic loss for sellers, with HDB committed to buying back” such flats, among other suggestions.

Ms Indranee said that Mr Singh had “started out by saying that the EIP should be revisited”.

“Then he said ‘reviewed’. He then mentioned that in their Manifesto, they took a philosophical position. But I’m sorry, because I still don’t know what WP’s position is. So could the Leader of the Opposition clarify? Is he saying today that the EIP should be abolished? Is the answer to that yes or no? That’s all I want to know,” she asked.

Stating that Mr Singh did not answer her question, Ms Indranee said: “I think we both agree. Both the WP and we agree. We do want a race-neutral society. We want a society where everybody can live happily together. It’s a question of, ‘How do we get there?’ And one of the things that the government has put in place is the EIP.”

“We still aim to remove it, but until we get there, we have to, as the Minister said, even out the rough edges as much as possible,” Mr Singh responded.

The government of the day, he said, wants to retain the EIP “for reasons which I would say are not totally illegitimate”.

“I think it’s important to state that, but having said that, how do we move forward with the EIP as it is? Knowing that there are minorities, knowing there are minority communities, knowing that there are even majority, even the Chinese community which is affected by it,” said Mr Singh.

He further questioned: “Is there a better way forward? And I think that’s our duty as an opposition (party).”

Mr Singh added that asking for data on racial makeup and quota in public housing “on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, over time, annually” is to study circumstances under which EIP limits have been breached.

“What’s unique about those neighborhoods? Is it any different from any other neighborhood in Singapore? How do we look into those details with more granularity?” he questioned.

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