Singapore: ethnicity & progress

Sharaiz writes*

Together with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea, Singapore is considered one of the Four Asian Tigers: countries in (South-) East Asia that industrialized and grew from poverty in the 1960s into  high-incomes today. According to Tan, the founding of modern Singapore started in 1819 with the arrival of Sir Thomas Raffles, who recognized the island as an exceptional location to build a new port. This started an era of British colonization of Singapore that lasted until 1965, when the colony officially became independent with Lee Kuan Yew, the People’s Action Party (PAP) leader, becoming the nation’s first prime minister. Two years before they gained their independence, the PAP decided to merge Singapore with Malaysia as they thought it would benefit Singapore’s economy. While the Malay already formed a sizeable proportion of the Singaporean population before the merge, this move led to increased racial tensions between the Chinese-Singaporeans and Malay-Singaporeans, and eventually even resulted in race riots. Both groups felt that there were certain policies that benefitted one over the other. This was one of the reasons why the union of Singapore and Malaysia was eventually reversed.

Another factor that has historically added to the ethnic diversity in Singapore is migration from India that started during the colonial era when both countries were British colonies. Over time, the size of the Indian community grew, and Singapore became a nation of mixed ethnic groups.

The government has sought to foster peaceful coexistence. The CMIO-system (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) is used to racially categorize all of the citizens, and it is common for people to keep to their own racial group. This ethnoracialization is institutionalized at an official level, as illustrated by the state funded self-help organizations, which are differentiated by racial identities (pdf). These organizations exist to target ethnic-linked socio-economic problems of each racial group and also to address issues that are specific to each group. The government professes a policy of meritocracy — the idea that anyone with skills can progress socio-economically, regardless of their race.

Despite all of these efforts, there remains a high level of inequality between the different ethnic groups (pdf). Chinese, Malay, and Indian households have a median monthly income per household of S$5,100, S$3,840, and S$5,370 respectively, which suggests an unfair distribution of income. Additionally, if we look at the highest educational qualification attained, we see significant differences in the percentage of university graduates per ethnic group:

Other reports (pdf) suggest that Chinese-Singaporeans have an unfair advantage in academic and professional settings due to their race. It seems that while Singapore has indeed experienced tremendous economic growth, the same cannot necessarily be said for the development of all of its citizens as seemingly ethnicity-based inequality continues to plague the nation.

Bottom line: Despite the government’s focus on multiculturalism and meritocracy, Singapore’s different racial groups seem to experience significant inequality problems in multiple areas, like income, educational attainment, and opportunities.


* Please help my Growth & Development Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

One thought on “Singapore: ethnicity & progress”

  1. Dear Sharaiz,
    Very interesting topic to deal with. The fact that socio-economic status or level of development is linked with racial and ethnic discrimination is a well-documented fact and a worthy subject of study in your case.
    Perhaps you can approach your investigation from a ‘hypothesis’ (e.g. lower socio-economic status for Malays in comparison to Chinese-Singaporeans), then build a ‘model’ based on several factors (e.g. racial discrimination, socio-economic status, moment of migration into Singapore etc) and then run a regression if your results are corroborated. Although I’m sure you might have tons of literature to back you up here, maybe you can add a variable of sorts which is insightful and that adds to your subject of study.
    Also it might be very interesting to address issues such as corruption and autocracy in Singapore. Even though they have effective crackdowns on corruption, to what extent can we say that Singapore is a ‘developed’ country if it is still under an autocratic regime? I am not well acquainted with the economy but perhaps it is worthy to take a look at state owned enterprises, the private sector, and any other informal institution that might add to your analysis.
    Finally, you maybe can do a ‘resolution’ section in which you can evaluate in which ways the Singaporean economy might benefit if certain groups are not discriminated. What do they have to offer to the economy? Can it outlive all the other Asian Tigers?
    Hope my feedback helped 🙂

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