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.
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