Singapore’s Way to Multiculturalism – Fair Observer

While the ‘social engineering’ of housing policy and practices is likely unique to Singapore, it still is an interesting case study of reducing barriers. But as their society evolves, some of similar questions about identity, citizenship and belonging arise:

A national poll released a few weeks ago found most Singaporeans try to live out multiracial ideals and believe in meritocracy. More than seven in 10 Singaporeans believe personal success is independent of race or ethnicity, according to the survey commissioned by Channel NewsAsia and the Institute of Policy Studies.

That’s a remarkable finding for diverse Singapore, whose population is 74.2% Chinese, 13.3% Malay, 9.2% Indian and 3.3% other. It’s also the most religiously diverse nation in the world, according to a 2014 analysis by the Pew Research Center, its population made up of sizable portions of Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus.

The poll is especially noteworthy considering how far the country has come in half a century, when its early days as a new nation were beset by ethnic tensions and race riots.

Singapore’s strides toward multiculturalism got a shout-out from President Obama, who played host to visiting Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in August.

“In the United States, we call ourselves a ‘melting pot’ of different races, religions and creeds. In Singapore, it is rojak—different parts united in a harmonious whole,” Obama said. “We’re bound by the belief that no matter who you are, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can make it.” (Rojak is a traditional fruit and vegetable salad dish named after a Malay term for mixture.)

Singapore sets an example for the world on multiculturalism. A founding principal of the country is the integration of its ethnic and racial groups—a decision was made at the outset to treat every race, language and religion as equal. It made an asset of its ethnic and religious diversity, and the result is relative racial harmony.


How did Singapore do it? One answer is forced housing integration. In Singapore, 85% live in very decent, mostly owner-occupied public housing, and racial quotas mean every block, precinct and enclave fall in line with the national ethnic population percentages mentioned above.

Forcing different peoples to live together as neighbors broke up the ethnic ghettoes and the all-Chinese, all-Malay or all-Indian blocks that could be found at the country’s founding in 1965. The housing policy “was authoritarian, intrusive, and it turns out to be our greatest strength,” Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said.

The Housing Development Board (HDB) public housing high-rises were Singapore’s answer to affordable housing. Most HDB dwellers own their own flat, adding to their sense of responsibility and community pride. The units are heavily subsidized for young couples buying a starter home in one of the world’s most expensive cities. The term HDB carries none of the stigma that, say, the term housing project carries in the US.

The HDB has other positive social impacts. By clustering housing near commercial centers and transit hubs, Singapore makes it easier for its residents to live and work in the same place. The best commute, as a Harvard economist once said, is a lift downstairs.

And Singapore can call itself a “Garden City” for the proportion of land that remains open. The concept of HDBs—of building up, and not out—allows Singapore to preserve much of its green space for recreation, while two-thirds of its land surface is used for rainwater catchment.

Source: Singapore’s Way to Multiculturalism – Fair Observer

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to Singapore’s Way to Multiculturalism – Fair Observer

  1. Serene says:

    There’s still a lot of systemic racism in Singapore, though. Singapore’s multiculturalism, if you dig a little deeper, is not that much different from Canada’s multiculturalism. There’s a lot going on at the institutional level that gets quite muddled and even rather contradictory when we take a closer look at actual effects and impacts.

    “More than seven in 10 Singaporeans believe personal success is independent of race or ethnicity”
    More than seven in 10 Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese. Not coincidence, I don’t think. We can’t ignore that Singapore’s “meritocracy” is created, propagated, and reproduced at a very mainstream ethnic-Chinese/British-colonial level.

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