Should Singapore retain or stop using its Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others framework?

This is a re-post of a comment I’m making on as part of the above discussion. I’m putting it up here because regardless of whether or not the comment passes moderation on, I think it has enough merit that I’m comfortable standing by the statement under my own name, on my own platform.

Mascots (Racial Harmony)
I object to racialism in general and most strenuously to the CMIO classification in particular. An emphasis on race (as opposed to ethnicity, nationality, or a range of other factors that could be used to provide the broad categories so useful to policy-making that other commentators are arguing for) is benighted, being both historically and scientifically bankrupt and devoid of value; the persistence of a race-aware mindset in Singapore is regrettable and is an impediment to progress. After discussing the inherent problems in race theory and the potential harms its promulgation may cause, I’d like to volunteer some alternatives.
Part of the problem is that there’s no real common understanding, or even official definition, of what constitutes race. In Singapore, we use ‘race’ as a catchall term to refer to ethnicity, language, culture, and geographic extraction; we also attribute moral, intellectual, physical, and behavioural qualities to each category. It lacks coherence, and inter-racial marriages are not the only manner in which this lack of coherence is beginning to cause a strain on our social fabric: we force ourselves to fit people into these artificial frameworks that we’ve built for ourselves.
No Historical or Scientific Value
The term is a legacy of the colonial period; concepts of a ‘Malay race’, for example, can be traced to the 18th century. Discussions of race that rely on some romanticised view of antiquity often forget how modern the theory of race, and indeed, of nationhood, are. The colonial Europeans were hardly romantic about race: race-profiling provided a shorthand for keeping a massive and diverse empire in check. Examples of implementation include the preferential conscription of specific ‘martial races’, from which we in Singapore derive our traditions of Punjabi doormen and Gurkha contingents. The blindness of the British to other factors of identity besides race and skin colour have led to such historic catastrophes as the Sepoy Mutiny of the 19th century; there’s little reason to suspect that the theory that failed them so badly should serve us any better two hundred years on.
Ironically, today’s definition of ‘race’ is probably even more simplistic and reductive than the definitions in use during the period where Singapore was a colonial power. The British were alive to the differences between Chinese from Shanghai and Swatow; ‘Malays’ from Boyan and Indonesia; Indians from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. The consolidation of these rich cultures into our current broad CMIO categories of ‘race’ was more a political expedient, perhaps in aid of nation-building, than any sort of distinction that can be supported by history or by science. Such consolidation has been disastrous to the texture and complexity of Singapore’s cultural landscape, already beleaguered by such policies as the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which has by and large rendered the ability to speak non-Mandarin Chinese dialects something of a rarity among the current generation of young Singaporeans. To speak of ‘race’ is already to demonstrate a lamentable backwardness; to promulgate a belief in Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other races is laughable.
The theory of race is rooted in the idea of Western (and white) supremacy and imperialism; to propound it today is to compound the mistakes of the past.
Race theory further fails to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Phenotypical differences in humans, such as skin and hair colour, are factors arising from the way geography has ‘hothoused’ particular adaptive traits to particular regions. As these traits are purely physiological ones for adaptation to specific climates, there’s little reason to believe that the behavioural qualities popularly attributed to races aren’t instead caused by more complex, socio-cultural factors. The notion that most Malays, or most Chinese, or most Indians, may behave in certain ways if ungoverned (form enclaves, say, out of pure racial co-feeling) is simplistic to the point of absurdity: ghettoisation or the formation of enclaves is much more sensibly-explained by examination of religious affiliation, language, and wealth, among other factors.
Geneticists Kenneth Weiss and Jeffrey Long have called the boundaries between ‘racial’ groups “multilayered, porous, ephemeral, and difficult to identify”; this porousness and lack of coherence make categorising people according to their race at worst dangerous, at best pointless. Promoting the concept of race theory in schools is also disastrous, because it sanctifies as fact what is merely theory, and creates a thoroughly-false ideal of antique racial purity — in essence, it creates a belief in a yardstick of ideal ‘Chineseness’ or ‘Malayness’ by which everyone in those groups are measured, when there is no anthropological or genetic or indeed any other scientific evidence to suggest that such a pure, “isolated, homogeneous… population” ever existed. Not only does a ‘Chinese race’ or ‘Malay race’ not exist, but they have never existed.
Placing race at the heart of our politics makes racialisation of issues unavoidable. The Ministry of Education, for example, tracks educational attainment by ethnic group. The Prime Minister, during his National Day Rally, tends to refer specifically to the educational attainment of Malays. Why? Is this helpful? Shouldn’t policies intended to improve educational attainment be targeted at the causes of poor performance (say, poverty, lack of access to secondary and tertiary education services such as tuition and enrichment) instead of race? Does a Chinese student who’s performing poorly in his studies require a Chinese-specific strategy that would be less effective with a Malay or Indian or ‘Other’ student? The only thing that comes to mind is that social aid is disbursed through racially-aligned organisations (SINDA et al); besides the government’s abhorrence for distributing aid directly, I can’t think of a good reason why we ought to continue disbursing aid through charitable organisations aligned with race instead of, say, specific needs. It’s backward, and probably quite unfair. My partner for example once qualified for academic awards from SINDA but not from CDAC. Why? Should aid not be disbursed according to need and not racial affiliation?
The issue only gets worse with the HDB quota, which is an area of discussion that has its own entry and hence, which I shall avoid going into here.
By aligning policies with race, we force classifications of identity onto people that they might not actually want, for no good reason. Ultimately, I’m as Chinese as I choose to be: it is very possible that I could choose to eschew all behavioural markers of Chinese identity altogether and adopt those of another culture entirely, or I could choose to wear a queue and eat rice all day every day and practice kung fu in public, and everything in between, and well it should be. If someone can choose the extent to which he participates in an identity, to the extent of complete immersion or complete rejection, why then should he be forced to still bear a label that doesn’t accuracy describe him in any conceivable way save for acting as a reminder of parentage? This inflexibility renders the idea of using race-profiling as a guideline for policymaking nonsensical: effectively, any policy based on race (the selection of ‘mother tongues’ in schools, for example) is going to be unresponsive and rigid, which is the absolute opposite of what policies need to be in order to remain effective and meaningful.
The specific categories of CMIO also enshrine the majority races at the point of Singapore’s formation, and if it continues to remain a sacred cow, would mean that these races would continue to enjoy (or suffer) permanent classification in a manner unresponsive to any actual demographic change. What if, for example, the number of Indians become overtaken by Filipinos? Will we update to CMFO? Will we remove Tamil signage and replace it with Tagalog?
Perhaps most pernicious is the way in which the CMIO classification is sanctified and passed-on: it’s not only affixed to your identity documentation, but it’s engraved upon your heart through years of public schooling. Students are taught race theory as fact rather than theory, in a manner that’s both intellectually-dishonest and dangerous, in the way that teaching Creationism as fact instead of theory is dangerous: it creates a fixed idea of the world at a very early age. Other commentators have remarked that Singapore may transition to more enlightened ways of viewing itself, but it requires CMIO in the interim; I reject this argument, because the way in which CMIO is taught ensures that Singapore will likely never be able to marshall the popular support for change necessary to make the transition to a more enlightened state. We are effectively promulgating a benighted theory, and then using the backwardness of the resulting population to justify political inertia, creating a comfort-zone of circular logic from which we need never depart. It’s stifling and it’s toxic.
CMIO-as-taught is also done in a manner that is, like everything else to do with CMIO, insultingly and laughably simplistic. The Mother Tongue of all Chinese people is Mandarin, even though it is properly a northern Chinese dialect, while the vast majority of Straits Chinese in Singapore and the region are of southern Chinese extraction! All Indians speak Tamil and are Hindus! Except those who aren’t! Malay identity and Islam are conflated! There’s no mention of the tenuous relationship between ethnicity and language and extraction; of the history of the region; of the salient and defining dogmas of various religions. Islam becomes all about not eating pork and not touching dogs; don’t expect a non-Muslim student to ever hear about the Five Pillars of Islam, of the centrality of zakat to Muslim religious practice. I mean, he might, but it’s more than likely that he never will.
Racial harmony, especially in schools which may be less-than-diverse in their enrolment and staffing, may become an exercise in promoting stereotypes instead of tolerance and understanding. Teachers may make a very real and very important difference here, by going above and beyond the call of duty in clarifying ambiguities and promoting real learning and understanding, but the day we require teachers to defy the syllabus to do their job is the day we ask ourselves if we really know what we’re doing.
I still remember, back in my teaching days, being asked by a 17-year-old, top-performing student in a great school, who Prophet Muhammad was, and resisting the impulse to throw myself out the nearest window in sheer horror. The student then defended her ignorance by asserting that she was Chinese, and therefore wasn’t required to know these things. The rest of the class just nodded sagely in support of her point.
This can’t continue.
Moving Forward
This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a coherent policy or a manifesto. I’m ultimately in favour of becoming race-blind entirely, and having that entire section of one’s birth-cert and IC struck out forever, but I recognise, as other commentators have, the need for some kind of transitional state to prevent total culture shock to the more clannish and insular sections of the population. I’ve seen another commentator recommend a ‘Singaporean’ ethnicity that one can always opt-into, and I approve of that measure.
I think having race and ethnicity be expressed as matters of choice rather than ancestry is a step in the right direction. Perhaps we need to have a ‘transition generation’, where kids have the ethnicity and racial groups of their parents recorded, but have none of their own apart from ‘Singaporean’. That way, should we really need to do some profiling, we could always do it with reference to the races of their parents, but not attach those racial labels indelibly to that generation. And once they move on, and have kids of their own, hopefully even the question of race will become obsolete.
As a more concrete and feasible option, I suggest we decouple ‘Mother Tongue’ from ancestry (I’m aware that it is possible to apply for exemption, but the process is case-specific and the criteria unclear, except that it advantages children who’ve been away from Singapore). Bilingualism is good; multilingualism is even better, but the incentives for it decrease dramatically once children are told that there’s some kind of moral prerogative to learn and cherish one language over all others. Let kids learn Malay or Arabic or Italian or whatever. Let kids learn Cantonese or Teochew. Or better yet, let them do all of the above. If a parent wants to align his kid with Latin America and have him learn Spanish or Portuguese instead of Mandarin or Malay, he should be allowed to. After all, PM Lee has complained about how our reluctance to work abroad limits us; I believe this to be a direct result of how narrowly and parochially we’ve shaped people’s ideas of identity and society.
A positive side-effect from decoupling language from race would hopefully be the abolition of schools with single-language specialisations (I’m looking at you, SAP schools). I can’t think of a just reason why Chinese kids who go to schools specialising in Chinese should benefit from preferential funding and special budgets and additional opportunities, but there aren’t any equivalents for other races and languages.
The roots and wings metaphor often used in education is appropriate, I think. Once a people are fledged, roots are where we return to roost, from which we draw comfort and shelter, and not something restrictive and discriminatory that restrains us from spreading our wings to the fullest. The point of roots is to give us a place to come back to, not to anchor us to a place that we can never leave.
As currently-practiced, the only avian metaphor appropriate to the CMIO system is that of an albatross around our necks.

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