Discrimination in Singapore is institutionalised

Muhammad Shamin

Githu Muigai (left) with Jufri Salim (partly hidden), Gandhi Ambalam (2nd from left) and Jarrod Luo (left)

Discrimination against ethnic minorities, though subtle, is till very much alive in Singapore and much of this is perpetuated by the PAP Government. This is the message that the SDP sent to United Nation’s representative Mr Githu Muigai. By doing this, the Government undermines the identity of the nation and build mistrust and resentment among citizens.

Mr Muigai is the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. He is here to study racism in Singapore.

The SDP delegates included Chairman Mr Gandhi Ambalam, CEC member Mr Jufrie Mahmood, and Young Democrats Jufri Salim, Jarrod Luo, Khalis Rifhan, and Muhd Shamin.

A historical perspective

Mr Gandhi briefed Mr Muigai on the history of race relations in Singapore during the British colonial era and the racial riots that broke out in the 1960s that resulted in the expulsion of Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia.

He highlighted that during the time when Singapore was in the Federation, then prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew had championed “Malaysian Malaysia”, a policy that did not favour one ethnic group over another.

After Singapore was expelled, Mr Lee espoused a Singaporean Singapore. But this did not take place as his policies discriminated against the minority races.

Discriminated Malays

Mr Jufrie Mahmood gave examples of such policies. In the armed forces there are sectors where Malays are not allowed to enter and there has only been one Malay general – and, for that matter, he is not Malay but an Indian Muslim.

On population issue the PAP had said that the Malays were reproducing too quickly compared to the Chinese*. As a result, it seems that the Government has encouraged the influx of Chinese nationals from the People’s Republic of China to counter the growth of the Malay Singaporeans.

This clearly showed that the PAP did not consider the Singaporean identity but took race as a priority. The SDP delegation reiterated that they felt first and foremost Singaporean and consider their ethnicity as secondary.

Chinese nationals, on the other hand, find it hard to assimilate into the Singaporean culture which had in the past gradually morphed into a distinct melting pot identity unique to the island. 

But with the PAP’s racist policy of bringing in Chinese nationals, the Government has driven the wedge in between our ethnic groups because these foreigners don’t understand our local mix heritage. The policy has even caused resentment between local Chinese Singaporeans and those from the PRC.    

SDP members with the UN Special Rapporteur

Mr Jufrie also spoke of his personal experience of the PAP manipulating race as an election candidate. During an election rally, he had said “Insya Allah” which means “God willing”, a commonly used expression used by Malays.

The PAP manipulated the situation, appealing to the fears of the other races by making him look like a radical Islamist “carrying a sword to slay everyone”.

He also talked about the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system introduced in 1988 to “ensure” minority representation. The truth is that the PAP Government had eradicated Malay representation in areas like Bedok and Geylang Serai by limiting the number of minority households in an area.

Today, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) determines the percentage of the various races staying in each housing estate. This has diluted the voice of minority groups.

In truth, the GRC was introduced to strengthen the PAP’s hold on power by making it harder for the opposition to campaign. In fact before the system was introduced, there was more minority representation in Parliament.

Other forms of discrimination

I highlighted that discrimination also occurs in the job market where job advertisements specify “Mandarin-speaking” as a requirement even many of these jobs did not necessitate the language. On this point, YD vice-president Mr Jufri Salim added that is able to converse in Mandarin but still found it difficult to land such jobs.

Job discrimination has now extended to Singaporeans in general with many reports of companies stating that they were looking for non-Singaporeans to hire because they are cheaper.

Every citizen has to carry an identity card which clearly states one’s race. This tactic clearly interested Mr Muigai.

Mr Khalis brought up the discrimination against members the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The religion is banned in Singapore because its followers refuse to serve in the military as they do not believe in violence. As a result many of its members are imprisoned.


The meeting with the Rapporteur covered many areas during which it was emphasized that racial discrimination that had been institutionalised in Singapore. Mr Muigai mentioned that his report will be presented to the UN committee in June this year which will include a list of recommendations and best practices.

* Lee Kuan Yew on Marriage, Education and Fertility in Singapore, Population and Development Review, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), pp. 179-185  http://www.jstor.org/pss/1972142

Muhammad Shamin is a member of the Young Democrats. He recently returned to Singapore after a 3-month internship at the European Parliament.

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