Ethnic income inequality due to state discrimination: Prof.

May 17, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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Dr William Keng Mun Lee, Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Sociology at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, recently published his findings in a paper entitled The Economic Marginality of Ethnic Minorities: An Analysis of Ethnic Income Inequality in Singapore. Excerpts of the article is reproduced below. The entire paper can be found in Asian Ethnicity (Volume 5, Number 1, February 2004) or

Summary: This paper examines ethnic income inequality in Singapore from the perspectives of labour-market segmentation and human capital. The findings of this study show that neither perspective is useful in explaining ethnic income inequality in Singapore. Further, the analysis shows that educational differences among the Chinese, Indians and Malays account for very little of the income gap. Much of the income difference is due to discrimination. The source of this discrimination lies in the segregation of ethnic minorities in lower-paying jobs and occupations across all industries, reflecting Chinese domination in the economic and political spheres.

Discussion and conclusion: Much of the income difference between Chinese and the other ethnic groups was due to discrimination. Further examination of occupational distribution patterns showed that Malays and Indians were disproportionately found in low-paying occupations across all industries. These findings, together with educational differences explaining very little of the ethnic income inequality, substantiated the conclusion that exclusion of Malays and Indians from higher-paying occupations across industries has contributed to ethnic income inequality.

The failure of educational differences in explaining ethnic income disparities validated the importance of wage discrimination in illuminating ethnic income inequality in Singapore.

The source of such discrimination is the concentration of ethnic minorities in lower-paying occupations. Despite the improvement of the three main ethnic groups overall economic positions, this study did not support the suggestion by previous stratification studies in Singapore that ethnic income inequality has narrowed. On the contrary, this study has shown that ethnic income inequality increased over the last two decades.

The concentration of ethnic minorities in low-paying occupations across all industries suggests that not all jobs in the primary labour market are high paying, and that there are great benefits from hiring ethnic minorities in certain types of jobs. This is not unexpected in modern industrial structures.

In contemporary Singapore, Chinese by virtue of their numerical superiority dominate most industrial sectors. Malays comprising some 14 per cent of the population are concentrated in the public sector and to a lesser extent in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in transportation, manufacturing and business services. Indians, making up of some 8 per cent of the population, are found mainly in the personal services and commercial sector.

It is clear that a cultural division of labour is highly entrenched in Singapores work world. Thus, extant historical differences proliferated by colonial policy, cultural division of labour, late entry into the labour market and perceived threat of such entry by the Chinese have led to the erection of barriers which have been successful in excluding Malays and Indians from some of the higher paying occupations in Singapore.

Based on extant cultural differences, employers placed greater emphasis on the role of ethnic subculture in perpetuating the inferior occupational status of Malay and Indian workers. Thus, ethnic minorities are excluded from high-paying occupations not because of inadequate human capital but because they are perceived to lack the necessary work ethic and value expected in a modern economy.

To a large extent, such perception is cultivated by Singapores colonial past and accentuated by present state policy. Further, Chinese, protecting their economic interests, have been successful in isolating ethnic minorities to lower-paying occupations. All told, Chinese in Singapore have made substantial economic gains by confining Malays and Indians in low-paying occupations. Social and physical attributes that Chinese possess are used as the criteria of eligibility to good jobs. Historical structures of social relationships have restricted Malays and Indians from the full extent of rewards and privileges in the labour market.

State policy plays an important role in intensifying ethnic differences. Since independence, Singapore has made concerted efforts toward nation building and creating a sense of national identity. In the process, the state has come to terms with the disruptive powers of ethnic issues that accent language, religious and cultural differences, and with industrial development and economic differences.

The state does not dispute the potential threat to political stability if ethnic minorities, in particular the Malays, continue to lag behind the Chinese. In this light, the state has instituted affirmative policies such as the establishment of Mendaki, to advance Malays socio-economic status.

These affirmative policies that aim at upgrading the Malays, together with a state policy of using ethnicity as a primary social identification, further accentuate ethnic differences and cultural inferiority of the Malays. Because Chinese are the dominant group politically and are at the pinnacle of the social stratification, state policies that target ethnic minorities to improve their socioeconomic statuses promote the notion that the Chinese are a different species and culturally superior to other ethnic groups, and all other ethnic groups should emulate the Chinese.

Already such a perception has permeated minority groups. There is a widespread feeling among the educated ethnic minorities that they have been treated unfairly, and that social mobility is better if one is Chinese. State policies of highlighting ethnic differences create in-group posturing that will generate aggression and discontent toward non-members.
Modern Singapore, based on information technology, will have new forms of social differentiation and inequality that will reinforce the economic and political powers of the Chinese. This will no doubt deepen the prejudiced attitudes of the dominant group toward the ethnic minorities.

(Read also the letter from Mr Mohamad Jusoh Bin Mustapa in our Your Letters section.)