Read The Straits Times: Commentary & Analysis (page 14) Thursday, June 27, 2002 text version

The Straits Times: Commentary & Analysis (page 12) Tuesday, June 18, 2002 Allowing for ethnic diversity boosts national identity By OOI GIOK LING SINGAPORE is completely urbanised but many still feel nostalgic about the bygone days of the kampung. Similarly, many in Singapore may feel strongly about promoting the Chinese language but they do so as Singaporeans with a strong sense of national identity. This holds for those who feel strongly about their religion and are as passionately or even more strongly Singaporean in their identity. The combination of identities, as urbanite with a yearning for the rural and rustic, or as both a Chinese and Singaporean, seems perfectly normal. That is, until you consider each as a separate identity shared by possibly the same person. Then one realises that most of us in Singapore have been living with multiple identities for some time now, and more so because we are citizens in a multi-ethnic society. A survey of ethnicity, national identity and sense of rootedness here among Singaporeans was conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies. The survey finds that the majority of Singaporeans think of themselves more as citizens of Singapore than the race they are. This applies equally to all the three larger racial groups: Chinese, Malays and Indians. The strong national identity notwithstanding, ethnicity and ethnic identity remain important among Singaporeans. It is important to many Singaporeans that people know the race to which they belong as well as their religion and mother tongue. For the Chinese, race remains most important as an ethnic identifier. Religion, on the other hand, is considered most important for the Malays and Indians although for the Malays, language follows closely in terms of its importance to ethnic identity. Having a strong national identity as well as a strong sense of ethnicity clearly requires some reconciliation on the part of many Singaporeans. A majority support Singapore having a multi-racial society, which partly reflects support for a cohesive society that also allows for ethnicity and representation of ethnic identity. Hence, there is less support for the promotion of a national culture over allowing for many different cultures. This accommodation of multi-racialism is the prevailing practice in Singapore. Thus, the strength of ethnic identity does not cancel out the likelihood of developing a strong or even stronger, national identity. This is particularly the development of a national identity that supports and accommodates the diversity of ethnic identities in its midst. Looking around the world, this process of reconciling ethnic and national identities has not necessarily been either smooth sailing or entirely trouble-free but the effort clearly requires the support of both state and society.

Equal treatment of all races and religious groups in Singapore is something that most Singaporeans agree with, regardless of their racial or religious background. This is an important factor in the reconciliation of ethnicity with national identity. The most resounding agreement came from the Malays, among whom 83 per cent agree that all religious groups in Singapore are treated equally. Not surprisingly, national policies introduced to manage inter-ethnic ties, such as ethnic quotas and self-help groups, generally received support from a majority of Singaporeans. Yet the support from the Chinese was slightly lower. In particular, more of the young and the more highly educated disagree that the policies are contributing to racial harmony. A COMPARISON between the results of the survey and those of a study conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies in 1990 highlights the strengthening of inter-ethnic relations. This is particularly true for the Chinese. Among the Chinese, there has been a marked increase in the proportion who invite their friends, colleagues and neighbours of different ethnic backgrounds to celebrate special occasions like birthdays and weddings with them. This can be partly attributed to the ethnic quotas which, however, apply only among public housing residents. Being the significant majority group, it is noteworthy that only one in two Chinese actually invites people of different ethnic backgrounds to celebrate special occasions. Practically all the Malays and most of the Indians, seven in 10, do the same. This has been the situation since the 1990 survey. Similarly, the approval of inter-racial marriage has also increased. Only a small minority agree that inter-racial marriage is a bad idea. This trend and others do, however, emphasise the dynamic nature of race relations and the need for effort on the part of state and society to work seriously at enabling greater appreciation of ethnic diversity and differences. One in four Singaporeans still agrees that he feels uncomfortable in a room full of people who are not the same race as he is. There are relatively more Chinese who agree that they feel this way, compared with the Indians and Malays. THE strong national identity shared regardless of ethnicity or because of it is translated into many shared values and goals that Singaporeans agree they have. Most of these goals are, however, rather materialistic. The general agreement is that Singaporeans value material success but they are hardworking and do value the family first. While Singaporeans are thought to be spendthrift, which is related to the value placed on material success, many think they are responsible, value friendship and treat fellow Singaporeans fairly. It is, therefore, not surprising that Singaporeans describe their sense of rootedness in Singapore in equally practical and material terms. Almost all believe that their sense of belonging and rootedness in Singapore can be

attributed to Singapore being a safe place. Many believe it is due to their family and friends being here as well as living here. Interestingly, a large proportion agree that Singapore has a good government and that their sense of rootedness is also due to the racial harmony in Singapore. There is a lot to be said for a government which has consistently resisted the politicising of racial issues and which has worked to meet basic needs, such as housing, on a first-come, firstserved basis. Further down the list among the reasons for their sense of rootedness in Singapore - that is, reasons subscribed to by fewer people - are that Singapore has a caring society and not being able to imagine living elsewhere. Indeed, at least 40 per cent can imagine living elsewhere other than Singapore. Only 54 per cent agree that, elsewhere, they would be treated as second-class citizens. Not surprisingly, the factor that has contributed least to the sense of rootedness among Singaporeans is having a say in government policy. Only 41 per cent agree that their sense of rootedness comes from this. More of the younger and more highly educated disagree that their sense of belonging and rootedness in Singapore comes from having a say in government policy. Nevertheless, a convincing 39 per cent say that they are now more committed to Singapore compared with five years ago. The lowest proportion who agree that they are more committed to Singapore is among the Chinese. More than one in two Singaporeans say that they remain as committed to Singapore. Singaporeans, by and large, appear to appreciate the state of their multi-ethnic society in terms of the status of inter-ethnic relations and the stability of such relations. There is evidence of how strong national identity and ethnicity have been reconciled and translated into a high level of commitment to Singapore as well as a slate of shared values and goals. This is the outcome of the building of a national identity that has provided for ethnic diversity and differences. There is, indeed, great scope ahead for building not only strong inter-ethnic relations but also greater appreciation of such ethnic diversity and differences. *********************** The author is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies. She contributed this article to The Straits Times *********************** Copyright @ 2002 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.


The Straits Times: Commentary & Analysis (page 14) Thursday, June 27, 2002

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The Straits Times: Commentary & Analysis (page 14) Thursday, June 27, 2002