“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” It was no anomaly that Donald Trump’s outrageous speeches on race and religion were greeted with zeal and a lead in the polls. In America and parts of Europe, leaders of the populist right like Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban have fed upon the public’s xenophobic sentiment—a sentiment unparalleled since the second world war. Terrorist assaults, police shootings, hate speeches – the recent racial tensions have challenged people’s faith in openness and tolerance, and make them question if isolation is a better answer than inclusion.
In this time of alarming racial divide, the West may find itself having something to learn from an Asian country: Singapore. Home to members from the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Arab and other diverse ethnic groups, Singapore has transformed from a “little red dot” expelled from the Federation of Malaysia for its race riots to a true cosmopolitan city that prides itself for its racial harmony. When asked about Singapore’s biggest success in the 2015 St. Gallen Symposium, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the country’s deputy prime minister, did not talk about its economy or per capita GDP:
“What was really interesting and unique about Singapore was social strategy, and most especially the fact that we took advantage of diversity, different races, different religions, and melded a nation where people were proud of being who they were, but were Singaporeans first and foremost.”
The Singaporean government has dedicated great efforts to facilitate racial integration. One of the best known and most controversial racial policies in Singapore are the mandatory quotas imposed on public housing. The Housing and Development Board (HDB) builds and develops affordable housing that serves over 80 percent of the resident population. The Ethnic Integration Policy was implemented on March 1st 1989, mandating the maximum proportion of people from each ethnic group that would be allowed to reside in each HDB estate. The goal of the quotas are to address the problem of isolated ethnic enclaves that gave rise to racial segregation. Before housing quotas were introduced, more than 30 percent of the estate population in Bedok and Tampines housing estates were Malay, while 90 percent of the households in Hougang were Chinese.
Segregated ethnic enclaves are a universal problem. In countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and France, communities with high ethnic concentration are formed to provide cultural affiliation and resources to help immigrants achieve economic success. However, these often become poverty traps that exclude low-income immigrants from achieving upward mobility in the mainstream economy. Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, used “territorial apartheid” to describe the 50-100 ghetto-like areas in France, some with poverty rates almost four times the average for the Paris region. In Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer shot dead the African American teenager Michael Brown and led to nation-wide protests against racial injustice, 67 percent of the residents are African American, while the power structure remained virtually all-white: a white mayor, a City Council with just one black member, and a 6 percent black police force. Problems with high ethnic concentration can also be found next to the Penn campus. West Philadelphia, a region with 76.2 percent of African American population, is one of the most economically ailing and poorly educated neighborhoods in the country.
Lack of political representation, deficient infrastructure and social marginalization not only perpetuates poverty, but also makes the ethnic enclaves hotbeds of crime and religious radicalism.
While countries like France have invested public money to improve housing, education and infrastructure in enclaves in hopes of reducing racial conflicts, Singapore is certainly one of the countries that have made the most effort in facilitating racial integration. It chose to physically break up ethnic enclaves and create interaction between races and ethnicities. Because the Housing and Development Board estates includes not only housing but also education and recreational facilities, children of different races grow up together in the same school, parents visit the same supermarkets and clinics, and racial prejudice is gradually reduced through daily contact, understanding and appreciation.
Not only does Singapore reduce isolation physically, but it also puts great effort to ensure political representation of each race and encourage cultural diversity. For example, the country has introduced Group Representation Constituency, a system where candidates stand for elections to Parliament as a group, and at least one of the MPs in a GRC must be a member of the Malay, Indian or another minority community of Singapore. Additionally, the country embraces a bilingual education system; English is the language of instructions used in subject-matter curriculum in schools, but students are also required to learn their mother tongue in order to retain their cultural background.
Singapore’s unique political structure allows the government to take such intrusive measures to improve ethnic relations, and there are concerns of Singapore being a “nanny state” that infringes on personal freedom. In response to such concerns, Tharman answered:
“The natural workings of society would have just as easily and more likely led to mistrust, discomfort, bigotry, [a phenomena] we see in abundance in many countries around the world today… We have to address these facts honestly and realize that human beings aren’t perfect; everyone has biases, discomforts, a sense of liking or distrust for each other. And there is a rule of government—[a rule that needs to be followed by]an elected representative—to unify people. And it doesn’t happen through speeches.”
Singapore’s exact model might be feasible only under its distinctive political structure, but there are still some universal lessons that can be learned from it. Ethnic tensions cannot be solved by simply housing people of different ethnic backgrounds together; serious effort must be taken to encourage contact between the diverse groups. Moreover, it is important to create an inclusive environment for people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The public should be alarmed of the right-wing populist narratives that manipulate the fear and nationalist sentiment of the public for political power. People need to realize that oftentimes the biggest threat of extremism does not come from immigrants outside the border, but from the very social structure that marginalizes, disadvantages and disillusions minority groups and leaves them vulnerable to radical narratives. The first step of resolving ethnic conflicts is to understand the vicious circle and the structural nature of racial discrimination, and recognize the need for an active role of the government to push the society towards racial harmony.