Is Singapore Becoming More Divided? A New Book Tries To Untangle Our Nation’s Many, Many Inequalities
Top image: RICE File Photo

Note: This article was updated on 26/6/2020, 6.30 PM.

For the longest time, the greatest minds in Singapore have wrestled with the mystery of Yishun.  How—they ask themselves—did a regular neighbourhood become so Siao Lang? Why are there so many naked ‘loonies’? Is the craziness caused by Ley Lines, the magnetic disturbances in the earth, or the influence of certain ‘colourful’ individual(s)?

As it turns out, we might have missed the bigger problem: poverty.

According to data gathered by Professor Leong Chan-Hoong and Ms Yvonne Yap from 2015’s General Household Survey, Yishun is the second-poorest area in Singapore. Only 5.4% of families in Yishun enjoyed a monthly income of more than $20,000, as compared to 10.9% in Toa Payoh, and 44.4% in Bukit Timah. It is tied with Woodlands (5.4%) in the second-last place, and only marginally more well-off than Punggol (5.1%).

In education, the situation is equally dire. Yishun has only a single ‘Top-30 primary school’ within its wretched confines, and not a single ‘Top-30 secondary school’.

I love democracy.
The end result is a ‘class enclave’, which sounds like academic patois for ‘ghetto’ and probably is. Thus, Prof Leong and Ms Yap conclude that ‘while ethnic enclaves have been partially mitigated through the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), the ongoing formation of class enclaves seems to have entrenched itself.” In other words, Singapore’s geography is increasingly differentiated by SES, with ‘elite clusters’ on one end, and well, Yishun at the other.

Mildly Triggered

This essay makes for uncomfortable reading, but it is, by far, the least controversial contribution to ISEAS’s new book Navigating Differences: Integration In Singapore, Edited by Terence Chong, which seeks to understand ‘the many different fault lines that run across the multicultural city-state.

Do not let the bland title and stock-image cover art fool ye. The contents are inflammatory, worrying, and insightful in equal parts. As I read it, I felt an instinctive urge to duck because I could hear Minister Shanmugam and Alfian Sa’at pull back on their respective SAR21 charging handles (Essay No.8: “Protest and the Culture War in Singapore”).

For starters, Chinese Privilege is dismissed as a “clumsy” concept because “it makes no distinction between privileges enjoyed by majority communities in all societies, and privileges that stem specifically from being from a particular ethnic community”. Christian moral activism also comes under scrutiny for its potential to cause tensions within society. The M part of our CMIO is problematised (yet again) because ‘there is concern over the Malay-Muslim community’s ability to integrate into broader society.’ Outspoken voices from civil society are interpreted as the instigators of a ‘culture war’ with potentially ‘destabilising’ effects. Preetipls is more or less accused of appropriating the moral urgency of Black Lives Matter.

Image: ISEAS Publishing Online Bookshop
This is just to give you a taste of the book’s controversial bits, in case you are easily triggered. 

However, if you can find it within yourself to forgive its ‘un-woke’ perspective and the editor’s conservative outlook, it does offer a very detailed examination of Singapore’s long-term challenges. 

Take, for example, Prof. Lavannya Kathiravelu’s essay ‘What Kind Of Indian Are You: Frictions and Fractures Between Singaporean Indians and Foreign-Born NRIs’. It stood out to me because of 

a) my Chinese privilege, and 

b) for examining the contentious issue in all its migraine-inducing complexity.  

Most people are vaguely aware that “the recruitment of ‘well-qualified and successful professionals’ have led to the creation of a strata of Indians in Singapore who are quite different in social and economic practices”. However, few of those who bitch about ‘CECA gang’ have bothered to dissect the issue. Education and income levels are not the only cleavages separating non-resident Indians (NRIs) from Singaporean Indians. The problem also extends to civilisation, language, and colour. 

Image: Cheryl Tang / RICE File Photo
As the essay notes, many NRIs apparently see India as the ‘older civilisation and nation’, while Singaporean Indian culture is considered a poor imitation (perversion, even) of this authentic, pure Indian-ness. Singapore Indians reject such an ideology, and in turn view the NRI’s caste-consciousness as a case study in ‘backwardness’. 

‘Indian culture’ thus becomes an important line-in-the-sand, but merely one amongst many. The community is further divided along the axes of North/South, Light/Dark, Hindi/Tamil, Singlish/Nope, with many ‘Northern’ NRIs viewing themselves as ‘higher’ than the Tamil-born locals. One interviewee went so far as to say: “What do you expect? These people are descendants of convicts and prisoners.”

As a result, many NRIs apparently use their kids’ National Service to signal their ‘Singaporean-ness’. But even National service is a fraught issue for Prof. Kathiravelu; not merely because it excludes women, but because National service is very much the exception rather than the rule for many NRI families. 

“It is complicated by the fact that many of these children attended international schools and universities abroad, and are perhaps more a part of a global cosmopolitan elite than typically Singaporeans in their experiences,” she writes.

Image: Cheryl Tang / RICE File Photo
This sounds harsh, there’s a point to the harshness. Our CMIO framework, she concludes, is no longer adequate for addressing a fractally-divided nation. 

It is also not a criticism limited to the Indian community. A separate essay finds similar fragmentation in the PRC immigrant community, which is now split between the ‘old-new immigrants’ (老新移民) and the ‘new-new immigrants’ (新新移民). The latter group arrived after the mid-2000s, and are less willing to integrate as compared to their forebears, who ‘worked harder’ to blend in at the workplace and in the community. 

In certain aspects, the verdict is not just worrying, but downright damning. The above-mentioned essay ‘Geographic Ethnic Separation in Singapore’ mentions Yishun in passing, but it’s really concerned with ‘disparities between neighborhoods’. Elite schools, the authors’ findings suggest, tend to cluster in ‘Chinese-dominant’ neighborhoods of expensive, private dwellings (I.e. Marine Parade, Bukit Timah) whereas newer, poorer neighborhoods like Jurong or Yishun have fewer elite institutions. Even if students get in, they will have to travel painfully long distances which put them at a disadvantage against their peers.

Thus, the authors conclude: “If this trend persists or is accelerated, this urban demography could erode Singapore’s founding principle of a fair society with equal opportunities for all.” 

Fighting words indeed, but fair. After all, if the burden of ‘social mobility’ in SIngapore rests almost entirely on ‘meritocratic’ opportunities provided by education, shouldn’t we start panicking about the unequal access to education?

Money Money Money

It is pretty easy to nitpick Navigating Differences as a Woke Social-justice Millennial, but I’m not going to do so because I’m neither woke enough nor young enough. Instead, let’s look at the bigger problems it tries—and sometimes fails—to address.

The book is divided into 4 parts—Race, Religion, Politics, and Economics—possibly in homage to our much beloved CMIO system. However, this RRPE separation is often contradicted by the thesis of each individual essay. 

Christian moral activism is a clear and present hazard precisely because of the Christian population’s outsized wealth and influence relative to Buddhists and Muslims, as one essay argues. Likewise, the failure of integration for NRIs happens explicitly because ‘the larger disposable incomes of this group allow for some mode of self-segregation’. 

Image: Marisse Caine / RICE File Photo
As for Chinese immigrants, the authors do not explicitly explain why newer immigrants struggle to integrate, but let me answer that question. New-old immigrants like yours truly have no choice but to integrate because they are poor. New-new immigrants who came after the Chinese economic miracle are rich and have no obligation to follow suit. Even if I wanted to, in 1997, I could not afford to eat at PRC restaurants in Geylang, or to call my Grandma on Singtel’s hideously-expensive IDD 001. 

Had I immigrated in the roaring 2010s instead of the bankrupt 1990s, I would have been another Supreme-laden princeling with an unnaturally pale girlfriend. What’s true for NRIs is true for the 富二代.

Therein lies the bigger problem. What undergirds these worsening cleavages is globalisation, economic inequality, and Singapore’s failure to deal with its side effects in any meaningful way. 

After all, once you reach a certain wealth bracket, you belong to no one, just as HSBC or Gong Li belong to no nation, and will always be sovereign entities unto themselves. State policy cannot forcibly integrate those who are not beholden to the state in any way.

Image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo
Secondly, globalisation and an open economy brings not just people and money, but also disparate ideas and influences: Billy Graham’s call for Singapore to be a Christian Nation, Islamic conservatism, Western Liberalism, China’s Influence, Racial Privilege, etc. These ideas ought to be tackled, but the PAP’s policy of ‘not taking the lead on values’ has created a vacuum for the different ideologies to clash. 

How long we can continue the hands-off approach, god only knows. 

Navigating Differences flirts with this issue incessantly, but the book never addresses it outright. Nearly every chapter makes references to ‘global economic conditions’ or ‘foreign support’, but few of the proposed solutions engage with the root of the issue. Some of the solutions are so vague as to be utterly meaningless. This is, in my opinion, the book’s biggest limitation/weakness. The problem is existential, but the answers are often piecemeal and staid. If there is indeed an ‘increasing entrenchment of social stratification’ and a culture war that’s growing more ‘virulent’, is it enough to just continue tweaking with the status quo? 

Image: United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China
Surely the answer to foreign influence ops cannot be just ‘there exist appropriate means to manage the risks associated with their engagement in political processes’. Surely the solution to social inequality and a stagnant middle-class income is more than just ‘opportunities for inclusion and meaningful interaction’? Such answers are the Lorem Ipsum of public policy, and it’s hard to keep from rolling your eyes when they’re presented as the cure for cancer.

Prof. Irene NG’s essay on ‘Self-reliant Wealth and Trickle-down Welfare’ comes closest by suggesting that Singapore has reached a ‘decision point’, but even it shys away from anything more concrete.

Thoughts & Prayers

Image: Marisse Caine/ RICE File Photo
At its best, the book is a detailed scrutiny of Singapore’s many fault-lines and how they’re developed (as its blurb promises). At its worst, it descends into kumbaya statements written by ST journalists on deadline. (“Integration can be more successful only if it is approached as collaborative project.” )  

This is not to say the book is bad. Just depressing. 

It is depressing to see how certain ethnic divides have persisted despite years of sound and fury; equally so to read about your country’s gradual balkanisation in real time. Cherian George once said that we should treat Singapore’s diversity not as a weakness to overcome, but as a strength to be harnessed. This ideal seems more distant than ever after one reads Navigating Differences; if not a mirage that is forever receding, year by year, like some overwrought literary metaphor. One wonders how long it would be, before Yishun starts agitating for independence.

Navigating Differences: Integration In Singapore is available online at the ISEAS publishing online bookshop for USD$29.90. Individual essays are also available as e-books.

For everything else, there’s

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