Kishore Mahbubani is a professor of public policy at the National University of Singapore. His most recent book is “Has the West Lost It?”
SINGAPORE — In 1964, when I was 15 years old, ethnic riots broke out in Singapore between the majority Chinese community and the minority Malay-Muslim community. My next-door neighbor, a dutiful Malay clerk, still tried to report for work. He came home 30 minutes later, badly bruised and beaten. He was lucky. In the same vicinity, a Malay bus driver was killed after a wooden pole was shafted through his body. Roughly two dozen Chinese and Malays died in these riots and hundreds were injured.
Since that incident, Singapore has experienced only one other ethnic riot, which took place in 1969. The government now contains representatives from all of its ethnic communities, and in 2017, the city-state elected its first female Malay-Muslim president, the hijab-wearing Halimah Yacob. In contrast, the West has been haunted by racial and religious divisions over the same time period and has seen an uptick in Islamophobia in recent years. How, then, did Singapore overcome the usual divisions that plague multiethnic societies to become the model for inter-racial and inter-religious harmony that it is today?
In Singapore, social cohesion did not develop by chance. It stemmed from decisive government interventions beginning in the early days of independence in 1965. Since Singapore’s population at the time was 76 percent Chinese, 15 percent Malay and 7 percent Indian, the government made four different languages official in the Constitution in 1965: Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English. (I receive my income tax forms in all four languages.)
To prevent the emergence of ethnic ghettos and to ensure each neighborhood hosted residents from every community, the government passed the Ethnic Integration Policy in 1989, setting racial quotas for each public housing block roughly equivalent to the ethnic breakdown of the country’s population. The Minister for National Development at the time, Suppiah Dhanabalan, said that these compulsory ethnic ratios in each public housing block would help foster social cohesion “by strengthening the bonds which bind us together and ensuring racial harmony for future generations.”
So far, the experiment has succeeded. There have been no ethnic riots since it was put into place. Among those who live in public housing, many of whom are also homeowners, 74 percent of households are Chinese, 16 percent are Malay, 9 percent are Indian and 2 percent are of other minority ethnicities. About 80 percent of Singaporeans live in government-built housing, and the country boasts the world’s second-highest home-ownership rate as a result of its public housing laws.
The cabinet, the highest policy-making body of the government, is likewise diverse, consisting of representatives from each of the communities after former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew decided to make the body a symbol of inclusion. The cabinet is currently 68 percent Chinese, 11 percent Malay and 21 percent Indian.
Top-down efforts from the government are complemented by bottom-up initiatives, some predating the country’s independence. For example, the Inter-Religious Organization of Singapore was set up in 1949 to ensure no religion, no matter how small, was marginalized. As a result, even the Zoroastrians, a tiny community, receive equal representation in all inter-faith events and ceremonies. The main religious festivals of each community are recognized as national holidays.
More recently, given the difficulty of electing a member of a minority community to the presidency, Singapore’s government introduced legislation in 2017 to ensure that the head of state would rotate among all of its communities. It was that year that Yacob became the first female Malay-Muslim president of Singapore.
Despite Singapore’s success, it would clearly be difficult, however, to replicate many of Singapore’s specific policies in liberal Western societies. Yet the spirit behind these policies is replicable. Many Western cities, from Los Angeles to Manchester to Paris, have developed ethnic ghettos, for example, and most urban policymakers shrug their shoulders at this reality, assuming public policies will not make a difference. The real lesson of Singapore is that policymaking can make a difference. Good public policies can build bridges between different communities. The solutions will have to be local and contextual, but the spirit behind them is universal.
Wise and pragmatic public policies have brought Singapore’s different ethnic groups together. The world would be a more balanced and stable place if the spirit behind these formulas was replicated globally. Treating each community with respect goes a long way, but respect alone is not enough. As Singapore’s example reveals, regulation is needed to prevent social divides.