This is a rebuttal to Publichouse’s post “An affirmation of the ethnic enclave“, where writer Elaine Ee criticised HDB’s Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) as a racist policy. Elaine thinks the EIP assumes:
- “negative traits of people based solely on their race; and that the problems that stem from ghettos (re: enclaves) populated mainly by people of a single race”
- “we can’t be trusted to live as civilized citizens within our own communities; because we’ll plot, scheme, poison each other’s minds and start riots.“
- “as a result we have race-less HDB estates, where different races live next door to each other, but don’t really integrate; and who have to keep their cultural practices mainly to themselves because to express them openly might be to annoy their non-Chinese/Malay/Indian neighbour.“
I firmly believe Elaine is wrong in her negative view of the EIP policy. We need not look far to see another example where “forced integration” is actually good for racial harmony in Singaporeans. It’s called National Service.
No matter what the criticisms over NS are, there is little argument over the fact that NS is a binding activity amongst Singaporean men. Young Singaporean men (and some 2nd-gen PRs) who may never have interacted with someone from another race, will find themselves thrown into a common bunk/section/platoon/company in basic military training. You can generally expect that there will be people of different races living and training with you for the next 2 years. NS is such a strong binding activity that a good number of Singaporean men use it to distinguish themselves from their foreign peers. Witness the online complaints over foreigners who “do not serve the country”, “do not integrate with Singaporeans” and “never endured NS”. By the end of the 2-year NS, the average Singaporean man would have known what it’s like to have lived with someone of a different race.
Notice that I said “known what it’s like”. I didn’t use the word “enjoy” nor “dislike” because it would be presumptuous to assume that the millions of Singaporean men going through NS would have the same experience. But that’s good enough for me. Because one key way to tackle racism is to have shared your life with someone of a different race.
Elaine, it is silly to think that the EIP assumes people will plot and scheme against someone of a different race. Most people don’t have the time for that. They are too busy living their own lives. The EIP is really meant to ensure that there is daily interaction with someone of a different race, so that we continue to perceive them as a fellow human being, not as some form of “alien”. Basic “forced” interaction like being in the same lift, or smelling their cooking, or watching/listening to their festivities go a long way in ensuring this simple recognition. And this basic recognition is something that I believe you have taken for granted.
It is a natural fact in life that ethnic enclaves will appear if there are no policies to prevent these, as shown by our early days of Chinatown and Little India. Even in the West, there are reasons why white suburbia exist. (BTW Elaine, white suburbia is not a ghetto, so we shouldn’t assume ethnic enclaves are going to result in natural ghettos. Besides, most Singaporeans are able to afford decent living standards.) It is natural for people to want to cluster with others of the same culture. But the downside is that if we interact more with people of our kind, we have less opportunity to interact with people of other kind. And it is so easy to start demonising people we do not know when things get hairy.
In Singapore, the EIP is not done at the expense of cultural centers. Chinatown and Little India still exist for the people who want to go there. Hence, my view is that the EIP strikes a good balance. Force multiple races to live in proximity with each other, but also leave space for people to interact with their own kind if they want to. I sincerely believe that if Singapore did not have the EIP, racial tensions would be worse than today’s.
Nevertheless, Elaine is absolutely right in saying that the EIP itself does not engender true multiculturalism. Forcing people to live near each other doesn’t mean that they will naturally interact closely with their neighbours. People can still choose to shut down their doors, ignore their neighbours and refuse to participate in RC activities. As the saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. There will be those who choose not to interact, just like there will be those who choose to interact. In the end, that’s their choice, and we should minimally respect their choice. Heaven forbid that the PAP should come up with some policy that forces people to share a meal with their neighbours.
I recognise that the EIP also has its implementation downsides. By restricting minority race flat sellers to a smaller market, these minority sellers find that their property value can’t fetch the same prices as Chinese homeowners. But that may also be a good thing when it comes to the affordability of homes for new minority homeowners.