Are we ready to be colour blind?

The issue of a prime minister from a minority race was broached 20 years ago by then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in his National Day Rally speech.

Revealing how he assessed his possible successors, Mr Lee said he left thennational development minister S. Dhanabalan off the list as he felt Singapore was not ready for an Indian prime minister.

It was not a new issue. In the 1980s, government leaders expressed concern that people were voting along racial lines, and if this trend went on, first-time minority candidates would have a hard time getting elected.
This prompted the introduction of Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) in Parliament in 1988 to guarantee Parliament would have minority MPs.

Said then-deputy prime minister Goh Chok Tong: ‘It is make-believe to pretend that race and language do not affect voter preference.’

Last year, Mr Dhanabalan told The Straits Times in an interview that he still felt Chinese Singaporeans were not ready for a non-Chinese PM.

Such cross-racial acceptance takes time, he said.

It was a view Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared when he said: ‘These sentiments – who votes for whom, and what makes him identify with that person – these are sentiments which will not disappear completely for a long time, even if people do not talk about it, even if people wish they did not feel it.’

Basic instinct

FORMER Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin agrees, saying that while Singaporeans are increasingly colour-blind, they have not reached a point where they ‘completely and instinctively’ vote on that basis.

‘There is still some comfort when deep down, you deal with somebody of your own kind,’ he tells Insight.

Mr Zulkifli explains that although Singapore’s prime minister is not elected by the people – it is the winning party that selects the prime minister – his personality and position on issues are critical in an election.

‘The PM is not just there as another candidate, but what he says does affect how people vote in other constituencies, and that is where voting along racial lines might come in,’ he says.

‘At the end of the day, politics is about numbers and you have to broadly reflect your constituents and your voting population.’

If anonymous sentiments on Internet forums are anything to go by, race remains a faultline and the subject of a non-Chinese PM is no different.

A poll on The Straits Times’ online portal Stomp – after Mr Barack Obama’s win last week – asking if Singapore was ready for a non-Chinese PM saw 477 respondents saying no and only 40 saying yes.

On the forums, some question if a Malay PM would face a conflict of interest in a dispute with Malaysia or Indonesia, while others wonder if a minority PM would favour his own ethnic group in policymaking.

Some of these sentiments may also be influenced by developments across the Causeway.

When Mr Obama was elected President of the United States, several non-Malay political leaders in Malaysia asked when Malaysia would be ready for a non-Malay prime minister. They were criticised for raising a sensitive issue.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Rais Yatim also told Malaysian reporters that Mr Lee’s comments – that Singaporeans were not yet ready for a non-Chinese PM – indicated that Singaporeans were ‘realistic about majority politics and race’.

However, National University of Singapore sociology academic Tan Ern Ser says questioning whether Singaporeans are ready for a minority-race PM is ‘entirely logical’ and is ‘to be expected from a society which claims to be multiracial and multicultural’.

‘It is a test, though not the only test, of the extent to which we are colour-blind,’ he says.

YES we are

A GOOD number of Singaporeans feel that after over 40 years of nationhood, Singaporeans are ready for a prime minister from a minority race.

Among them is Dr Edmund Lam, 48, who notes that Singaporeans already have a non-Chinese president in Mr S R Nathan, who is ‘well-respected by all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion’.

‘The earlier generation may have some racial bias, but not my generation and my son’s generation,’ said the chief executive officer of Compass, which protects the copyright interests of music composers.

Singapore Management University law academic Eugene Tan notes that the reactions of many in the online community to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent comments seem to suggest they are almost racially blind.

‘This is a good sign and we should demand more of ourselves if we want to be true to our creed of multiracialism and meritocracy,’ he says.

Mr Lee himself noted that attitudes towards race have shifted compared to 20 years ago, as more Singaporeans speak English, and as a better-educated younger generation sees that there are successful people of all races. Younger Singaporeans are also more globalised and less likely to see race as a limiting factor.

Last year, almost one in six marriages here was between people of different races, compared to one in 20 in 1965. And two in five of the Singaporeans who tied the knot last year did so with a permanent resident or a foreigner.

Still, race continues to affect people’s preferences.

Last year, a survey of 1,824 Singaporeans’ views on inter-racial ties by academics Norman Vasu and Yolanda Chin of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) found that only 31 per cent of Chinese respondents said they were willing to tie the knot with a Malay or Indian. However, some 82 per cent of Chinese said they would celebrate special events like weddings and birthdays with Malay or Indian friends.

And when it came to an Indian as prime minister, 94 per cent said they would not mind, while 91 per cent said they would not mind a Malay as prime minister.

Ms Chin, 32, tells Insight she was not taken aback by the findings, as ‘other academic and government surveys consistently indicate very robust inter-racial attitudes among Singaporeans’.

Still, former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan told The Straits Times then that he thought respondents probably gave ‘politically correct’ answers that did not reflect their real feelings.

His view drew a swift reply from Forum writer Ch’ng Poh Tiong, who said most Singaporeans were ‘more than willing to accept any person of any race, religion, culture – even gender – so long as that person has the interests of our country at heart, and is competent and capable’.

Mr Ch’ng added that nothing would make him more proud of being a Singaporean than the day the country has a PM from a minority group, as this ‘would testify to the world how mature, tolerant and truly meritocratic Singapore is’.

The same principle lies behind government leaders saying a minority PM is possible. Asked in Hong Kong this week whether Singapore would have minority leadership, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said that from scouring the country for good leaders, ‘we don’t quite see one coming’.

‘But it is an open system and it’s possible one day to have an outstanding person become the prime minister of Singapore, whatever his race is,’ he added.

He noted that Singapore’s first chief minister, David Marshall, was from the tiny Jewish community.

Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh noted early this year: ‘If Singapore was ready, in 1955, to accept a Jew as our chief minister, I have no reason to believe that 53 years later, Singapore has regressed so much that we are not ready to accept a non-Chinese as our prime minister.’

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 15, 2008.

(Tags: Singapore, Politics, Race)


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