Singapore Racial tension and income inequality

History and Background

The most significant event in Singapore’s history occurred on September 16, 1963 when Singapore separated from Malaysia and became a sovereign nation. The people showed an overwhelming amount of support for the initial merger, but after years of disagreement with the federal government over political and economic differences, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister and leader of the People’s Action Party (PAP), took control and helped the nation rebuild itself as an independent country (Freedom House, 2015).

RACIAL Tension

The Malays, Indians, and Chinese

Singapore’s history with Malaysia created a government that was afraid of specific ethnic groups, helping to create a culture where the local Chinese are privileged and the Malays are suppressed, discriminated against, and given an unfair and unlikely chance to succeed in Singapore’s society.

By organizing citizens into racial categories and limiting specific ethnic groups’ rights, the Singaporean government has helped create and ensure that racial divisions carry on throughout the nation’s citizens. Because the government’s desire to create a prosperous and harmonious society takes precedence over the Malay population, it has contributed to the issue of racism in Singapore. Instead of protecting all Singaporean citizens, it has isolated one ethnic group in order to assure the nation’s survival and has hindered their efforts to call attention to the discriminatory practices that they are subjected to.

discriminatory practices

Races without Racism?: Everyday Race Relations in Singapore

In School:

Because the Singapore state is concerned with the loyalty of the Malays, it has denied them from seeking careers in the military as well as receiving a well-rounded education: “The education system in Singapore and how racial privileging and the endorsement of the development of a Chinese elite excludes Malays and Indians from Singapore’s top schools because their medium instruction is in Mandarin and English” (Velayutham, 5).

In the workplace:

In addition to being denied access to a sufficient education, the Malays are discriminated against in the workplace. Since there are “no anti-discrimination laws in Singapore to deal with discriminatory practices in the workplace” (Velayutham, 5), the Malays are at a disadvantage by not being able to advance and excel professionally. By not implementing policy, the government is ignoring the problem, contributing to the issue, and creating economic inequality between the Malays and the Chinese: “The labelling of Malays as lazy, unproductive and of low socio-economic standing has profound consequences and the census data on education attainment, housing and monthly household income remind us of the systematic lack of opportunities available to attain social mobility” (Velayutham, 10).

Handling Racial Tension

No discussion leads to more problems

By ignoring the issue, the government is further advancing the problem, but there is evidence to prove that the Malay population has not progressed as much as the government claims they have. In April 2010, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Racism and Racial Discrimination, Githu Muigai, concluded that Singapore’s Malay minority has been disadvantaged by certain aspects of government policies after an eight-day visit where he met with government officials, leaders, and independent non-governmental organizations. After the report was released, the Singapore government immediately denied the validity of Muigai’s observations, “taking pains to portray the image that the Malays have indeed progressed over the decades” (Mutalib, 1156-1157).

Dominant one-party system

In managing the pursuit of national integration, the PAP chose the strategy of accommodation soon after it won the first local assembly election in 1959. This meant engagement or bargaining with minority groups to adopt common positions on national issues, while maintaining the party's overall leadership and control of the state" (Mutalib, 1165).


During the first decade of the twenty first century, the growth of the highest quintile (6-11%) was almost triple that of the lowest quintile (3-4%). Singapore’s Gini coefficient, one measure of income inequality, has on the whole risen steadily since 1975, and currently stands at 0.464. Singapore is the 32nd most unequal country in the world (CIA Factbook, 2017).

Pro-Growth Policies

Singapore promotes pro-growth policies because economic success gives them political legitimacy even when they withhold citizens’ civil rights and freedoms (Gilley, 2014). In order to speed up development, Singapore transitioned from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge- and skills-based economy through strong government policies. Employment opportunities for the skilled increased exponentially, while the unskilled workers were left with few jobs and no time to adapt to rapidly changing market demands (Wah, 2012). Because government policies facilitated the economic change, rather than allowing the economy to evolve naturally, many were left behind (Dhamani, 2008).

Aggravating Factors


In practice, a culture of meritocracy means that the state provides opportunities for growth, education, and upward mobility only to whom it deems its most deserving citizens (Gilley, 2014). This leads to a suppression of social and economic mobility, entrenching generations of people in their respective wealth strata and ingraining wealth inequality (Dhamani, 2008).

Problems with Mitigating Economic Inequity


Laws and norms maintained and pursued by the government reveal a sharp “intolerance for dissent” (Welsh, 2015). Although freedom of the press is enshrined in the constitution, laws established by the PAP intrude upon that protection when speech “interfere[s] in domestic politics” or “threaten[s]...the national interest.” Because criminal defamation laws are applied quite liberally in order to silence critics, journalists self-censor. Web content must be approved by a government agency, as must any film of a political nature (Freedom House, 2016). The party maintains that the rights of the majority who extend the PAP’s regime are more important than political rights or press freedoms (Nam, 1969). In addition, there are numerous laws on the books restricting union membership and organization, and employers have increased power over their employees (Welsh, 2015).

Because dissenting voices are actively suppressed, the PAP can often afford politically to ignore the issue of the wealth gap. Furthermore, those most affected by income inequality are the Malay minority, who hold very few elite positions in society.

Racial Inequity

"Singapore is somewhat unique in actively seeking to achieve a fair meritocracy. However, this system is hampered by the seemingly universal problem of ethnic favoritism and entrenched social advantage."

One cabinet member recently explained that poor Malay economic performance was "the result of a feudalistic consciousness and from not having the spirit of hard work"

Recent Progress


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