Maze and Minefield: Reflections on Multiculturalism in Singapore

To work on multiculturalism in Singapore is to wander in a wondrous maze of diversities and their limitless combinations and exchanges.  However, it is also to walk into a minefield of complexity, challenge and conflict in which one can easily get confused and lost, encounter misunderstanding and misjudgement, and experience uncertainty and anxiety.  As a resident anthropologist, I find the terrain of Singapore’s multiculturalism at once both maze and minefield, selective aspects on which I reflect here.

Multiculturalism a Myth?

Much has been discussed and debated about multiculturalism as one of Singapore’s founding principles and defining social features.  This article does not treat multiculturalism as a myth in the sense of it being an invention and therefore untrue; multiculturalism before it became an academic as well as popular term, including in the national and official lexicon of words, was known by other earlier references such as “pluralism”. Nor does this article treat multiculturalism simply and purely as a state ideology as is often construed, and therefore to be outrightly rejected for its underlying political framework and motivations.  Rather, it treats multiculturalism as a constant and complex reality of Singapore life with historical and social origins and with dynamic forces at work, and that is at once like a maze and a minefield because of its inherent diversities, differences, dilemmas and difficulties.

Race, Ethnicity, Culture

This discussion on multiculturalism necessarily begins with some brief clarifications and reflections on the notions of race, ethnicity and culture intrinsically associated with it.  ‘Multiculturalism’ is often used interchangeably with ‘multiracialism’. However, many today would object to the use of the term ’race’.  Inherited from an era when biological race and white supremacist ideology underpinned British colonial rule, it continues to be used uncritically and indiscriminately, in official and social life.  When Singaporeans refer to ’race’ or allege ’racism’, they usually mean ethnicity/ethnic group and ethnocentrism with ignorance and prejudice based on social more often than biological attributes.  The term ’ethnicity’ better replaces ’race’, although as ‘racism’ is more firmly established in usage than ’ethnocentrism’.  Similarly, I prefer the terms ’multiethnic’ and ’multicultural’ over ‘racial’ and ‘multiracial’.  I would have preferred to use the terms “intercultural” and “interculturalism” over “multicultural” and “multiculturalism” respectively, as “inter” better captures the interactional processes and linkages than “multi”, which suggests “many” but which may remain separated from each other.  However, the later “multi” has come to dominate academic and popular discourses and there are still some overlaps, and as such I would stick to the current common or dominant usage without making too much compromise.

The notion of ’ethnic group’ and its characteristics of ancestry, culture, language, religion, history and identity are central to multiculturalism.  It is their combinations in intergroup ethnic relations, often intersecting with class, that play out in multivariate ways which give it substance and meaning. ‘Ethnic group’ itself can be problematic, such as the assumptions of homogeneity and cultural fixity and superimposed membership.  In the Singapore context, historical and social circumstances have brought diverse peoples together and colonial and postcolonial projects and agendas have set the stage for their interaction, with strong ethnic markers and identities which define and distinguish them as groups and individuals as Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians and other minorities.  These markers and identities are wide-ranging, from physical features and cultural attributes to behavioural traits, and may be real or imagined.  They are often called into play in social interaction, such as the stereotypical “hardworking Chinese” vis-à-vis the “lazy Malay” in conditions of competition and comparison.

The Maze and Minefield of Multiculturalism

Cultural diversity

Singapore’s cultural diversity immediately brings to mind foods, costumes, dances, religious sites, events and various manifestations of cultural identities that are also often hybridised or localised versions of some original sources.  Tourism and state representations appropriate or rework some of these that raise issues of authenticity, while critics view them as superficial, essentialised, stereotyped and detracting from `real’ issues.  However my anthropological observations remind against underestimating how much Singaporeans embrace them meaningfully as part of their heritages and their lives.  Indeed, a multicultural journey of events will fill virtually every week of every month in an entire year.  Thimithi firewalking ceremony, Hari Raya Puasa, Tamil church service, Nine-Emperor-Gods processions – these examples are the living and symbolic expressions, identities and heritages of various ethnic, cultural and religious communities that involve participants as kin, friends, neighbours, co-residents, co-religionists and co-ethnics.  Through them, the sense and essence of belonging and community are regularly experienced and revivified.  These celebratory and heritage aspects of Singapore’s multiculturalism speak of a diversity that is taken for granted but which did not come about overnight; it is one that has developed over time and generations and is still evolving.  How they came to coexist, whether appreciated or merely tolerated, generalised or localised, ’original’ or hybridised – this is the wondrous maze and grand narrative of Singapore’s multiculturalism, to be appreciated in their historical and social significance.

But the maze is also a minefield. Diversity immediately throws up multiple contexts, relationships and problems, with their consequent politics that raise questions about its durability and ability to make people cohere as a society and community. Cultural politics, such as that of heritage, space or memory, may lurk beneath celebrations and erupt unexpectedly. Even peaceful and enjoyable processes of food hybridisation may have politics simmering ’in the pot’, such as when origins and shared heritages are unacknowledged or contested. Are sambal belacan and sarong kebaya Peranakan or Malay or Peranakan with Malay or Southeast Asian roots?  Backed by the promotional powers of museums, tourism and donorship, Chinese Peranakan culture with its cuisines, costumes, patois and pantuns now passes off as a distinct culture.  This pleases Peranakans and fascinates tourists but the understated recognition of Malay and Southeast Asian roots, hybridisation and shared heritages upset others because it marginalizes their contributions.  And why is a ban on the playing of music during Thaipusam imposed on grounds of ’noise’ but not on the noise during the Chinese Seventh Month Festival dinners or on the music of St Patrick’s Day Parade? Why is a Singapore Soka contingent allowed in the National Day Parade but not other religious groups? Why is the ban on public processions celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday still enforced when conditions have changed drastically from 1964?  Many questions and issues may be raised in the future, expectedly or otherwise, in the new politics of heritage and culture in Singapore’s multiculturalism.

Sharing Common Spaces

Nowhere is the maze and minefield of multiculturalism most navigated by Singaporeans than where the vast majority of them live – in the Housing and Development Board (HDB) public housing “heartlands”.  Here, a cultural and symbolic map can be drawn of the local community’s ethnic-cultural diversity through everyday exchanges and especially special events, be this the Malay wedding, end of Ramadan prayers, Seventh Moon Festival or Chinese funerals. In this multiethnic context, ethnic special occasions, because of their powerful emotional and symbolic contents, also act as markers in relation to others.  Their highly-public nature in common spaces immediately necessitates the negotiation of their diversities and boundaries, as these examples of residents’ accounts of Malay weddings and Chinese funerals show:

There is at least one most weekends, and it is usually on Sundays so we can hardly have any rest.  They are very noisy.  Like last week, they even had dancing at night, and the night before already the music started.  For such a special occasion, they should hold it in the community hall or hotel, why in the void-deck?  What kind of wedding is it anyway, with people looking and walking past? – James[1]

 I notice that they really make it nice with atmosphere.  Everybody comes to help do the preparation, cooking; people come in and out, play the drums.  And the costumes that the bride and groom wear are really traditional and grand.  I really like their wedding, it is full of tradition, not like us Chinese. – Julie[2]

 I have heard other people say it is so noisy but I don’t hear it.  I don’t mind.  Live in this type of place, must get used to it.  The wedding lasts only for two days, our Chinese funeral also lasts for about two days, about the same.  What for get angry?  What for complain? – Ah Sin[3]

At first astonished, felt angry.  So much noise, cannot sleep.  Next day got to work isn’t it?  Also, so much ash.  But after a while, accept it.  Just shut window and go to sleep.  Must accept lah, Chinese got their own way.  Living together, give and take.  In Singapore, must accept each other’s way. – Ali[4]

 I am not worried by other people’s religions … We just have to respect it no matter how stupid or silly you think it is.  Every person has his own way of praying.  Actually, in the end, everybody prays to the same God, just different way of praying. – Rita[5]

In their negotiations, residents’ approaches range from ethnocentrism and ignorance to tolerance, acceptance and appreciation.  However, the potential for ethno-religious tension exists.

The allocation of void deck space for Malay weddings and Chinese funerals was a major source of tension and test of HDB’s impartiality in the early years of resettlement and shared living[6]. This was because wedding preparations, including void deck bookings, could be made in advance, but wake preparations which take place only upon a resident’s unpredictable death may be immediately made in the void deck without first obtaining a permit.  It had thus occurred several times when a Malay wedding and a Chinese funeral both took place in the same void deck on the same weekend!

In the past, both sides just ignored each other; even though in same void deck, use different ends of it.  HDB’s part here depends.  It can directly intervene or not intervene.  If intervene, then may ask the Chinese to stay, the Malay to move to another location even though they booked in advance.  Explain to the Malays that according to Chinese custom, once coffin is put there, cannot move it.  But if don’t intervene, then we tell the Chinese to go and speak to the Malay themselves.  HDB will give them permit if they can convince the Malays of the need to change place.[7]

Both approaches were used but obviously still risked antagonising and discriminating against Malay residents.  HDB thus decided that the first-come-first-served principle be strictly adhered to no matter how strongly one party might feel about the inviolability or significance of its event.

These examples from my research[8] twenty-five years ago[9] are still valid today.  Special occasions remain part of the community’s public and cultural life and most residents have come to accept and respect them as aspects of their multicultural environment.  However, tensions are likely to recur every now and then.  Every new housing estate, new generation and new resident, including the new immigrant, needs to be socialised into navigating diversity with civility, competency, and sensitivity. Here, the approaches in navigating boundaries and managing disputes that have evolved over time to become norms  – expectations of civil behaviour by residents, HDB rules, use of mediators’ negotiation skills and personal intercultural knowledge – are crucial.

Racism, structural inequalities

I have always looked for signs of equality in Singapore’s multiculturalism.  I did find some, but have also often encountered evidences and responses such as “What multiculturalism? The Chinese are the majority everywhere”, “There is ethnic discrimination and racism” and “Singapore is becoming Chinapore”.

The government’s ethnic-based Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) approach has been blamed for racism’s prevalence and divisiveness.  Deeply   entrenched into government systems, it has permeated every major field and level, affecting mindsets, policy-planning, resource allocation, political representation, population profiling, public housing, educational performance and the like. Thus for example, educational performance by ethnicity is highlighted regularly and the ethnic quota policy for public housing to prevent ethnic enclave formation is implemented even for rental housing.  This ethnicised mindset, irrespective of context and relevance and to the exclusion of other criteria particularly class and other structural inequalities, has major consequences on the conceptualisation, analysis and solution of problems.  The focus on ethnic groups has the effect of tending towards strong cultural explanations, easily relying on cultural stereotypes and reinforcing them.  The common stereotypes of the hardworking Chinese and lazy Malays, for example, are supposed to represent ethnic cultural capital and deficit respectively.  It further leads to the seeking of cultural solutions presumed best provided by their ethnic groups, hence the ethnic self-help organisations’ existence.

Further intertwined with unequal ethnic majority-minority relations, this approach tends to be selectively biased, singling out Malays and other minorities for their supposed cultural propensities in problems. How else to explain selective ethnic profiling, such as the identification of  drug offenders as Malays but not the gambling addicts and patrons of underage prostitutes the vast majority of whom are Chinese?

This ’institutionalised’ racism has its rationale based on claims of ’objective’ fact and reality or simplistic comparisons by ethnicity.  It disclaims bigotry and lacks historical and sociological understanding as to why Malay numbers are high in drug addiction or Chinese predominate in gambling addiction, but will consistently highlight the Malay proportions.  Thus, some among the Chinese majority are likely not to see the ethnic profiling of Malays, the ’ability to speak Mandarin’ requirement for jobs, or speaking in Mandarin for work matters in the presence of non-Chinese colleagues, as racist, discriminatory or insensitive.  That minority members encounter job discrimination due to `race’ and language (the top two complaints received by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment) escapes them.  For those Chinese with an ethnicised approach, it is about possessing superior, powerful or numerical majority cultural values, resources and knowledge.  But for some minorities on the receiving end, racism can be internalised, with negative self-perceptions of inadequacy, stigmatisation, marginalisation and fatalism.

The singling out of Malays is particularly ignominious, with roots in history and prejudice – the ’lazy native’ worldview and an ethnic division of labour during colonial rule[10] – now sustained by structural inequalities, policies and ethnicised approaches. The resultant reality is one in which Malays disproportionately constitute the poor in Singapore and are more affected by problems such as unemployment, homelessness and educational difficulties but the dominant view is that they have only themselves to blame. Post-September 11 Islamophobia and other developments such as Islamic militancy elsewhere have added a new layer of prejudice and suspicion against Malays and Muslims.

Racism is notorious for entrenching inequality and poverty which in turn exacerbates it and causes ethnic tensions.  Today’s concern is that racism will get worse with growing inequalities that have widened income gaps and reduced economic mobility and the workings of meritocracy.  So how do we address ethnic divisions and issues towards their reduction and solution and towards equality and cohesiveness?

The state racialised CMIO model has been severely critiqued for its essentialism, rigidity and the consequences of ethnic consciousness and divisiveness.  However, state demarcation of `race’ and religion with out of bounds (OB) markers and a highly punitive legislative approach generate fear and censorship, making some issues difficult to be discussed publicly.  But viewing inequalities in ethnic majority-minority terms has its own dangers – it implies that majority equals oppressor and minority equals oppressed and stereotypes members of both.

An opening up of discussion, civilly and safely, is overdue and needs to go beyond current cultural frameworks and interpretations.  Issues should be addressed for what they are – as social and national issues.  Specific ethnic dimensions should be included where they are judged significant and relevant.  They are not always useless or harmful when analysing problems and seeking solutions.  It is how they are used in intersection with other key social indicators and in context and appropriate to the issue at hand.

Equality in citizenship is a core principle in multiculturalism.  As such, there must be fair and just treatment for all and this must be perceived to be so.  The Government must take the lead in not racialising socio-economic problems and in addressing structural inequalities as national problems.  With regard to Malay citizens, there is one other specific issue to address – loyalty and belonging.  The doubt on Malays’ loyalty to Singapore is a ghost from the past that must be put to rest immediately.

Immigration, Integration and Citizenship

The tremendous scale, speed and intensity of recent immigration have enlarged and complicated the minefield of Singapore’s diversity and multiculturalism profoundly.  In 2012, Singapore’s population had grown to 5.31 million from 4.028 million in 2000 and 3.047 million in 1990, with the increase due mainly to the new citizen, permanent resident and foreign worker populations under the government’s immigration policy to sustain economic growth and to address declining fertility and an ageing population. The majority of immigrants are Chinese-Malaysians, People’s Republic of China (PRC) Chinese and Indians who fall into two broad categories – skilled ’foreign talent’ and unskilled ’foreign workers’ – that receive differential offers of permanent settlement and permanent transience respectively.

Problems arising from immigration have come home to roost quickly.  Immigration-linked economic, social and cultural issues reflect disconnects, tensions and divides between locals and immigrants along intertwining ethnic, nationality and class lines and pose challenges to integration, cohesion and citizenship.  They also serve to question the sensibility of current immigration policy and the government’s vision of development.

Locals have been criticised for their treatment of unskilled foreign workers: employers for flouting employment laws, abuse, exploitation and not respecting their human rights; and ordinary Singaporeans for intolerance, prejudice, racism particularly towards darker-skinned immigrants and xenophobia particularly towards the PRC Chinese.

On the other hand, locals have been raising economic and social issues such as depressed wages, soaring housing prices, high costs of living and over-stretched public facilities linked to immigration, discrimination in favour of ’foreign talent’ and unfair competition in education such as through university places and scholarships allocated to foreign students.  Locals also complain about immigrants’ anti-social behaviour and their disregard for local norms, as well as question the loyalty of internationally mobile immigrants who obtain citizenship and permanent residence for ’strategic’ reasons.  Some citizens feel overwhelmed and displaced in their sense of familiarity, place and social order that they have established over time and generations prior to the arrival of immigrants. Some also feel that the government lacks understanding of citizens’ concerns and adds insult to injury in its calls to locals to welcome foreigners. Some controversial  behaviour by individual immigrants which upset or affected locals negatively, such as in the ’curry’ incident in 2011, and in the following year, the ’PRC scholar’ incident, the ’Ferrari’ incident and the ’Amy Cheong’ saga[11] have further served as lightning rods that convey on-line resentment against mass immigration. In the `Amy Cheong’ saga for example, Australian Amy Cheong upset locals and Malays in particular with her expletive-filled Facebook comments on the noisiness and cheapness of Malay weddings held at the void-deck, reflecting her cultural ignorance and class bias. She was flamed throughout the night after her postings and eventually lost her job by the next day. In general, issues and sentiments about immigration are raised by Singaporeans of diverse class and ethnic backgrounds. Based on my discussions with various individuals and comments on Facebook sites such as Suara Melayu Singapura (the Voices of the Malays in Singapore), indigenous Malays additionally express unhappiness over the framing of Singapore as an ’immigrant’ society and over the large influx of PRC Chinese which they see as further Sinification of an already Chinese-dominant Singapore.

The minefield that massive immigration has created is challenging to navigate as both locals and immigrants claim rights and responsibilities. Mutual adjustments and the rules of civility-hospitality and openness apply equally to both sides.  However, immigrants additionally need to make adjustments to prevent enclave formation.  They also need to see their presence in Singapore beyond their personal contributions, qualifications, experiences, interests, rights and sacrifices.  They need to learn more about local and regional diversities in histories, cultures and norms which precede their arrival. The dominant idea that Singapore is an immigrant society is contestable.  Malays consider themselves indigenous while Singaporeans of other ethnicities with backgrounds of earlier immigrant generations should be viewed as having distinct local histories, cultures and identities. Cultural similarities between locals and immigrants should not be assumed, imagined or exaggerated, such as under ’Chinese-ness’ or ’Chinese diaspora’.  For Indian and Chinese immigrants, their official classification under the same ethnic categories as local ethnic Indians and Chinese is a misfit that is based on false assumptions of common cultural identities. This can lead to misplaced judgements and expectations of common values and behaviour and relatively problem-free cultural integration, such as between local and PRC Chinese.

Racism and xenophobia can be tolerated in a country of 70 million [Italy] because often you find a majority of neurons who will rise and scream against the fascists.  Here, no, Fascism has a future.  I hope you get your Mussolini.  CiaoLocals’ anxieties over immigration can be easily viewed as ’anti-immigrant’.  Indeed, there are prejudiced, racist and xenophobic individuals.  However, the unpacking of their sentiments shows reasonable grounds for their strong feelings against massive immigration. Taken together, their anxieties are about being disadvantaged by economic competition and social citizenship, and should not be confused as inherently ’anti-immigrant’. There is resentment but thus far no coherent nationalistic ideology against immigrants or organised efforts calling for their expulsion.  In general, locals are not against immigration per se but are for a review of immigration policy’s of excessive openness and its consequences. Nor have there been any major acts of provocation and violence against immigrants.  On the contrary, there are strong ground practices and codes of civility including hospitality, tolerance and conflict avoidance, for convivial social interaction and the maintenance of social order.  Honed through generations of intergroup and interpersonal relations, these are increasingly tested as massive immigration disrupts, destabilises and complicates the more gradual processes of multiculturalism already in place.

The economics of massive immigration within Singapore’s intensely competitive environment has brought about new dimensions of inequality and unfairness, while the cultural politics of ’race’, space, and place play out in divisive ways.  Before new economic and population targets are set and rationalised, the lessons from immigration ought to be clearly learnt.  Immigration and population policies, citizens’ concerns and interests, economic growth and distribution issues — how these and other major issues are addressed in the foreseeable future will affect the conduciveness or adversity of conditions for local-immigrant relations.  For multiculturalism to prevail and to ensure extreme nationalism does not take root, immigration needs to be carefully managed. Two principles ought to be remembered. One is that immigrants, once they are allowed to enter Singapore, are entitled to decent and dignified treatment.  The other is that Singapore is not merely a convenient global city for people to flow in and out but a country where citizenship and belonging is what is meaningful, rightful and at the heart of it.


Multiculturalism is not a myth but a living reality.  It is not dead as argued by some in European contexts, but is difficult to navigate.  I write in a time of flux in which disconnects and divides threaten multiculturalism and cohesion.  A cohesive multiculturalism involves strong bonds and stakeholdership in which society’s members, irrespective of cultural differences, must feel they belong to it, have a stake in it and are involved in its development.  It also involves civil negotiation for a citizenship that must be seen to embrace and manage differences in an equal and fair manner.  A cohesive multicultural society is not without divisions, tensions or conflicts but these should not be overwhelming and frequent and there should be many effective ways – through institutions, mechanisms and attitudes – to reduce or eliminate them.  The minimum conditions of tolerance without abuse and maximum conditions of inclusion, exchange and appreciation should apply.

The future of Singapore’s multiculturalism is hard to predict as its maze-minefield terrain is inherently and increasingly challenging to navigate.  But what makes Singapore exceptional is its unique form of diversity and multiculturalism.  Those who choose to live and remain in it will understand its essences and possibilities.  We need to see the cup positively as half full.  May Malay weddings, lion dances and cultural events always grace our public spaces as symbols of Singapore’s multiculturalism.

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This article first appeared as “Maze and Minefield: Reflections on Multiculturalism in Singapore” in The Idea of Singapore, ed. Victor R Savage, Commentary 22/2013, Singapore: The National University of Singapore Society (NUSS), 2013.  This version, which includes a brief discussion on multiculturalism as myth and some minor edited changes, was first published in “Living with Myths in Singapore” (Ethos Books, 2017). Our thanks to Ethos Books for permission to republish the article.


[1] Lai Ah Eng, Meanings of Multiethnicity: A Case Study of Ethnicity and Ethnic Relations in Singapore (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995), 71.

[2] Ibid., 71.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 82-85, 92.

[7] HDB estate officer ; Lai Ah Eng, Meanings of Multiethnicity: A Case Study of Ethnicity and Ethnic Relations in Singapore (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995), 92.

[8] Lai Ah Eng, Meanings of Multiethnicity.

[9] Circa 1988.

[10] Syed Hussain Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th Century to the 20th Century and Its Functions in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism (London: Frank Cass, 1977).

[11] Lai Ah Eng & Mathew Mathews, ‘Navigating Disconnects and Divides in Singapore’s Cultural Diversity’, in Managing Diversity in Singapore: Policies and Prospects, eds. Mathew Mathews & Chiang Wai Fong (London: Imperial College Press, 2016)


Alatas, Syed Hussain (1977). The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th Century to the 20th Century and Its Functions in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism, London: Frank Cass.

Lai, Ah Eng (1995). Meanings of Multiethnicity: A Case Study of Ethnicity and Ethnic Relations in Singapore. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Lai, Ah Eng & Mathew Mathews (2016). ‘Navigating Disconnects and Divides in Singapore’s Cultural Diversity’, in Managing Diversity in Singapore: Policies and Prospects, Mathew, Mathews & Chiang Wai Fong (eds.) London: Imperial College Press.


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