The Republic of Singapore sits at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula and is the smallest country in Southeast Asia, a country made up of 63 islands of only 697 square kilometres (including land reclaimed from the sea). It has a tropical climate, and its strategic location on sea and air trade routes has made it an important world shipping and transportation hub.
What is today the state of Singapore was for millennia part of the Malay world, first as an outpost of the Sumatran Srivijaya Empire under the name of Temasek. It was subsequently part of the Sultanate of Johore from the 16th until it was ceded in a treaty concluded in 1819 with Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. He intended to open a port under the British flag and circumvent Dutch and Spanish commercial monopolies in the Indonesian and Philippine islands. At the time of its founding, Singapore was inhabited by a small number of Malay and Orang Laut fishing peoples and about thirty Chinese planters and traders.
As Singapore grew as a port and trading centre, workers from mainland China and other parts of the Malay peninsula and Indonesia were brought in. After the Second World War, Singapore joined in 1963 the then Federation of Malaya, thus creating a new federation of Malaysia, but the inclusion of Singapore’s Chinese population, in addition to the substantial Chinese minority in other parts of Malaya, upset the delicate ethnic balance in the Federation: in effect making the Chinese almost half of the population of the new state. This led to a tense political context which was to be ‘resolved’ when Singapore withdrew from the Federation and became an independent state in 1965.
The year preceding independence also saw in July and September 1964 a series of so-called ‘race riots’ involving the Malay minority when more than 40 people were killed. While officially described as linked to incidents involving Indonesian agents provocateurs or a murder of a Malay trishaw-ride driver, both events occurred at a time when there was a high level of resentment by Malays when the then government of Singapore did not put into place the same preferential treatment for purposes of affirmative action in employment and obtaining business licenses that were given to Malays in other parts of the Federation.
After the government’s crackdown on the riots and demonstrations that saw a large number of arrests under the British-era Internal Security Act (ISA), Singapore authorities went out of its way to maintain ethnic harmony in the new republic in ways which are at times ingenious and unusual, such as having the major public holidays reflect to a large degree the cultural and religious diversity of the country in a way which reflects the relative weight of each major ethnic group: for Christians (who are about 14%), this means that both Christmas and Good Friday are public holidays, as are the Chinese New Year, the Buddhist Vesak Day, the Malay Hari Raya Puasa (Eid ul-Fitr) and Hari Raya Haii (Eid ul-Adha), and the Hindu Deepavali. A somewhat similar balancing act was done in language terms after 1965, with English serving as a quasi-neutral lingua franca for government and public authorities. Malay, Mandarin and Tamil also official languages in addition to English (Mandarin appears to be slightly more privileged than Malay and Tamil when compared in terms of support and usage by authorities).
Tensions seemed to have subsided after the early 1970s, though after the World Trade attack of September 2001 and the US invasion of Iraq the ban on wearing Islamic headscarves in public schools has become a contentious issue involving some of Singapore’s Malay and Muslim minority.
Main languages: English, Mandarin and other Chinese dialects, Malay, Tamil
Main religions: Buddhism (1,060,662, 42.5%), Islam (371,660, 14.9%), Christianity (364,087, 14.6%), Taoism/Chinese traditional beliefs (212,344, 8.5%), Hinduism (99,904, 4.0%), Sikhism (9,733 0.39%). (Statistics Singapore, 2000).
Main minority groups: Malays, 13.6%, Indians, 8.8%, Eurasians and others, 2.4% (Statistics Singapore, 2006).
The Chinese are by far the majority in Singapore, representing about 75 per cent of the country’s 4,483,900 people (Statistics Singapore, 2006), and most of them practice a mix of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The largest minority groups are the Malays and the ‘Indians’, who consist of several groups, mainly Tamils but also Punjabis, Bengalis, and others. There are also much smaller groups of Arabs, Europeans, etc. There is no religious majority in Singapore: Buddhists account for perhaps 40 per cent of the population, most of whom are Chinese. Christians total some 15 per cent, mainly among the Chinese, Indians and European, while almost all Malays are Muslims. There are also a substantial number of Hindus, as well as smaller religious minorities (Sikhs, Baha’is, Jews, etc.).
While Singapore is far from being one of the world’s worst offenders in terms of human rights breaches, its lack of a comprehensive bill of rights to restrain its government has meant that the People’s Action Party (PAP), in power since 1959, has had broad powers by which it has been able to and disadvantage political opposition and limit the rights and freedoms its population can enjoy.
Its approaches to minorities have by and large been much more positive, with the country’s constitution not only recognising the Malays as indigenous and therefore occupying a special position, but also clearly stating in Article 152 that the Government must constantly care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore.
Its legislation and policies in relation to the main minorities in the country have thus been successfully based on what could be called a form of ‘proportionality’: the Muslim, Hindu and Christian religions being recognised and celebrated during public holidays, as well as the English, Tamil and Malay languages being used for official purposes in ways that roughly correspond to their relative proportion in society. These and other initiatives can be said to have been effective since the 1970s to enhance ethnic tolerance and promote harmony. Among other steps taken by authorities to try to reflect the country’s diversity is the legal requirement under the Group Representation Constituency Scheme of 1988 that each political party’s slate of candidates in all multi-seat constituencies contain at least one Malay, Indian, or other ethnic minority candidate. There is also a Presidential Council for Minority Rights which examines draft legislation to ensure it is not unreasonably disadvantageous, and therefore discriminatory, towards the country’s minorities. It also reports to the government on ethnic issues and investigates complaints in this area. Somewhat more controversial is the ‘Ethnic Integration Policy’ in place since March 1989 to avoid ‘racial’ enclaves, and which sets maximum proportions which the main ethnic groups can constitute in public housing.
While these various measures are overall positive and appear to operate rather well, some of the government’s policies arguably contradict directly its stated commitments towards ethnic harmony, with immigration of people of Chinese-descent remaining favoured, and the near exclusion of Malays from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s from compulsory national service only partially lifted in more recent years. Even legislation such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act of 1990 which at first glance seems intent of preventing incitement against religious minorities and provides for the establishment of a Council for Religious Harmony turns out to be more problematic when looked at more closely, since much of the legislation actually deals with restraining orders against officials or members of religious groups. For example, a religious minority leader or member may be subject to a restraining order for ‘exciting disaffection against the President or the Government’, something which would at first glance appear to be a violation of freedom of expression and has presumably nothing to do with ‘religious harmony’.
The lack of human rights protection in Singapore however additionally affected ‘unpopular’, smaller, minorities, to which the government’s tolerance does not extend such as Jehovah’s Witnesses :r this congregation was deregistered and banned by authorities in 1972 because of its opposition to compulsory national service.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Asian Centre for Human Rights
Tel: +91 11 25620583
Asian Human Rights Commission
Tel: +852 2698 6339 (China)
Human Rights First
Tel: +1 212 845 5200 (USA)
Human Rights Watch Asia
Tel: +1 212 290 4700 (USA)
Website : www.hrw.org
Singapore Institute of International Affairs
Tel: +65 6734 9600
Tel: +65 9479 1906
Majlis Pusat (Central Council of Malay Cultural Organisations)
Tel: +65 6245 5710
The Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS)
Tel: +65 6345 5275
Tel: +65 293 1390
Tel: +65 2933 449
Singapore Jain Religious Society
Tel: + 65 742 7829
Singapore Kerala Association
Tel: +65 293 9195
Singapore Tamilian Society
Tel: +65 284 5702
Tamil Language Society
Tel: +65 9002 9667
Tamils Representative Council
Tel: +65 6336 6316
Tel: +65 902 34716
Sources and further reading
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Castellino, Joshua, and Domínguez Redondo, Elvira, Minority Rights in Asia: A Legal Comparative Analysis, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Chew, Melanie, Human Rights in Singapore: Perceptions and Problems, Asian Survey, 34 (November 1994), 944.
Clammer, John, Race and State in Independent Singapore 1965-1990, Ashgate, 1998.
Eldridge, Phillip, The Politics of Human Rights in Southeast Asia, Routledge, 2002.
Funken, Katja, “Human Rights in Singapore – Transgressions of the Dominant Western Concept of Human Rights” (January 2001). Available at SSRN: “retrieved August 13 2007 http://ssrn.com/abstract=287595”
Hill, M. and Lian, K.F., The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore, London, Routledge, 1995.
Human Rights Watch Asia, “retrieved August 13 2007 http://hrw.org/doc/?t=asia&c=singap”
Lai Ah Eng, Beyond rituals and riots: Ethnic pluralism and social cohesion in Singapore, Eastern Universities Press, 2004.
Singapore: Asia’s Cuba, Voice of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network, 30 May 2002, available at “retrieved August 13 2007 www.singapore-window.org/sw02/020530hr.htm”
Singapore: Freedom of Expression and Media, Article 19, 2006.
Singapore Human Rights Report 2001, presented to Abid Hussain, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Think Centre, 57th Session of the Commission for Human Rights, 2 April 2001. Available at “retrieved August 13 2007 www.thinkcentre.org/article.cfm?ArticleID=630”
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The Politics of Multiracialism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, Robert Hefner (ed), University of Hawaii Press, 2001.
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Zubaidah Rahim, Lily, The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ampalavanar, Rajeswary, The Indian Minority & Political Change in Malaya 1945-1957, Oxford University Press, 1981.
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Little India, “retrieved August 13 2007 www.littleindia.com.sg”
Mani, A, Indians in Singapore Society, in Sandhu, K.S. & Mani, A. (Eds.), Indian communities in Southeast Asia, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993.
Sandhu, Kernial Singh, Indian Immigration and Settlement in Singapore, in K. Sandhu & A. Mani (eds.), Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, Times Academic Press, 1990.
Schiffman, Harold, Language Shift in the Tamil Communities of Malaysia and Singapore: the Paradox of Egalitarian Language Policy, in Language Loss and Public Policy, I , Garland Bills (ed.), Southwest Journal of Linguistics , Volume 14, Nos. 1-2, 1995. Available at “retrieved August 13 2007 http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/540/handouts/sparadox/sparadox.html”
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