Singapore skyscrapers

Image credit: Skyscapers, Singapore by Cegoh/Pixabay; Licence: Simplified Pixabay Licence.

Written by Michael D. Barr.

Ethnic Chinese have formed a demographic majority in Singapore since the census of 1849, and today they comprise 74.3 per cent of the resident population. Malays (13.4 per cent), Indians (9.0 per cent) and ‘Others’ (3.2 per cent) make up the other quarter.

Despite ethnic Chinese indisputably being numerically (and economically) dominant, the government vehemently denies that this has been translated into political or cultural dominance. According to its state ideology, Singapore follows a form of multiculturalism that is usually identified as having three prongs: it is ‘multiracial’ (i.e. multi-ethnic), multilingual and multi-religious, conceding no ethnic, linguistic or religious community any special recognition or privilege.

This is not to say that the government is hands-off. In fact, the government micro-manages ethnic relations and language policy and it monitors religions closely. In terms of ethnic and language policy, its micro-management is directed, so it says, at ensuring that minority communities are not disadvantaged by their smaller numbers: that the playing field is level despite the numerical advantage of the ethnic Chinese.

In a world where the self-confidence of the majority community was being enhanced in every public domain, the non-Chinese minority became an increasingly invisible ‘Other’.

The Chinese ‘turn’

When Singapore was given independence from Malaysia in 1965 it followed a path of multiracialism that, despite many blemishes, offered a fair semblance of ideals reflected in the state ideology. In those days, no-one was more avid in promoting multiracialism, nor more ruthless in striking down any sense of Chinese supremacy, than Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

At the end of the 1970s, however, Lee made a sudden pivot towards Chinese ethno-nationalism. This shift flipped the whole country onto a Chinese ethno-nationalist tack from which it has not been able to escape. The impact of Lee’s switch was felt immediately, since he had at his fingertips all the levers of government in this small city-state.

In the first half of the 1980s, Singapore found itself awash with government campaigns to speak Mandarin and learn about Confucian values. Ethnic Chinese schools suddenly found that they enjoyed special funding and were being invited to re-emerge from their obscurity so they could be presented as ideals to be emulated. Chinese-only pre-primary classes with special funding gave a leg-up to Chinese school students at the beginning of their school life, even as special consideration for those who had mastered Mandarin gave them an advantage when they were applying to university.

By 1990, Mandarin had emerged as the country’s second lingua franca alongside English. However, unlike English, it was also being used as a mechanism by which many Chinese Singaporeans unthinkingly excluded non-Chinese fellows from conversations in the school yard, work-place or even the classroom.

Ethnic Chinese students soon dominated university scholarship winners and then, by simple flow on, they took a near monopoly of both the upper levels of the civil service and the military, leading to the political hegemony that is the reality today. Tellingly, in a country where the upper echelons of the civil service are nearly as powerful as the elected government, at present every Permanent Secretary in the civil service is ethnic Chinese.

In a world where the self-confidence of the majority community was being enhanced in every public domain, the non-Chinese minority became an increasingly invisible ‘Other’.

Knowing one’s place

Members of Singapore’s minority communities are certainly present and active in Singapore’s society, economy and even its politics, but only so long as they know and accept their place. Part of knowing ‘their place’ means accepting and making the most of the opportunities offered while also accepting the limitations.

Take politics, for instance. In the current Parliament, 16 out of 88 elected seats are reserved for non-Chinese candidates (18 per cent). This is not dramatically lower than the 26 per cent of the population which is not Chinese, and in any case, minority candidates can also contest other seats, so it is not such a bad deal. Also note that the position of President of Singapore has routinely been held by a non-Chinese incumbent.

The problem is that Parliament’s role is little more than as a rubber stamp for the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the role of President is little more than a figurehead. The brutal reality is that in Singapore the Prime Minister is the primary power-holder – and in 2008, the current Prime Minister declared his office to be a Chinese preserve for the foreseeable future, as it has been since before independence.

This is not to say that there are no non-Chinese in positions of power. Non-Chinese routinely hold very important positions in the Cabinet and exercise serious levels of power, but even here they are still expected to know their place.

The contradiction between the ideals of benign multiracialism and the reality of Chinese political hegemony and ethno-nationalism more broadly speaking is so stark that it is difficult to understand how the myth of multiracialism has survived. The key to understanding lies in the mechanics of Chinese cultural hegemony described earlier in this article. These structural biases make biased political outcomes seem unremarkable – especially to the Chinese majority, many of whom are barely aware of their non-Chinese neighbours.

Michael D. Barr is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. His latest monograph is Singapore: A Modern History (2019) and his latest edited volume (with co-editor Lily Zubaidah Rahim) is The Limits of Authoritarian Governance in Singapore’s Developmental State (2019). His other books include Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project (2008) and The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence (2014). From 2012–2017 he was Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review.


  1. I am born in the late 70s n grew up 80s n 90s. There was rapid adoption of English n British/ American culture and a decline in spoken Mandarin n written Chinese. Prior to the 80s there were a generation that differentiated between the Chinese-Educated and English Educated, this was abolished and the entire curriculum came to be taught in English save only one Mother Tongue Language (Chinese, Malay or Tamil). If you speak to the older Malay, Indian, Chinese people now, they will tell you most of their youngsters now has poorer mother tongue /dialect mastery and lesser appreciation of their cultural heritage.

    Students who excelled in mother tongue were given the opportunity to study them more in depth, that is all. I’m not sure where the esteemed writer got his information on the “Chinese turn” from, but it contradicts and bears no resemblance at all to the direct personal experience of an entire generation. The Chinese initially spoke more Chinese and its dialects not because of any government policy but because it was the language our forefathers brought with them to Southeast Asia, by now we speak mostly English, and then some Mandarin n Chinese dialect.

    The Speak Mandarin Campaign in the 80s started because of lower standards in spoken Mandarin and a push not to use Chinese dialects. I am amazed at how the writer picked and chose info and presented a totally unrecognizable picture so far removed from reality.

    “By 1990, Mandarin had emerged as the country’s second lingua franca alongside English. However, unlike English, it was also being used as a mechanism by which many Chinese Singaporeans unthinkingly excluded non-Chinese fellows from conversations in the school yard, work-place or even the classroom.”

    What?!?!? I am not sure which dream-world the author was living in in 1990, but this left me speechless. Mandarin didn’t emerge and became a source of exclusion, in fact the opposite happened. Mandarin has always been around but became less of an influence in households from 90s to the 2000s. Truth is, because we spoke more and more English in school and at work, I think the 80s and 90s were one of the best years where a distinctly Singaporean identity began to take shape. In 2016, only 34.9% of Chinese households surveyed used Mandarin more often at home, 36.9% used English more often. By 2017, 1 in 5 marriages in Singapore are inter-racial.

    If there’s anything, most ethnic Chinese will reject the notion of ethno Chinese nationalism (whatever that label means) and we constantly have to remind unthinking foreigners we are not a part of China, our culture is distinct from China, we are first and foremost, Singaporeans.

    Please do better research. Better still, come live with Singaporeans in our public housing. You will get a much more accurate picture than this fantasy article suggests.

  2. Look around SE Asia, or just across the border from Singapore. We have no Bumi Putra policy in Singapore giving a segment of the population , privileged rights enshrined in law, they have not earned. Singapore is a meritocracy and the fact that an obviously well educated person can skew facts to distort the reality of what every singaporean lives & enjoys daily is a condemnation of his purpose. Look at what has been achieved in Singapore since independence vs the situation in the region. Look at the educational achievements of all our races. Look at the level of multi racial marriages (I’m happily in one myself as is my neighbour). The reality is that people who live in glass houses (look at recent statements by politicians in Australia against minorities and the popular pivot to anti immigration policy) should not throw stones. Singapore has many faults, to which countless conversations in our coffee shops will attest, but we are all singaporean first, not devided as the author of this dreadfully biased opinion piece dressed as research would have you believe.

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