Review: Asianising Singapore – The PAP's Management of Ethnicity By Raj Vasil, Singapore: Heineman Asia, 1995

Essay by karenchandUniversity, Master'sA, June 2009

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In this book, Vasil presents a comprehensive albeit descriptive study of the management of the ethnicity in Singapore since independence through to the 1990s under the rule of two Premiers, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his protégé, Goh Chok Tong. In this review, I aim to highlight the key policy ramifications of the management of ethnicity in Singapore as presented by Vasil, and compare it with Malaysia who shares a similar ethnic base although with significantly different proportions of Chinese and Malay populations.

Apart from being ethnically diverse, Singaporeans, like Malaysians, were traditionally a fragmented society on the basis of language, dialect, religion, clan or caste, and region of origin in China and India. Unlike Malaysia with its dominant and growing majority Malay population, Singapore possessed and continues to possess a Chinese dominant majority. Thus the city state derives a unique character from Chinese preponderance both of people and of enterprise and industry.

The policy challenge in managing ethnicity, therefore, remains to ensure that dominant majority adheres to Singapore's founding principle of cultural democracy, thus treating its Malay and Indian compatriots as of equal worth. At independence in 1965, this had to be accomplished as part of setting up a new, sovereign Republic of Singapore at the aftermath of turbulence from its expulsion from Malaysia. Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia, among other reasons, followed the breakout of riots in Singapore due to serious ethnic differences. This included taking into account the special sensitivities of their Malay neighbours in Malaysia, who were keeping a close watch on their behaviour and policies especially on ethnic issues, and not merely asserting their sovereign right to pursue policies dictated by their own national interests.

It is noted that Vasil's account is largely based on interviews with many past and present PAP leaders and senior...