What Roles Could Ethnic-Based Civil Society Play in the Future?

Nov 28, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Hits: 2663

By Sim Jui Liang

This reflective report is based on the parallel session titled “The Future of Ethnic-Based Civil Society in Singapore,” which was held at the IPS Conference on Civil Society 2013, 11 November, Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel.

Dr Sharon Siddique
Sreekumar, Siddique & Co Pte Ltd
Vising Professorial Fellow
Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities
Singapore University of Technology and Design

Mr Amrin Amin
Committee Member
Suara Musyawarah

This session focused on the future of ethnic-based civil society which primarily refers to the role of self-help groups as well as clan and immigrant associations in Singapore.  The summary of the session and reflections of the rapporteur follow.

Speaker’s Presentation

Dr Sharon Siddique began her presentation by quoting Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong: “Should we have more cosmopolitan values in society? Because that is what we are now, more cosmopolitan. Or do we revert to just merely Singaporean, meaning Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian?”

Dr Siddique noted that the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) rubric is the dominant paradigm of multiculturalism in Singapore society and is closely intertwined with concepts like multilingualism and meritocracy. Many government policies and political institutions are based on this CMIO model too, like the ethnic quotas in public housing estates, the mother tongue policy of bilingualism, as well as the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system. In the same way, ethnic-based civil society mirrors the CMIO model – the first-tier self-help groups Mendaki, SINDA, CDAC (Chinese Development Assistance Council) and the Eurasian Association are formed on that basis. They provide many areas of social support from education to skills-upgrading.

The future of ethnic-based civil society, according to Dr Siddique, would depend on how the CMIO model itself evolves as society grows more complex. With increasing immigration, there will be groups of people who feel they do not fit into the CMIO categories. Similarly, ethnic-based civil society groups have to become more diverse to reflect the complex needs of society. Using the examples of the revival of clan associations and cultural literary groups, the speaker indicated that these groups would be ‘particularised’ and not conform to the CMIO paradigm. New types of non-ethnic-based, issue- or interest-oriented groups will also proliferate and become prominent. However, self-help groups will remain relevant as long as the key policies are framed by the CMIO paradigm and as such, society as well as state policy is still organised around these ethnic categories.

To conclude, Dr Siddique suggested that Singaporean society might not be able to hew so closely to the CMIO model in the future as the country has chosen the path of greater cosmopolitanism. The CMIO model cannot contain Singapore’s global aspirations nor was it designed to.

Question and Answer Session

To invite audience participation, Chairperson Amrin Amin posed several questions: Do they agree with Dr Siddique’s views? What role would ethnic-based self-help groups play in the future? What is the one important change facing ethnic-based civil society?

There was a general consensus among participants that the composition of Singapore society is indeed becoming increasingly diverse and complex given the factors of immigration and rate of intermarriage. Yet, the issues of race and ethnicity would not disappear from our collective consciousness and Singapore would not become a non-ethnic society.

The increasingly complex ethnic make-up of Singapore society does not mean that ethnic-based self-help groups would cease to be relevant, said several participants. In fact, there is enough space in civil society to accommodate both ethnic-based and interest-based groups. After all, any individual can be concerned about a range of issues at the same time.  Ethnic cultures will persist and provide strong meanings of identity and expression even if some people prefer “the intercultural” while others want to “preserve their own ways”.

One trend that can promote the development of ethnic-based civil society is immigration.  To illustrate, newly-arrived immigrants from China join and are reviving the clan associations, which had earlier struggled with low membership.  While the immigrants bring fresh input and resources to the associations, they also run the risk of becoming exclusive. In the same manner, new ethnic-based civil society patterns formed on the diverse ethnicities of other immigrants, might emerge. Another participant added that ethnic-based self-help groups do serve a function in heritage and cultural conservation.

There is also still a real social and cultural need for ethnic-based civic institutions.  Just like how the vernacular newspapers and clan associations are the “preserve” of the less educated, low-income and those who could not speak the English language, ethnic-based self-help groups are “necessary and important” to these individuals to access resources and community help for their social needs.

Nevertheless, there were participants who were apprehensive of the negative consequences of providing assistance along ethnic lines. One participant wondered if Singapore’s increased diversity would lead to a proliferation of different ethnic-based self-help groups competing for resources, thereby eroding social cohesion. This was echoed by another participant: “The more ethnic-based civil society groups we have, we tend to divide society than unite society.”

Another participant opined that ethnic-based self-help groups could come across as “exclusionist”: “What’s stopping a non-Malay from being interested in Malay issues and vice versa?” She felt that when ethnic-based issues become interest-based issues, there could be lateral interaction and volunteerism, which would be healthier.

At the macro-level, it is clear however that CMIO multiculturalism and ethnic-based civil society are tied to the state and its policies.  As one participant stated, the CMIO framework is “a model of governance which privileges some discussion of ethnic issues but only from a certain angle… and the state sets the constraints”. In her opinion, the state should “move back from how they are supporting ethnic-based self-help groups”.  In the future, one thing is clear – there will be more questioning of the current ethnic-based institutions and policies.


It was heartening to note the participants’ passion for civil society and Singapore. It might have helped Dr Siddique’s case however if there were more personal anecdotes – of real-life stories of individuals who belong to more than one ethnic group and how ethnic-based self-help groups respond or negotiate to the ethnic fluidity and ambiguity, or do not do that. Such narratives are relevant as intermarriage and immigration could make the traditional ethnic categories less meaningful.

When self-help groups operate under the neatly-delineated CMIO framework, how do they assist individuals whose biographies straddle different ethnic categories?

Suppose a person of Eurasian-Indian parentage requires financial assistance, could he seek assistance from both the Eurasian Association and SINDA? Or would he be referred by one ethnic-based self-help group to the other because of certain policy definitions? Of course, in the recent past these self-help groups have said that they serve potential clients of other ethnicity when approached but how quickly and adequately is help rendered to individuals who inhabit dual or multiple cultural worlds?

Action Points

•    While race and ethnicity still matter, the social issues that the ethnic-based self-help groups currently address are often complex and the solutions will require more than just community-based understanding and approach.

•    Review policies to see if Singapore society is better served with policies that are drawn along ethnic lines or not.

Sim Jui Liang is a Research Assistant with the Institute of Policy Studies.
Please do continue to keep an eye out for more reports on the Civil Society Conference, including:
•    Contemplations on Civil Society circa 2013 by Gillian Koh

•    What should the Future Legislative Landscape Relating to Civil Society in Singapore Look Like? by Valerie Koh

•    What More Can Be Done to Foster Youth Activism in Singapore? By Tay Ek Kiat

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Category: Society & Identity


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