Singapore's journey towards integration through public housing

I want to introduce you to a policy that has revolutionised the way one of the smallest, but also one of the most powerful First World countries in the world has conceptualised integration.

This policy is the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP). Established in 1989, the EIP has changed the face of racial integration in contemporary Singapore. The policy features in the Housing and Development Board (HDB) residences, where 80% of Singapore's population lives (, 2020). It is a policy to promote ethnic integration in these public housing estates by allowing Singaporeans to "grow up together” (Shanmugaratnam, 2015). It aims to remove ethnic prejudice from childhood, which will hopefully translate into later life to promote racial harmony at home to consequentially also promote this ideal at work. HDBs are said to promote greater immersion into the community and help Singaporeans of different ethnic backgrounds become ‘localised’ and integrated more quickly.

The EIP embarks on this mission towards ethnic integration by setting racial quotas for every block and neighbourhood within each HDB public housing estate. The EIP almost identically mimics Singapore’s ethnic demographics, setting the quota for Chinese residents at 87% for each block, Malays at 25% and Indians/Others at 15% (Koo, 2020). These housing quotas emulate the fixed racial groups that exist in Singapore, which have been the buds of institutionalised multiracialism. Institutionalising race in this way has created rigid boxed for its population to neatly fit into and is known as Singapore’s CMIO racial structure: Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other.

But why then does the EIP matter in a multiracial society with relative racial peace? Described by Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in 2015 as "the most intrusive social policy in Singapore” (, 2020), the EIP matters for several pivotal reasons. For starters, the EIP has managed to snuggle its way into the private sphere of the Singaporean home space and plays a part the lives of 3 million people in Singapore today. The vast majority of the average Singaporean’s life is therefore positioned face-on with this policy.

The EIP also matters because in Singapore, race matters. Woven through the tapestry of Singapore’s racial history, is a sensitivity towards the discussion of race and ethnic relations. Colonial legacies, racial riots and institutionalised multiracialism live on today and have paved the path towards the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) decision to establish this policy. Consequentially, even in a multiracial society, both social and racial integration are not assumed givens by the government.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminds Singapore that “no matter the progress over the last 50 years, it would be 'complacent and dangerous' to be lulled into a false sense of safety that race and religion matters are no more the divisive issues they once were” (Sim, 2015).

What therefore seems like an establishment of policy out of fear, the EIP was born from the worry over the potential for racial clusters to form. Without a policy to help Singapore integrate through growing up alongside different races, “the alternative scenario of ethnic enclaves consolidating and emerging would spell out certain disaster since these would be seed-beds of communal agitation and riots” (Sin 1353, 2002), said the previous Minister for National Development Mr. Dhanabalan. Ethnic mixing is believed by the PAP to be "the key to racial harmony” and something "that ethnic regrouping will pose severe threats to” (Sin 2002, 1353).

Singapore is now a country that exists within a complex knit of relative peace and an overwhelming worry over racial clusters and conflict. This peace is therefore relative because despite its aims the EIP makes three assumptions that challenge the strength of a ‘forced’ integration policy.

First, the EIP assumes that the formation of racial clusters is solely negative. A racial cluster is defined as an area where an ethnic group exceeds its national proportions, which the government has deemed to be detrimental to social cohesion, integration and political stability. Racial enclaves as detrimental to society however is not the only reality, but is the only one that Singapore promotes.

The EIP secondly assumes that "multiculturalism and racial integration are not intrinsic qualities, and must be enforced” (Ong, 2019). This assumption has contributed to the legitimisation of one-party rule in Singapore, which uses a ‘survivalist’ narrative "to manage the hegemonic discourse of survival and success, producing national slogans that remind the people of how the nation has developed in accelerated fashion 'from Third World to First' (Lee, 2000) and how its national accomplishments are substantial yet fragile” (Tan 70, 2012). Singapore uses this survivalist narrative of fragile success to legitimise its power by building on the idea that social cohesion and safety from conflict are not inherent, but can only be achieved through government implementation.

Finally, the EIP assumes that living together will tidily lead to integration. To give Singapore the benefit of the doubt, the policy has only been around for 30 years, which perhaps has not given Singaporeans enough time to grow up alongside each other to make meaningful change to ethnic relations yet. However as it stands, HDBs have still seen their fair share of racially charged incidents that reveal a trembling link between growing up together and integration.

This final assumption regarding the unanimous link between housing and racial integration is also challenged by the realities ethnic minorities face in the HDB market. These realities reveal a difficulty for some minorities to find equal footing within this policy. The initial challenge that the EIP has created for ethnic minorities is the fact that "in the HDB resale market, there is less liquidity for minorities than there is for the majority ethnic Chinese. This results in lower resale prices.” (Vadaketh, 2021). When the Chinese quota is full (which often happens), the EIP still allows a Chinese resident to sell to any race. However, an ethnic minority in this situation would only be able to sell to another minority group, notably Malays or Indians/Others. “In such it would either take them a longer time to find a suitable buyer, or they would have to accept a lower selling price” (Lai Ah Eng cited in Sin 1363, 2002).

Another reality that challenges the strength of the EIP is the ever-increasing amount of racial ambiguity. "As Singapore becomes increasingly racially ambiguous and cosmopolitan, is our classification of race and ethnic quota for housing slowly but surely becoming a farce?” (Li, 2011). This insightful question points to the rigidity of the CMIO racial structure. CMIO has essentially created a system where people have to fall into one of four ethnic categories that are also reflected in the quotas. This has created challenges for people of mixed-race background who do not fit into one neat and simple racial box. "Singapore’s multiracial ideology is firmly based on separate, racialized groups, leaving little room for racial projects reflecting more complex identifications.” (Rocha 95, 2011).

The EIP has ironically created more difficulties for the groups it aimed to integrate the most.

The EIP does have its strengths however, as it is working towards the normalisation of living alongside the complexity of multiracialism in Singapore. Although because this policy is so new, the desired outcome may not have had enough time to rear its head just yet. And because this policy is such an intricate part in the lives of the vast majority of Singapore’s population, it needs to be unpacked and its implications explored.

The EIP is still finding its way in Singapore, which is also a very young democracy that has grown so rapidly. I think it often cannot keep up with its own progress. I do commend Singapore however for taking on such an active approach in removing discrimination and promoting both integration and harmony. What the EIP reveals however, is that intention does not uncontestedly align with outcome.