Thursday, January 21, 2010

The fallacy of scoffing at first steps

Some days it seems that either the Straits Times has a schizophrenic editorial policy, or there are internal conflicts going on in the newsroom. Today's paper contained one opinion column defending the preservation of race categories in Singapore, and a news item reporting a study which noted a decline in discriminatory job advertisements.

A bit of background on race categories in Singapore. All Singapore citizens and permanent residents are assigned a race on their national identity card which falls into one of the discrete groups: Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian or Other. These categories are used to administer state policies such as racial quotas in public housing, ostensibly to "promote the mixing of households of different races and income groups in our estates" (source) but which some people reckon are to prevent the formation of racially-aligned voting blocs.

Recently it was announced that the government would allow parents who are themselves assigned different race categories to choose a double-barrelled race category for their children. However, Andy Ho seems to think that
Because there are no legal categories of race in Brazil, there are also no laws to combat racial discrimination which undeniably exists. By contrast, official practice in Singapore leads to bright-lines among the races. But the very same laws that inscribe these lines also make it possible to recognise and address racially discriminatory practices.

In this way, having legal categories of race may not be so pernicious after all.
Note that the new policy merely allows parents to append one additional race category in their children's statutory documents. It does not refine the existing category to include other choices, nor does it abolish the categories altogether. This first policy change in many years has generated quite a lot of discussion about race in Singapore, during which abolition of race categories has been mooted. But Andy Ho seems to think such talk is hopelessly naive, and that the fact that race as a social construct will always exist in our minds is a reason to not even bother with trying to make the first baby steps towards abolishing categories that are often inaccurate, divisive or irrelevant.

A few pages further into the paper, in the Home section, Rachel Chang reports that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (Tafep), has found that 'only 1 per cent specified race, age, gender or other preferred characteristics, without explaining why these were necessary for the job', down from 19.7% in 2006. Tafep attributes this to "heightened awareness among employers of the need to recruit on a fair, meritorious basis" and "newspapers which run the classified ads agree[ing] to vet them according to Tafep guidelines." Tafep co-chairman Halimah Yacob also noted that "most complaints over unfair treatment continue to be from [older workers]."

Perhaps this is what Andy Ho is referring to when he extols race categories that "make it possible to recognise and address racially discriminatory practices"? Unfortunately, Singapore has no workplace discrimination laws. Tafep only issues guidelines, not gazetted regulations. When Tafep is notified of unfair employment practices, it can only "approach the employer to assist them in their adoption of fair employment practices especially if it concerns discrimination based on age, race, gender, religion, family status or disability." (Source here, emboldening mine.) Even if recruitment ads are nominally non-specific about race, age, gender or other characteristics, discrimination still rears its head during the interview process, in the course of work, during salary reviews, and even in the decision to fire someone.

But I'm falling into the same trap as Andy Ho. The law is not perfect, but Tafep does important work in acknowledging that workplace discrimination exists, that we should be aware of it, and that both employers and employees should have help and resources to combat it.

The abolition of categories on paper does not automatically and magically lead to the abolition of discriminatory practices and behaviour. But it's a first step, and we should not scoff at that.


If you feel that you have experienced discrimination at work in Singapore, you can contact Tafep at 6838 0969 or e-mail The Tafep website also has some resources published in English and Chinese.

1 comment:

  1. [T]he very same laws that inscribe these lines also make it possible to recognise and address racially discriminatory practices.

    I call this the "second-year English major gambit".


Please avoid (1) victim-blaming, (2) justifying any particular instance of oppression/exploitation, (3) explaining that we live in a post-feminist/racist/ablist/enter-oppression-here world, or (4) Mansplaining at all. Barn writers are free to moderate their own posts how ever they deem fit, and not obligated to entertain any comment. If you suspect it might seem offensive, don't comment.

(See our note on comments.)