‘Ethnic-based policies have done more harm than good.’ Do you agree?

In an increasingly globalised world, governments of nations are seeing greater diversity in population demographics, especially with the migration of people enabled by advanced transport technologies. This has resulted in the need for ethnically-sensitive or even ethnically-motivated public policies to cater to this rising populace. At its core, these public policies are intended to benefit the greater good of the nation, yet it may not always fulfill this intended purpose. Overall, ethnic-based public policies often do more good than harm, as they focus on recognising and reconciling ethnic differences for the greater welfare of the people and reducing inequality by promoting social mobility among the ethnically disadvantaged. 

Closest to home, Singapore is often cited as a racial success story as a small city-state that is home to an ethnically diverse population. Singapore’s ethnic-based policies often focus on preserving social harmony by encouraging tolerance of compromise on various fronts, on of which is public housing. In public housing in Singapore, the government enforces policies that require specific racial mixes within a housing block, in a bid to prevent homogeneity and racial enclaves from forming. This has forced people of different ethnicities to live together. By doing so, the government promotes social cohesion by forcing people of different ethnicities to learn to be tolerant and accepting of people of other races and understanding of the traditions of others. This policy, despite causing some inconveniences, such as race-based quotas in the sale of housing, has been well-received by the public as it benefits wider society by forcing people to confront and resolve their differences. This is evidence that ethnic-based policies can be effective in increasing the overall welfare of the people as Singapore enjoys social and racial harmony, with some neighbours even celebrating and joining in the traditions of the other races, fostering a progressive and healthy community that can not only tolerate, but also enhance other ethnicities and their practices. In addition, it has been increasingly fashionable for young people to don the traditional outfits of other races, such as the Chinese donning the baju kurung of the Malays during Hari Raya and the Malays showing off their Qi Paos during Chinese New Year. While some may point out that this policy-mandated sharing of spaces has indeed caused conflicts to arise, these are minor setbacks and are to be expected in the process of reconciliation. One commonly cited example is the curry pot incident where a Chinese family residing near an Indian family wanted the Indian family to stop cooking curry as they were not appreciative of the fragrance of the spices used in the curry. This conflict was mediated by the town council, ultimately finding a compromise where the Malay family agreed to cook curry on only specific days of the week. Hence, even in these conflicts, confrontation and resolution have taken place, showing that ethnic-based policies can indeed do more good than harm, where inadvertent social tension and conflict are resolved so as to promote peace and harmony in the wider society. 

Another way in which ethnic policies are necessary is in the rising inequality between the ethnic majority and minorities, seen in many nations, including the United States of America (USA). The USA has long had staggering inequalities between its ethnic groups, since the days of slavery. As a result of old discriminatory policies such as suburban redlining, there exists a large income gap between Caucasians and African-Americans. Hence, in recent times, new policies have been enacted to tackle this inequality head on, such as through affirmative action and ethnographic adjustment to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores. These policies are beneficial to a nation as they directly address ethnically-driven inequality using ethnically-informed policies. African-Americans on average do much worse than their Caucasian counterparts in the SATs due to an insidious zoning policy known as redlining. 70 years ago, the US government sanctioned the zoning of specific areas for Caucasians only, creating suburbs such as Lansingville. This resulted in the homogenisation of communities and as the Caucasians had greater access to disposable income as compared to the African-Americans, their public schools were better funded and they had more access to opportunities which were out of reach of the African-Americans due to the economic shadow of slavery. As a result, this compounded into Caucasians having better access to educational resources as compared to African-Americans, giving them an advantage in the SATs due to their income demographic. As a result, the modern SAT scoring system adjusts for this by awarding a 400-point advantage to African-Americans, where Caucasians start from 0 points. This has allowed African-American students to close the gap and earn a fighting chance for entry into top universities, which will eventually translate into better job opportunities for much needed social mobility so as to allow inequality to be narrowed. Evidently, these systemically-created ethnic differences have been mitigated by systemic closure of the inequality gap. While some may argue that in the case of African-Americans, they were initially persecuted by discriminatory ethnic-based policies such as redlining, it may be worth noting that such policies were not intended as ethnic-based policies. Hence, ethnic-based policies are effective in resolving ethnic-based issues, with a direct and laser-like approach. 

However, the case for ethnic-based policies cannot be overstated as we need to acknowledge the state sanctioned ethnocratic policies that have been employed in the past and present to persecute a minority for a larger government agenda. Other policies may give advantages to the majority, increasing inequality and the economic dominance of an ethnic group. One example is the Special Assistance Programme (SAP) in Singapore, which at its core is more akin to a Chinese Assistance programme as it allocates preferential funding to SAP schools that place emphasis on the study of Chinese and China. This policy allows Chinese students who study Higher Chinese in primary schools to gain bonus points in the nation’s streaming exercise, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), for preferential admission into secondary schools. However, these bonus points and extra funding are only available to Chinese students and Chinese-oriented schools, while there is no equivalent for Malays or other minority groups in Singapore, suggesting a possible bias. The government argues that this is due to the lack of demand for the establishment of Malay-oriented secondary schools, but this does not explain why this SAP is oriented exclusively to the Chinese, or why the programme has not been established at the Muslim missionary schools run by mosques. In this case, because the Chinese have access to better schools by taking Higher Chinese, and because SAP schools have greater funding, this policy provides unfair advantages to the ethnic majority, widening inequality. At the same time, it is worth noting that as partial as this may appear to be, this has technically benefited the majority of people in Singapore as they are Chinese, and that in spite of the ethnic-based nature of the policy, it was born out of more altruistic intentions to promote bilingual education. 

All of the aforementioned policies are explicitly ethnic-based for the purposes of fairly balancing them against each other, but we also need to acknowledge the underworld of insidious implicit ethnic-based policies where governments attempt to deny the ethnic nature of these policies as they do harm to a minority in support of the government’s agenda. One such policy is the persecution of the Uighurs in China, a Muslim minority that has been the target of a militaristic persecution of Muslims, rounding them up in re-education camps and running a police state in their hometowns. These policies are evidently ethnic-based. However, even the governments are unwilling to address their ethnic-driven nature; hence, there is no room for discussion whether these policies are harmful due to their immoral nature. These policies are the subject of human rights inquiries by the United Nations and even if they do more good than harm in utilitarian ethics, they do not benefit the welfare and sound development of a nation. Thus, they ultimately do much more harm than good in other non-materialistic perspectives such as ethics and cultural development.

Overall, it is evident that ethnic-based policies are beneficial as they allow governments to foster social harmony and reduce inequality in a country especially when the issues are ethnic-based. These are insidious and implicit ethnic policies in the world even today, but since the ethnic nature of these policies are not acknowledged by the government itself, it can be inferred that these implied policies do more harm than good and have greater ethical ramifications. Hence, in general, ethnic-based policies in the public sphere today are largely beneficial.

Loh Zheng, Lucas (19-A4)