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Ethnic Diversity Enforced by Law

Updated: May 15, 2022

In Singapore, the government dictates the ethnic makeup of apartment buildings. Is that just control freakery or a good idea?

Aerial view of some of Singapore's social housing buildings

Located on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia, between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, Singapore is a multi-racial, multi-religious city-state with one of the most diverse populations in Asia; and is the third most densely populated country in the world. Nearly six million people are packed onto an island about half the size of London, yet it's famous for its apparently seamless functionality - social trust is high, corruption is low, and crime and violence are rare.

Singapore introduced its Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) in 1989 to counter the emergence of ethnic enclaves. It achieves this by placing quotas on how many residents of one racial group can live in a block of flats and categorises people into four racial groups: Chinese, Malay and Indian - the three biggest groups by population - as well as ‘other,’ a catch-all for everyone else. 

The quotas cover every public residential building, and correspond to national proportions so that each apartment complex reflects Singapore’s true ethnic makeup. This degree of micromanagement and control over social dynamics is only possible due to the fact that four out of five Singaporeans live in Housing Development Board (HDB) flats - public housing built and operated by the central government.

The EIP is the reason Singapore’s buildings and neighborhoods are integrated in a way that Western cities could hardly imagine. There aren't any 'no go' zones, like many other cities around the world because there are no ethnic enclaves.

Building by building, block by block, a truly representative mix of ethnicities live side by side. This harmony is enhanced by the fact that every HDB block has common spaces - providing areas for chance interaction. The first floor of almost every public housing block has a feature called the void deck: a shared space for everyone who lives there. With public benches, tables, small shops, vending machines and even kindergartens and elder care centers, the deck is designed to foster social interaction.

So, it's clear that this peaceful, multicultural environment didn’t come about by accident. It's largely due to the island-state's strong central government mandating certain aspects of everyday life - viewing racial harmony amongst its citizens as too important to be left to chance.

The EIP’s biggest impact may be that it doesn't just integrate neighbourhoods, it also integrates schools. “Once people live together, they’re not just walking the corridors every day,” said a Senior Minister. “Their kids go to the same kindergarten, they go to the same primary school … and they grow up together … Where you live matters… It matters tremendously in the daily influences that shape your life.”

According to Professor Leong Chan-Hoong, policy researcher at the National University of Singapore, the EIP has been very successful at integrating the city. He argues that this ethnic diversity is crucial to maintaining Singapore’s stability. “When you unwelcome people of a different background,” he believes, you end up with social and economic problems. “Without the policy,” he says, “it is very likely you will have a sharp differentiation of neighbourhoods, and that will not go well with the idea of a harmonious co-existence between people of different backgrounds.”

Whether this enforced ethnic mixing - and the general absence of strife - represents true racial harmony, on the other hand, is another question. Dr. Liu Thai Ker, considered the master planner of modern Singapore, has been quoted as saying, “I have built you the kampong. Now show me the kampong spirit.” In Singapore, kampong is the word for a small, local village, the kind that once could be found all over the island. What Dr. Liu meant was, as a bureaucratic tool, the Ethnic Integration Policy can provide the mechanics of racial harmony. Kindling the corresponding mindset, however, is something Singaporeans must do themselves.

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