Singapore is among the countries with extensive ethnic diversity. Consequently, the country prides itself of many religious beliefs and practices (Singapore Census of Population, 2000). That is, each religious belief, backed by ethnic practices, has several beliefs and practices, and when summed up with other practices from other religions, Singapore becomes the hub for religious practices and beliefs. Since all the beliefs are inherently different from the other, Singapore is prone to the implication of religious gaps. Hence, there is a need to keep God in place.
Many religions lead to a social disagreement of what is to be considered spiritual or sacred. Notably, the terms faith, religion, religious experience, religious belief, religious rituals are critical, in attempting to put social disagreement in perspective. Faith is a firm or absolute belief in something or someone. Sociologist recognizes religion as an organized belief system, with fundamental approaches towards social needs and values. Religious experience is the sensation or conviction of connection to deity, and rituals are practices endorsed by religion, and members of the religion are expected to perform them.
From a theoretical perspective, functionalists contend that the function of religion is to serve society. It should function to provide sociological answers concerning social interactions, comfort, spiritual mysteries, among others. Therefore, each religion has its approach to different aspects of sociology. For instance, how people should respond to a crisis, handle criminals, interact with or treat one another, and views of scientific disciplines such as medicine. Functionalists appreciate the role of religious information in groups and the creation of social interactions. Religion creates a frame for social networking or a place where people holding similar values can meet and help one another. That way, there is collective social cohesion and integration.
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However, a crisis arises in contexts of many religions, such as in Singapore. Firstly, the reason for many religions is because each one of them has a different belief system from the other. Each has its faith, rituals, and experiences that are predominantly considered better by its member as they compare with others. From a functionalist perspective on religion as a case study, all the other religions are termed as out-groups. Therefore, the beneficence of social cohesion is distributed over many religions, leading to chaos. For instance, there is no collectively agreeable way of how to interact with one another, where to worship, who or what to worship, how to handle criminals, or how to respond to crisis. Therefore, there is a need to keep God in place for the Singaporean society.
Stratification is a term describing social standing. Social stratification entails the ranking of people in a society, based on social metrics like education, power, wealth, race, and naturalization. Singapore is founded on an open stratification system (Trocki, 2006). That is, there is no restriction for the movement of people between the layers of social ranks. Though each rank appears to identify with particular cultural values that shape their individuality in that class, the Singaporean stratification system allows frictionless change. Also, the Singaporean stratification system is predominantly a class system.
A class system is founded on external and internal factors. External factors are usually social factors such as cultural values, access to amenities, and civilization, while internal factors are individual achievement due to talent, hard work, or fortune. A class is a stratification layer; therefore, people in the same class have a standard range of wealth, education, citizenship status, depending on the social stratification metrics. A class system is open. People are free to move through the classes either up or down (Trocki, 2006). For instance, one may be born in a family associated with one class, but change class as they gain or lose value in the social stratification metrics. Also, the class system does not inhibit the interaction between people of different classes, as in closed systems. That leads to exogamous marriages, despite the social conformities such as to marry partners of the same class.
In the class system, Singaporean society is identified with an upper, middle-class, and the lower classes (Trocki, 2006). Usually, poverty levels are the boundary lines for social classes. That is, the lowest class identifies as the poorest and the uppermost class as the least associated with poverty. The middle class in Singapore is of interest to many sociologists since the majority of citizens identify themselves in it. Some scholars have termed Singapore to be a rich, middle-class society (Lysa, 2002). That is, most families have ownership of a Housing and Development Board apartment; they have savings; their children have access to education and transport, and have common household appliances. Most are employed or self-employed by the exploitation of their skills, talent, or education.
According to the World Bank, Singapore has a GDP od US$ 54,530, making it among the high-income economies (World Bank, 2019). Therefore, the self-definition of Singapore as a middle-class nation increases its positive impact on global economic growth. That is, the spillovers from individual per capita income are used to appraise the lower class economically. That means that Singapore, as a nation, is matured to self-sustain economically amid the social stratification.
Singapore is among the first world countries, born out of chaos through policies. The legendary prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is the founding father of Singapore as a nation, to whom most significant and nation-building policies are attributed (Lysa, 2002). In 1965, Lee announced the separation of Singapore and Malaysia, and a new nation was born. The policymakers intended to develop a city-state that would self-sustain. Therefore, Singapore, as a young nation, alienated from its history, to begin a new history. That way, a new narrative was formed. Nevertheless, critical events were downplayed or forgotten (Kwa, Heng & Tan, 2009). Such is revealed through a reflection of Singapore before and after independence.
In the pre-independence era, Singapore was a part of Malayan. The Malayans were united by history and geography of Malaya, which is present-day Malaysia and Singapore. Governance was held by emperors, who led by multinationalism and liberated Malayans from oppression. Malayans would find economic and social stability (Lian, 1999). However, the state was multiracial, and both Chinese and Malays desired to dominate. The racial dominance led to a schism which politicians used to campaign. For instance, PAP promised reunification, and in the spirit of nationalism, their opponents were termed as enemies of the state, who deserved prosecution (Mauzy & Milne, 2002).
In the national elections for 1959, PAP won and had a better position to seal the schism. However, the party split in 1961. The events that proceeded with elections led to the separation of Singapore from Malaya in 1965 (Chua & Kuo, 1995). Singapore would then begin its history – a new narrative.
The nationalism approach in the building of the new nation and the formation of a new narrative had severe ramifications. Nationalism in Malaya was, to an extent, offensive in racial and cultural hierarchy perspective. The narrative places Singaporeans above Asians and Africans and below the whites. In a way, it legitimates disparity in the treatment of other races and nationalists, since they are outliers of the new narrative. It is the basis for placing Malays at the lowest social class. In a way, the narrative is overconfident by propagating the belief that all Singaporeans should support PAP, and regarding it as the national heir of the British colonial government. Therefore, the new narrative has downplayed the critical impacts of racial and cultural differences by insisting on the concept of nationalism.
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The racial and cultural composition of Singapore comprises of 74.1% ethnic Chinese, 13.4% Malays, 9.2% Indians, and 3.3% Others (Singapore Department of Statistics, 2010). In general, the ethnic groups coexist and cooperate without major adverse issues. The nation has developed strong multiracialism and meritocracy. All Singaporeans respect people from other races and advocate for their fair treatment. However, research reveals that Singapore is not free of social disparities, especially racism (Chew, 2018).
Racism is the differential treatment of an individual or a group of people by another, based on their s phenotypic, ethnicity, or cultural differences (Chew, 2018). Ethnicity describes the collective practices, values, and beliefs associated with a group of people. Culture is a collective set of patterns of human activities such as belief systems and characteristics such as linguistics of a social group. Therefore, two races reveal distinctions on many social aspects. Such differences are seldom to suppress, despite the effortless collaboration or coexistence.
Historical, theoretical perspective reveals racial discrimination of minority groups in Singapore, through narration. For instance, policies such as the Speak Mandarin Campaign for the Chinese only spotlight the possibility of institutional racism (Benjamin, 1976). Some English textbooks from the 1980s depict Chinese in skilled labor, and minority groups in menial and domestic labor (Chew, 2018). Also, they have documented requests for Malays to equal treatment, citing exclusion in serving high profile missions in the military. However, the Singaporean government has inhibited any documentation or study concerning racial discrimination through laws such as the Sedition Act.
From a quantitative study commissioned by Channel NewsAsia (CNA), racial attitude prevails depending on activity and setting (Yong, 2016). Among the participants, 90% believed that everyone has equal rights to position or wealth, depending on their hard work. A third agreed to regard the majority of Chinese before other races. About a third of the Chinese feel that the minority races demand too much cultural rights, and 40% of Malays feel the same about Chinese. Besides, six in ten Singaporeans have heard at least one racist comment in their lifetime. From a public view, screens in public transport broadcast on English and Mandarin only, with emphasis on programs such as women of Chinese heritage.
Therefore, although the majority of Singaporeans would say they coexist without racism, it is still an issue. The collective multiculturalism and restrictive legislature on the press, freedom of speech, and the internet might be the reasons for the suppressed revelation of racism.
Social inequality is among the current national concerns after unemployment and healthcare. According to a recent study by IPSOS, there is some level of inequality prevalent through various demographics in Singaporean society (Ho, 2020). Also, the majority of Singaporeans feel that social inequality is mostly affecting people living with disabilities and among social classes. For instance, four in five respondents of the IPOS survey believe that the economy is rigged to favor the rich (Ho, 2020). While such reports of the quantitative survey reveal the existence of social inequality, it is mostly invisible (Yenn & Piper, 2009).
Social inequality is invisible in Singapore, mostly because of the approach to multiracialism. As mentioned in previous questions, multiple cultures are associated with multiple belief systems and values. Also, the nation-building and the new narrative did not handle the multiracialism correctly (Lian, 1999). Therefore, one of the nation-building paradigms was to provide all Singaporeans with social equity through meritocracy (Tan, 2004). Meritocracy is a governance system or a sociological paradigm where the elitism is defined by the level of education, and society is governed by such elites. Therefore, the worldview of success in Singaporean society is that it is deserved only through merit. For instance, the Singaporean education system is founded in a meritocracy. Therefore, students access the same curriculum, and they are evaluated through standard exams. That eliminates any discrimination among students, and the bright students have merited the success. Similarly, the economy allows those who work hard to rise in social class. In a way, meritocracy has led to a significant number of middle-class households (Tan, 2004).
While the system has served Singapore well, it is prone to causing social inequality unnoticed. The invisibility can be explained straightforwardly on education. Firstly, education is depicted as the nondiscriminatory, since students learn the same curriculum and are assessed through the same test. The cost of education is also affordable, and grants are availed to needy families. From a meritocratic perspective, Singaporean society has no educational inequality. However, an OECD report titled Equity in Education: BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS TO SOCIAL MOBILITY almost half of students in Singapore were attending to disadvantaged schools in 2015 (OECD, 2018). That is, some schools did not have the standard facility or conditions that could merit the education system as equitable. Secondly, those who attend advantages schools have a better chance to pass exams and find good jobs, unlike students in disadvantaged schools. Therefore, while meritocracy views success as a consequence of hard work, it has led to gross neglect of individual circumstances. That way, social inequality is not viewed as it is, but as a lack of effort.
Most of the moments that shaped present-day Singapore happed since the arrival of the British Colony. Therefore, while the precolonial history is part of Singaporean history, it is mostly overlooked. The written history concerning ancient Singapore mostly depicts the island as an outlier of the Chinese geographical location, or a passerby’s stopover for traders. However, between the 16th and 19th centuries, explorers had found the island to be a potential dominance hub. Eventually, Lieutenant-Governor Sir Stamford Raffles fought and won against the Portuguese and the Dutch, and Singapore became a British colony in 1819.
Raffles identified a natural port, which would open the main trade route to China and India. In 1890, the estimated population on the island was 1000 people (Rahim, 2009). The Malays were the majority. Hence ancient Singapore was identifying as Malaya. The trade route performed well, and by 1871, Malaya had 100,000 residents. The port and the trade route had already blueprinted Malaya as a trade hub. In 1942, the Japanese attacked the island from two sides, utterly destroying the British militia, and ruled until 1945 (Lysa, 2002). Japanese administrators separated Singapore from Malaya and called it Syonan-to. In 1945m British reclaimed the island, but the reclaiming war had destroyed the infrastructure making the island difficult for to British to sustain. Between 1946 and 1951, the Singaporean locals have organized themselves into claiming independence. In 1963, Singapore had attained self-governance under the People’s Action Party, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew (Lysa, 2002).
Lee became the founding father of present-day Singapore. PAP leadership had a belief that the future of the nation was in Malaya. Their ideology was to build a state that would be able to self-sustain. They tried a merger through a vigorous campaign by the PAP, which succeeded on 16 September 1963 (Lian, 1999). The merge led to severe racial tension between the ethnic Chinese and non-Malay ethnic groups leading to separation in 1965. The separation is regarded as the moment Singapore acquired its independence from the British government. Singapore would then create a new narrative, through which Lee led the Singaporeans to build the nation. Since independence, like other first world nations, Singapore has overcome harsh economic pressures, effecting her system of government and social structures through policies that support economic growth, entrepreneurship, and education (Tan, 2004). Currently, Singapore has a constitution and held her first presidential election in 2017.
Benjamin, G. (1976). The cultural logic of Singapore’s ‘multiracialism.’ In Riaz Hassan (Ed.), Singapore: society in transition (p. 115–133). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press
Chew, P. (2018). Racism in Singapore: A Review and Recommendations for Future Research. Journal Of Pacific Rim Psychology, 12. doi: 10.1017/prp.2018.3
Chua, B. H., & Kuo, E. (1995). The making of a new nation: Cultural construction and national identity. In Communitarian ideology and democracy in Singapore (pp.101-123). London: Routledge.