Ethnicity and Associations

Singapore Table of Contents

Because Singapore was a small society open to influence from the West through the English language and subject to the homogenizing effects of modernization and industrialization, the persistence of ethnicity as a fundamental element of its social structure was by no means assured. By the late 1980s ethnic affiliations were in many ways less significant than they had been in 1970 or 1940, and the lives of members of distinct ethnic groups had more and more common elements. In Singapore, as elsewhere, the forces of standardized education, impartial application of laws and regulations, common subordination to the impersonal discipline of the factory and the office, common pursuit of leisure activities, and exposure to international mass media resulted in many shared attitudes among ethnic groups. Studies of factory workers in Malaysia and Singapore, for example, found no marked differences in the attitudes and performance of Chinese and Malays. Psychological profiles of a cohort of poorly educated young Chinese who had held a succession of unskilled jobs before induction into the armed forces resembled those of equally poorly educated and unskilled Malays. Foreign popular culture seemed equally tempting or equally threatening to young Singaporeans of all ethnic groups. Ethnic boundaries persisted, especially where they corresponded with religious distinctions, and were evident in the continuing low rate of ethnic intermarriage. In daily life, however, the significance of ethnic affiliation had apparently diminished from the levels of previous generations.

Government policies were a major factor in the continuation of ethnicity as an organizing principle of Singapore's society. On the one hand, the government and the ruling party acted to break up ethnic enclaves, to provide public services to members of all ethnic groups, and to reshape society with the network of People's Association Community Centers, Residents' Committees, and Members of Parliament Constituent Advisory Groups. On the other hand, the government's ideology defined Singaporeans as members of component ethnic groups, and its various ministries listed everyone's "race" on their identity card and all official records, and remained very concerned with such matters as the ethnic mix in apartment complexes. Official statistics usually included breakdowns by "race," indicating an assumption that such categorization was significant. National holidays featured displays of the distinctive traditional cultures of the major ethnic groups, represented by costumes, songs, and dances. Pupils in secondary schools took required courses in the ethics and religion of their designated traditional culture--Confucian ethics for the Chinese, Islamic studies for the Malays, Hindu or Sikh studies for the Indians, and Buddhism or Bible study as options open to all.

Although state policies reinforced ethnic boundaries and the habit of ethnic categorization, they had little effect on the content of the ethnic categories. Ethnic identity was acted out on a daily basis through an extensive network of ethnically exclusive associations. Many Malay and Indian associations took a religious form, such as mosque and endowment management committees, sharia (Muslim law) courts, Hindu temple committees and the high-level Hindu Advisory Board, which represented Hindus to the government. An example of the reinforcement of ethnic identity was provided by the groups of Indian employees in one government department who distinguished themselves from their Malay and Chinese coworkers by jointly sponsoring festivals at a major Hindu temple. All ethnic groups had their own education and charitable associations as well as higher-order federations of such associations whose officers were the recognized community leaders. Singapore law required all associations of ten or more persons to be registered with the government, which supervised and could dissolve them. Trade unions, financial, education, and religious bodies were supervised by the appropriate government departments, and the catch-all Registry of Societies listed all associations that did not come under the authority of a specialized department. In 1987 3,750 associations were under the Registry of Societies.

The most elaborate set of ethnic associations was found among the Chinese, who in 1976 supported over 1,000 clan, locality, occupational, religious, and recreational associations. The membership of each association usually was restricted to those speaking the same dialect or tracing ancestry to the same small region of China. The lowest level associations were clan or district associations, which were in turn grouped into federations based on progressively larger administrative or linguistic regions of China. The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, founded in 1906, was the overarching association that represented the entire Chinese community. A federation, its constituent units were not individuals or individual businesses but associations. Its basic structure consisted of representatives of seven regional associations (Fujian, Teochiu, Cantonese, Hakka 1, Hakka 2, Hainan, and "Three Rivers") and ninety-three trade associations, each one usually restricted to speakers of one dialect.

The functions and activities of the associations were multiple, reflecting the concerns of members and leaders. Common activities included mutual aid; insurance benefits; foundation and maintenance of schools, hospitals, or cemeteries; contributions to the same sorts of public projects in the ancestral districts of China; settling disputes between members; acting as spokesman for the community to the government; and promoting good fellowship and continuing identification with the clan or region. Associations were run by committees and met at least once a year for a formal banquet. Association leaders were prosperous businessmen who had played a major part in fundraising and the management of activities. Success in business gave them both the free time to devote to association activities and the funds to contribute to the association and its charities. The associations conferred prestige and public recognition on those who took the burdens of office and community service, but the community so served was restricted to those from the same region and speaking the same dialect. The leadership of the lowest level associations was usually provided by those of moderate means, while the more wealthy belonged to several or many associations and worked for the higher level, more inclusive associations, which conferred more public recognition and prestige. The mechanisms of leadership and prestige and the channeling of much charity and assistance (schools, scholarship fund, hospitals, recommendations for employment or loans from Chinese banks, death benefits) through the associations thus reinforced ethnic and subethnic identification for both poor and rich.

In a pattern common to Chinese urban society in China and in Southeast Asia, groups defined by common place of origin or dialect also tended to specialize in certain trades or monopolies. Exactly which regional group dominated which trade varied from place to place and represented historical accidents and contingencies, but the principle of a regional group also acting as an occupational group was common. As late as the 1980s, the Singapore Hokkien were dominant in banking, insurance, shipping, hardware, real estate, and other lucrative fields. Within the Hokkien community, smaller subgroups controlled particular trades. For example, 96 percent of the merchants dealing in China tea in the 1980s traced their ancestry to Anxi County in southern Fujian. Teochiu dominated the fresh produce trade and the jewelry and antiques business; Cantonese predominated in furniture making, watch and clock repair, and operating drug stores and restaurants; and the Hakka were pawnbrokers, tailors, and dealers in Chinese herbs and medicines. The Henghua people from northern Fujian, a small component of the Chinese population, controlled the very important bicycle, motorcycle, and taxi businesses. Over the years the speech groups competed for the control of trades, and the pattern of dialect- specific occupations was a dynamic one, with, for example, strong competition for shares of the textile trade. In the 1980s, four textile trade associations represented Teochiu, Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese traders. The competition between speech groups reinforced both their internal solidarity and the social boundaries between them. Regional associations were, to a certain extent, also trade associations. For the large proportion of the Chinese population employed in regional commerce, service trades, or small-scale manufacturing, there remained a close relation between ethnicity and occupation, each aspect reinforcing the other.

For the proprietors and employees of many small and medium Chinese businesses, continued identification with dialect and subethnic communities provided many benefits and indeed was a precondition for engaging in many lines of trade. Although the dialect communities were not primarily occupational groups, the social solidarities created within the communities were economically useful. Much of the business activity in the extensive Chinese "traditional" sector of the economy depended on credit, personal relations, and the reputation of individuals for trustworthiness. In the final analysis, individuals met their obligations because failure to do so would result in immediate loss of reputation and creditworthiness with their fellows in restricted subethnic communities.

For many members of the Chinese community, economic self- interest reinforced the identification with an ethnic or subethnic community and the continued use of a regional dialect. Such individuals tended to be both more intensely and self-consciously "Chinese" and "Teochiu" or "Anxi Hokkien" than their fellows, who might well be their own brothers, sons, or daughters, who worked for the government or large multinational corporations. For the latter, formal educational certification, command of English, and perhaps skill at golf rather than Chinese finger games and etiquette were associated with economic success.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress