Singapore’s first Olympic gold provides a lesson in ethnic integration for Hong Kong

Philip Bowring says a Hong Kong searching for a unique identity could learn from its neighbour in ensuring minority residents are treated as equal citizens, in practice as well as theory

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 1:04am

Identity politics is the theme of the time, and the Olympics provides a useful starting point. Singapore just won its first ever gold medal with a remarkable swimming victory. But at least as important was the identity of the victor. This was not some recent immigrant table tennis star from China but one born in Singapore and, to cap it all, a product of two generations of ethnic mixing in a state once seen as starkly divided into three racial groups.

Behind that lies a startling statistic. In 2014, one marriage in four in Singapore was across ethnic lines. That compares with one in eight in 2001 and, 40 years ago, probably no more than one in 50. Marriages between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans are now well over 30 per cent. As a frequent critic of Singapore, I am impressed.

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Part of this rapid change may be attributable to a high rate of immigration of skilled people without local roots and ethnic assumptions. But, clearly, there has been a change, which is now raising questions about official ethnic categorisation.

That is not to say that Chinese chauvinism, condemned but also once abetted by late leader Lee Kuan Yew, is dead. Racial animosities do flare up. Singapore’s exploitation of Asian domestic helpers is worse than Hong Kong’s. But the official enforced mixing of races through public housing – once seen as a way of keeping minorities from congregating together – may have had some impact on traditional thinking by all races. National service for all males helped, too.

The contrast with peninsular Malaysia is striking. Official sponsorship of conservative Islam, mostly for reasons of political advantage, not piety, has seen a huge widening of the social divide between Malays and the 35 per cent of non-Malays. This has exacerbated the divisions caused by a race-based political structure and rules to protect Malay rights. That was once defensible as, at the time of independence in 1957, Malays made up only 49 per cent in their own country, and most of the poor, thanks to massive immigration under British rule. But, now with 65 per cent, they are getting to the 75 per cent Chinese that Singapore has approximately maintained via its immigration policies.

Thailand is perhaps the best example of integration

But it is not only the once disadvantaged Malays who are at fault in Malaysia. The insistence of the Malaysian Chinese on maintaining their own cultural and political identity has been important, too. It contrasts with the expectations placed on minorities in Singapore and the experience of other Southeast Asian countries, which have had large Chinese immigration over the past 200 years.

Thailand is perhaps the best example of integration – based on the principle that they must adopt Thai names and culture. Indonesia and the Philippines have similarly adopted measures to discourage immigrant ethnic identity. Integration is always a two-way process. Recent suggestions from China’s diplomats that it will look after the interests of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia can only make integration more difficult.

Singapore, on the other hand, has been anxious to dispel Chinese illusions that its ethnicity should be reflected in policy towards China on the South China Sea. Singapore played an important role in the framing the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and has its own obvious interest as a key port in freedom of the seas.

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What is the significance for a Hong Kong searching to sustain its own identity while being part of China? Singapore has the advantage of having become independent from Malaysia. But even if it had not done so, it would probably have remained as separate in many ways as Sabah and Sarawak are from peninsular Malaysia, states where ethnic divides are far less important and there is a high level of local autonomy.

[Hong Kong] must show its identity by being open to representation by all permanent residents, regardless of ethnicity

Hong Kong’s separate identity should surely lie not just in legal and political institutions but in ethnic ones, too. It is a curiosity, to put it mildly, that only Chinese citizens are allowed to represent it at the Olympics. Why is this? For example, it gives the Chinese three teams at the event while the United Kingdom only has one. But as Hong Kong is lucky enough to have its own Olympic identity, let this be the standard for all such events while extending rights of participation to all permanent residents, as is the case with many non-Olympic sports. This would make Hong Kong’s separate identity from the mainland more convincing.

Singapore bans dual nationality because it can offer its own. Hong Kong has no such formal choice so it must show its identity by being open to representation by all permanent residents, regardless of ethnicity. It also needs to rid itself of the bias in some laws and procedures which foreign citizens of ethnic Chinese origin have over other foreigners.

Related to this issue is the status of minorities here, many of whom go back several generations. If Hong Kong identity means anything other than convenient laws and tax rates, these people must be integrated as equal citizens in practice as well as theory. Likewise, all should be able to enjoy dual citizenship, provided they do not expect to be treated as foreigners while visiting the mainland.

If Hong Kong cannot set an example of ethnic diversity as part of its identity and encourage non-Chinese to bring skills and ambitions here, what hope can mainland China have of reconciling its large minorities?

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator