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Theoretical Perspectives Of Multiculturalism And Multiracialism Politics Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Within any multicultural society lie numerous complexities. From the State’s definition to the implementation, limitations within the multicultural theory and other contributing factors can however complicate its compatibility to academic, political rhetoric and social reality. For Australia and Singapore, geography, history and political culture set these countries apart in the definition and employment of multiculturalism. Australia is a country with a diverse ethnic and cultural makeup; Singapore on the other hand has a longstanding adherence to the four founding ethnic groups. But within respective cases, discrepancies emerge within the context of academic and public interpretation, making the multicultural ‘affair’ both a loved and loathed subject.

By juxtaposing multicultural Australia with multiracial Singapore, this chapter will introduce a broad overview of the multicultural/ multiracial debate that has challenged the reality of these contemporary nation-states. It will begin with the discussion of Benedict Anderson’s theories of imagined political belonging. This will be followed by a close analysis of the measures that have been sought to reconcile the nation-state framework within Australia and Singapore. The chapter will then explore the theoretical debates that exist within the State administration before concluding with an overview of these approaches by drawing upon their similarities, divergences and their impacts on their respective societies.

Globalisation and cultural homogeneity

The conventional notions of citizenship and national identity have been synonymous to the ideology where national belonging is limited to a single nation. More recently however, the processes that drive migration, the influx and settlement of transnational workers and global economic development have resulted in increasingly heterogeneous communities within nation-states (Castles and Davidson 2000; Soutphommasane 2005). Faced with such dramatic challenges to the imaginations of homogeneity, the traditional idea of citizenship is increasingly undermined as states find it difficult to manage their internal framework based on a presumption of ethnic and cultural homogeneity.

The core vision of nationalism is the idea that it consists of individual citizens that share a distinct and autonomous national culture. Benedict Anderson’s whose works influence us on the way we think about nation-states, observes that a nation is a makeup of a political community that is imagined as essentially sovereign and limited through the stimulation of deep emotional attachment:

Nationality, or so, as one might prefer to put it in view of that word’s multiple significations, nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind. [These artefacts] once created … became ‘modular’, capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations (1991: 4).

At the heart of Anderson’s argument is the idea that nationalism is built on what is almost purely an emotional connection that binds communities together. The ‘imagined’ nets of kinship between persons and the State allows diverse communities to connect with each other without actual knowledge of their fellow members, and these invisible ties that motivate them to risk their lives for the nation-state in times of warfare under the perceived imagining of their ‘nationhood’ (7). Such imaginings which are based on the ideological construct is at the core of nationalism. When they are absent or otherwise eclipsed by difference, these imaginings are imposed or buttressed by the State.

In another influential discourse, Ernest Renan (as cited in Eley and Suny 1996: 42) suggests that national identity cannot exist without first submerging difference, including cultural and ethnic distinctiveness that could prove divisive. [1] The existence of national identity is dependent on the State’s ability to organise a universal set of values and cultures for its society, or as Castles and Davidson indicate, “One has to be made into a national before he or she can become a citizen” (2000: 27). Without these national ‘imaginings’, the legitimacy of the State probably would not have prevailed.

Under the pressures of globalisation and the changing character of migration towards the end of the twentieth century, the traditional notion of citizenship where political belonging is limited to one nation began to evolve. As mass international migration leads to the proliferation of cultural and ethnic diversity within national communities, it consequently became increasingly untenable for nation-states to maintain the ideology of a homogenous national culture (Soutphommasane 2005: 401). Such shifts in migration patterns have undermined even the strongest argument about homogeneity. Japan for instance, where the State has long made claims about the homogeneity of its population, is now forced to recognise the reality of ethnic minority workforces that have become increasingly prominent in Japanese society (Castles and Davidson 2000: 157) [2] .

Scholars and political elites have also begun to recognise that new measures were necessary to recognise such social changes, especially the need to accommodate cultural pluralism brought about by the movement of people across national boundaries. In relation to this, scholars have critically studied the multifaceted processes of migration and have produced a vast number of works in this field, including new and plural systems of identification and belonging (Lawson 2000), transnational communities and hybridisation (Bailey and Smith 2004), and new patterns of belonging and citizenship (Castles 2002; Joppke 1999; Law 2002).

The multicultural debate: the case of Australia

Affected by the processes of globalisation, a number of countries have begun to expand the traditional notion of ‘universal citizenship’ in legislation and public rhetoric to include every individual, especially minorities, into a re-badged ‘national’ culture under the new form of ‘multicultural citizenship’. Multicultural citizenship acknowledges the practise of culture and formation of identities in a variety of social and cultural contexts, departing from the antecedent understanding of monoculture and homogeneity (Soutphommasane 2005: 403). It also recognises minorities, ostensibly furnishing such communities with stronger voices in decision-making at the local, national and international level (Moodod 2007). The shifting nature of State-society relations in Australia, under the broader ambit of multiculturalism, provides us with one of the most obvious examples in the development of multicultural institutions and policies.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, Australian society had been relatively homogenous, with over 90 percent of the ethnic dynamic identified as British during the post-war period in 1947 (Dunn and Forrest 2006: 210). And for most of Australian culture and institutions, the Anglo identity poses as a dominant influence. However in the beginning of the 1970s, the demise of the White Australia policy and the nation’s demand for skilled labour attracted an influx of “non-white” groups into the Australian society (Anderson and Taylor 2005: 470). It gradually became difficult for the State to sustain the myth of its national identity on the basis of Anglo-Celtic origins. The dominant community had to accept realities of ethnic diversity and a cosmopolitan identity, although resistance towards this continues at all levels of Australian society to this day.

Incidentally, multicultural citizenship is a subject of controversy in the political and academic lexicon. The idea of multiculturalism, which was introduced in Australia as a public policy to manage cultural differences, was condemned in some quarters as being oppressive, undermining the ‘quintessential’ Anglo-Celtic heritage of the nation (Bulbeck 2004; Johnson 2002), as well as being a threat to national security (Noble and Poynting 2008).

The issues of immigration and social cohesion have become widely familiar to the Australian media and public. Today, multiculturalism continues to be a recurring subject of contest as recent events in Australia, such as the Cronulla Riots in 2005 and the assaults on Indian students in Melbourne in 2009 have shown. In each instance, the friction caused by deeply entrenched and unmanageable differences have brought the issue of cultural divides back into the public sphere. [3] 

The interpretation of multicultural citizenship in Australian political administration has a long tail, and has assumed diverse meanings under various political leaders. When the Whitlam government first unveiled multicultural programs in the 1950s, the purpose of the policy was to direct welfare services and forms of assistance to disadvantaged groups, namely migrants from non English-speaking backgrounds and those with little political and social representation. However when the Fraser government came into power in 1975, this political understanding of multiculturalism changed. Instead of simply being about the provision of welfare services, multiculturalism became a bipartisan policy that underscored the significance of cultural preservation for various ethnic groups, with a pragmatic approach to foster minorities’ voices within the society (Castles and Davidson 2000: 170). It was during this period that multiculturalism functioned as a policy directive, in hope that it would facilitate access for minorities and marginalised groups to fully participate and benefit from social, economic and political aspects. This continued to the 1980s until multiculturalism began to encompass a wider definition than the mere representations of cultural and ethnic entities. By then, it also (controversially) began to push into a new national ideology where it represented the buttress of national culture and identity in Australia (Galligan and Roberts 2003). From a policy that had been specifically associated with migrant resettlement services since its emergence, multiculturalism in the 1980s progressed to the advocacy of accepting and celebrating cultural diversity within Australian society.

[Multiculturalism is] a model to be worked towards-a vision for the future… Multiculturalism should not just mean majority group assistance for minority cultural groups, but rather should be a way of perceiving Australian society as a whole – Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1982 (as cited from Galligan and Roberts 2003).

The Keating government was keen on creating a new national identity based on the diverse nature of cultural groups within its society, its independence from the British monarch, its propinquity to Asia and its necessity to flourish in an increasingly globalised economy (Johnson 2002: 175). In a radical departure from traditional notions of Australian national identity, Keating wanted a national identity to acknowledge the British and Irish heritage in Australia’s history, judiciary system and culture, but yet was also distinct from “core political values that privileged British identity” (176). The new Australian identity, according to him, would illustrate his hope of Anglo-Celtic Australians embracing multiculturalism for the future social and economic benefits of the nation.

Keating’s policies were unpopular, garnering backlashes from politicians, scholars and public. This largely relates to the notion of multiculturalism displacing the legacy of Anglo privilege with “a more cosmopolitan and inclusive” national identity. There were concerns that broader conceptions of Australian identity could overhaul distinctive values and qualities that make up the uniqueness of Australian culture and subsequently disregard ‘mainstream’ Australians for the interests of non-Anglo ethnic groups (Johnson 2002: 177). Hence, fear and tension began to heighten as the dominant group felt progressively ‘pressured’ to surrender their privileged position under the escalating diversity of ethnic groups. Within the political framework, Keating’s vision for ‘new’ Australia reached an important juncture in 1996 when two public figures publicly opposed to his policies – Pauline Hanson and John Howard. Following this marked a drastic decline in the significance of multiculturalism as the usage of the term became eschewed in Australian politics (Castles and Davidson 2000: 165).

Beyond what could be described as reflexive ripostes to threats at cultural power, criticism surrounding the idea of multiculturalism have also much to do with its indistinct and constantly-evolving definition. (Ellie Vasta: 212) In some cases, it was deemed to have been introduced almost accidentally by political elites to accommodate the fluctuating diversity of the society. A term that is developed “on-the-spot”, the understanding of multiculturalism is therefore inconsistent. On one level, it is assumed as an appropriate designation for welfare policies and on another, it merely becomes a term that describes the multiple cultures that exists within Australian society. Hence multicultural critics such as Zubrzycki 1995) blame multiculturalism for being a presupposed concept with its principles “couched in jargon”, and the extent of its effectiveness is not largely known.

Another polemic of multicultural citizenship reveals further dilemmas in the accommodation of cultural differences within a common civic culture. According to the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia (1989), multiculturalism must be expressed with “an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia, to its interests and future first and foremost”. Nonetheless Soutphommasane (2005: 408) argues that while it is important for a national culture and a sense of shared belonging to anchor a multicultural society, multicultural citizenship cannot be observed under a civic culture that is impervious to change. If so, this could undermine the political representation of minority cultures at the institutional level, contradicting multiculturalism’s pledge to include citizens from diverse cultural backgrounds and provide them equal voices as the majority. Built-in cultural biases within Australian political institutions which have witnessed the entrenchment of traditions first established by the Anglo-Celtic elites would continue to pose a problem for multicultural citizenship unless it provides the basis for a more inclusive form of political identity for multicultural citizens (Soutphommasane 2005; Castles and Davidson 2000).

In essence, it is never possible to classify multiculturalism as something that is either good or bad in a society. A recent survey conducted by The Age indicates that most Australians continue to support immigration despite the political kerfuffle that coloured its history (Edwards 2009). This partly points to the fact that people’s perception and experiences of migrants are often fluid and contextual (Wise 2005: 183) and as a result, they may display versatile responses between positive and negative assessments of their migrant neighbours. Drawing experiences from an ethnography fieldwork conducted within a culturally-diverse suburb of Sydney, Wise also concludes that no clear division can sit between the merits or deficits of multiculturalism even though multiculturalism continues to stand as one of the prominent topics of debate in Australia’s political history.

One People, One Nation: the multiracial framework in Singapore

Unlike Australia, ethnic pluralism has always been a distinctive and defining feature of Singapore society since its founding as a colony. Long before Singapore established itself as an independent nation-state, its society was already made up of diverse ethnic groups originating from different parts of the Malay Archipelago, Asia, the Middle East and Europe due to trading links between these countries, international migration and settlement (Lai 2004: 1).

For Singapore, ethnic pluralism has also been the central challenge to societal cohesion and nation-building. In the colonial era, ethnic communities were deliberately kept apart from one another as a matter of public policy. However in the years leading to the nation’s independence, as events of internal unrest and racial riots plagued Singapore’s social order, the ruling regime – the People’s Action Party (PAP) – recognised that a cohesive nation was imperative to state survival (Lai 2004: 5). Hence upon independence in 1965, Singapore immediately included the idea of multiracialism in its Constitution, and the notion served as a foundation for other policies (Chua 2003: 60).

However, Singapore’s approach in managing its multiethnic population remains strikingly different when compared to Australia. Multiracialism in Singapore represents an aspiration of the political elites to unite ethnic and cultural differences together, emphasising on bridging social divisions and advocating a shared sense of national culture. While multiculturalism in Australia which is essentially a public policy to manage diversity as well as to police racial discrimination and racism among diverse ethnic societies (Castles and Davidson 2000l; Chua 2005; Moodod 2007), multiracialism in Singapore can be thought of as being the State’s chief instrument of control in social life; it is developed as a tool of necessity due to Singapore’s heterogeneity and represents the State’s opportunity to recognise cultural differences. The policy of multiracialism allows the State to suppress potential tensions among ethnic groups, pre-empting public dissent and disallowing the issue of race to threaten the State’s legitimacy of rule (Barr 2006; Chua 2003). On the face of affairs, the Singapore State has been quite successful in maintaining social order and stability with this pragmatic ideology, and has managed to avoid public race-related conflicts since the start of the 1970s.

Within the context of Singapore, it is firstly important to distinguish the differences among ethnicity, race and culture because these terms are often used interchangeably in public and official discourse. While ethnicity and culture are forms of social construct where communities or groups seek identification and develop relationship with each other based on differences and day-to-day interactions (Lai 2004: 2), race on the other hand is identification based on the physical attributes of a person, namely the colour of a person’s skin (Franklin 2003: 470). Due to colonial history, multiracialism remains as the official term within the political administration of Singapore instead of multiculturalism. Similarly, the State employs the term ‘race’ instead of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘multiracialism’ instead of ‘multiculturalism’.

Multiracialism expresses the State’s intention to create social order in the face of potentially divisive issues such as race, religion, ethnic origin and culture (Trocki 2006). The CMIO model of multiracialism is an essential component of the State’s ideology of pragmatism. Developed as an intentional decision of nationhood, CMIO multiracialism scheme a convenient political tool for the State to homogenise cultural differences within a racial group by attributing race to essentially one culture, language and to a lesser extent, religion (Lai 1995: 179). Prior to Singapore’s independence in 1965, the ethnic population in colonial Singapore was diverse with many languages and cultures practised within a single race. The Chinese race for instance, constituted of the Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese (Chua 2005: 5) as well as other linguistic communities who shared different culture and traditions (Trocki 2006: 139). Under the CMIO framework however, these differences were streamlined and organised around the elements of colonial history, language and geography. The heterogeneous population was categorised into four major race groups – Chinese, Malay Indian and Others. Each race is attributed to one culture and one language – the Chinese race is associated with Mandarin which is the official race-language; the Malay race with the Malay language; and Indian race with the Tamil language.

Within the State’s interpretation, the CMIO model is looked upon to be the most effective approach for managing its society. In contrast to assimilation where the minority races are overridden by the dominant, CMIO model gives ‘fair’ treatment by recognising all racial groups as equal in policy. It ensures that the interests of minorities and their interests are protected so they are not disadvantaged in the society, as well as providing equal opportunity for them to advance. Most importantly, the CMIO model illustrates the State’s efforts for encouraging race consciousness and the ‘divisions’ within the society, advocating tolerance for such differences, and the desire for individuals to mutually accept each other for the benefit of the nation (Chua 2003: 17).

However while the CMIO framework allows for the simplification of racial interpretation in both private and public lives, scholars have observed that it is in fact problematic. In recent years, multiracialism classification of CMIO surfaced once again in the light of academic debate as the nation steers itself towards integration of the world economy under the processes of globalisation. The Singapore state’s desire to attract what it calls ‘foreign talent’ has opened the door to a high density of transnational relations as economic policies have resulted in a large influx of migrant workers (Yeoh and Chang 2001; Yeoh 2004):

It is precisely for our children’s sake that we must take this open, cosmopolitan approach… However talented we may be, it is impossible for us to produce in our next generation the same constellation of talent, the same richness and diversity of backgrounds and abilities, just from the children of three million Singaporeans. -The Straits Times, 25 August 1997.

Scholars have expressed concerns that the presence of transnational workers could invite a population that is increasingly too heterogeneous to be defined within the parameters of the CMIO classification. As Yeoh (2004) points out, a cosmopolitan Singapore shifts away from the older stance of multiracialism and the nation’s quest to build a cohesive society based on the four “founding races” (2442). For the government, it has long since been its ambition to assume individuals to have a fixed and unequivocal ethnic identity under the CMIO model; cosmopolitanism on the other hand invites fluid and complex forms of identification that can no longer be homogenously recognised. Increasingly, individuals of heterogeneous backgrounds would feel suppressed by the state-imposed CMIO model which limits them to negotiate and choose their own identity, leading to consequences where individuals feel “unrecognised” and separated from their ethnic classification (Lai 2005: 11). Under such circumstances, there would be Chinese and Indian migrant workers that do not subscribe to the CMIO-defined ‘Chinese’ category, as well as those who feel that CMIO-defined ‘Others’ is an insufficient representation of their race.

Meanwhile the local community is also aware of the paradigm’s weaknesses:

What [does] the CMIO classification in Singapore for? Are you against or for that? I do think it’s ridiculous that children of mixed heritage have to be forced to take their fathers’ races as theirs. I think the CMIO classification is merely for the govt to carry out their ‘plans’, such as HDB racial policy and so on. However I find it totally unnecessary.” – Sgforums.com, 27 February 2005.

The indication of “forced” in the writer’s assertion explains her belief that social reality is actually more complex than the State’s simplified view with the CMIO multiracialism model. Instead the writer views the model as a coercive method for nation-building policies, as well as overwriting individualism for the societal good.

Another contributor expresses her views on the limitations of the CMIO multiracialism model, and how it critically de-emphasises the importance of dialects that exist within the Chinese language other than the official race-language, Mandarin:

“An abundance of knowledge of Chinese traditions, values and history is contained in the oral and written embodiments of these southern Chinese languages, such as surviving literature, operas and stories. Sadly, the chain of passing down this heritage is being lost rapidly in Singapore.” -Sgforums.com, 7 March 2009.

Deng is exasperated that the government’s move to suppress the use of dialects with the Mandarin language has a cost to bear. While the present Chinese community are mostly bilingual in English and Mandarin – something that the government hopes to achieve, dialects also quickly become a language unknown to them. Chua (2003) describes this phenomenon as one of the consequences of the state-imposed CMIO multiracialism model where the understanding of ‘racial harmony’ is minimalist and lacks “substantial cultural exchange, deep understanding and even less cultural crossing of boundaries” (75). This reinforcement is built on the tolerance of differences, as well as the government’s aspiration to prioritise a shared sense of commonality and national identity before ethnic identities.

The CMIO classification model also has internal contradictions if one approaches the idea of cultural difference within anthropological paradigms. As Franklin (2003) indicates, culture is in essence a complex notion which is “malleable, flexible and also contestable” (477). Rather than being fixed, it carries a mobile meaning which overtime can be moulded, lost, changed under the conditions of everyday life. Likewise, ethnic identity is a makeup of longstanding history, culture and tradition that equip members with an exclusive shared sense of belonging and membership (Lai 2005: 10). Hence it is not possible for identities, under the circumstances imposed by the State, to be effectively curtailed to a homogenous identity shared by a particular race group and subsequently, a homogenous identity shared by the national community. In reality, identities from cultural context can never be completely displaced by national identities (Bader 1997).

The State’s ambition of protecting minority interests with the CMIO multicultural model also promises more optimism in rhetoric than in reality. Multiracialism in practice does not translate into equality for all races; accounts of marginalisation, especially among minorities, continue to pose a significant problem for Singapore’s ethnic-relations.The introduction of the “Speak Mandarin” program towards the end of 1970s which was intended to serve as cultural ballast for the non-English educated Chinese is suggested to reveal biases in its implementation that would in turn disadvantage non-Chinese race groups (Trocki 2006: 153). The program which is seen as an effort by the government to align Singapore with China’s emerging affluence and to create Chinese cultural elites became less significant when it comes to other second languages. Despite the fact that the Malay and Tamil languages are the nation’s official languages, there was lesser push from high status institutions to promote their usage (Gopinathan, Ho and Vanithamani 2004: 236). Similarly, Michael Barr noted significant levels of cultural bias within the education system which often put non-Chinese children at a disadvantage (Barr 2006). He argues that the disparate portrayal of “uplifting” Chinese and the “boisterous” non-Chinese in the school textbooks, along with racial stereotype, depictions of prejudice and racial consciousness, would detrimentally deprive minorities of inspiring role models, undermining the State’s meritocracy ideal and its emphasis on equality as a method for encouraging harmony and understanding among all race groups.

Australia and Singapore compared

This chapter has illustrated the differences between the management of multiethnic population in Australia and Singapore. While multiracialism in Singapore has been inscribed in the Constitution since the beginning of its sovereignty and has been incorporated in many of its public policies since, multiculturalism only emerged in Australia during the 1970s as a policy to control differences. Secondly, for reasons of colonial history, Singapore uses the word ‘race’ in replacement of ethnicity and uses ‘multiracialism’ instead of multiculturalism as the official term within the political administration. And thirdly, Singapore functions on a political culture disparate from Australia. Being a one-party state, the Singapore government rules in a politically-hegemonic position with little risk of being displaced by alternative sections of parliamentary power, therefore establishing a form of governance that is deviated from the Western understanding of an open and liberal democracy. And unlike Australia, the Singapore government predominantly uses multiracialism as an instrument of social control. And such elements can be illustrated in the CMIO model where the government streamlines cultural differences to simplified classification, as well as controlling and advocating languages deemed as beneficial for the national interest. For Australia, the definition of multiculturalism evolves overtime in political administration as a consequence of responding to realities.

However even when both countries have a different inherent understanding of multiculturalism, they present weaknesses and dilemmas that contradict respective political intentions of managing a multiethnic society where minorities risk domination of the majority at the socio-political level, and are subsequently put to a disadvantage. And in both countries, both governments emphasise greatly on national culture and language by placing individuals’ allegiance to the nation before their own ethnic and cultural values. But in the process of doing so, scholars in both contexts noted the costs of doing so. In the case of Australia, minorities risk being displaced by the dominant Anglo-Celtic group as well as underrepresentation at the political level especially if local institutions remain unreceptive to change. And in the case of Singapore, the importance of dialects and its values that are increasingly displaced by the State-imposed CMIO model, resulting in a minimalist understanding of racial harmony where race groups do not engage, interact and have a deep understanding of each other’s cultures.


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