Thursday, May 20, 2004

Separate is inherently...

To mark the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Ed, I submit for your consideration a non-American, non-Western example of racial integration.

Roger Mitton, "The Cost of Casual Racism," Asiaweek, 28 November 2001.
There is much to admire about the People's Action Party (PAP) government in Singapore. Most admirable, perhaps, is its splendidly honest policies on race....Lee Kuan Yew...discussed Singapore's race relations during an interview last year. He talked about the policy of racially integrating the housing-development-board flats where most of the population live. People want to be among their own kind. It feels more natural and comfortable if the people next door speak the same language, have the same religion, eat the same food -- and have the same color skin. We all lack tolerance in this regard; some of us just admit it less readily than others. But if this intolerance is left unchecked, it results in ethnic ghettos in which the intolerance feeds upon itself and leads ineluctably to violence.

To forestall this, Lee made sure that flats were allocated in proportion to the racial makeup of the country. In a block of 100 units, roughly 70 would be taken by Chinese, 16 by Malays, 8 by Indians and the remainder by Eurasians and others. And they were mixed up together, Chinese next to Malay-Muslims, next to Indians. Of course, as Lee himself told us, people did not like it. As a politician who had to contest elections every five years, he would do better in a vote-winning sense by letting the Chinese have their own blocks, the Malays theirs, and so on. But, as he put it, with one of his trademark piercing glares, the alternative was worse to contemplate.

I have thought about this often. As a libertarian, my instinct is to let people live where they want to live. So this PAP policy grates on my liberal outlook. But reality increasingly makes me concede that Lee is right.
UPDATE: Just a reminder that, as much light as race relations in other countries can shed on America's, there are limits to how applicable Singapore's example is to the United States. Leaving aside issues of Constitutionality and political feasibility, there are other considerations as well. The income gap between Chinese, Malays and Indians in postcolonial Singapore was far narrower than that between blacks and whites in the United States. Singapore integrated housing, which would be impossible to implement in the United States; the American debate on racial integration focuses on education and sometimes the workplace. All this said, that racial tensions still persist in Singapore should indicate to Americans the elusiveness of racial equality even when free of Constitutional constraints.