Mixed-marriage babies now given race choice

What the gods wish to strike down, they first turn into a joke. Humourless, self-important technocrats however, will still continue to think they’re doing the right and wise thing.

I’m referring to the announcement that starting 2 January 2010, mixed marriage couples can choose the “race” of their children. The FAQ on the website of the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), the body responsible for the master database of humans on this island, provided some answers about the new rules, answers which mostly begged more questions.

First, it revealed a factoid that maybe few people knew about (I didn’t):

The Singapore birth certificate, which is a gazetted form under the Registration of Births and Deaths Rules, does not require the child’s race to be recorded. A child’s race is provisionally recorded in our system only for administrative purposes.

The problem apparently starts with the requirement that race be recorded for the identity card, which is issued at age 15. So we have 15 years to figure out what race we are or want to be. But you don’t have freedom of choice here; you may want to be a certain race, but the bureaucrats may not agree.

The ICA’s FAQ explains:

10. Can parents of the same race choose another race for their child?

This option to select the race to be entered on the Birth report Form is only available to children born of mixed race parentage.

What was interesting when I sifted through the bureaucratese was how this change, which was spun to suggest an increase in flexibility, was actually a decrease. Where parents previously could leave the race of the baby blank, they now cannot.

9. When I previously registered my older child’s birth, I need not declare his race. Why the change in procedure?

In Singapore, a child who is a Singapore citizen or permanent resident will have his race officially recorded on his NRIC when he reaches the IC registration age of 15 years. For a child who is below 15 years, ICA would provisionally record the child’s race to follow that of the father’s in our system as the child’s race.

The objective of this revised procedure is to provide an opportunity and choice for parents of mixed race marriages, to decide and declare their child’s race at the time of birth registration.

Humbug. The ICA pretends it is giving people “opportunity and choice”, but there is now no choice to leave it blank. Previously, parents could always record the race of their babies if they wanted to, so it’s not as if they now have the opportunity to do something they couldn’t do before. It’s parents who do not want to abide by the racial pigeonholing that is Singapore who are now deprived of choice.

Why the change? I don’t know. I can only speculate. My guess is that it has something to do with the “mother tongue” school policy. Perhaps the previous system of referring only to the father’s race gave rise to too many requests for language reassignment when the child enters school. Might it not be better, the bureaucrats say, that the parents’ choice be indicated at birth?

Next we come to this ogre called “acceptable mixed race”.

12. Can my child follow his maternal/paternal grandmother/grandfather’s race?

The race of a child will follow that of his father, mother or an acceptable mixed race if his parents are of different races.

The Straits Times, reporting this change, gave an example:

For instance, the newborn of a Caucasian-Chinese couple can be either a Caucasian, a Chinese, or a Eurasian.

— Straits Times, 29 Dec 2009, Mixed marriage couples can pick race at birth

But “Eurasian” has very specific connotations in Singapore. It implies someone of Anglo-Indian descent. Ask most biracials of Chinese and European descent and they do not see themselves as “Eurasian”.

The descriptor called race is being twisted more and more to fit available officialese regardless of meaning.

But what is the available officialese? This immediately begs a cascade of other questions. Would colloquial descriptors do, e.g. Chindian? Would hyphenated descriptors do, e.g. Korean-Vietnamese, Arab-Malay, Chinese-Filipino?

If hyphenated descriptors are not allowed, must they be pigeonholed into “Other”? This is an escape term when bureaucrats stutter in applying race descriptors. But “Other” is not a real descriptor; it tells you nothing except that the person doesn’t fit an existing scheme. It is proof that what we have is political categorisation at work, to serve political ends.

Go back to my example of “Chinese-Filipino”: Does this mean a person of mixed Chinese and Filipino ancestry or a person of Chinese ancestry with Filipino nationality? Is it wise to have the term mean one thing in Singapore and another thing in the Philippines?

More questions: If hypenated descriptors are allowed (which do make for more accurate description), then questions arise about how we describe the parents. Must all people of European descent be called “Caucasian”? Can a German be called “German”? If not, why not? After all, we accept “Korean” or “Japanese” when quite often the person is visually indistinguishable from Han Chinese. So why can’t “German” be an acceptable descriptor when someone of German descent is indistinguishable from other central or nordic Europeans?

Is someone of Bengali descent to be described as “Indian”? But won’t he protest if he is from Bangladesh? Yet, if Bengalis from Bangladesh can be called Bengali, why can’t Bengalis from India be called Bengali?

Take an immigrant from Burma who takes up Singapore citizenship. What if he is from the Karen ethnic group and does not identify with the majority Burmans. Will his “race” be “Karen”? Or do we insist that he is “Burmese”, but if so, how can he be “Burmese” — which is a marker of nationality — when he is Singaporean?

Next, say, he marries a Kadazan from Malaysia. Is the child that results Burmese-Malaysian or Karen-Kadazan?

By now two things will have become clear: There is neither clear distinction between one race and another, especially as humans tend to cross-breed, nor is there clear distinction between the concept of race and that of ethnicity. Not to mention the complication of nationality, previous and present.

Five minutes is all it takes to realise that in an age when people have unprecedented mobility, marrying and reproducing across racial and ethnic boundaries, the best response is to drop the race label altogether. Trying to modify the failing system the way the ICA is doing is just making a bigger joke of the whole shebang.

But the bureaucrats at ICA can’t do the smart thing, can they? Because race is intertwined with our politics. There is not only the politics of second language in schools, there is the politics of race quotas in public housing, and more race quotas in elections. These issues are outside ICA’s purview; they can’t extinguish race labelling because of these other demands.

So, fine-tune it, and proclaim it a job well done, even if the gods are laughing at us.

19 Responses to “Mixed-marriage babies now given race choice”

  1. 1 anony 2 January 2010 at 10:46

    Its LKY’s legacy of scoial engineering that has led to this ludicrous racial profiles. A more matured & open leadership will probably proclaim everyone be labeled as Singaporean full stop.

  2. 2 ash 2 January 2010 at 14:14

    This thing of racial classification should have been removed so long ago. It serves no purpose except for maintaining the racial quota in HDB estates?

    If we look at Philippines, even the Chinese are called Filipino and they themselves take pride in calling themseves Filipino. Same with Thai Chinese, they call themselves Thai. Why don’t we just call ourselves Singaporean? Oh well that’s not a race ?

  3. 3 Desmond 2 January 2010 at 21:29

    Germans who take up PR in Singapore are classified under “German”, it is the same, somehow in these cases, race = nationality. Take for example a British friend of mine, who is of Filipino decent, he is classified under “English”.

    Why you say is already happening, don’t have to look far, just to our new citizens and PRs and you’ll see the who “classification” system is in disarray.

  4. 4 George 2 January 2010 at 21:57

    Cannot do without identifying you here.
    Racial profiling is too important for Singapore’s
    policy decision making to be left to the vagary and
    whims and fancies of individuals.

    He needs to know the numbers of each groups here to tweak his policy.

    • 5 Ben 3 January 2010 at 09:08

      I’m with you on the issue of race classification in Singapore. But your starting point is incorrect: Where parents previously could leave the race of the baby blank, they now cannot.

      From my time, ICA never public lists the race of the child, just the race of the parents. By default, a child’s race is the race of his father.

      Now, ICA gives parents the choice, with some limitations, to publicly list the race of the child differently from that of his father’s. That’s the flexibility.

      Yes, it leaves more quetions than answers. And with the current govt, many policies are so poorly written, and are buffered with catch-alls like “the Minister decides”. 😦

  5. 6 Paul 2 January 2010 at 23:30

    Well – the Law Minister said we are not a country and the MM says that we are not a nation.

    We have a chance to prove them wrong…..

  6. 7 zhiping 3 January 2010 at 11:57

    Hear hear. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read the news that day.

    A couple of other add-ons:

    1. The percentages you quoted from the Straits Times on mixed marriages are actually deeper than meets the eye. If X is Chinese and Y is Indian, their child XY will be labelled Indian under the old system, following the father’s race. What if XY gets married to an Indian girl? Their marriage will not be classified as a mixed-marriage, because both their races on their cards are Indian. This leaves out a sizeable number of non-pure-race marriages in the statistics. Hence, it’s obvious that the percentages of mixed-marriages are actually much higher.

    2. @George: yes, ostensibly the numbers are used to tweak policy. But how effective that is is of debate. I would argue instead that it’s not used to tweak policy, but it’s used to maintain control. Take a nation once full of minorities, with no majorities–Chinese were not the majority because there was no such overarching strong identity as “Chinese”. The Hokkiens didn’t marry the Cantonese who didn’t marry the Hakkas who didn’t marry the Teochews, the same way a Hokkien didn’t marry a Tamil person. The 4 race categorisation was thus a way of reducing the minorities, making the population far more manageable. 2 generations on, our short memories have forgotten what it was like to not have this overarching 4 race identity, so much so that it’s taken as age-old truth. We have responded extremely well to LKY’s policies. And this is a cycle that perpetuates itself:
    create artificial race boundaries and use policies to shore them up –> race boundaries are created in the minds of the people effectively –> they thus achieve the very stereotypes that you expect of them –> they thus respond to the policies engineered to pander to the stereotypes –> all this reinforces the racial stereotype again.
    It is thus not the policies that are tweaked to conform to racial needs–it’s the policies that create the myth of racial needs.

  7. 8 ExExpat 3 January 2010 at 13:31

    Hi Alex yes this race thing is a joke and should have gone away long ago agree!

    And no, I am German but my IC says CAUCASIAN! I have never been in the Caucasus in my live. When registering my “race”, the officer asked me (as I am rather tan) whether I am EURASIAN, and they would have put down EURASIAN if I wanted to they said! What a joke.

    In fact, biologically, there are some definitions of race which we dont apply at all in Singapore. For instance, there is no CHINESE race, there is Han, Mongolian and many others..

    I totally don’t see the purpose of this skewed outdated definitions in such an international country, in x generations we are of more or less mixed decedents.


  8. 9 Baby Jogger Stroller 3 January 2010 at 22:11

    I like the idea. Any mention of race (IMHO) serves only to perpetuate racism.

  9. 10 a. 3 January 2010 at 22:53

    i’m in my mid-20s, caucasian/chinese and identify as eurasian. so do all my other caucasian/chinese friends. what do your friends call themselves?

    when i was getting my IC, the civil servant wanted to register me as “irish,” because my father held an irish passport. she initially *insisted* on registering me as ‘irish’ and said i needed a letter from both parents for them to register me as eurasian. my mother was with me at the time and i look pretty asian. the irish classification was so obviously stupid and we were estranged from my dad with no way to contact him. i was so upset i burst into tears in front of everyone because i couldn’t imagine what my future employers would think of my having this on my resume.

    to the civil servant’s credit though, she changed her mind and quickly registered me as eurasian (no more talk of ridiculous letters). and that was the end of that.

  10. 11 Ned 4 January 2010 at 02:46

    They should allow the option of choosing the “human race”.

  11. 12 Teck Soon 4 January 2010 at 03:00

    To “a”: Why would you want to put your race on your resume?

  12. 13 yawningbread 4 January 2010 at 11:33

    As if the situation is not muddle-headed enough, there is a story on Straits Times’ online Breaking News that speaks of “African-Americans” as a term to refer to those of mixed Black-White ancestry, and “Asian-Americans” as those of mixed Asian and White ancestry. Singaporeans’ ignorance is world-class! It also confuses the word “race” with “ethnicity”.

    Straits Times Braking News, 4 Jan 2010:

    What about Chinese-Indian?
    By Lester Kok

    SO IS the child of an Indian father and Chinese mother more Indian or more Chinese? Or a mix of both?

    Some parents feel that they should not have to decide on this at the child’s birth and offer this solution: hyphenated identities.

    Mrs Maureen Pestana, 48, a Chinese married to a Eurasian, said: ‘In the case of my son, he’s not a first-generation Eurasian, he’s the son of a Eurasian and a Chinese. So on his IC, he should be a Eurasian-Chinese.’

    Assistant Professor Hoon Chang Yau, of the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University, agrees that more could be done to improve the racial classification system.

    ‘If parents can only choose within a single-race category…then it does not give a clearer identity to children of mixed-ethnicity.’

    A hyphenated identity, such as Indian-Chinese, would reflect the
    identity of a mixed-ethnicity child better. This is the case in the United States, which has hyphenated categories, like Asian-American or African-American.

    Although not perfect, it is less limiting than a single-race category, Prof Hoon argues.

    • 14 Lee Chee Wai 9 January 2010 at 09:45

      It is not clear from the article’s text, but am I to understand that a Professor of Social Sciences does not understand the terms African-American and Asian-American?

      To be fair, it is kind of a mess here in the US too. Generally, ethnicity is recorded only for the sake of statistics. Even then, it is pigeon-holed. It is easy to be “Asian” here. “White” is also used to broadly categorize most Americans of European (non-Eastern) descent. I am now not so clear about the term used for people of Eastern European/(White) Russian descent, if any.

      As a whole, however, my feeling is that the US is somewhat ahead of Singapore in striving towards a ethnicity-neutral society. There’s still a long way to go, but US campus-towns appear to have pretty decent track-records in this department. With luck, more and more American generations will cherish diversity without thinking about dis-unity.

  13. 15 All Mixed-Up 8 January 2010 at 06:43

    Are you considered “Chinese” if your parent is a Baba Malay speaking Peranakan? Are you “Malay” if your parent is of Arab descent but wears baju kurung and tudung? Will you be forced to learn Tamil if your father is “Indian”? What happens when people in such situations have children? Answer: A lifetime of cultural/ethnic ambivalence and hang-ups.*

    Of course, the bureaucrats who make these policies probably never have to deal with the fallout… as usual…

    *personal experience

    • 16 Lee Peng Hui 9 January 2010 at 22:04

      Could I opt to be classified as Peranakan? Alternatively, as black, according to recent court ruling in South Africa ..

  14. 17 Lee Peng Hui 9 January 2010 at 22:12

    Actually, it would be best to choose the race that is associated with the highest achievement. There was an experiment which was carried out some time ago which found that black students in the US did significantly worse in tests where they were required to state their race, compared to one where they were not. Such is the effect of stereoytping (Malcolm Gladwell, Blink).In the Singapore context it may be better to try and call yourself Chinese if you can, given the widespread racism.

  15. 18 Benny Mah Brokie 2 February 2010 at 16:19

    I think it is not appropriate for people to freely choose what race they like to be their race on the IC.

    This is not a singapore issue. This is a global issue.

    People of mixed races are everywhere. They are not Chinese or Malay or Indian or Causcasian. They are mixed race. Eg. Chinese-Malay, Indian-Chinese. The point here is they should be proud of their race whatever it may be.

    If they are of Chinese-Malay-Indian mix race, that is what they are.

    An International body should be tasked to address this issue, if not already doing so.

    An Apple is an Apple and not a Apple-Banana. An Apple-Banana is an Apple-Banana and not an Apple.

    By letting mixed race choose their race from non-mixed race race would lead to other problems and confusion.

    In short, this is not wise. People who are not chinese will claim to be chinese maybe for certain advantage like going to china. I dunno. just a thought.

  16. 19 Kilomantix 2 February 2010 at 16:22

    The question is should the gonmin or someone decide on this issue or should there be a referendum to vote on the issue?

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