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.