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Pritam Singh, ministers spar over whether ethnic integration policy for public housing should be abolished

SINGAPORE — Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on Monday (July 5) crossed swords with several Cabinet ministers after he questioned the relevance of the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) for public housing and pointed out its negative impact on homeowners from minority communities.

Clockwise from top left: Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh crossed swords with ministers Desmond Lee, Teo Chee Hean and Indranee Rajah on July 5, 2021.

Clockwise from top left: Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh crossed swords with ministers Desmond Lee, Teo Chee Hean and Indranee Rajah on July 5, 2021.

  • Two Cabinet ministers pressed the Workers’ Party chief on whether it continues to take the position that the EIP should be abolished
  • This came after National Development Minister Desmond Lee’s response to a question on whether the EIP is still relevant
  • Mr Singh said the policy has a negative impact on homeowners from minority communities
  • He added that the policy needs to be revisited as there are many families here who no longer fall under the CMIO categories

 

SINGAPORE — Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on Monday (July 5) crossed swords with several Cabinet ministers after he questioned the relevance of the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) for public housing and pointed out its negative impact on homeowners from minority communities.

This was met by a rebuttal from National Development Minister Desmond Lee, who stressed that the policy is still needed to buttress racial integration despite it having its “rough edges” that may cause difficulties to some homeowners looking to sell their flats.

Mr Lee and Second Minister for National Development Indranee Rajah, who stood up to speak during the exchanges, also pressed the Workers’ Party chief on whether it continues to take the position that the EIP should be abolished.

“We still aim to remove it but until we get there, we have to, as Minister (Lee) said, even out the rough edges as much as possible. And at some point I hope, within our generation, we reach that place where we are race-neutral,” replied Mr Singh, who is also Member of Parliament for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

These exchanges were following Mr Lee’s response to a question by Ms Cheryl Chan, MP for East Coast GRC, on whether the EIP is still necessary in today’s context and what steps have been taken to assist minority homeowners who face difficulties selling their Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats.

Under the EIP, a homeowner of a minority race can sell his or her flat only to another member of a minority race, once the quota for the majority race has been reached.

Hence, sellers may see a smaller pool of eligible buyers, resulting in them having to lower their asking price or taking longer to sell their flats.

Mr Lee said in his reply that nearly one in every three public housing blocks has reached one or more EIP quotas.

Recognising that the EIP is an “intrusive” social policy because “it acts against very powerful socio-economic forces that are at play”, he added that the HDB has been exercising flexibility for EIP-constrained owners on a case-by-case basis.

For instance, HDB may allow homeowners more time to sell their flats and waive EIP limits in exceptional circumstances. Mr Lee said that the percentage of successful EIP-related appeals has risen from 14 per cent in 2018 to 21 per cent in 2020.

“However, whenever HDB waives EIP limits to address its impact on certain households, it is mindful that this may lead to even higher imbalances in the concentrations of certain ethnic groups in some areas,” said Mr Lee.

MORE APPLYING FOR WAIVER OF THE EIP

Mr Singh noted that the number of Singaporeans applying for EIP-related waivers has increased since 2017, and a majority of those who applied, or 59 per cent, fall under the Indian and others category.

In 2017, 2018 and 2019, HDB received about 530, 690 and 630 appeals for waivers respectively. Last year, it received about 500 appeals, which makes up about 2 per cent of the 23,100 resale applications filed.

Mr Singh asked if a review of the EIP limits has been undertaken in view of the large number of appeals that come from the minority communities.

Mr Lee said a review is ongoing as the Government continues to look at the proportions of various ethnic groups over the years and adjust when necessary.

He stressed that HDB considers all EIP-related appeals on a case-by-case basis as opposed to increasing EIP limits for all races as it could bring the quota for some races close to 100 per cent.

“Because for the Chinese (community), the limit is already at 87 per cent. So the question is how much more do you want to raise the cap and, in doing so, even when we allow appeals on a case-by-case basis, we are already pushing at the boundaries of what the policy seeks to achieve.”

WP’S POSITION ON THE EIP

Several Cabinet ministers on Monday also sought to clarify the WP’s position on the immediate abolishment of the EIP.

“I just wanted to understand the rationale and indeed what the position is. Because there has been no clear and unequivocal position taken by the Workers’ Party that you want the EIP abolished because you object to it. And that Singapore has reached such a high level of multiracialism that it is no longer necessary,” said Mr Lee.

Mr Singh said that the WP’s position is undergirded by the economic loss to minority communities who face difficulties selling their public housing flats, adding that the policy needs to be revisited as there are many families here who no longer fall under the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) categories, such as those in mixed marriages.

“The current policy as it stands has a larger impact on minorities, penalising them in the pocket when they have to sell their flat.

“And for that reason, the EIP as it stands needs to be reviewed, and we must always keep in focus the prospect of endeavouring towards a race-neutral society where race-based policies like the EIP are no longer needed,” he added.

Mr Lee noted that since 2006, the WP’s position had been that Singapore has reached a level of multiculturalism and the party had therefore called for the immediate abolition of EIP.

"The Workers' Party's position today, in 2021, is that we still need the EIP (as) we work towards a race-blind society and we endeavour to reach there. And at some point, hopefully, we'll not need the EIP. So that is a clear change in political position."

Ms Indranee, who stood up twice to press Mr Singh on whether the WP’s stance remains for the EIP to be abolished, said that both sides of the House agree that they want a race-neutral society where people can live harmoniously.

Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is the Coordinating Minister for National Security, also rose to voice his support for the EIP and asked Mr Singh whether the Government should allow ethnic enclaves to form “just to see what happens” by abolishing the EIP today.

“Are we more likely to level everyone up if we are able to identify the issues that each of the communities in Singapore may face, and therefore have more targeted programmes for them or to ignore the differences, since the Leader of the Opposition says we should be race-blind or race-neutral, and just treat everybody as though they are exactly the same?” Mr Teo asked.

Mr Singh said the exchange should not take away the fact that both parties are trying to move towards a race-neutral society.

“We may have different approaches of going at it. We, of course, have the harder job of trying to second guess what is reasonable in the way we move there because we don't have the information… that the Government has.

“But I think, by and large, we assert that we have to move forward in a way where Singapore as a country, as a society, is strengthened.”

Mr Teo pointed out that while the PAP and WP can both agree on this, there are methods that will more likely achieve an integrated Singapore, and the EIP is one such method.

“We’re more likely to get there with the policies that we have today, with EIP, rather than what the Workers’ Party is proposing. Although, the Leader of the Opposition seems to have shifted away from that because he realises that's untenable.”

During the exchanges, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong also spoke about the continued relevance of the CMIO classification.

He noted that parliamentary questions filed by MPs on both sides of the House oftentimes focused on specific races when it came to discussing programmes, outcomes and assistance.

“And it is only if you have the CMIO classification and breakdown that you will be able to track performance or relative segments of society to gauge the outcomes, and to gauge ourselves to the efficacy and outcomes of these programmes that we have in place,” he said.

Related topics

race ethnic integration policy HDB Pritam Singh Desmond Lee Indranee Rajah Teo Chee Hean

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