Hodge Lodge Debate Series: Race Based Affirmative Action

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By Angus Yip (18A01A), Zara Karimi (18A01A)

While multiracialism is a core tenet of the Singaporean identity, our society is one that continues to be drawn along racial lines. This almost paradoxical relationship manifests itself in different ways: citizens and permanent residents have their race stated on official documents, the housing development board allocates flats with quotas based on race, and, most notably, the Singapore government has declared that the next elected president will be Malay.

These incidents have all sparked their own debates on race and representation in Singapore. Given the starkly different, and often diametric viewpoints, objective, open conversations are absolutely necessary. This was what Raffles Debaters set out to do with the focus of the recent Hodge Lodge Debate Series event – race-based affirmative action. The motion for the night was “This House supports race-based affirmative action policies.”

As Chairperson Emily Zhao (17A01B) explained, the Hodge Lodge Debate Series “aims to bring debates and discussions about important issues to students”. To that end, Raffles Debaters invited former national debaters Lee Chin Wee and Dr Vernie Oliveiro to represent the Proposition, as well as Joel Nee and Chong Ee Hsiun to represent the Opposition.  

The debate was followed up by a panel discussion on the wider issue of race and discrimination in Singapore, featuring panelists Dr Nazry Bahrawi, Dr Mathew Mathews, and Dr Oliveiro. Dr. Bahrawi is the Associate Editor of Critical Muslim, and specializes in Islam and culture between the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Dr. Mathews is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Public Studies, as well as a research advisor to the Ministry of Social and Family development. Dr. Oliveiro is the Lead Researcher at the Centre for Governance and Leadership at the Civil Service College.

The panellists and speakers provided a variety of nuanced viewpoints, allowing for a lively and engaging debate that helped students form their own opinions on race-based affirmative action.

Proposition speaker Lee Chin Wee delivering the first speech for the night.

Both sides agreed that it was necessary to level the playing field and provide social safety nets for disadvantaged individuals and groups. However, rather than focusing on the necessity of affirmative action in itself, the debate was centred around whether or not systemic inequality was class-based or race-based.

First Proposition speaker Lee Chin Wee exuded confidence as he pushed forth his reasons for the necessity of race-based affirmative action, and this was echoed in Dr Oliveiro’s speech, as she shared personal anecdotes about her experience with racism in Singapore as a member of the Eurasian community.

Proposition’s argument was as follows: in different countries, the majority enjoys privilege due to social capital, thus putting minority races at a disadvantage. Furthermore, race and poverty tend to intersect to create disprivilege, often due to larger social and historical contexts. An example of this would be the North American slave trade and its effects on black Americans in the United States today.

As such, Proposition argued that the majority must give up some of its privilege to benefit society at large. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that deserving individuals from diverse racial backgrounds get opportunities through affirmative action.

Opposition speaker Chong Ee Hsiun

On the other hand, Opposition speakers Joel Nee and Chong Ee Hsiun maintained that systemic inequality was the result of a class-based divide. Therefore, given the aim of aiding the disadvantaged, affirmative action would be an imprecise solution to the larger problem created by unequal distribution of wealth, citing the example of poor white people versus rich black people in America.

Additionally, acknowledging this inequality between races through affirmative action may exacerbate biases against minorities, by perpetuating the narrative that they are ‘inferior’ and ‘in need of assistance’.  Finally, the Opposition pointed out the injustice in forcing people today to pay for the mistakes of their ancestors, as the link between past oppression and current deprivation is inconclusive at best.

The general atmosphere throughout the debate was one of mutual learning as well as friendly discussion, with light-hearted remarks breaking the tension between Proposition and Opposition. As Dr Oliveiro began delivering her case, her first remarks were: “Please don’t learn from me if you’re planning on going for the World Schools Debate Championship. This really isn’t the way you should be speaking for something like that.”

Later on, when it was Opposition speaker Chong Ee Hsiun’s turn to speak, he quipped cheerfully, “Since this is not the World Schools Debate Championship, I will now break format and deliver five refutations to [Dr Oliveiro]’s arguments!” It was clear that the debaters were less concerned about adhering to proper structure and format than engaging deeply in the heart of the issue in a courteous and lively manner.

The panel discussion expanded on the points of contention in the debate, and went on to address issues of race in Singapore today, such as the relevance of the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other (CMIO) framework. While dividing society along racial lines would only serve to exacerbate discrimination against minorities, this division still serves the purpose of protecting minority rights in a society where the majority tends to forget about their existence. A perfect model would therefore be able to balance these two needs.

Panellists (from left to right): Dr Bahrawi, Dr Mathews, and Dr Oliveiro

With issues such as the elected presidency bringing the idea of affirmative action to the forefront of public discourse, Raffles Debaters’ main topic of discussion for the Hodge Lodge Debate Series could not have been more timely. The issue of race is one that must be discussed in public because it forms such an integral part of our individual identity as well as our nation’s collective identity.

As discourse about race is very much controlled by the government in Singapore, it is important that we attempt to form our own views about race – one that interrogates the assumptions in the state-sanctioned narrative, before accepting or rejecting this narrative. After all, it is only through the process of hearing alternative views that our own opinions can stand up to scrutiny.

Ultimately, the Hodge Lodge Debate Series was immensely rewarding insofar as it helped the audience better understand why people have different opinions towards the complex issue of affirmative action. After the event concluded, Ivan Toh (18A01A) commented that “the Hodge Lodge Debate Series was extremely exciting and insightful. The multifaceted discussions on race went beyond the confines of the GP classroom to help us understand how race affects the classroom, workplace, and society.” This was a sentiment echoed by Matthew Wong (18A01E), who believed that the Hodge Lodge Debate Series helped him understand that “no issue is monolithic… talking about race must be understood as the first step towards creating an ideal society.”

The Hodge Lodge Debate Series will return next term, addressing another topic that promises to be as thought-provoking as this one. We hope that such a platform for fruitful discussion will continue to be supported by the school population.

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