Country Listing

Singapore Table of Contents




Wife of Chinese millionaire, late nineteenth century
Courtesy Library of Congress


Chinese medicine shop in Chinatown
Courtesy Ong Tien Kwan

Ethnic Categories

Since the city's foundation in 1819, Singapore's population has been polyglot and multiethnic. Chinese have been in the majority since 1830 but have themselves been divided into sometimes antagonistic segments speaking mutually unintelligible Chinese languages. The colonial society was compartmented into ethnic and linguistic groups, which were in turn associated with distinct political and economic functions. Singapore has never had a dominant culture to which immigrants could assimilate nor a common language. This was the foundation upon which the efforts of the government and ruling party to create a common Singaporean identity in the 1970s and 1980s rested.

On July 1989 Singapore's 2,674,362 residents were divided into 2,043,213 Chinese (76.4 percent), 398,480 Malays (14.9 percent), 171,160 Indians (6.4 percent), and 61,511 others (2.3 percent) (see table 3, Appendix). The proportions of the ethnic components had remained substantially unchanged since the 1920s. Although the ethnic categories were meaningful in the Singaporean context, each subsumed much more internal variation than was suggested by the term "race." Chinese included people from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as Chinese from all the countries of Southeast Asia, including some who spoke Malay or English as their first language. The Malays included not only those from peninsular Malaya, but also immigrants or their descendants from various parts of the Indonesian archipelago, such as Sumatra, the Riau Islands south of Singapore, Java, and Sulawesi. Those people who in Indonesia were members of such distinct ethnic groups as Acehnese, Minangkabau, Buginese, Javanese, or Sundanese were in Singapore all considered "Malays." Indians comprised people stemming from anywhere in pre-1947 British India, the present states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and from Sri Lanka and Burma. Singapore's Indian "race" thus contained Tamils, Malayalis, Sikhs, Gujaratis, Punjabis, and others from the subcontinent who shared neither physical appearance, language, nor religion.

Data as of December 1989