Singapore’s Lessons on Affirmative Action

Balancing Meritocracy and Diversity

A Singaporean Malay Muslim boy waits to eat in a mosque during Ramadan, June 2014. Edgar Su / Reuters

In early August, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) would be looking into lawsuits filed by Asian Americans against Harvard University, alleging anti-Asian racial discrimination in the school’s admissions policies. The move has set off fervent discussion in the United States over the future of affirmative action, or the practice, in place since the 1960s, of positive discrimination in favor of historically marginalized groups.

Yet the United States is not the only country trying to negotiate the delicate balance between upholding meritocracy and ensuring that racial minorities do not feel a sense of alienation. Singapore, a multiracial city-state that has assiduously avoided affirmative action policies, last year passed constitutional changes that pave the way for its first presidential election (on September 23) in which all candidates will come from the minority Malay ethnic group. The Singaporean government views any help it provides to ensure minority representation as a safeguard against instability. It is wary of implementing policies that affect a broad category of minorities, which may ultimately relegate them to be viewed as tokens. 


In the United States, the DOJ’s move has reignited long-running debates about affirmative action. Such policies have long been opposed by conservative white Americans, and many fear that President Donald Trump’s administration is simply looking for any avenue it can find to bolster white privilege. Yet not all those who oppose affirmative action are white—some Asian Americans, often more recent immigrants, have also called for a purely meritocratic system of college admissions, since they need to obtain much higher test scores than students of other races to be admitted to highly selective colleges. Asian Americans, moreover, have often been presented by critics of affirmative action as so-called model minorities for having allegedly overcome discrimination through an emphasis on education and hard work. 

American opponents of affirmative action argue that the United States is no longer the segregated country it was in the mid-1960s, when such policies

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