Singapore is a multi-ethnic society of largely immigrant stock. In ethno-linguistic terms it comprises mainly Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese Chinese—making up 78 per cent of the population—Malays, including Javanese and Boyanese who comprise 14 per cent; Indians, mainly Tamils, Malayalees and Punjabis, constituting 7 per cent; and ‘others’, including Eurasians. 1 Overlapping with this ethno-linguistic pluralism are the distinctions between Buddhist, Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Sikh and other religious groups. As is the case with Burma, discussions of Singaporean politics usually take this ethnic pluralism as their starting point. In line with the plural society model, the tendency has been to show that the Singaporean state has succeeded in combating the destabilizing and divisive tendencies of ethnic pluralism only by modifying western-style responsive democracy towards more authoritarian, bureaucratic, administrative or paternalistic patterns. But the character of the Singaporean state is not just a reaction to its ethnically plural society, since the state itself has clearly had sufficient strength to significantly modify the development of ethnic consciousness and the manifestations of ethnic politics—not simply by a strategy of coercive suppression, but rather by adopting a strategy of increasingly interventionist management.
A focus on this politics of ethnic management suggests a characterization of the state as being autonomous in relation to societal pressures and ethnically neutral in its national ideology. Such a view of the state is offered by the corporatist perspective. The purpose here, therefore, is to use a corporatist characterization of the Singaporean state to explain the development and implications of its ethnic management politics.