HDB flats in Punggol, Singapore

Singapore seems like an interesting place to study the various ways in which people manage to negotiate differences, and rub along together in everyday life. It promotes itself as a harmonious multicultural society.  Here, as published by the national Department of Statistics, are some demographic data from 2015 (rounded to the nearest per cent). Quite a mix:

Total population: 

  • 5,535m (of whom just under 30% are foreigners working, studying or living in Singapore without permanent residency status)
  • NB: the figures below relate to citizens and permanent residents only


  • Chinese 74%
  • Malay 13%
  • Indian 9%
  • Other 3%

Language most often spoken at home:

  • English 32%
  • Mandarin 36%
  • Chinese Dialects 14%
  • Malay 12%
  • Tamil 3%
  • Others 2%


  • Buddhism: 43%
  • Taoism / Chinese traditional beliefs: 9%
  • Islam: 15%
  • Christianity: 15%
  • Hinduism: 4%
  • Other religions: 1%
  • No religion: 15%

Over 80% of the population live in flats built by the Housing & Development Board (HDB), the national public housing authority. New flats are sold at subsidised prices, with priority given to first-time buyers, but can be sold later on the open market. HDB has been steadily building flats since 1960. (By the way, can we do that too please?)

What particularly interests me is that the government sets ethnic quotas on who can buy these flats, specifically to avoid any groups being concentrated in particular places (as was once the case in Singapore).  These quotas are the same across the whole island, updated monthly, and are set at both block and neighbourhood level.  There are also complex rules about who you can sell your flat to.  The basic principle is that, once a block or neighbourhood has reached the maximum proportion of a particular ethnic group, no sale is allowed which will increase that proportion (Wong, 2013).  Of course, people will self-segregate in all sorts of ways, as they do everywhere, and this will no doubt help reproduce social inequalities of different kinds.  And yet, to some extent, the occurrence of everyday encounters with different cultural groups, in semi-public and public spaces, is thus effectively mandated by the state.

How, then, do Singaporeans go about negotiating these differences, so as to coexist peacefully in these spaces? Junjia Ye (2016) explains that the principle of Gui ju holds the answer. In part, this describes a generally accepted set of behavioural norms – and the state has led publicity campaigns to prescribe “proper codes of conduct in Singapore’s public spaces” (p.92).

She also describes Gui Ju as allowing for social relations to be characterised by ‘civility’.  Civility, as understood in the West, describes the enactment of ‘tolerance’: rather than reflecting an easy-going attitude towards a given other, tolerance indicates the repression of dislike or disapproval (Hancock & Matthews, 2001; Bannister and Kearns, 2013). If we like or approve of a person, there is no need to ‘tolerate’ them.  And yet there are occasions when the limits of our tolerance – which need not be thought of as singular or fixed – are overstepped, and we react with anger.  Similarly, Ye suggests that the social codes of Gui ju may often be transgressed by unsocialised migrant workers (who, as mentioned earlier, make up almost a third of the population).  Fortunately, Gui ju also includes ways of dealing in a civil manner with these transgressions: in the politest way possible, the transgressors are informed that their behaviour is problematic.

At this stage, I have several thoughts and questions:

  • I am wary of reading Asian public behaviour as ‘civil’. At first sight, Singaporeans, Koreans and the Japanese for example appear to behave – to my western eyes – in a remarkably civil way.  And yet civility, as an English language concept, is very closely tied up with the ideal of the autonomous liberal subject, as Frank Furedi (2012) points out.  Something like Gui ju no doubt has entirely different roots – which are probably related to the more collectivist orientation of Confucianism (although I’m out of my depth at this stage)
  • In her article, Ye points out that Gui ju simultaneously allows for differences to be overcome, but also itself creates a “dominant ordering of space” which reinforces a “divide between migrants and locals by disciplining how people ought to behave” (p.97). Civility, similarly, has an ambiguous status: it may bridge differences but its limits also construct an inside and an outside. Civility may be a less homogeneous and more flexible principle than Gui ju, but I’m not sure whether we should think of either as ‘meta-codes’ for behaviour, or as straightforward normative delimiters of what behaviours are deemed acceptable
  • Reports of a rise in xenophobic attacks in the UK, following the Brexit referendum, indicate that the experience has – perhaps temporarily – marked a breakdown of civility, in the sense that the attackers have not felt obliged to suppress their dislike of the ‘other’. It is interesting that this has been theorised as being enabled by the signals given by the politicians (ie state actors) campaigning for the UK to leave Europe.  These recent events, like Singapore’s housing quotas and public education campaigns, would suggest that the state does have an important role to play in allowing different types of people to live together peacefully. Trite though that conclusion might sound, and however we may want to problematise the ‘peace’ which results, or the motivations behind its enforcement or facilitation, I can’t see that there’s much wrong in reminding ourselves of it.


9 July 2016, Singapore



Bannister, J. and Kearns, A. (2013). The Function and Foundations of Urban Tolerance: Encountering and Engaging with Difference in the City. Urban Studies. 50(13): 2700-2717.

Furedi, F. (2012). On Tolerance. Policy. 28(2): 30-37.

Hancock, L. and Matthews, R. (2001). Crime, community, safety and toleration. In: Matthews, R. and Pitts, J. (eds). Crime, Disorder and Community Safety. London: Routledge, 99-119

Wong, M. (2013). Estimating Ethnic Preferences Using Ethnic Housing Quotas in Singapore. The Review of Economic Studies, 80(3): 1178–1214.

Ye, J. (2016). Spatialising the politics of coexistence: gui ju (规矩) in Singapore. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41(1): 91–103.