International law concerning the accommodation and protection of ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic minorities within the nation-state has undergone broadly three ideological shifts. From the piecemeal minorities regime during the League of Nations, to the post World War II dependency on universal human rights to the current minority rights approach typified by the United Nations Minorities Declaration, these international law developments may be seen from a sedimentation perspective rather than a linear chronological perspective. Each stage is not a repudiation of the former but builds and depends upon it. These ideological shifts in international law have a parallel in the domestic transformation of Singapore approach to minorities. Indeed, the domestic developments draw from the international experience.
The negotiation of the claims by diverse ethnic, cultural and religious groups has been a major priority in Singapore since its independence. In particular, Singapore has had to deal with the problem of placating the Malay minority and accommodating their interests within the Chinese-majority state for historical and security reasons. While the Constitution resolves several important minority claims such as language, citizenship and indigenous status (for the Malays), it leaves open other issues such as political representation and the sharing of public space. The adopted approach in Singapore is based on government responsibility for the protection of minority groups, rather than a rights-based model. The government relies on a mix of law, policy and persuasion to judiciously balance majority and minority interests. The constitutional text provides the foundation for this approach article 152 of the Singapore Constitution recognizes the existence of and provides for the protection of racial, religious and linguistic minorities, with particular emphasis on the Malay minority.
In the past 43 years of independence, Singaporeans judicious balancing model has undergone a three stage transformation: (i) attempted constitutionalization, (ii) discretionary politics, and (iii) legalization. This paper will explore this three-stage transformation in the context of Singaporeans unique post-colonial history and draw lessons from Singaporeans experience to articulate a minorities protection model for the sustainable protection for racial, religious and linguistic minorities.