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Can National Identity Trump Ethnic Favoritism? Experimental Evidence from Singapore


Dr. Risa Toha (Political Science, Wake Forest University)

Prior works in ethnic politics have shown that in-group ethnic favoritism can lead to adverse political and social outcomes. Yet, in many of these available studies, ethnic identity could not be easily disentangled from other dimensions of identity, such as religion, class or nationality. Hence, the independent effect of ethnic differences on social cohesion remains unclear.

In this paper, we leverage Singapore's unique demographic composition to measure the extent to which individuals' ethnicity, national identity, and class influence their altruism towards outgroup members. We conducted a field experiment wherein we mail misdirected envelopes to residents containing vouchers and letters cuing for intended recipients' ethnicity, class, and nationality, and track their returns as a measure of altruism.

We find little evidence of ethnic favoritism in our data. Instead, letter recipients are more likely to return misdirected letters when (i) they perceive that the intended recipients belong to a lower socioeconomic class and (ii) as their education and household income increases.

Our results also show moderate effects of national solidarity cutting across ethnic boundaries, wherein Singaporean letter recipients tend to return the letters at a higher rate when the intended recipients are fellow Singaporeans, regardless of their ethnicity and class.

We discuss the implications of these findings on ethnic politics, social harmony, and nation-building.


Political Science, Sociology, Southeast Asia