SP 2016: Panel on “Cohesive Diversity?”

Feb 16, 2016 at 10:44 am | Hits: 2755

By Zhang Jiayi and Wong Fung Shing


Mr Ng Chee Meng
Acting Minister for Education (Schools)


Mr Walter Fernandez
MediaCorp Pte Ltd


Professor David Chan
Lee Kuan Yew Fellow
Director of Behavioural Sciences Institute
Singapore Management University

Associate Professor Elaine Ho
Department of Geography
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
National University of Singapore

Mr Hassan Ahmad
Technical Adviser & Executive Director
Corporate Citizen Foundation



In the second panel of the Singapore Perspectives 2016 conference, the speaker and panellists discussed how Singapore could remain a tolerant and open society with migration and growing religiosity. 


Acting Minister Ng Chee Meng: Drawing Strength From Diversity

Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Ming started the session by pointing out that diversity was a neutral term; while countries could draw strength from diversity, the myriad of identities and allegiances that came with a diverse population could also be divisive. The challenge was to harness the strength of diversity, and he suggested this be done in two phases.

The first phase was the ideational phase, where Singaporeans could defer to the national pledge for a common vision. The pledge emerged at a time when Singapore experienced racial and religious tensions, and the pledge rallied Singaporeans to stand together “regardless of race, language or religion” in forging a strong national identity. The second phase was to institute good policies and processes that would lead us to our vision. Singapore’s politics, he said, did not shy away from making difficult decisions to create “common spaces, for all groups to live, work, and play together”, but acknowledged that these policies should evolve with time as society changes. He added that it was important to safeguard and protect these common spaces.

It was also important to get the process of “inclusive politics” right, he said. He recognised that Singapore is more diverse today because of inter-ethnic marriages. However, diversity is not just restricted to race, language and religion; globalisation has widened income inequality, and Singaporeans are increasingly championing different causes they believe in.

Minister Ng ended his speech by acknowledging that conversations about diversity could be emotionally charged, but he urged Singaporeans to engage in constructive conversation, and not to see the outcomes as a “zero-sum game”.


Coping With Diversity From Immigration

In response to Minister Ng’s point on ideation, Professor David Chan pointed out that using the national pledge to rally people living in Singapore would not be as effective today; four out of 10 people living in Singapore were not citizens and they might not identify with the national pledge. He suggested that using the concept of building a (second) home in Singapore can be a “unifying concept” for all living in Singapore. Minister Ng responded that the pledge was still a meaningful and important rallying call for Singapore citizens as they made up 60% to 70% of the resident population in Singapore.

Associate Professor Elaine Ho questioned if there was really a need to differentiate between Singapore citizens and non-citizens, especially when Singapore was such globalised city. She suggested that this differentiation might reinforce the local-foreigner divide in Singapore. In response, Minister Ng highlighted the importance of the community to be welcoming. Nonetheless, he said that some “unique privileges” for Singapore citizens were still needed. He added that differentiation was necessary as it was impossible for Singapore to accommodate everyone, and discretion was exercised on who Singapore should “encourage to become part of us”.


The Relevance of the CMIO Model

Various individuals shared their thoughts on the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) model, which Singapore uses to manage ethnic diversity in Singapore. Dr Ho acknowledged that the model had served us well in the past 50 years, but questioned if it was “capacious enough” to accommodate the diversity in Singapore today. She suggested that the CMIO model could be altered to make it more inclusive. A member of the audience suggested that the conversation about the CMIO model should extend beyond the dichotomy of whether to scrap the model or not. She suggested that we could learn from the “reductive” shortcomings of the existing model and think about how to move forward.

Prof. Chan reminded the audience that the CMIO model is closely intertwined with many “existing and sensible” policies such as the Ethnic Integration Policy, which has been successful at engendering ethnic integration. Without the CMIO model, these policies might have to be terminated, which might not be ideal for ethnic cohesion in Singapore.

In response, Minister Ng emphasised the important function the CMIO model plays in society — to safeguard the rights of minorities — and highlighted that the CMIO model has helped Singapore build a strong national identity. He added that the government has become more responsive to the needs of population changes and has tweaked the model to make it more flexible. For instance, with more inter-ethnic marriages taking place, couples are now given a choice as to which ethnic category or categories they want their child to be identified with.


Do SAP Schools Segregate?

Two members of the audience urged Minister Ng to consider abolishing Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools which allow pupils to study Chinese at a higher level. Malay and Indian languages at a higher level are not offered at these schools. As a result, almost all students in SAP schools are ethnically Chinese, and this leads to groups of students with little or no exposure to and interaction with pupils of other races. This, they argued, was detrimental to ethnic cohesion in Singapore.

Minister Ng responded that there were specific functions that a SAP school played; these schools were part of Singapore’s history and they enabled students to have a deeper understanding of Chinese culture. Highlighting various other sites of ethnic integration such as National Service and the wider community, Minister Ng reinforced the message that government policy has allowed many opportunities for people of different ethnic groups to interact beyond the school setting.


Coping With Religious Diversity

Citing a global religious diversity report in which Singapore was ranked as the most diverse country out of 232 countries in terms of religion, Mr Hassan Ahmad questioned what more could be done, given the increasing religiosity and migration in Singapore. He pointed to the importance of education, and suggested the reinstatement of inter-religious knowledge into the ‘O’ or ‘A’ Level curriculum, or even into the National Education curriculum for National Servicemen. He believed that this would provide a platform for people of different faiths to understand one another and to appreciate one another’s faiths. To this, Minister Ng agreed that such suggestions could be furthered.


Negotiating the Rights of Other Minority Groups

A member of the audience brought up single mothers and the LGBT community as minority groups that the state should pay more attention to. While he understood that there was a need to wait for society to evolve before policies and institutions could be changed in their favour, he questioned if the state could play a larger role in addressing their basic needs in the process.  

In response, Minister Ng explained the difference between single mothers and the LGBT community. A larger segment of the society agrees that the government should extend help to single mothers — and the government has, through various housing policies and social services made available for them. As for the LGBT community, Minister Ng said there was less space for consensus, but that society would adjust to different values, ideals and mindsets as time passes.


The Future of Dialogue and Collective Decision-Making

Minister Ng recognised that Singapore was diverse not just in demography, but also in the plethora of opinions, views and causes that Singaporeans were concerned about. He urged all to keep an open mind and be willing to engage in dialogue before taking a position. Recognising that governance would have to be more consultative than authoritative, he exerted that the future leadership should be willing to listen to the people and engage in “inclusive politics”.

Minister Ng was convinced that Singaporeans had to co-create the future and believed that the community should play a big part in collective decision-making and effecting social change. He emphasised the role of individuals in finding answers and directions for the community, through engaging in dialogue, providing feedback to the government and taking ownership of what we want to see in our society through our behaviour. He also agreed with a comment from the audience that Singaporeans were “over-relying” on the political leaders for answers.

When discussing polarising issues, Prof. Chan reminded the audience that people’s social identities were more than just that of the contentious ones. It was important to “appreciate how different social identities could co-exist”, and he suggested negligence of this fact often created conflict.


Zhang Jiayi and Wong Fung Shing are Research Assistants at the Society and Identity Cluster at IPS.


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