The Future of Diversity

Jan 19, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Hits: 7240

By Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib

I am a third-generation Singaporean born in the 1970s in a time of rapid transformation. The 1970s to early 1980s was both exhilarating and anxious, as we forged a new identity for Singaporean society. There was rising confidence in the direction of progress, but also great anxiety at the speed of development and emerging attitudes. They were to radically change the fundamental outlook of a people.

Governing diversity

After independence, our multicultural diversity was streamlined to allow for effective governance. The state intervened and regulated societal behaviour as part of governance — from insisting that only those who formed family units could purchase homes from the Housing and Development Board to, for a period, getting all students to take religious knowledge classes in school. Every Singaporean was to be a productive citizen for the new economic landscape. Social policies were shaped to encourage a cohesive workforce with a set of values necessary for a capitalistic milieu.

I was a product of these radical transformations. I was of Malay and Bengali ancestry, but given the Chinese-Indian-Malay-Others (CIMO) race categorisation model, my racial identity was fixed as “Malay”. Being a minority came with its own set of challenges. My paternal grandfather had worked for the police force since the British era. By 1957, Malays were over-represented in the uniformed sectors: 82.1% in the armed forces and 74.3% in the police force. The British forces’ withdrawal in 1971 and changes in the occupational sectors caused structural pressures upon the Malay middle class of the old economy.

I grew up in a working class environment. Back then, extended families lived under one roof. This provided mutual financial support within a single household. The Malay communal spirit of “gotong royong” gave the social network support for many Malay families to pull through difficult times. Today, the nuclear family is more prevalent, which calls for a need for wider social interactions beyond family ties to develop social capital needed to survive in a new economy.

To a large extent, one’s early socialisation shapes the mental outlook of how one perceives the world and one’s surroundings. I grew up with a fair degree of interaction across the various ethnic groups. But almost immediately, we were made conscious of our differences. Skin colour was the most obvious difference. On hindsight, I could recall many embarrassing moments where prejudices and stereotypes were allowed to shape our interactions with those who were different from us.

No one would admit that generalisations were wrong. Categories like “Chinese”, “Malay” and “Indian” were not just simple descriptions of one’s ethnic category; they came along with a defining set of features, many of which were negative and limiting of one’s life choices.

Achieving “multiculturalism proper”

I was an educator in my early career and I have seen children equating their lack of drive to succeed to their cultural traits. I would not blame them. They were shaped by their surroundings. And when they do succeed, they are deemed different — an example of what could be achieved in a meritocratic society.

This seemed normal in how I came to experience multicultural Singapore. Little did I realise that the normalisation was a consequence of the peculiar way in which our society has been structured along racial lines. Multiculturalism is not the mere acknowledgment of diversity. It is “a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalise diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes,” says the British writer, Kenan Malik, in Multiculturalism and Its Discontent. It is necessary for the purpose of governance, but it has consequences. On a positive note, Singapore’s multicultural policy can be said to fulfil many of the indicators outlined by Professors Keith Banting and Will Kymlicka in their book Multiculturalism and the Welfare State.

Yet, stereotypes continue to be a nagging feature that indicate a less-than-desirable state of integration. Singapore, in other words, has yet to achieve a status of “multiculturalism proper” as defined by Professor George Crowder in his book Theories of Multiculturalism, in which multiplicity of cultures are not just generally approved, but “also given positive recognition in the public policy and public institutions of the society”.

To overcome the limitations of structures and policies, I chose to be involved in intercultural work. It was not easy. Race and religion are two issues where the out-of-bounds (OB) markers are narrow. But if we do not talk about it, prejudices cannot be surfaced and corrected, and stereotypes will continue to shape how we see and think of those who are not like us. This will have lasting consequences. In times of relative peace and stability, one can go on being politically-correct in daily interactions sustained by an overarching fear not to infringe on sensitivities. But what if Singapore were to face new challenges and the existing model of governance cannot cope?

I think we need to imagine a new way of forging relations among people that can lead to a new social contract. At present, we are still haunted by the ghosts of the past. Because of the experience of race riots in the 1950s and 1960s, we have come to see race and religion as two primordial ties that form a deep cleavage in Singapore society. As a result, we have become a somewhat Hobbesian society that is in need of a leviathan — in our case, the government — to keep us from destroying one another.

Integration so far

This is not to say that there is no integration in Singapore. The “Goodwill committees” formed after the 1964 riots and the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC) formed in 2002 after the discovery of a terrorist cell have promoted healthy interactions across the ethnic and religious divides. But the glue that held our social contract together was the need to survive, and thrive economically. Our vulnerability was the overarching narrative that kept ethnic and religious differences from bubbling over.

Today, the new generation that has emerged remembers mostly prosperity, stability and peace. The British playwright, George Bernard Shaw, once said, “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past but by the responsibility for our future.” Singapore is at the crossroads once again. The narrative of vulnerability is less convincing than that of a widening income gap and decreasing rate of social mobility. This seems to be the anxiety that will deepen the social divide.

When one cannot make sense of the changing context, prejudices and stereotypes will rear their ugly heads once again. An employer seeking to compete in a tight market may not want to employ a certain category of people based on the assumption that they might be less industrious or may cause problems. A person who failed in several attempts at employment may turn his resentment inwards and perceive what has happened to him as a result of being in a racist environment. In other words, race and religion per se may not be the primordial causes of inter-group resentment and eventual conflict. What matters then is basic socio-economic factors and the way we organise society to provide for greater access to opportunity and resources, as well as an equal arrangement that allows for all members of society to feel that they are recognised, and that they belong.  

What will the new consensus be?

We are now confronted with the task of dealing with an increasingly diverse environment. I believe that we can no longer operate on the basis of surrendering the work of social cohesion to an ultimate arbiter, who will keep us apart, at bay, and balance our respective exclusive needs. We have to be bold to confront our own fears of engaging with others; to rethink our deep-rooted assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices; and to embrace differences while upholding a commitment to ensure that we are equal as citizens of this land.

I foresee a future where Singapore society will mature as we eventually develop genuine tolerance that includes an embrace, not mere putting up, of differences. Tolerance does not begin with silencing differences or withholding speech. Tolerance is the product of robust debate where we eventually come to understand one another’s positions and accord each the space to be different. This, at least, was the initial birth of the liberal spirit of toleration, said the sociologist Frank Furedi in his book, On Tolerance. It is not mere “putting up with differences”; it is acceptance of a multiplicity of views and of irreconcilable differences.

Thus, the “new consensus” is not about forging a unified view, which will be almost impossible in this new age of pluralism. It is about giving space and freedom to each member of society to pursue his or her dreams, as long as they do not impinge on the rights of the other, or cause harm to the general good of society.   

To achieve genuine social cohesion, we need to move away from mere acknowledgment of differences (“multi”-cultural) to cross-cultural interactions and engagements (“inter”-cultural). We must see that our destiny is intertwined and I am as much a part of you as you are a part of me. Often, racial and religious categories overlap without having to deny the dimensions that remain exclusive to each community. As the philosopher John Rawls says, we need to continuously search for that “overlapping consensus”. But this task cannot be achieved if we fail to provide the various “safe spaces” for voices to be heard, particularly from the most marginal and under-represented elements in society. The new consensus must be as inclusive as possible.

When in doubt, turn to the Pledge

Here lies the dilemma: Can a society be truly inclusive with no out-groups? We know that one of the main causes for inter-group strife is the problem of inclusion and exclusion. Therefore, there must be some guiding principles in which we must aspire towards. Otherwise, our choices may seem arbitrary and we fail to see how we can regurgitate the mantra of inclusivity while remaining blind to our own practices of exclusion.

I believe that the pledge of building “a democratic society, based on justice and equality” has to be made central in our effort to surface the true meaning and practices of an inclusive society. Citizenship education must thus be at the forefront of our efforts to discuss diversity. We have to learn to live together as equal citizens, not as separate communities that are in need of protection from others.

The next two decades will be critical in how we manage diversity while transiting to a new way of dealing with differences. It has to begin from the ground. But first, we need to reduce the climate of fear to deal with difficult issues, while providing the freedom to express within a safe environment. Only then can we hear voices from those who are hidden within the limiting categories and labels that we had boxed people into. Only then can we truly acknowledge our deep diversity. Only then can we transit to a society that celebrates differences but accords the freedom for all to pursue their dreams and aspirations, while standing together to uphold our founding principles of justice and equality.

Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is an interfaith activist and founding member of Leftwrite Center, a dialogue initiative for young professionals.

Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is is also featured on The Future of Us Ideas Bank Page (Dreamers)

Top photo from Singapore Policy Journal

Category: Young Singaporeans Series


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