(In)tolerance in a diverse society

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By Benjamin Cheah

Between increasing immigration and exposure to new ideas from abroad, Singaporean society is becoming increasingly diverse. Diversity promises respect for all people, but its dark side is intolerance.

Among right-wingers, it is a truism that diversity plus proximity equals conflict. When people of different world views and backgrounds are placed in the same location, they will compete with each other, eventually sparking conflict. In Paris, Arab immigrants with no hope and fewer prospects have turned the suburbs into no-go zones, while shariah patrols face off against the Britain First party in London.

At home, increased immigration has led to many complaints directed against newcomers and migrant workers, and religious fundamentalists are pressing against positive portrayals of homosexuality. As society grows in diversity, more flashpoints will emerge.

The paradox of diversity

Singapore faces the paradox of diversity. On the one hand, Singapore should be open enough to embrace new people and the perspectives they bring. On the other, Singapore must have a single common identity and standard of behaviour for all people. Reconciling the paradox means creating a common space and rules of engagement for everyone.

The first is the creation of a common identity. The current Singapore narrative is that of different people from different races and religions living side by side. While cultural traditions should have a place, the state needs to emphasise a national identity. This includes increasing support and deregulation for artists to develop local culture, making statistics and official documents available for people to discuss current and historical events, and eliminating racial and religious classification where practical—such as allowing Malays to serve in every frontline military unit.

With a common identity comes a common ground for policy and discussion. Different spaces serve different needs, from academic discussion to blowing off steam, but they can have a common rule of engagement: do no harm. Arguments that would unjustly deprive and coerce others would have no place, and neither would people who harm others. Otherwise, people should be free to talk and act as they please without government interference.

Ground-up response

In the face of intolerance, a ground-up response appears to be the best response. Government intervention is a blunt instrument at best, and it should be used sparingly if at all. Ordinary people are capable of identifying and confronting prejudice without turning the streets red, as seen in responses to bloggers like Nicholas Lim and Blood Stained Singapore. If the people can handle it, there is no need for the state to expend time and resources.

A Citizens’ Consultative Committee composed of opinion leaders, such as bloggers and academics, could be founded to discuss more controversial issues. They could help sway the debate with their moral authority, act as mediators between stakeholders if needed, and make policy recommendations where necessary.

Government intervention is the tool of last resort. The threshold for action is speech that incites violence against people and property. Existing law appears adequate in this regard. Speech that merely offends feelings should not fall under government purview. As a rule of thumb, if harm done is subjective or cannot be observed and measured, it can be dealt with by the community and the Committee.

Balancing private and public goods is always tricky. But every community is composed of individual citizens; it is the citizen, therefore, who creates the community through synergy with others. Empowering ordinary people enables a bottom-up approach, producing a diverse community hard-coded to embrace the richness of the human experience. This is the root of social harmony, and the natural antidote to prejudice.