Multiculturalism and the state

In dealing with multiculturalism, the state has to manage and allocate values of different communities based on a soft hierarchy of values that expands the common space in society.

No country is today, however it may think of itself, homogenous. Identity politics is upon us all; a reality that cannot be wished away. Globalisation is a cultural as well as an economic phenomenon.

The inequalities and sense of cultural threat that globalisation has wrought has also caused identities of various kinds to be more insistently asserted, sometimes violently. Although globalisation's downsides as well as its benefits have now become more evident, it cannot be reversed and there is no alternative. We will just have to somehow deal with it.

My most fundamental assumption is that there is not one "Good" but many "goods", all desirable, but which are not capable of simultaneous realisation. If we accept the existence of multiple "goods" that are not reconcilable, it follows that pragmatic trade-offs are inevitable; perfect consistency is impossible and in fact undesirable.

Historically, attempts to structure political systems on the basis of perfect consistency around some conception of one "Good" or another has generally led to a great deal of trouble and not a little bloodshed.

I take it as a given - not worth arguing about - that universality is a myth and while East and West certainly hold some values in common, these similarities are at such a high level of generality that they are not useful for understanding how societies actually operate and prescribe nothing of any practical significance for how societies ought to organise themselves. I take it as axiomatic that there are differences between East and West, one of the more significant of which is the relative emphasis placed on the individual and the community.

I stress "relative emphasis" because the differences are not absolute. No human being can achieve self-actualisation in isolation. Every individual is necessarily part of a larger "community" whether defined by nation, tribe, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual preference or some other category. Even a hermit is a hermit precisely because he belongs to a "community" or category of hermits.


A poster which reads "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) amid symbolic pens and pencils on Place de la Republique commemorating those killed in a terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, France, in January last year. The attackers regarded freedom of expression, when defined to allow the denigration of their religion, offensive to the extent that they resorted to terror. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Moreover, we all have multiple identities and cannot define ourselves by any single category, although we may well delude ourselves otherwise. "East" and "West" are only one set of categories and not necessarily the most important set.

As a former civil servant and diplomat, my basic frame of reference and analysis is the state. The authority of the state is not uncontested but still fundamental. The state now shares space with other actors but this is still a state-centric world.

The very doctrine of multiculturalism holds the state responsible for protecting the rights of the individual, including the right to belong to some community and the right of any community to have a distinct identity, however defined. If those rights are threatened, it is generally to the state to which first appeal for redress is made.

The question then arises, how should the state discharge this responsibility? What concept of the state can best meet this responsibility?

WHAT CONCEPT OF GOOD SHOULD THE STATE UPHOLD?
It was only relatively recently in history that such questions had any relevance. So long as the state was unabashedly based on some notion of natural hierarchy - man over woman, noble over commoner, the rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate, the civilising Christian colonial master over the benighted heathen natives, white man over coloured - they were irrelevant. Every group had its place and should know its place.

Consensus is always tentative, always in the process of renegotiation, and not all negotiations are peaceful. The best that can be achieved is coexistence and perhaps to gradually expand common space.

So long as the idea of the state as reflecting some natural hierarchy was dominant, the idea that cultural or other differences needed to be respected on the basis of equality and therefore "managed" would have been regarded as deeply subversive, including by many at the bottom of the hierarchy.

It was only with the rise of the idea that individuals and the communities by which individuals define themselves have rights which in principle ought to be equally applied, that such questions became salient and the idea that states ought to reflect some natural hierarchy became less than respectable.

But the idea that the state ought to represent some natural hierarchy has not entirely gone away. It still lingers and in our own region not in any embarrassed way either. The notion that states should be based on the dominance of the bumiputera or pribumi or Han over other ethnicities or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu over other religions or speakers of one language over others, is still openly advocated not very far from our borders and when not actively promoted by the state, is tacitly tolerated.

The instinct to distinguish oneself from the "other" is a primordial part of human nature which is futile to deny or attempt to erase. What is happening in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe is as much a cultural revolt by those who feel themselves culturally dispossessed by elites whose values they do not share, as it is economically motivated. Any political project taken in defiance of human nature is bound to fail.

THE STATE IS NOT NEUTRAL
Herein lies the essential weakness of the concept of the state that is I think the dominant theory among Western elites. This theory holds that the state should not concern itself with any substantive idea of the "good life" - all conceptions of the "good life" being equally valid.

The state should instead concern itself only with the procedural protection under law of individuals and the communities with which individuals identify and leave it to individuals and communities to define the "good life" as they see fit. But since not all conceptions of the "Good" are reconcilable and human nature being as it is, it is a very small step from claiming equal protection to claiming privilege, a step that few can resist the temptation to take.

All the more so because the procedural concept of the state is not necessarily neutral in the eyes of all. For example, evangelical Christians and some Muslims would find the idea that the state should grant equal protection to, say, the right of women to abortion or the rights of homosexuals, unacceptable because it is contrary to their idea of the "Good".

This is not just an abstract consideration. In France for instance, some Muslims regarded freedom of expression - which many in the West would consider the fundamental procedural requirement of state neutrality - when defined to allow the denigration of their religion offensive to the extent, as it did in the case of Charlie Hebdo, that they resorted to terror. That these Muslims had an entirely erroneous notion of Islam is beside the point. The point is that they believed in it as fervently as the cartoonists believed in an unfettered right to freedom of expression.

Murder is, of course, always unacceptable. But the fact remains that the state in this case was not neutral - it embodied a conception of the "good life" that privileged freedom of expression over other values - and paid the price.

The state cannot avoid choices whether conscious or unconscious, and the choices will never be acceptable to all groups or entirely logically consistent. France has laws against anti-Semitism. But if you do not allow Jews to be insulted, why not allow Muslims the same protection?

There is perhaps a historical reason - guilt over how Vichy France treated French Jews - but history is not logical. It is always replete with contingencies and contradictions.

Even in less extreme situations short of violence, if the state eschews all but a procedural role, the fact that not all concepts of the "Good" are reconcilable, in practice leads to endless contentions between claims to the right to pursue contradictory notions of the "Good".

If all concepts of the "good life" are regarded as equally valid, by what standard are claims to be adjudicated when they contradict each other?

This is a fundamental issue to which I have seen no satisfactory answer. The general theory of rights is that they are held by the individual or community against an overly powerful state. This may be valid as far as it goes, but any idea taken to extremes becomes self-subverting or a caricature of itself which is, I think, the situation in many countries, not all Western, where Leviathan has become Gulliver tied down by myriad silken cords of claims asserted as "rights".

THE STATE'S POWER TO ALLOCATE VALUES
When multiculturalism fails to be adequately managed, it is generally because of state failure: because the state is too weak or too politically timid or too entangled in the contradictions of its own ideology to perform one of the most fundamental functions of the state and political system: what David Easton defined more than 60 years ago as "the authoritative allocation of values for a society".

To authoritatively allocate values does not mean that the ideal state or the ideal political system is the Soviet Union under Stalin or China under Mao or Pol Pot's Cambodia.

They all ultimately failed because the "authoritative allocation of values" was unilaterally imposed, the values they imposed were unacceptable to groups within these polities or indeed contrary to human nature, and thus unsustainable.

Another sort of state failure is when a state is too insecure to admit any value but its own. Incidentally, this is not a failure peculiar to dictatorships, as a moment's reflection on the myth of universality ought to make clear. Today, the desperate insistence of some countries on their own and only their own interpretation of rights often reflects deep insecurity about their place in a rapidly changing world.

But the alternatives are not, say, Haight-Ashbury in the late 1960s where all can hang loose or North Korea where being regarded as a loose end is life-threatening. There can be balance, although we must acknowledge that today any balance will constantly be under pressure: externally from globalisation and mass population movements, and internally from ideologies touted as "universal" that some sections of society for whatever reason - not always the stated reason - will choose to believe.

I would therefore restate Easton's insight to say that the fundamental purpose of the state and political system is not just to allocate values, but to do so in a way that is minimally acceptable to all groups or a majority of groups within the state and, by doing so, defines some common space which occupies the apex of what we may call a "soft hierarchy" of values: a hierarchy that provides the adhesion that holds society together but still leaves room for communities to preserve the essentials that make them distinct communities.

A state or system that is unable or unwilling to do so is something less than a state and its society will be under constant threat of dissolution. To ensure at least a contingent level of acceptance, the definition of common space must be periodically legitimated through some reasonably fair electoral process.

When contentions arise, as they inevitably will, between different conceptions of the "Good", the state must act as arbiter by reference to that common space.

And once determined, the state must surgically and prophylactically defend common space by the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state, at least until the next election.

To wait until trouble breaks out is to wait too long. The atmosphere will be poisoned; contentions more stark; the possibility that common space and the prevailing soft hierarchy will be challenged through bullets rather than ballots higher.

Some of you may find this unsatisfactory. It is in fact unsatisfactory. It is messy and fraught with risk. I can only say that life is messy: to protect some rights necessarily entails the curtailment of others, state power can be abused and to determine common space and a soft hierarchy of values through the electoral process is inherently risky.

Elections are as much if not more about emotions as they are about reasonable choices and the identification of an individual with a community and the manner in which any community defines itself is inescapably emotional. There is no guarantee that the outcome will be satisfactory, or if satisfactory will be respected, or if respected will not at some future time be repudiated. The management of multiculturalism is a never-ending process that will never reach a neat or definitive resolution.

THE LIMITS OF EDUCATION
Men of goodwill may believe that consensus between different ideas of the "Good" can be reached through education and dialogue. While education and dialogue are necessary, it would be extremely naive to rely only on education and dialogue simply because those most open to education and dialogue are generally those in least need of it.

It is a fallacy to believe that better understanding of another view always leads to consensus; it could well lead to sharper disagreement as the extent of divergence becomes clearer. Consensus is always tentative, always in the process of renegotiation, and not all negotiations are peaceful. The best that can be achieved is coexistence and perhaps to gradually expand common space.

I believe that coexistence and common space are never in a self-sustaining state of equilibrium but must be underpinned by state power. We are, after all, human and hence inevitably and forever flawed.


  • Bilahari Kausikan is ambassador- at-large in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore.
  • This is an excerpt from a speech delivered on Oct 18 at a conference on East of West and West of East, organised by the Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'Multiculturalism and the state'. Print Edition | Subscribe