Lydia Lim, Deputy Opinion Editor

To embrace or oppose those who are different?

The state can encourage mixing but it cannot force people to integrate

Two Muslims, a Christian and a Buddhist went to Jerusalem together. There, they met a Jew who drove them around, showed them the sights and told them snippets of the history of Israel and its people.

As they walked the cobbled streets of the old city, the Buddhist asked the others to explain their faith to him. They continued talking as they went to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam; to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that is sacred to Christians; and to the Wailing Wall which marks the perimeter of the Jews' ancient temple - all places of prayer and pilgrimage.

I was the Christian in that mix and I am grateful that I saw Jerusalem in the company of people whose religious beliefs are different from mine, and had a chance to converse with and learn from them.

Diversity can enrich, injecting colour, variety and fresh perspectives into many aspects of life - from food to fashion, from sports to scholarship. But it is a double- edged sword and sadly, its dark side has been making headlines of late with the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, anti-immigration protests in Europe and terrorist assaults in the Middle East and Africa.

Against that backdrop, a pertinent question to ask is how people can learn to live with and embrace difference.

Or is that even a realistic aim, since differences of race and religion have time and again sparked outbreaks of violence? Should the focus be instead on containing the problems associated with diversity, so as to minimise harm?

These questions gain urgency today because the pace of migration has accelerated. The United Nations reports that between 1990 and 2013, the number of international migrants worldwide rose by over 77 million or by 50 per cent. Much of this growth occurred between 2000 and 2010.

Inflows of newcomers disrupt the lives of settled populations, bringing into their midst people who are different and unfamiliar. As scholar Farish A. Noor points out, globalisation means that societies "are now forced to confront diversity on a daily basis, smack in the faces of some who may object to opinions and world views that they find contrary to their own".

The underlying causes of these tensions were the subject of a seminal book by American political scientist Samuel Huntington, who in the mid-1990s warned that the post-Cold War world would be one defined by a clash of civilisations.

He argued that when confronted with the basic question, "Who are we?", nations would answer it by referring to the things that mean most to them - ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs and institutions. As he put it: "We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often, only when we know who we are against."

His paradigm of a world riven by civilisational conflict has been contested, though it provided an early warning of the extremist campaigns and identity politics afflicting some societies today.

Diversity is of course part of Singapore's heritage, and that of South-east Asia as well, a region where people shaped by different civilisations have lived side by side for centuries.

Singapore's uniqueness lies not in being multiracial, multireligious and multilingual but in the way the state has sought to help everyone get along through what my colleague Rachel Chang terms "legislated multiracialism". In the book 50 Things To Love About Singapore, she cites ethnic quotas in HDB estates, national schools and group representation constituencies (GRCs) as key components of a state campaign to ensure "Singaporeans of different races would have to live together, study together and even run for elections together".

Singapore's leaders have always warned of the deep fault lines that differences in race and religion can carve in a society. Addressing the issue of press freedom in a speech to the International Press Institute in 1971, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew spoke of the mass media's power to shape social behaviour and even spark political action, by among other things stoking people's feelings about their language, race and religion.

"I used to believe that when Singaporeans become more sophisticated, with higher standards of education, these problems will diminish. But watching Belfast, Brussels and Montreal rioting over religion and language, I wonder." His conclusion: "Freedom of the press must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore."

While one may disagree with where the Singapore Government draws the line on press freedom and other civil liberties, one also has to acknowledge that it has a role to play in pre-empting, forestalling and containing the potential fallout from diversity. To do so, it has in place laws like the Sedition Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, as well as institutions such as the Presidential Council for Minority Rights and the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony.

In dealing with difference, a state's role is first a negative one - to prevent conflict.

After that, its role is to create the conditions that make integration possible and perhaps, likely. It needs inclusive policies that prevent stark inequalities from emerging. It must ensure no group feels disenfranchised because of colour or creed.

The state can encourage mixing but it cannot force people to integrate. That is a decision for individuals and their communities. Culture should remain in the private realm, says sociologist Chua Beng Huat, adding that "the state cannot create culture, and the more it tries, the worse it gets".

Individuals have to decide whether to embrace those who are different and to learn from them, or to base their identity on opposition to those who do not share their beliefs.

In helping them make this choice, national, religious and community leaders have an important role to play in shaping opinion, as do parents, teachers, writers and artists.

Ultimately, integration is possible only when people believe that the humanity they share is important and to be valued.

lydia@sph.com.sg