Tolerance alone is not enough

Singapore recently marked Racial Harmony Day. In the midst of the events at schools and in the community, many seem unaware of the reason for the choice of date.

July 21, 1964 was the date of the largest race riots in Singapore, primarily between Malays and Chinese. Thirty six people were killed, nearly 600 injured and, in the aftermath, some 3,000 were arrested.

Racial harmony for a high-pressure, heterogeneous society such as Singapore is an existential consideration. We place emphasis on the need for tolerance between races. This is laudable but, I would argue, is too low a standard for our needs today.

Tolerance is a condition where different ethnicities or religions may either have a weak understanding of one another, or actively dislike and yet mutually agree to put up with one another.

Often, this tolerance is both superficial and limited to public arenas.

The causes for the race riots in 1964 were low trust between the races and the politicisation of race and religion in the context of the fraught politics of the Federation of Malaysia. Singapore had then already a 150-year history as a multiracial society - one where the different communities tolerated one another but often lived separately even if they had to interact daily for practical reasons. The standard of tolerance failed spectacularly then when tensions erupted.

The fear is that tolerance today may mask simmering issues and that when tensions erupt, conflict can emerge even amid a climate of "tolerance".

We must perennially push for a much higher threshold of harmony.

What do we need to ensure social stability? At one level, we need empathy. Empathy is a higher standard than tolerance. Empathy asks that we put ourselves in another's place - to walk in their shoes and see the world through their eyes.

A precondition for empathy must intuitively be that the different races interact routinely and that one's social circle include representatives from the broad mix of communities. We can conduct simple tests to determine if, individually, we meet this precondition. One test is to look at our favourite contacts in our mobile phones. How many of these are people from outside your ethnic or religious community?

Another test is whether, and how often, we interact with different communities beyond the shared public space. In other words, how often do we get invited, or are we invited, into private spaces - homes, places of worship and family events - of those from different communities?

The answers to these tests would be more honest and meaningful than the once-a-year events organised in schools, however well-meaning these may be.

Beyond empathy, we need to uphold political values and shared values that bind us as a nation.

To cement the notion of nationhood, there must be a political and value space which goes beyond differences of ethnicity or religion. This is a hard ask and explains why nation building is the work of generations.

This is where I would argue we need recourse to some form of intolerance. Ironically, while tolerance is too low a standard, intolerance can be helpful. As a nation, in our public deliberations and policies, we can be intolerant of views and personalities which try to divide us, which strive to make places exclusive to certain beliefs and practices.

We should be intolerant of those who harbour hate and prejudice. We must be intolerant of the casual slights, the majority privilege, the easy stereotyping of races. We must never be accepting that some are better than others by measure of their ethnicity, language or religion. Nor should we think of ourselves better or worse by measure of wealth.

A set of national, political values that stresses empathy for one another, and that is intolerant of racism or values detrimental to our cohesion, can help us forge a sense of belonging to the Singapore nation, and the Singapore tribe.

Humans are naturally tribal and relativistic beings. Yet we must find ways to expand our identity to the level of the Singapore tribe and not that of any particular segmented community.

The Singapore tribe has a real chance to demonstrate to the rest of Asia, indeed the world, that multiracial societies can coexist and thrive.

We can be proof that diversity is a social strength and not a cause of division. We can prove to ourselves that the things that bind us together are far more meaningful and powerful than any force which tries to separate us.

The Singapore tribe is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. There will be setbacks and disappointments to come.

For Singapore to continue, we must persevere beyond these setbacks. It will require work on the part of every community and every individual Singaporean. There must be a conscious choice to reach beyond what we know and to overcome our own prejudices.

The Singapore tribe must be open. Our tribal lines must be permeable to newcomers. We will survive not because we build walls but because we build bridges to the rest of the world.

The challenge for the Singapore to come will not be met by flag-waving but by flagging our meaning to one another.

We must do so not only on July 21 or Aug 9 of each year. We must signal in small and larger ways that we trust and need one another.

Singapore's tribalism requires an acceptance that an intrinsic part of our identity is our diversity and that we are not just less without it; we are not even Singaporeans.

  • The writer is the CEO of Future-Moves Group, a management consulting firm.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2016, with the headline 'Tolerance alone is not enough'. Print Edition | Subscribe