IPS conference on diversities

Beware the gated version of the Singapore Dream

In recent years, we have seen countries with far longer histories of nation-building succumb to the politics of division. Hate is suddenly a more potent motivator than hope in democratic politics.

This global pattern cannot be just coincidental. The best thinkers on this subject suggest we are at a historic inflection point, as significant as, say, the end of the Cold War. They say we are witnessing the end of the free market ideology of neoliberalism.

Writer Pankaj Mishra in his book Age Of Anger probably does the best job of analysing these times. He suggests that the 1990s neoliberal wave sparked aspirations among peoples everywhere that could not be satisfied, because they were based on a materialist ethic and mindless emulation, not genuine needs or sustainability.

The resulting resentment - a mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness - is poisoning civil society, undermining political liberty, and causing a global turn to authoritarianism and chauvinism.

Mainstream elites and political parties have not found a replacement for the neoliberal order. The populists and demagogues who are filling the void do not have a cure either, but what they do have is the snake oil of scapegoatism, and the salesmanship to hawk it effectively.

I want to suggest that Singapore's horizontal, people-to-people relations, as well as our vertical government-people relations need strengthening.


Before probing some of the weaknesses, though, I should emphasise that I do not think the worst that we have seen elsewhere will visit our shores.

We do have some natural immunity to global trends.


One advantage we enjoy is that no single religion enfolds a majority of Singaporeans, which means politicians can gain no electoral advantage from religious nationalism. Second, we have compulsory voting. More than 90 per cent of the electorate habitually participates - and this means that election results are not prone to hijack by highly mobilised but unrepresentative groups while more reasonable people stay at home. Third, we are a city-state. Like most large cities everywhere, we are more inclined to cosmopolitan values but unlike most cities, these values are not in contention with a more homogeneous hinterland or economically backward regions where intolerant forms of nationalism tend to take root.

So my concern is not motivated by a fear of impending doom, but by the sense that our nation could be so much better.


We are certainly not spared the fundamental contradictions that have always plagued modern societies.

Our earliest nation builders recognised the tension between, on the one hand, enabling the pursuit of individual happiness and prosperity, which is essential for state legitimacy, and on the other, striving for the collective identity and cooperative instinct we need for national survival.

This is the concern at the heart of our 52-year-old National Pledge. The fact that we continue to grapple with this tension is in part a problem of success, in creating an island of opportunity for individuals and their families.

As individuals, we have come to equate progress with ever widening choice in material comforts and lifestyles.

Social mobility for most of us means escaping the masses, out of the void deck into the country club; into ever more exclusive circles where we can be increasingly fashion-conscious about what we eat and wear; finicky about the neighbourhoods where we live; and fastidious about our forms of worship.

The rise of what Mishra calls "revolutionary individualism" and a "revolution of aspiration" was encouraged by Singapore's embrace of neoliberalism in the 1990s, when the market became an ethic, not just a tool.

In the resulting privatised, gated version of the Singapore Dream, there is not much room for other Singaporeans. Gotong royong (community spirit) is out, jealously guarded entitlement is in. Live and let live is replaced by intolerance, by snobberies of class, culture and creed.


What should we be aiming for? What sort of unity or consensus should we aspire to as a diverse society?

There are at least three distinct ways of approaching the goal of national unity. The first is to think of it as a question of social order. This approach sees cohesion mainly as a security imperative. Ethnic diversity is regarded as a disadvantage but acknowledged as a given we cannot erase, so we should at least make sure it does not blow up in our faces.

As for political diversity, there are fewer compunctions about flattening differences and forcing a consensus. When we view diversity through the lens of social order, we end up outsourcing its management to the state, along with other security problems.

This sort of thinking does not permit horizontal, people-to-people trust to thicken. It feeds into the very kind of fear and zero-sum thinking - your difference is potentially at the cost of my well-being - that is being encouraged and exploited by populists elsewhere.

A second approach emphasises the principle of reciprocity. We expect our rights to be respected but by the same token, recognise the rights of others, even if this means we do not always get our own way. We create fair and transparent rules for handling disputes, and will honour the outcomes of these procedures. The legitimacy of the system hinges on everyone's equal ability to participate in it. In this worldview, it is okay if we do not always get our way, if at least we always get our say.

A third approach to managing diversity is based on a civic ethos, where people's notion of the good life and a good society factors in the well-being of others, including people very different from themselves.

This worldview is in evidence when, for example, leaders and members of a majority faith instinctively rise in defence of minority religions that are under attack. Another indicator of a strong civic ethos would be when people are willing to support higher personal income taxes if it means that their children can grow up in a more civilised environment with more social justice and less poverty.

A strong civic ethos combined with the principle of reciprocity form the best defence against attempts to divide us. They thicken our horizontal bonds. They are the antidotes to the law-of-the-jungle, might-is-right thinking being pushed by hatemongers around the world.

However, it is the realpolitik social order argument that tends to dominate the Government's rhetoric about managing difference. We have been taught for half a century to view differences of culture and opinion as a disadvantage, as potentially dangerous fault lines.

We should instead be cultivating the mentality that the Singapore whole is more than the sum of our different parts, that our diversity is not just a tourist attraction, but also enriches our own lives. And it is this net gain from diversity that makes a civic ethos not an act of charity or altruism, but of enlightened self-interest.

• Cherian George is professor of media studies at the journalism department, Hong Kong Baptist University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2018, with the headline 'Beware the gated version of the Singapore Dream'. Subscribe