Managing the tensions of tribal politics

Some think that ethnically homogenous countries are less susceptible to tribal conflicts.PHOTO: ST FILE

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong spoke at a conference on new tribalism and identity politics organised by the Institute of Policy Studies and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies on Tuesday (Nov 23). Here is his full speech.

I spoke about race a few months ago. I noted then that a harmonious multi-racial society does not occur naturally. "One people, regardless of race, language or religion" - that didn't fall ready-made from the sky; we made it happen - despite the differences of race, language or religion.

Since I gave that speech, the Government has continued to engage people on race. The Prime Minister himself spoke about this at the National Day Rally, and announced we will introduce a Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act and anti-discrimination legislation.

Meanwhile, I have noticed that other aspects of identity have surfaced in our conversations - around gender, sex, or various causes that people feel strongly about.

This is not surprising: The natural instinct of humans is to look out for those who are most like us. Around the world, we see the rise of what we might call a "new tribalism" in politics, or "identity politics" as it is commonly described. What does all this mean for Singapore, and how should we respond? I will share some of my thoughts this morning. And I should qualify that they are more in the nature of notes to prompt further discussion than a fully worked exposition.

From tribes to nation

I'll start with some history to set the context of how we got to where we are today.

Before nations, before empires, before even race, there were tribes. The word tribe comes from the Latin "tribus". Romulus, the legendary first king of Rome, was said to have divided his city into three "tribus" or groups of people.

As the Roman Republic, and then Empire, expanded, it soon became clear that these tribal bonds and loyalties were at odds with the very idea of Rome. If the first loyalty of every Roman was to his own tribe, how then would Rome impose its authority across a far-flung empire?

So Rome gave us another important concept - Civis Romanus or "Roman Citizen". It was then a revolutionary idea - that you didn't have to be of the same tribe, or be born in the same place to be a citizen of Rome.

Being a Roman citizen meant something. In fact so great was the wrath of Rome towards anyone who dared to harm a Roman citizen that safety was said to be guaranteed for anyone who could declare Civis Romanus Sum, or "I am a Roman Citizen".

In exchange, Roman citizens were expected to perform various civic duties, chief of which was to defend Rome when necessary.

Roman citizenship was of course limited. Neither the republic nor the empire believed in a universal franchise. Only a small group of people could hope to become Roman citizens, typically male children of existing Roman citizens, or individuals in the provinces who had done great service to the empire. The overwhelming majority were partial citizens of various kinds or slaves.

But despite the limited nature of its citizenship, Rome demonstrated the possibility of different tribes coming together, under a common banner, and changing the course of history.

Other ancient empires too struggled with tribalism. The Neo-Assyrian Empire, for example, deported conquered tribes and peoples to different parts of the empire so as to dilute their identities and attenuate tribal loyalties. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, was said to have burned countless philosophical texts and treatises in conquered states, with the goal of unifying China under the official Qin identity, language and thought.

Identity politics in modern society

Today after more than 2,000 years of human civilisation, we no longer require monarchs or empires to promulgate concepts of citizenship. In many countries, we now embrace citizenship in constitutional republics. But the age-old conflict between national and tribal identities remains one of the most potent driving forces of violence within and between nations.

You can look around the world and there are many examples including the ethnic conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda in the 1990s; the Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia in the 2000s; or the ongoing Tigray civil war in Ethiopia.

The point is that tribalism runs deep in all human societies. A military historian Victor Davis Hanson likened tribalism to an "ancient narcotic". As he puts it, once tribalism takes hold, it's "almost impossible...to prevent it from destroying the much harder work of establishing multi-racial nationhood and citizenship" because it is an 'ancient narcotic'.

Some think that ethnically homogenous countries are less susceptible to tribal conflicts. It is certainly easier to make citizens out of a group of people who look the same, speak the same language, and share a common history. But "tribe" is not just a matter of ethnicity. There are other identity markers that are driving what we might call "the new tribalism" of the modern era.

For example, the culture wars that we now see in the West cut across a huge swathe of issues - from abortion rights to voting rights; from woke culture to even vaccinations and mask-wearing. These encompass many ethnicities and religious groups.

Significantly, even monoethnic societies have not been immune from the "new tribalism". Poland, for instance, is an ethnically homogenous country, with Poles comprising more than 95 per cent of the population. Yet we have seen in recent years an intensifying standoff in the country between supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, and conservatives who oppose them, with some parts of the country declaring themselves "LGBT-free zones" amid strong resistance from liberals.


People attend the "Equality Parade" rally in support of the LGBT community, in Warsaw, Poland on June 19, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

In the United States too, despite its long-cherished melting pot ethos, we see the rise of tribalism and identity politics. The once accepted political arguments for a racially diverse citizenry united by a common past and shared loyalties to the Constitution in the US are now eroding.

Instead, we see greater political polarisation based on ideology and identity. A growing proportion of Republicans and Democrats view the opposite party in starkly negative terms. Even life-saving public health measures, like the wearing of masks and vaccination, have become markers of political identities. Even science - never mind economics or culture - is no longer immune from political controversy.

Why is it despite nationalism, despite the spread of democracy, despite efforts to forge commonalities across tribes, races and religions that we continue to live under the shadow of tribalism?

Part of the explanation lies in how many societies have evolved over the last few decades.

Consider how life was like in the 1950s or 60s: There were many problems, but societies everywhere were generally more cohesive, and people were more connected and more active in their respective communities. In Singapore, we call this the "kampong spirit".

Over the last few decades, there has been a greater emphasis on the culture of self. It's all about how "I want to be free to be myself". We see this most prominently in the US and parts of Europe, but it permeates societies everywhere.


Finance Minister Lawrence Wong at a conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies on Nov 23, 2021.PHOTO: INSTITUTE OF POLICY STUDIES

To be clear, the focus on the individual has brought about a lot of progress in many areas. But as the New York Times' columnist David Brooks has noted, when the sense of self is inflated, at the expense of community, individualism becomes the reigning ethos, and the connections between people get weakened. This leads to loneliness and isolation. And when people feel lonely and alienated, they fall back on defences that are perhaps primeval in our species - we revert to tribes.

The internet has made it easier for such new tribes to form and organise themselves. Unfortunately, the echo chamber of social media often means that these tribes end up self-selecting information to support and reinforce their own views.

Tribalism may feel like community. But the two are not the same. Community is about inclusive connections, and it's based on mutual affection. Tribalism is inherently exclusionary, and it's based on mutual hate: "us" versus "them", "friend" vs "foe".

Once this sort of tribal identity takes root, it becomes difficult to achieve any compromise. Because when we anchor our politics on identity, any compromise seems like dishonour. Every grievance threatens one's self-worth; and every setback a challenge to one's sense of self. So we get a downward spiral: individualism and self-interest cause tribes to form; each tribe close ranks upon itself; and politics becomes defined as all-out war among tribes.

Identity politics in Singapore

What I've just described is not hypothetical. We see these trends happening in many first-world democracies. Fortunately we are in a better position in Singapore. But we cannot assume that the harmony we now enjoy is solid, let alone permanent.

Singapore has always been a mix of tribal identities. We are a diverse racial mix from three major Asian civilisational complexes - China, India, and Southeast Asia. Yet we have none of their long history or indigenous cultures to hold us together.

Indeed, it is worth reminding ourselves how divided we were barely a century or two ago. Even seemingly stable identities that we now take for granted - Chinese, Malay, Indian; let alone Singaporean - were not stable at all.

To illustrate, let me ask a question: what do you think was the worst ethnic disturbance in Singapore's history?

Many would say the race riots of 1964, which resulted in 36 deaths and about 560 injuries.

But, in fact, a far more violent conflict took place between Hokkiens and Teochews in May 1854. The riots lasted for more than 10 days, leaving 400 or more people killed, a great many wounded, and about 300 houses burned.

According to the historical record, the background to the conflict was the refusal of the Hokkiens "to join in a subscription to assist the rebels who had been driven from Amoy by the Imperial China troops."

It seems astounding to us today, but barely 150 years ago, tribal (or more accurately "dialect") identities among Chinese here in Singapore (as well as in China too) trumped their racial, cultural or national identity as Chinese.

Or consider this: Singapore nationalism, and Malayan nationalism that preceded it, had its inspiration in the separate nationalisms of Singapore's component races.

If there had been no Chinese Revolutions of 1911 and 1949; if there had been no Indian national movement which culminated in the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947; if there had been no Indonesian Revolution leading to its independence in 1948 - no Singaporean (Chinese, Malay or Indian) would have conceived it possible to have a Singaporean nationalism.

Our very claim of a national identity was prompted, if not inspired, by the tribal nationalisms of our various ethnic groups. Can we then really be sure, with the rise of China, India and Southeast Asia, that Singaporean nationalism will not deconstruct again into Chinese, Indian and Malay nationalisms?

Our racial diversity is surpassed by our religious diversity: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Taoists and many more. By some measure, Singapore is the most religiously diverse place in the world.

We are not strangers to the challenges that diversities pose. Our experience of racial and religious riots in the 1950s and 1960s underlined clearly the potential for sectarian clash. We also saw how such differences could be politicised when we were part of Malaysia. Never again, our founding leaders decided and declared.

Still, after our independence in 1965, many doubted if a small island-state, made up of people speaking dozens of languages and dialects, and surrounded by much larger neighbours, could hold together for long. Nevertheless, against the odds, we managed to avoid serious conflict.

This did not happen by chance. Our founding leaders went to great length to put in place measures to safeguard our racial and religious harmony. They took tough but necessary action. They invoked the Internal Security Act against chauvinists of all ilk. They introduced what were in the short-term unpopular policies - like making English the main medium of instruction in our schools, and later the Ethnic Integration Programme for public housing - to create more common spaces among the different racial and religious groups.

All of these moves were only possible because generations of Singaporeans believed that what Singapore stood for as a nation exceeded the pull of their own tribal instincts and feelings.

This was not an instinctive choice to make, or the natural thing to do in many other societies. Imagine what would have happened if our founding leaders had pursued race-based politics; or if the majority Chinese in Singapore had insisted on Mandarin as our working language; or if we had allowed ethnic enclaves to form all over Singapore.

There would not have been a Singaporean Singapore, and no Singaporean identity to speak of. At best, we would be a loose confederation of tribes, one conflict away from splintering.

But because Singaporeans made the improbable choice, we are one of the few places in the world today where - despite the many imperfections; despite lingering prejudices; despite warts and all - people of different tribes have lived peacefully together for more than half a century here.

This harmonious state of affairs will always be on a knife-edge; so it needs constant attention and careful management. I had spoken before of how the spate of racist incidents earlier this year reminded us that we cannot take our racial harmony for granted.

In the hyperconnected world that we live in, the culture wars that began in the West will not be confined there. They have already created new forms of identity politics here, beyond our familiar divides of race and religion. If we are not careful, this new tribalism can easily take root here, and our politics can become defined by new identity issues too.

Managing these new tensions doesn't mean that we pretend that differences do not exist.

For example, France has tried to deal with the issue of race by banning the collection of race-based data. But the problem has not gone away. Instead France has seen a surge of racial protests in recent years, with many minority groups calling for the government to collect race-based data so as to better inform policy-making.

The lesson is this: simply ignoring identities and tribes does not mean they no longer exist. Instead, as a starting point, we must recognise that the pull of identity politics arises from the real differences in lived realities. Different segments of our population will have their own real and valid concerns and anxieties.

For example, women continue to bear a disproportionate share of housework and receive less recognition at work compared to their male counterpart.

Another example: People with disabilities are not able to participate as fully in oursociety as they would like to. And yet another, more contested, example: LGBTQ persons feeling that society does not accept them - or even recognise them as different.

These are important concerns. One cannot say to any of these groups that their concerns are illegitimate or exaggerated. If we are to live up to the founding ethos of Singapore, every Singaporean deserves a place in our society, regardless of his or her background, status or racial or cultural identity.

This is what a fair and just society must mean. And we cannot - in the name of avoiding the dangers of identity politics - deny the rights of a variety of groups to organise themselves, so as to gain recognition for their concerns, or seek to improve their conditions and well-being.

The challenge is to acknowledge and do our best to address the legitimate concerns of every "tribe", without allowing our politics to be based exclusively on identities or tribal allegiances.

Our way forward 

This of course is easier said than done.

Before, in the aftermath of the 1964 race riots, we took pains to minimise our differences. Today we have a more diverse society, but we also have much more in common, and the Singaporean identity has become stronger.

So how can we balance the competing demands of diverse identity groups while maintaining a cohesive and harmonious society? How can we build a society, where everyone is equal and everyone has a place, regardless of their backgrounds?

These are difficult questions and I don't have full answers. But I would like to raise a few possible approaches.

First, to tackle tribalism and identity politics, we should strengthen our human relationships. This starts with strengthening the spirit of reciprocity and kinship at the daily level. We must be good friends, good neighbours, good Samaritans.

Having such human relationships ultimately help to strengthen the trust we have in one another, and this is the elemental task of every society. Because when people lose faith in one another, things will fall apart very quickly.

It takes effort and time to get to know those around us and build trust. This is not something that we can compel or do at scale; relationships have to be built one at a time.

What we can scale are our social norms. So we should work hard to strengthen the norms that bring us closer together - norms like caring for others, kindness, graciousness.

We have seen many good examples of such norms throughout this pandemic. The countless healthcare workers who went beyond their call of duty to care for our Covid-19 patients; or the numerous examples of frontline workers - from taxi drivers to cleaners to food delivery riders - who toiled silently to keep our society going.

These examples represent the best of us, and we should recognise the values they embody. We should take pride in our fellow Singaporeans who are prepared to set the interest of others ahead of their own, and serve the greater good. These are our role models which we should all strive to emulate.

Second, let us avoid stereotyping groups of people or assuming that each community is monolithic or homogenous.

I spoke about this before in the context of the phrase "Chinese privilege". For instance, a female Chinese from a poor background would have a vastly different lived experience compared to a male Chinese from a wealthy family.

"Chinese privilege" is not the only such stereotype. Many of us may hold preconceived notions about each other's ethnicity, gender, religion, or political allegiance. Minorities especially are subject to such prejudices; so all of us must be more conscious of the stereotypes we might harbour.

We must avoid reducing our understanding of each other to a single dimension. This hardens our views of those who are different from us, and over time, we see all issues through that lens. It will become increasingly difficult to find common ground, or solutions that benefits all groups.

Conversely, we should be mindful of breaking society into ever smaller boxes. This is what we've seen in some places - for instance, black feminists not seeing eye to eye with white feminists; or one minority feeling it has to be more aggrieved than another; and so on.

We must fight the instinct to set ourselves apart and pigeonhole others, and instead be willing to build understanding and commonality across identity lines.

The reality is that all of us have multiple identities. This is true of racial and religious identities; and it is also true of a variety of other identities. Being a Singaporean should never mean having to give up any of our other identities.


So we may be Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, or any other race. But we are first and foremost Singaporeans. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

So we may be Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, or any other race. But we are first and foremost Singaporeans. Likewise, regardless of our gender or sexual orientations, regardless of the cause we champion, we are all Singaporeans, first and foremost.

If we uphold this idea - that being Singaporean is a matter of conviction and choice, and that it takes priority over our other identities and affiliations - that would give all of us one important commonality around which to build understanding and trust; to negotiate our differences and find common ground on difficult issues; and then we can continually look for ways to move forward together.

Third, let us draw on the better angels of our nature. Humans are tribalists, but we are also traders by nature. Throughout history, humanity has thrived because of our instinctive desire to explore the unknown, and to meet new people, amongst whom we can live with, trade with and learn from. In fact these trader instincts are an integral part of who we are as Singaporeans because Singapore started as an entrepôt trading hub. Trade is in our blood.

Trade is not just about making economic transactions. Trade is grounded on norms of reciprocity, trust and mutual benefit. The foundation of all successful trades lies in the willingness to exchange and cooperate. To trade effectively, we must build long-term win-win relationships with others.

This same trading instinct is crucial in setting the tone of our society.

From the beginning, our forefathers knew the importance of compromises and striking a fair deal for all. They knew cooperation, rather than competition and conflict, was the best way forward. This became not just the basis for our economy, but the outlook for our entire society. It's perhaps one reason perhaps why "Tripartism" has succeeded here more than in any other advanced economy.

We must continue in this vein - continue to engage with one another, cooperate and work towards mutual benefit. We must do so not only with those outside Singapore, but also between different segments of Singaporeans as well. We must listen, understand, compromise and negotiate for win-win outcomes, knowing that we are stronger by working with and learning from one another.

Fourth, as a society, we must continue to give all Singaporeans reason to hope and a fair chance to have a good life.

The rise of extreme politics in many advanced economies is in large part related to their economic woes. The middle-class in many Western countries has been steadily losing ground not just for years, but for several decades. The typical households face stagnating incomes, with children faring less well than their parents. College graduates are unable to get jobs and are laden with student debts.

We must never allow this to happen in Singapore. So we will continue to work hard to promote inclusive growth, and to ensure that all Singaporeans can succeed in their pursuits.

This is how we break out of a zero-sum mindset, where certain groups feel like others' success must have come at their own expense, or feel that every "tribal" setback is a major grievance.

When it comes to social programmes, we will do our best to avoid such invidious comparisons by balancing targeted support with universal coverage for essential items.

In short, we will do everything we can to make sure that the Singapore dream remains alive and well for every Singaporean.

On top of all this, the Government must and will always be a fair and honest broker.

Despite our best attempts, we might not always succeed in establishing consensus on especially controversial issues. In such cases, the Government will do our utmost to recognise the challenges and needs of different groups, decide on the appropriate policy, and convince the rest of society that this is a fair way to move forward.

We have done so for the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) in our HDB flats. We have done so for Special Assistance Plan (SAP) in our schools. We will continue to do so on other issues.

We may not always arrive at a perfect solution. But we will never let any group feel unheard, ignored or excluded. We will never let any group feel boxed in or ostracised. All must feel that they are part of the Singapore conversation; all must feel they are part of the Singapore family; all must feel there is hope for the future.

Conclusion

Like many societies, Singapore is slowly emerging out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The last two years have been a tough time for everyone. In these most difficult of times, we are naturally drawn to the security of our own tribes. And it is tempting to look at others, especially someone who is different from us, as the cause of our frustrations and pressures.

But as we turn the tide in our fight against Covid-19, we must be careful not to allow these differences to become permanent divides that separate us. We must redouble our efforts to reach across our differences and strengthen our connections with one another.

On our part, the government will never waver from our commitment to work with everyone to broaden our common space; and to build a society where every Singaporean can express their views, and be empowered to effect positive change.

Our pledge which we recite regularly begins, not with the individual, but with the collective. It's about "we, the citizens of Singapore", and it's about "happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation". So let us continue to strengthen our "Singaporean Singapore", and build a better society for all.