It is unavoidable in a globalised world that culture wars in the West should influence and create nascent forms of identity politics in Singapore that go beyond the known divides of race and religion. However, this does not mean that Singapore is unable to deal with the emergence of new forms of tribalism. What is required is a recognition of the reality and of its potential threat. To that end, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong weighed in at a conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies this week. He warned that if Singaporeans were not careful, such new tribalism could take root here easily and politics could be defined by new identity issues: the struggle between different social groups over cultural issues such as gender identity and race, and the political agenda that emerges as a result.
There is a need to recognise the problem and understand what is at stake. The multiracial environment that Singapore operates in today did not come about naturally. It is the result of repeated intervention across the social and legislative fronts that put the national and collective interest ahead of the pulls of race, culture and religion. Certainly, there was no attempt to subsume Singaporeans under a single identity because, as has become increasingly clear, forced assimilation can have the opposite effect and alienate groups to the will of a majority view. Indeed, what has brought and pulled Singapore together and decided its fate has been the degree of commonality of views and aspirations of its different component groups. Yet the reality is that what has been put together, can also be taken apart.