The Straits Times says

Maintaining the common ground

A more diverse polity with competing interests is a prospect that political parties must weigh as they look ahead. Assessing developments elsewhere, at the People's Action Party's biennial conference, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sees "a vicious circle leaving societies divided". It surfaces when people form blocs to advance their interests, leading to counter-pressure from other groups. A corollary of this is when groups press for policies from which they might gain the most, without bearing in mind the need to share benefits or compensate those affected by the measures. When the latter's unease is left unaddressed by politicians, resentment rises, giving rise to mounting populist pressures, as seen in recent events.

This is a subject worth pondering. With just 719 sq km for a perch, it would be self-defeating to carve it up into multiple enclaves. Finding common ground is an existential necessity. Rules may be crafted to promote integration, like HDB's racial quota. The spirit behind such initiatives is also important but might be understood in different ways. The state allows space for all communities to nurture their beliefs, traditions, languages and identities. All being immigrants alike, no minority is asked to shed its roots in order to assimilate with others. But if too enclosed, groups could develop chauvinistic streaks and intolerance.

A melting-pot approach to create a common identity has yielded only a loose mix of identifiers like Singlish, street food, national service and nostalgia. Cultural pluralism is an alternative concept that allows groups to maintain distinct practices, as long as these do not run counter to shared values or to rules laid down by an impartial state. Yet, in famously receptive American culture, such pluralism has led at times to irreconcilable divisions that were displayed vividly to the world during the presidential race.

How can Singapore achieve what moderates in the region refer to as "unity in diversity"? Consensus is problematic when people think and feel differently when acting in groups, connected in the real world or virtually. And even individuals might respond differently over time, depending on the roles they play, stages of their private lives, and changing work and family circumstances.

Thus, ensuring that the political centre can hold rather than having things fall apart will prove a challenge, especially when groups turn inwards to seek security in times of upheaval. Societies will have to reconcile opposing tugs of building group solidarity and promoting inclusion, protecting the Singapore core and remaining open to foreign inputs to drive the economy. Political maturity will be needed to help people see that Singapore need neither be unified in a homogeneous sense nor be divisively heterogeneous. Its diversity will remain a strength, if all pull together.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2016, with the headline 'Maintaining the common ground'. Print Edition | Subscribe