The Straits Times says

Upholding inclusion and integration

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's affirmation of multiculturalism as a bedrock of Australian society gave voice to a central principle that more should champion. Instead, what has been heard of late in many places are the strident calls of ethnic and religious nationalism. Thus, it was helpful to hear a leader of an avowedly "immigrant nation" - which is also what Singapore is - hold up his country's cultural diversity as "one of our greatest assets".

Elsewhere, what is gaining prominence is the language of hate uttered openly by polarising political figures. In Indonesia, a hardline Muslim cleric organised street protests against a popular Christian governor. A firebrand Hindu priest, who was appointed to lead India's largest state which has about 40 million Muslims, has publicly approved of United States President Donald Trump's travel ban affecting certain Muslim-majority countries. In Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán holds Islamophobic views, like French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. And Dutch politician Geert Wilders wants to close all the mosques in the Netherlands.

Against these seething developments, the world needs more nations to serve as standard bearers for multiculturalism, like Australia and Singapore. Both learnt the hard way. Singapore saw racial riots breaking out over 50 years ago. And Australia had to overcome institutional ethnic discrimination - until the later part of the 20th century, it had a "White Australia" policy which excluded non-European immigrants. Now, the government "recognises, accepts, respects and celebrates cultural diversity" - a vital change as some 45 per cent of Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent who was. Nations adopting inclusive policies are more likely to thrive because of the social stability created and also the access to a wider range of capabilities.

At times, inclusion might be turned on its head when certain groups focus on cultural rights and privileges while living, in effect, within ethnic enclaves. Ways of achieving social integration might then prove contentious. In the Netherlands, the late far-right politician Pim Fortuyn sparked controversy 15 years ago when he told Muslim residents to either accept living together with the Dutch or leave the country. Australia, however, frames integration as a responsibility for all, citizens and newcomers, to "engage with and seek to understand each other, and reject any form of racism or violent extremism". It is proper to conceive it as a two-way process. For example, while cherishing one's mother tongue, people ought to use a common language to connect socially with each other, as is the case in English-speaking Australia and Singapore. More positive voices must also be heard, as being social in a connected world is often anything but.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2017, with the headline 'Upholding inclusion and integration'. Print Edition | Subscribe