Call to shift from narrative of race and religion as fault lines

Singapore's political leadership needs to move away from the narrative that race and religion are fault lines that make the country vulnerable, media professor Cherian George said yesterday.

"That is partly true, but it is surely not the whole story," said Prof George. "We need to move towards what is in fact a reality - that racial and other forms of diversity are, in fact, a source of what makes Singapore wonderful."

He added: "The overwhelming message is that these are fault lines that cannot be wished away, which means that diversity is overwhelmingly a risk factor... As long as that is the case, we are not going to get far."

Prof George, a Singaporean who teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University, was responding to a question during a panel discussion on the politics of diversity management.

The issue had been earlier addressed by Senior Minister of State for Transport and Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary, who was also on the panel.

Historically, the Government has not approached issues such as race, language and religion as a zero-sum game, Dr Janil said.

"Could you imagine a sense of cohesion today if, in each of these dimensions, there were winners and losers?" he said. "We want and we need progress around equality, around diversity, without the sense of anyone losing - and our approach thus far has worked."

 
 
 

He also said that Singapore deals with issues of diversity differently, depending on what is at stake. These include how the issue might be politicised or how this could influence the economic opportunities of those affected by this issue.

But the primary outcome, he added, is to achieve "an increasingly cohesive society, through an increasingly enlarged common space, together with a shared sense of progress".

On the issue of the Government's attitude towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, both men held opposing views when responding to an audience member's point that this group is not well represented on local television, which does not help foster constructive dialogue.

Dr Janil said that before the mainstream media tackles such topics, people must first be able to have a constructive dialogue in person.

"I don't know that we are there yet," he said, adding that dialogue on this topic has been very polarised to date. "We need to find a way to have a conversation about this where people are not vilified or demonised in either direction."

Prof George pointed out that under other circumstances, the Government has not hesitated to lead the way on issues where it saw fit. "The Singapore Government didn't wait for the majority of Singaporeans to agree that spitting is not a good thing... before it took action," he said. "It led from the front, often using a great amount of force and coercion."

Linette Lai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2018, with the headline 'Call to shift from narrative of race and religion as fault lines'. Print Edition | Subscribe