5 strategies to avert identity politics

As Singapore turns the tide in its fight against Covid-19, it must not allow the differences that have emerged during the pandemic to become permanent divides that affect its politics, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

How can it balance the competing demands of diverse identity groups while maintaining a cohesive and harmonious society?

The minister outlined five possible approaches.

1 STRENGTHEN RELATIONSHIPS AMONG PEOPLE

The first way is to strengthen human relationships through day-to-day interactions, he suggested. People build up the trust they have in one another, which helps keep societies together.

This is not something the Government can compel people to do. But it can work to strengthen the norms - such as being caring, kind and gracious - that bring people closer together.

In the pandemic, these norms have been personified in front-line workers - role models for society who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, working to keep society going.

Said Mr Wong: "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."

2 AVOID STEREOTYPING GROUPS

The minister warned against stereotyping groups of people, or believing that communities are homogeneous. This is the case for the concept of Chinese privilege, as a poor Chinese woman would have a "vastly different lived experience" from a wealthy Chinese man.

The same logic applies to other concepts about which people may hold preconceived notions, such as on gender, religion or political allegiance.

Minority groups are especially subject to such prejudices, he said, adding that all Singaporeans must be more conscious of the stereotypes they might harbour.

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

Singaporeans must also avoid breaking society into "ever smaller boxes".

People must fight the instinct to set themselves apart and pigeonhole others, and instead, be willing to build understanding and commonality across identity lines, he said.

The reality is that all people have multiple identities, he added. But they are first and foremost Singaporeans, no matter their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

"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, negotiate our differences and find common ground on difficult issues, and then we can continually look for ways to move forward together."

3 DRAW ON 'THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE'

The minister drew on Singapore's history as a trading hub for an analogy on how the country can move forward. Trade is grounded on norms of reciprocity, trust and mutual benefit, with the foundation of all trades lying in the willingness to exchange and cooperate, Mr Wong noted. To trade effectively, one must build long-term win-win relationships - an instinct that is crucial for setting the tone in Singapore society.

"We should draw on the better angels of our nature," he said. "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," he said, observing that this is perhaps why tripartism has worked here.

"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."

4 GIVE HOPE TO ALL

Singapore must continue to give all its citizens a reason to hope and a fair chance at a good life, Mr Wong said. This means promoting inclusive growth and working to ensure all Singaporeans can succeed in their pursuits.

He noted how the problems of many advanced economies are related to economic woes, with typical households stagnating and children doing worse than their parents.

"We must never allow this to happen in Singapore," Mr Wong said, adding that by pursuing inclusive growth, Singapore can break out of a zero-sum mindset where certain groups feel others' success is at their expense.

"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," he said.

5 GOVERNMENT MUST REMAIN A FAIR, HONEST BROKER

The Government must - and will always be - a fair and honest broker between different groups.

Mr Wong acknowledged that Singapore's leaders may not always succeed in establishing a consensus on controversial issues, despite their best attempts.

"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," he said.

Examples include the Housing Board's Ethnic Integration Policy, as well as the existence of Special Assistance Plan schools for Chinese-speaking students.

While the Government may not always arrive at a perfect solution, Mr Wong pledged that it 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."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2021, with the headline 5 strategies to avert identity politics. Subscribe