New forms of tribalism can take root, define politics: Wong

Challenge is to address concerns but not let politics be based just on identities, allegiances

Many Singaporeans, when asked about the worst ethnic disturbance in Singapore's history, may cite the race riots of 1964 that involved clashes between Malays and Chinese and resulted in 36 deaths and 560 injured.

But a far more violent conflict took place between Hokkiens and Teochews in 1854.

It lasted for over 10 days, left 400 dead and a great many wounded, and saw about 300 houses burned down, sparked by the Hokkiens' refusal "to join in a subscription to assist the rebels who had been driven from Amoy by the Imperial China troops".

Recounting this episode to illustrate that even seemingly stable identities are not set in stone, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday: "We cannot assume that the harmony we now enjoy is solid, let alone permanent.

"Barely 150 years ago, tribal or, more accurately, 'dialect' identities among Chinese here in Singapore, as well as in China too, trumped their racial, cultural or national identity as Chinese."

He was speaking at a conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies on identity, which discussed the rise of tribalism and identity politics and how these will affect Singapore.

Mr Wong noted that the culture wars that began in the West have already created new forms of identity politics here, beyond the familiar divides of race and religion.

"If we are not careful, the new tribalism can easily take root here, and our politics can become defined by new identity issues too," he said, referring to the struggle between different social groups over cultural issues such as gender identity and race, and the political agenda that emerges as a result.

"The challenge is to acknowledge and do our best to address the legitimate concerns of every 'tribe', without allowing our politics to be based exclusively on identities or tribal allegiances."

In his speech, the minister noted that Singapore has always been a mix of tribal identities.

Singapore's nationalism had its inspiration from the separate tribal nationalisms of its component races, he said, citing the Chinese revolutions, Indian national movement and Indonesian Revolution, without which people here would not have conceived a Singaporean nationalism.

"Can we then really be sure, with the rise of China, India and Southeast Asia, that Singaporean nationalism will not deconstruct again into Chinese, Indian and Malay nationalisms?" he asked.

That different races and religious groups live in harmony did not happen by chance, said Mr Wong.

Having experienced the racial and religious riots in the 1950s and 1960s and having witnessed how differences were politicised when Singapore was part of Malaysia, Singapore's founding fathers had gone to great lengths to safeguard racial and religious harmony.

They took "tough but necessary action" such as invoking the Internal Security Act against chauvinists of all ilk, making English the main medium of instruction in schools, and later putting in place the Ethnic Integration Policy for public housing to create more common spaces, he said.

"All of these moves were only possible because generations of Singaporeans believed that what Singapore stood for as a nation exceeded the pull of their own tribal instincts and feelings," he added.

"This was not an instinctive choice to make, or the natural thing to do in many other societies."

But the harmonious state of affairs will always be on a knife-edge, he stressed, noting that the culture wars that began in the West have already created new forms of identity politics here beyond the familiar divides of race and religion.

Mr Wong warned that this could result in a new tribalism taking root, and politics becoming defined by new identity issues.

But he acknowledged that the pull of identity politics arises from real differences in the lived realities of different tribes and groups, and said these differences cannot be dismissed or ignored.

Women continue to bear a disproportionate share of housework and receive less recognition at work, people with disabilities are not able to participate as fully in society, and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people feel society does not accept them or even recognise them as different, he noted.

"These are important concerns. One cannot say to any of these groups that their concerns are illegitimate or exaggerated," he said.

"If we are to live up to the founding ethos of Singapore, every Singaporean deserves a place in our society, regardless of his or her background, status or racial or cultural identity.

"That is what a fair and just society must mean.

"And we cannot - in the name of avoiding the dangers of identity politics - deny the rights of a variety of groups to organise themselves, so as to gain recognition for their concerns, or seek to improve their conditions."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2021, with the headline 'New forms of tribalism can take root, define politics: Wong'. Subscribe