Six views on identities and diversity

Modern Singapore's identity has been shaped by its historical and geographical context, and cannot be divorced from that reality.
Modern Singapore's identity has been shaped by its historical and geographical context, and cannot be divorced from that reality.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The importance of inclusivity, as well as the ability to express oneself and share one's lived experiences, was brought up in a discussion on Tuesday (Nov 23) on how Singapore can better navigate issues of identity and diversity.

A panel at the IPS-RSIS Conference on Identity, moderated by the Institute of Policy Studies' principal research fellow and head of its social lab Mathew Mathews, had six speakers discuss the issue.

Here are the key points they made:

Acknowledge differences, concerns over discrimination

Professor Joseph Liow, Tan Kah Kee Chair in Comparative and International Politics and dean of Nanyang Technological University's College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

As Singapore works towards establishing a collective identity, it must also evolve a framework to ensure that no one is marginalised by the system, Prof Liow said. In addition, it must ensure that no one seeks to undermine the system by appealing to other identity markers, such as race and religion.

He noted that modern Singapore's identity has been shaped by its historical and geographical context, and cannot be divorced from that reality.

"An inclusive society doesn't just happen," he said. "Nothing happens in a vacuum, least of all nation building and state building."

While it is legitimate for people to express unhappiness with certain issues, it is also important to stop such situations from "cascading downhill". This has been seen in the region, where bloodshed has happened because minority groups were not given proper avenues for the expression of such differences, he noted.

Countries must provide platforms for the discussion of differences and foster engagement between different groups, he added. "A lot of times, difference arises from the fact that there's either disinterest or just... very deep aversion towards another party, without actually knowing what the other party represents," he said.

This means acknowledging rather than downplaying differences, and tackling legitimate expressions of concern about discrimination head-on.

"If it's about 'we' and 'our' - the collective - there needs to be an effort and an opportunity for every element in that collective to be able to express their fears... about not being part of that collective."

Differences are normal and natural

Professor Vineeta Sinha, sociologist at the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

It is important to go beyond race and religion and consider concepts such as gender, political orientation and class interests when discussing issues of diversity in Singapore, Prof Vineeta said. This includes how these different facets of identity intersect in each person.

It is also important to raise questions about the mainstream - to rethink institutional dynamics and policies. And it is useful to frame differences in positive terms, rather than focusing on the potential tensions that can arise.

"If we accept differences as normal and natural in all their genuine expressions, then it becomes part and part of the fabric of everyday life - and not something that one needs to think about, or be worried about or manage," she said.

On the topic of privilege, Prof Vineeta noted that one aspect of privilege is an individual's freedom to not be marked by any of one's identity markers. It is important to acknowledge experiences on the ground when discussing this topic, she added.

She also spoke of the importance of building a Singapore society in which people are committed to letting others express themselves, even though they may not be part of the same community.

In doing so, the country avoids the dangers of identity politics, Prof Vineeta said.

"The minute you begin to think that only women should be concerned about women's issues, or only ethnic minorities should be concerned about issues affecting ethnic minorities, is where you'll begin to see the cleavages," she added.

Remind people of their multiple identities

Professor David Chan, a psychologist and director of the Singapore Management University's Behavioural Sciences Initiative

It is difficult to tell people that they should be "Singaporean first and foremost", and that their other identities - even those they feel strongly about - must always come second, Prof Chan said.

Instead, it is important to figure out how people can be fully committed to the country while remaining true to the aspects of identity they feel most strongly about, whether it is religion or gender.

Identity is also malleable, he noted. For instance, a person cannot change the fact that they are Chinese, but their sense of Chinese identity can change over time.

It is most difficult when such differences stem from different values - that is, what people fundamentally believe to be right and wrong.

He suggested that one way to mitigate these differences would be to remind people that they are more than just one particular identity, and that relationships can be built despite the existence of areas in which there can be no reconciliation.

In addition, those who hold dominant, mainstream values should be sensitive to what others in the minority are going through, he said.

On the topic of anger as a way to express legitimate grievances, Prof Chan added that doing so can, from a psychological perspective, result in one's opponent reacting with even more anger. These unintended negative consequences should be kept in mind when individuals decide how to approach such topics.

Don't shy away from terms such as privilege

Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research

Ms Lim said that terms such as privilege should not be something to shy away from, especially when linked to something sensitive, such as race.

People should talk about it in ways that are respectful and with an understanding of what it means when the word "privilege" is used, she said, adding that people should also understand intersectionality - where everyone has different privileges and disadvantages at the same time.

"And I think we shouldn't shy away from this kind of language," she said.

She noted that social media has allowed for different types of identities to be surfaced, even though it is not the cleanest or easiest place to engage.

But it allows for engagement on topics where doors used to be closed, she said.

Ms Lim also cautioned that focusing on the Singaporean identity could create a division between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans, given that 40 per cent of the population are non-Singaporeans.

"Using that as the means to try to bring people together - to me it has some downsides - and you'll have people falling through the cracks, like the migrant spouses who have Singaporean children. Where do they lie?" she said.

"A better way is really to think about certain rules and values that we go by. What do we stand for? Inclusiveness, diversity - we make sure that whatever, whoever you are, whatever your social identity, (there will be) no violence against you, the state will protect you."

Minorities' lived experiences make some feel they are not included

Mr Sharvesh Leatchmanan, co-founder and editor of Minority Voices

Noting that Finance Minister Lawrence Wong had spoken on the topic of the Singaporean identity during his speech at the conference, Mr Sharvesh said he did not understand what the Singaporean identity is "because my lived experiences and a lot of ethnic minority people's lived experiences in Singapore kind of tells us that we are not included in the Singaporean identity".

"Because when I and many people who look like me are questioned about our nationality and about our citizenship, very often that makes you feel like you are not part of the social fabric in Singapore," he said.

Mr Sharvesh is the co-founder and editor of Minority Voices, an online platform for minorities to shed light on stories of everyday racism and discrimination.

He also noted that some minorities he has spoken to have told him that they have gone through internalised racism and self-hatred of their own ethnicity or culture.

Having faced discrimination, they distance themselves from their culture and ethnicity, and later in life, it is difficult for them to eventually connect with their culture and their roots, he said.

But he noted that racial and ethnic identity is something that appears to be extremely important to people from ethnic minorities specifically.

He acknowledged that there are national policies that include the different races, and efforts are made to include people from different groups, such as the Ethnic Integration Policy.

"But I feel like on the ground, when you're experiencing interpersonal relationships, and you're experiencing racism on a day-to-day basis, it can really make you feel otherwise."

Expressing anger is important when there is injustice

Mr Ng Yi-Sheng, writer

Mr Ng, a gay Singaporean writer, noted that Professor David Chan, in discussing the malleability of identity, had suggested refraining from being angry when in disagreement with others.

Mg Ng said: "Rage is productive. Sorrow is productive. As Corinna said, social media is an important tool for many disempowered people. Most people cannot express themselves through formal independent arguments and going through academic conferences which may or may not influence policy. And so going into social media and venting, having that anger, that's important."

Mr Ng said that some groups have the right to be angry when there is injustice, and he called for a challenge to the status quo.

He said: "You know, Singapore, we've got five shared values. We've got justice, equality, we've got democracy, we've got progress. But all that we seem to care about is peace.

"All we seem to care about is preserving the status quo, and why are we organising this conference on identity for the Institute of Policy Studies, if it's just going to be about maintaining the status quo?"

He also noted that notions of community have been evolving to try and be more class-conscious or to cross racial and religious divides and build a sense of solidarity, including with people who have differing gender identities.

He said: "I feel that kind of solidarity is happening now. So you know, Lawrence Wong - you want to learn how to be inclusive, come to Pink Dot."