Consulting

Concerns of all communities should be addressed, but politics cannot be based exclusively on identities or tribalism: Lawrence Wong

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SINGAPORE: Singapore must recognise that the pull of identity politics arises from “real differences in lived realities”, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong at the IPS-RSIS Conference on Identity on Tuesday (Nov 23).  

He pointed out three examples of groups that have their own “real and valid concerns and anxieties”: Women, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community. 

“Women continue to bear a disproportionate share of housework and receive less recognition at work compared to their male counterpart … People with disabilities are not able to participate as fully in our society as they would like to,” he said at the session organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). 

“And yet another, more contested, example: LGBTQ persons feeling that society does not accept them, or even recognise them as different.” 

One cannot say that the concerns of these groups are “illegitimate or exaggerated”, said Mr Wong.

The challenge is to “acknowledge and do our best to address these legitimate concerns without allowing our politics to be based exclusively on identities or tribal allegiances”, he said.

“We will never let any group feel unheard, ignored or excluded. We will never let any group feel boxed in or ostracised. 

“All must feel they are part of the Singapore conversation; all must feel they are part of the Singapore family; all must feel there is hope.”

TRIBALISM AND IDENTITY POLITICS 

Mr Wong acknowledged that the “age-old conflict” between national and tribal identities remains “one of the most potent driving forces of violence within and between nations”.

“The new tribalism” of modern society cuts across a swathe of issues, such as abortion rights, voting rights, “woke culture” and even vaccinations. 

Mr Wong said the focus on the individual has indeed brought about a lot of progress in many areas. 

“But … when the sense of self is inflated, at the expense of community, individualism becomes the reigning ethos, and the connections between people are weakened. This leads to loneliness and isolation,” he said.  

“And when people feel lonely and alienated, they fall back on defences that are perhaps primeval in our species. They revert to tribes.”

One way this happens is through the Internet, where echo chambers result in individuals “self-selecting information” to support their own views. 

“Tribalism may feel like community. But the two are not the same,” added Mr Wong. 

“Community is about inclusive connections, and it’s based on mutual affection. Tribalism is inherently exclusionary, and it’s based on mutual hate – us versus them, friend vs foe.

“Once this sort of tribal identity takes root, it becomes difficult to achieve any compromise. Because when we anchor our politics on identity, any compromise seems like dishonour.”

SINGAPORE’S HARMONIOUS STATE OF AFFAIRS ON “KNIFE-EDGE” 

In Singapore, we are “not strangers to the challenges these diversities pose”, said Mr Wong. 

The racial and religious riots in the 1950s and 1960s underlined the potential for such “sectarian” clashes of differences. 

To address this, founding leaders put in place measures, such as invoking the Internal Security Act “against chauvinists of all ilk”, making English the main medium of instruction in schools, and introducing the Ethnic Integration Programme for public housing to create more common spaces among different racial and religious groups. 

“Because Singaporeans made the improbable choice, we are one of the few places in the world today where – despite the many imperfections, despite lingering prejudices, despite warts and all – people of different tribes have lived peacefully together for more than half a century,” said Mr Wong. 

“This harmonious state of affairs will always be on a knife-edge; so it needs constant attention and careful management.” 

Mr Wong added that the “culture wars that began in the West” have already created “new forms of identity politics” in Singapore. 

“If we are not careful, the new tribalism can easily take root here, and our politics can become defined by new identity issues too. (But) managing these new tensions doesn’t mean that we pretend that differences do not exist.” 

To tackle tribalism and identity politics, Mr Wong outlined four approaches Singapore can take. 

First, strengthening human relationships, beginning with “strengthening the spirit of reciprocity and kinship at the daily level”, he said. 

Acknowledging that it takes effort and time to build trust, Mr Wong added that Singaporeans can work on strengthening social norms that bring people closer together, such as caring for others, kindness and graciousness.

He highlighted the healthcare workers who cared for COVID-19 patients and other frontline workers, such as taxi drivers, cleaners and food delivery riders, who stepped up to keep society going during the pandemic. 

“(They) 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.” 

AVOID STEREOTYPING 

Second, avoid stereotyping or assuming that each community is “monolithic or homogenous”, said Mr Wong. 

One such stereotype is “Chinese privilege”, he added, explaining that this implies a Chinese woman from a poor background would have a vastly different lived experience compared to a Chinese man from a wealthy family. 

Mr Wong acknowledged that minorities are especially subject to such “prejudices”, but that we should avoid “reducing our understanding of each other to a single dimension”. This would make it harder to find common ground or solutions that benefit everyone. 

Singapore must also be mindful of breaking society into “even smaller boxes”, as some societies have done. 

For example, when black feminists don’t see eye to eye with white feminists, or when one minority feels it has to be “more aggrieved” than another, said Mr Wong. 

The reality is that we have “multiple identities”, he added.

“This is true of racial and religious identities, and it is also true of a variety of other identities. Being a Singaporean should never mean having to give up any of our other identities.

“So we may be Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, or any other race …  Likewise, regardless of our gender or sexual orientations, regardless of the cause we champion, we are all Singaporeans, first and foremost.”

Mr Wong added that by upholding the idea that being Singaporean is a matter of “conviction and choice”, and that it takes priority over other identities and affiliations, it would give people common ground to build understanding and trust, and to negotiate differences when they arise. 

“FAIR CHANCE TO HAVE A GOOD LIFE” 

Third, Mr Wong made an appeal to “draw on the better angels of our nature”, highlighting Singaporeans’ trader instincts which are grounded in reciprocity, trust and mutual benefit. 

This same instinct is crucial in “setting the tone of our society”, he said. 

“(Our forefathers) 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. 

“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.” 

Finally, Mr Wong said that society must give all Singaporeans “reason to hope and a fair chance to have a good life”. 

The rise in extreme politics in advanced economies is partly related to their economic woes, he added. 

Singapore must break out of a “zero-sum mindset”, where certain groups feel like others’ success must have come at their expense or feel that every “tribal setback is a major grievance”. 

“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. 

“On top of all this, the Government must and will always be a fair and honest broker.” 

Mr Wong, however, added that despite best attempts, the Government may not always succeed in establishing a consensus on especially controversial issues. 

But 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”.

In the midst of the pandemic, “we are naturally drawn to the security of our tribes”, noted Mr Wong. 

“And it is tempting to look at others, especially someone who is different from us, as the cause of our frustrations and pressures. But as we turn the tide in our fight against COVID-19, we must be careful not to allow these differences to become permanent divides that separate us.”

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