Saturday, June 11, 2011

Valuable lessons from the Singapore model

Jun 10, 2011

By Roland Chia

SINGAPORE more often makes the headlines for its economic performance than for its model of multiculturalism. Nevertheless, Singapore was a true example of a cosmopolitan city before many other regions started to experience diversity. Can the lessons learnt in this part of the world be of use to Europe today?

In February, British Prime Minister David Cameron presented a robust critique of state multiculturalism as it is practised in the West, and particularly in the United Kingdom.

Multiculturalism, he said, has 'encouraged different cultures to live separate lives... apart from the mainstream'. 'We've even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that are completely counter to our values,' he added. Most significantly, state multiculturalism, according to Mr Cameron, has 'failed to provide a vision of society'.

He is far from being alone in his criticism of state multiculturalism. There is a growing chorus of critics who argue that certain kinds of multiculturalism - especially those that perpetuate separate and isolated group identities - have led not to integration, but segregation and even radicalisation. In a 2006 speech, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair plainly insisted that the celebration of diversity must always be 'balanced by a duty to integrate, to be part of Britain'.

There is an inherent if latent tension in the term 'multicultural society'. A society is by definition built on a public culture, and it is commonly thought that citizens of a nation must share a sense of collective identity and destiny, as well as history. But certain approaches to multiculturalism have segregated communities in such radical ways that it is difficult to speak meaningfully of a national identity. As the economist Amartya Sen has pointed out, what some call multiculturalism is in fact 'plural mono-culturalism', where each ethnic community exists in splendid isolation from other communities.

It is this delicate balance between ethnic diversity and social cohesion that Singapore has strived to maintain since its independence in 1965. A multiracial nation in the British-inherited sense of 'race', it has an ethnically diverse population of 74.2 per cent Chinese, 13.4 per cent Malays, 9.2 per cent Indians, and 3per cent comprising other groups. Realising at the onset how diversity can be both a threat and a source of enrichment for society, the Government consciously sought to foster a 'Singaporean Singapore' identity based on racial equality.

To attain this goal, a series of institutions, laws, policies and practices were introduced and are maintained today. The implementation of laws against discrimination of any racial group is overseen by the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, while the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act promotes peaceful relations between the different faith communities.

Governance standards of multiracial leadership and zero tolerance for identity or community politics are accompanied by multiracial policies to protect minority groups such as Malays and Indians. This has foreclosed any attempt to reduce multiracial Singapore to a Chinese state, as has the choice of English as a neutral lingua franca.

The Government also implemented proactive policies to encourage social integration and prevent growth of ethnic enclaves, and introduced in 1991 a set of shared values that include 'nation before community and society above self'.

The Singapore approach to managing ethnic pluralism has created some problems even as it has effectively resolved others. Its state-defined multiracialism and state-led social engineering have been criticised - sometimes rather unfairly - by the West. In particular, questions were raised on how the very formal and legal approach to multiculturalism could manage to create spaces for diverse citizens to exchange, build trust and achieve social cohesion. But in Singapore, multiracial peace is the very foundation of meaningful economic and political development, while all know that the creation of a cohesive society is always a 'work in progress'.

At a moment when European countries are shaken by doubts about how to accommodate immigrants and diversity without endangering their identities, it is useful to see what can be learnt from the Singaporean model of a multiculturalism that generates a shared national identity. Multiculturalism, it must be remembered, is a celebration of diversity, not division.

The writer is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College in Singapore.

[Sometimes I wonder if we are truly multi-racial and harmonious, or just being tolerant. But tolerance and civility will do. Much better than outright animosity or intolerance. And behind that tolerance is an acceptance if not understanding of the need for tolerance and respect for boundaries. It's like respecting the law.]

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