Whither Cohesion and Diversity?

As Singapore enters the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, one of the abiding questions is where we will go from here. Ho Kwon Ping, chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, made a case for maintaining cohesion through diversity by dropping the CMIO model, which classifies Singaporeans as Chinese, Malay, Indian or Other. In a society with increasingly complex identities, the CMIO model would oversimplify Singapore’s diversity; Singaporeans should instead seek to embrace each other as individuals and move away from ‘stereotypical expectations’.

As much as I try to treat people as individuals, I don’t think you can divorce an individual from his experiences and his values, and a good part of that is shaped by his culture — be it a wholehearted embodiment of his heritage, a complete rejection of the same, or some nebulous area between the two. Different people come from different cultures, and different cultures have different values. Herein lies ‘diversity’, and in this diversity sprouts the greatest challenge to cohesion.

But what does ‘diversity’ actually mean?

‘Diversity’, per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is:

1:  the condition of having or being composed of differing elements :  variety;especially :  the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization <programs intended to promote diversity in schools>
2:  an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities :  an instance of being diverse <a diversity of opinion>

This implies difference. But difference of what? Neither Ho nor the official media offered clarity.

People of diverse races and ethnic origins call Singapore home. But these backgrounds are the by-products of history and genetics, outside of their personal agency. People cannot choose their ethnicity, most certainly not after they are born. Diversity of this sort is literally skin-deep. It is neither beneficial nor changeable; it just is. Why should this be elevated? In this sense, the CMIO model is by and large outdated; I don’t see a need for this outside of certain fields like medical genetics.

What is more interesting is diversity of culture and values. Once upon a time, the CMIO model could be seen as a reliable predictor of the cultural values embraced in Singapore. Especially ideas pertaining to how people should treat each other, and how memes may be passed down in the future. Back when Singapore was an immigrant society, people from different countries carried their cultures to Singapore, and those countries were so different that these migrants could be classified by race and skin colour. This made CMIO an acceptable, albeit blunt, tool to understanding both the demographic and memetic makeup of a country.

This old assumption is no longer true. There are now a large number of local-born Singaporeans. Globalisation has brought in the memes and ideas of other cultures and countries. Now you can’t say for certain that a Chinese person will definitely hold traditional Confucian values (including honouring ones’ parents, which in turn gauges support for policies to support the elderly), that a Malay will definitely be Muslim (which affects policies pertaining to Malays and Muslims), or that you can immediately tell the value system of the child of a Singaporean and an American.

But diversity of values will inevitably lead to conflicting and incompatible value sets. Which includes incompatible ideas about identities.

Ho is right in that people are likely going to take on more complex identities. But I think people are more likely to adopt a primary identity, with multiple secondary identities flowing from that primary sense of self. People may switch between secondary identities depending on the social setting, but it is the core identity they will offer unwavering allegiance to. This core identity offers an unshakeable sense of self in relation to everybody else in a given social group beyond one’s immediate friends and family, with a sense that everybody else in that group can be counted on to help and is worthy of help.

In an increasingly diverse society, this core identity could mean anything: religion, extended family, ethnic origin, nationality. It is not necessarily ‘Singapore’.

William S. Lind, John Robb and other Fourth Generation Warfare theorists argue that the heart of 4GW is a crisis in the legitimacy of the state: people no longer believe in the state, so they transfer their core identity to ever-narrower circles. In a highly diverse society, this is a recipe for conflict and national collapse, leading to increased crime, insurgencies and open warfare.

In Iraq, without the threat of Saddam Hussein to keep everyone in line, different identity groups — Sunni, Shia, Kurd — quickly turned on each other. In Afghanistan, post-Taleban, different warlords jockeyed to control their personal fiefdoms. France’s push for seculiarisation is generating backlash from its immigrant Muslim population, while in the US illegal immigrants from Mexico are taking the drug war and their criminal ties with them.

Fortunately, the situation in Singapore is not (yet) that bad, which means Singapore still has a chance to maintain national cohesiveness. Letting the pendulum swing too far into the realm of ‘diversity’ would simply lead to a large number of social groups, each defined by different notions of identities, jockeying for space and power and prominence in a tiny island. As is, should the government continue to supplement Singapore’s low birth rates through mass immigration, one could expect conflicts between locals and migrants in the very near future.

As much as Singapore would like to celebrate diversity, we need to also celebrate cohesion. Ho brought up the example of New York. New Yorkers celebrate their diversity because they are bound by a shared identity as inhabitants of one of the most powerful and influential cities in the world. Singapore as a nation does not have the sense of shared history the way New York has, nor are Singapore’s values the same as New York. What we can do is to take a leaf out of that city’s book and think about branding and values.

What, exactly, is Singapore? What are our national values? How do we think people should be treated? What priority do we place on arts, money, work? What do we find funny or worth talking about? How do we interact with each other? How do we ensure that people are invested in Singapore, and Singapore is invested in the people, to create and reinforce this core identity? What Singapore needs is common ground from which everybody who lives here can interact with each other, and policies to ensure the growth and propagation of these common values into succeeding generations. From this common ground, diversity can grow and flourish in a secure environment.

Celebrating diversity is fine and well, but it should not come at the expense of cohesion and national identity. In the best case scenario, without developing a sense of loyalty to Singapore, the best this generation and succeeding ones can hope for is a hotel, an office and a kitchen the size of an island.

Whither Cohesion and Diversity?
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