ST Lydia Lim: Learn to live with diversity

24 May 2009
Sunday Times

Learn to live with diversity
A sense of common good should prevail, whatever our differences

By Lydia Lim, Senior Political Correspondent

ENTREPRENEUR and innovation guru Guy Kawasaki once criticised Singapore as an one-opinion town.

His precise words were: Israel has five million people, six million entrepreneurs, and fifteen million opinions. Singapore has five million people, six entrepreneurs, and one opinion.

That was a deft use of hyperbole on his part, for Singapore surely has more than six entrepreneurs. And if there was any doubt that Singaporeans have more than one point of view, the recent disagreements over matters related to the leadership tussle at women’s group Aware provided ample evidence.

Mr Kawasaki’s comment is premised on the belief that more diversity is better than less. He links diversity to innovation – and hence, to progress, at least in the realm of technology.

Does that apply in the social sphere as well? Is more diversity necessarily better than less?

I suspect some may be tempted to answer in the negative. After all, our society seemed so much calmer in the old days, when people shied away from openly discussing sensitive issues such as race, religion and homosexuality, not to mention fighting publicly over them.

But that does not strike me as the right question. Diversity is a part of our social reality now. A buffet of contrasting and competing beliefs and interests is energetically displayed online and offline, in religious and secular circles, at Speakers’ Corner and in Parliament. Unless Singaporeans were to suddenly experience a mass conversion to a single creed, diversity is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

So it is pointless to hanker nostalgically after the calm past – which was mythical in any event. The 1950s and 1960s were hardly calm. And if there was an appearance of a calm consensus on many issues in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps that was because people were less willing then to say what they thought.

A better question is, given such diversity, how can we best move forward as a society?

We might look to the United States for some lessons on what not to do. There, the battle between liberals and conservatives over social values has degenerated into a so-called ‘culture war’.

War is a distinctly uncivil act for civil society to be engaged in. As a sphere independent of both the state and the market, civil society is where individuals can gather in groups to further their interests and advance their vision of a good society.

In heterogeneous societies like the US and Singapore, it should come as no surprise that people have different opinions on such matters. That difference will inevitably lead to disagreement and debate.

But for debate to turn into a war is dangerous. Wars require perceiving opponents as ‘enemies’ to be destroyed. Combatants would justify deeds in wartime that they would not in peace time.

It is against this backdrop that US President Barack Obama this week appealed to Americans on both sides of the abortion debate to keep ‘open hearts’ and ‘open minds’, and to stop ‘reducing those with differing views to caricature’.

He delivered this appeal after the University of Notre Dame’s invitation to him to speak at its commencement ceremony sparked off protests among some Roman Catholics, who felt a Catholic university should not be honouring thus a President who supported abortion rights.

Sadly, we saw signs of a nascent culture war here during the recent Aware saga, when death threats were issued and false allegations were hurled.

To put the brakes on this trend, passionate advocates on both sides have to make a conscious effort to stop caricaturing each other as ignorant fools, religious bigots or depraved liberals.

They have to learn to view each other not as enemies but as fellow citizens, so that they can approach each other with open minds and hearts.

The default assumption must surely be that as fellow Singaporeans, and fellow activists in civil society, all seek the good of the nation they belong to, although each may have a different view of how best to achieve that end.

The challenge is for all citizens to look beyond their self interest, their particular goal on any single issue, so as to work together for a greater, common interest.

That, in essence, was what President S R Nathan was reminding us of when he stressed the importance of social cohesion in his address on Monday, opening a new session of the 11th Parliament.

The Aware episode, he said, highlighted the need for all groups to practise tolerance, restraint and mutual respect, so as to live peacefully in a multiracial, multi-religious society.

With that one statement, the President set out what are in our common interests when we engage on contentious issues: tolerance, restraint and mutual respect.

Unlike other countries, Singapore has not thrown the concept of common good out of the window. We have not lost our faith in our ability to achieve together that which would be impossible to bring about on our own.

It is a strength that we still believe in certain shared values that we all hold in common. We should not allow our public sphere to disintegrate into an arena purely of competing rights and interests, no matter how exciting that may make our politics.

That sense of common good, which the United States is now trying to recover, should be built not on ideology but on ‘something more innately human: faith’, wrote Michael Tomasky, editor-at-large of American Prospect magazine.

He did not mean religious faith but faith in the possibility of ‘a civic sphere in which engagement and deliberation lead to good and rational outcomes; and faith that citizens might once again reciprocally recognise…that they will gain from these outcomes’.

Those of us who have that faith have a duty to champion it and pass it on.

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