It’s been about a few weeks since the great titan and founding prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away at the ripe age of 91. Lee is frequently lauded for transforming Singapore from an impoverished rock in the ocean to an awe-inspiring first world nation. Singapore is heralded as living proof of the strength of “Asian values,” in addition to being a role model for third world countries seeking to develop without emulating the West. Granted, Singapore was established as an important center of trade by the British. Likewise, Singapore’s lack of historical identity and small size enabled Lee to experiment with the island in a manner that would not succeed in most countries. Nevertheless, I always feel compelled to give credit where it is due; Lee Kuan Yew succeeded where most would have failed.
However, it’s not my intent to praise or question Singapore’s miracle. Rather, Singapore provides an excellent lesson in diversity management. Following the Charlie Hebdo attack in France, many people on the left engaged in the usual handwringing, mouthing the typical tired platitudes in the process. The problem wasn’t with immigration, multiculturalism, or recalcitrant minorities. The main culprits were white racism, the legacy of colonialism, discrimination, marginalization, and everything else under the sun that absolves minority communities of any collective responsibility. If white people would just be more tolerant and inclusive, then diversity and multiculturalism would work out just fine. The ultimate barrier lies in the unique pathologies of the West.
Of course, such arguments are nonsense. Given that most of the world rejects multiculturalism, the problems with managing diversity are not confined to the West. So what does all of this have to do with Singapore? What distinguishes Singapore from most of the non-Western world is that Singapore proudly promotes its status as a diverse nation. Unlike neighboring Malaysia, which is plagued by racial tension, Singapore for the most part is a harmonious society.
(occasional South Asian riots notwithstanding)
So has Singapore, along with economic success, outdone the West with its embrace of diversity? Well, not exactly. While Singapore may practice “tolerance” (and we all know what Asians mean by “tolerance”), Singapore’s experience with diversity is characterized by a fragile peace. Tension, distrust, and all the other perks associated with diversity linger beneath the surface. Dr. Wong Wee Nam, a member of the Singapore Democratic Party, provides numerous insights regarding Singapore’s tenuous racial peace (emphasis mine):
Singaporeans also appear to be colour-blind as far as ethnic relations are concerned and that is why many foreign workers are very eager to work in Singapore. They find Singaporeans tolerant and non-discriminating. In a tiny island like Singapore, there are many enclaves nicknamed after many Asian countries: Little India in Serangoon Road, Little Philippines in Lucky Plaza, Little Myanmar in Peninsula Plaza, Little Vietnam in Joo Chiat and Little Thailand in Golden Mile Complex. These are places where the various foreigners can feel comfortable in. The signboards written in the respective ethnic scripts, the sound of their countries’ music blaring out from the hi-fi players and the smell of spices and indigenous food make these foreign workers feel very much at home.
At first glance, Singapore appears to be a beacon of tolerance and inclusiveness. However, such harmony seems to be maintained by various measures of separation. If foreigners require ethnic cocoons in order to “feel comfortable,” then that doesn’t bode well for diversity on a wider societal level. In fact, it only takes a few wrong turns for tension and conflict to rear their heads:
Once a wound has been inflicted it can easily be reopened. Five years after the first racial riot and four years after Singapore became independent, the second racial riot in Singapore happened. The riot had nothing to do with the people in Singapore. It was actually a racial riot that had started in Malaysia on 13 May 1969 after their general election. But for some reason, it spilled over into Singapore. We, therefore, see that racial emotions is so deep-seated that a riot in a neighbouring country could open up old wounds. Racial harmony is such a fragile thing.
The Indians in Singapore are also not a homogeneous group. They are made up of Hindus, Tamils, Silks, Sri Lankans and others. They have no problem coexisting harmoniously with each other. When Mrs Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India was assassinated on 31 October 1984, it had nothing to do with Singapore. Yet tension arose between the Hindu and the Sikh communities in Singapore. Trouble was averted only with the timely intervention of the Singapore police. India is not even a neighbouring country.
Recently with the influx of the wealthy Northern Indians into Singapore, there is now a potential ethnic tension based on class, caste and language between the Indians from north and the native Singaporean whose forefathers had come mainly from the south.
We can, therefore, see that racial harmony is an elusive creature and ethnic tension bound to exists as long as groups of people see themselves as different from others.
In so many words, ethnic tension will exist for all eternity. The Oakland A’s under Billy Beane will win consecutive World Series championships before people cease to see themselves as different from others. What’s also telling is his description of tensions between Hindus and Sikhs, and how trouble was only averted because of police intervention. It seems that the conflicts associated with diversity can only be prevented or minimized by the heavy hand of a strong state.
Despite certain incidents of racial unrest, Singapore, unlike most non-Western nations, has actually attempted to foster integration in earnest. Its housing integration program, implemented by the dominant Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) warrants special scrutiny. While the author blames the initial racial division on British colonialism, the failure of Singapore’s EIP (Ethnic Integration Policy) to remedy such division is revealing:
When one discusses how effective housing policies in Singapore have been in allowing the different races to achieve social cohesion, he or she has to consider the real objectives behind such policies, one of which is the EIP. The objectives of such housing policies can be seen at both a surface level and a long-term level. The surface-level would be to merely ensure that each housing block reaches a certain quota, and once there is a “racial mix”, it is successful. The long-term level is that these citizens of different races really integrate, which means they learn to appreciate and understand one another’s culture and way of life.
According to Figure 1, the EIP has succeeded in reaching its ethnic quotas in housing estates and each housing block by eliminating possible ethnic enclaves (Lum & Tan, 2002). This is attributed to the government’s priority of a “balanced racial mix” in housing estates, and citizens must abide to such stringent laws when purchasing houses. The Housing & Development Board conducted a wide scale survey on neighbourly interaction with people of other races and gathered the following data. They found that more than 50% of respondents exchanged greetings with neigbours of different races and occasionally helped each other, like looking after each other’s children, providing financial help etc:
While the surface-level objective of such housing policies has been reached, the long-term goal of social cohesion amongst races still remains an aspiration. Appold (2006) did a large-scale survey of respondents living in public housing. His methodology was requiring respondents to list down the names of those whom they are familiar with in the neighbourhood. He found that public housing has mandated high levels of integration, but spatial proximity has not contributed to this interaction. While there have been accounts of residents living harmoniously and appreciating each others’ culture, the presence of racist behaviour and mindset still exist amongst neighbours. Even though housing policies have been implemented and housing estates have reached a balanced racial mix, genuine social cohesion can only be met if each individual commits to it. Racial integration cannot stop at placing racially diverse persons within the “proximate distance” of each other (Chua, 2010), but what the government can do is provide the environment where races are together and the policies can only act as regulatory tool to prevent the worsening of ethnic imbalances (Lum & Tan, 2002). With that said, it is still up to each individual to appreciate each other and through that, achieve genuine social cohesion.
This passage perfectly illustrates why diversity can amount to such a liability. Despite extensive government intervention, genuine integration and racial harmony remain elusive. His statement describing the government as a “regulatory tool” is also quite telling. Since diversity will always cause headaches, the most the government can do is put the lid on racial tension and ensure that conflict does not escalate out of hand.
However, even if Singapore’s EIP did achieve its desired result, I still cannot help but marvel at the extensive effort required just to ensure cordial interactions between different groups. Yet again, I feel compelled to mention that Singapore is a small nation that possesses no real historical identity and is lorded over by a powerful state. If even Singapore struggles to manage diversity, then the prospects for larger nations are grim.
I recognize that some measure of diversity is inevitable in almost any large or affluent country. As much as certain white nationalists wished it were so, we’re simply not going to hermetically seal the borders and create a nationwide whitetopia. Homogenous societies are very difficult to maintain in today’s global order.
At the same time, we must be fully cognizant of diversity’s costs, which someone has to bear. If a nation already features diversity, then pragmatism mandates that they try to manage it as effectively as possible. However, what truly boggles my mind are Western nations that choose to import yet more immigrants and yet more diversity, given that diversity poses enough complications as it is. No matter how much diversity management succeeds, it still requires significant upkeep.
Ultimately, we’ll all have to determine whether or not exotic ethnic restaurants are worth large-scale diversity’s costs.