From Multiculturalism to Interculturalism for a More Inclusive Singapore

Published by The Straits Times on 18 Oct 2019. See published article.

We live in a country that is committed to celebrating our multiculturalism. It is my favourite part of being a Singaporean, and living here after those years abroad — my group of besties are made up of Indian-Catholic, Indian-Hindu, Malay-Muslim (Sunni), Chinese-Christian and Indian-Muslim (Shia). Apparently, I once famously said to an executive search consultant that I would not be interested in career opportunities in Hong Kong, China or Taiwan because there are just too many people like me there!

At a 2017 symposium on conflict and peacebuilding, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam insisted that “we should never allow xenophobia and majoritarianism to override the protection and guarantee of equality to minorities”. I cannot agree more.

Yet we are constantly reminded of how majoritarianism fuels unconscious biases and discrimination against cultural minorities for having different values and beliefs. This discrimination can take many different forms, institutionalised or through casual interactions, and is not an uncommon sight around us.

The Rohingya minority in Myanmar are systematically deprived, given their lack of citizenship rights, with severe limitations to their freedom of movement and poor access to education, employment and healthcare. It was heart wrenching to hear many stories of atrocities and persecution, especially from children, when I visited the refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh last year.

Closer to home, the recent “brownface” saga and the IPS study that showed slight increases in discrimination showed that we cannot take our social cohesion for granted, reminding us all that mutual understanding and respect between different races is still a work-in-progress.

So I started wondering what would multiculturalism look like if we switch to the lenses of minoritism? Who are our cultural minorities, beyond race and religion? And can we truly be inclusive just being multicultural or do we need to do more?

Our cultural minorities in multiculturalism

First, there exists a plurality of ethnicities within the “Others” category of the official ethnic CMIO categorisation that many are unaware of, including sizeable ethnic and cross-ethnic communities of Eurasians, Jews, Arabs, Parsis and Armenians that have been living in Singapore for generations. Members of these minority ethnic communities routinely endure a lack of understanding of their cultural practices and lifestyles. As they do not “look Singaporean”, it is common for other Singaporeans to find it hard to believe that they call Singapore their home. I remember a male Eurasian friend hollered at another Singaporean who doubted his rightful claim to be a son of this soil with “limpeh (hokkien slang for your father) is as Singaporean as you can get!”. The rest of this spectacular proof of his Singaporean-ism cannot be reproduced here. Being labeled as ‘Others’ certainly puts you outside the circle.

A 2017 Pew Research found Singapore to be the most religiously diverse country in the world — with Buddhists being the largest group at 34% of the population. Yet one in four Singaporeans do not follow a religion, according to a 2017 survey by the Institute for Policy Studies. I am one of them, for I believe that all divine ordinances are changed and transformed according to the requirements of time throughout our history, except the law of Love. It’s why I always reply ‘love’ when asked for my religion, which obviously gets me strange and sometimes disapproving looks! Do people of faith know and understand that their fellow Singaporeans who do not have a religion do not necessarily oppose religion, they simply hold a different set of beliefs? Would ‘interbelief’ instead of ‘interfaith’ in our narrative be inclusive of this 25% of our Singaporeans?

Apart from cultural minorities of race and religion, another cultural minority is our LGBTQ community. LGBT culture is sometimes also referred to as queer culture”. A community practitioner I know recently shared how she was denied access to her place of worship because she “looks like a lesbian”! To many in the community, majoritarianism has overridden the protection and guarantee of their equality. It’s why they believe the repeal of 377A will begin to eliminate the “knock-on effects” from this colonial law that institutionalises discrimination and legitimises societal stigma, creating an unequal playing field for LGBTQ Singaporeans in access to housing, social welfare and employment opportunities, and perhaps even the opportunity to practise their faith too.

Not often thought of as a cultural minority, our Deaf community faces significant challenges in assimilating within the Singaporean narrative. I recently attended the Bicentennial Experience exhibition with team mates from across my different projects including Hush TeaBar, A Good Space and my NMP work. Unfortunately, the full experience was lost on my Deaf colleagues, with them having to toggle their eyes between the translation text on the given device and the actual exhibition.

“Can the Deaf ever be recognised as a linguistic minority? I didn’t feel included as a Singaporean at all.” asked one of them after the show. I was truly saddened by her words which moved me to pen this commentary. 41 countries recognise the sign language as an official language, including South Korea, Japan, New Zealand. How many like her have we unintentionally left out in our nation building efforts?

The reality is that many within our minority groups feel that they are “lesser citizens”. That by virtue of being different and seen as “others”, their self-worth is diminished, along with their trust in society and their fellow citizens.

From multiculturalism to interculturalism

Someone once said, “diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice at the table, and belonging is being heard at the table.”

It was boldly suggested in the European Journal of Sociology in 2002 that multiculturalism had connotations of “tribalism” and “groupism” and was a challenge to national unity because it is simply a social fact: a society made out of a multitude of cultures.

On the other hand, interculturalism is the dynamic force of growing together as a society of different cultures and beliefs. It involves moving beyond mere passive acceptance of the multicultural fact, promoting interaction and dialogue between cultures. It also recognises that cultural identities intersect and that we are often participants in a constellation of multiple cultures.

Instead of merely having a seat at the table or having a voice, our cultural minorities must believe and feel that they are being heard. Beyond education on the importance of racial and religious harmony, we must prioritise the ability to understand and communicate with each other across all kinds of cultural divisions as a fundamental prerequisite for our society to remain cohesive and robust. This ability is called intercultural competence — the subject of a wide body of scholarly research over five decades.

Studies have shown that individuals may not acquire intercultural competence spontaneously nor simply through exposure to and encounters with people with other cultural affiliations if the environment is deemed discriminatory ie. psychologically unsafe. We must therefore be intentional and systematic in the development of this competence as a national vision, a priority on — if not above par, with interfaith efforts. There is a swathe of resources out there on intercultural education for schools and adult training. At A Good Space which I co-founded in 2017, we promote active intercultural understanding and participation by encouraging our 90-odd social changemakers to collaborate across issues and communities, including majority/minority conversations as well as privilege and responsibility workshops.

Mark Twain said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Indeed, the privilege of being in the majority of any cultural identity comes with that commensurate responsibility to listen, understand and respect — not merely to tolerate or worse, to ‘mainstream’ as my Deaf friend lamented. Being different is not less.

Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without. Our most important lessons in life come from recognising how others from different cultures view things. Multiculturalism is a given fact, but intercultural competence is not — and therefore a collective responsibility that we must own and develop for a Singapore that citizens of all cultural communities can call home, truly.

Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament (2018–2020), Social Entrepreneur (Hush TeaBar, A Good Space, Playground of Joy) and Author of 50 Shades of Love. (Net proceeds from the book go towards supporting the programmes for the Rohingya refugee children).

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.