Let’s Redefine Multiculturalism for a Truly Inclusive Singapore

Keynote Speech, Gotong Royong X, School of the Arts Singapore

A very good morning to you all, my young friends. First of all, I would like to thank Megan Lam from the Gotong Royong Committee for hunting me down and relentlessly following up despite radio silence and short responses from me. Secondly, please forgive me if I am completely off tangent with what I’m going to be sharing today because I only found out yesterday that the aim of this conference is about arts-based service learning and student leadership, and no, I’m not going to be talking about that at all!

Instead, I just blindly went with the name Gotong Royong in Megan’s email invitation. So if you don’t mind, I would like to share my thoughts on our current narrative of multiculturalism and if we need to redefine this to make us more inclusive as a society. If there’s any school I can talk up to on this topic instead of talking down, it would be SOTA — that’s what I shared with one of your very own teachers too, Colin Lim who is a dear friend.

I will try to keep my sharing within 10–15mins so that we have more time for Q&A. I make way too many speeches in my life right now and I’d much rather have a conversation with you instead, so please do come forward and ask questions or share your thoughts after I finish.

Before I start, can I invite you to do something very human with me first so we come together not just in body but in mind too? <Breathing Exercise> Thank you for indulging me. Only us humans can breathe by volition but we do so little of it. It is also in silence that we remember who we are, and who we are to each other. This segue very nicely to discussing how we live with each other in Singapore.

I’m grateful that 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 for one of my community projects called Playground of Joy.

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.

How many of you feel you are a majority, doesn’t matter what that majority is based on? How many of you feel being discriminated again, at some point in your life, at some level?

Well, I have definitely experienced discrimination when I was your age because of the way I looked, born with an eye defect that invited much name-calling and taunting. Yet I am also a classic textbook majority with being Chinese.

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

So who are our cultural minorities?

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.

How many of you are in the ‘Others’?

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 “I”, also ‘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 2019 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 more 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.

Not often thought of as a cultural minority, our Deaf and hard-of-hearing 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.

After the show, my deaf friend Lily asked me on WhatsApp: “Can the Deaf ever be recognised as a linguistic minority? I didn’t feel included as a Singaporean at all.” I didn’t have an answer for her but I was truly saddened by her words which moved me to start questioning our idea of multiculturalism and inclusivity. 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.” Let me repeat that, “diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice at the table, and belonging is being heard at the table. So diversity doesn’t mean inclusion, inclusion doesn’t mean feeling belonged.

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.

Given that I’m in SOTA, let me use the analogy of art to unpack this. This bold suggestion that multiculuralism has connotations of tribalism is to my mind akin to the iconic neoplastic Mondrian painting of block colours. There are only primary colours. Between each block are these stark strips of black. As a whole, it is beautiful but the lines are straight and the separation between the colours distinctive.

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.

So this is like the splashed colour paintings where you can see the different colours but they are nuanced, textured and not distinctively separately. We often can’t tell when one colour ends, and the other starts. What comes to mind is Starry Night by Van Gogh but there are way more flamboyant examples of colour splashes. I think this is what interculturalism is — the interactions of cultures create new and shared identities.

Another example. How many times have I attended corporate or community events that feature performances from different cultural groups and yet when we head out to the buffet table after, there are no halal or vegetarian provisions? The former may be a display of multiculturalism, the latter is most definitely a lack of basic interculturalism that would usually make me mumble to myself, “really, in this time and age?” How are we communicating our acceptance of diversity with such majoritarian choices made?

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.

Let’s come back to the brownface saga for a moment. Is it really any surprise that an ad deemed ‘multicultural’ but using a majority race to depict the other minority races may have elicited such strong and emotional responses? Maybe it was ok in the past when the official narrative was passive tolerance, but the team who designed this ad was, in my view, interculturally incompetent, for not understanding how the need for a shared and equal identity by all groups has evolved in our society.

Intercultural competence is the subject of a wide body of scholarly research over five decades, pioneered by Geert Hofstede, Dutch social psychologist and Professor Emeritus of Organisational Anthropology and International Management at Maastricht University, Netherlands. He famously defined culture as the ‘programming of the mind’ and intercultural competence as “the ability to develop targeted knowledge, skills and attitudes that lead to visible behaviour and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions”.

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.

Hofstede cautioned that it is a ‘lifelong process’ and that ‘critical reflection becomes a powerful tool” on the journey towards achieving it. So let’s pause and ask ourselves:

How interculturally competent am I with people with other cultural affiliations — pick one to work through your mind? What skills do you need to develop — adaptability, empathy, courage?

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.

I strongly feel that we must therefore be intentional and systematic in the development of this intercultural competence as a national vision, a priority that to my mind is more if not as important as interfaith efforts. Beyond the mere proclamations of multiculturalism through racial harmony day celebrations.

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, or being a minority, is not less.

Let me conclude, my young friends because I can go on about this for hours because there’s so much to explore. I would like to leave you with these final thoughts.

Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, yet 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, that much I know from 51 years of living in as well as travelled to different parts of this blue planet.

Majoritarianism may hide behind multiculturalism. Multiculturalism may be a given fact, but interculturalism is not. Unless we open our eyes, minds and hearts to the minority groups in our midst, we are just multicultural not intercultural.

If you take away nothing from the last 15mins of my rambling, I hope that you can at least ask yourself what kind of Singapore do you want to live in, and how do you want to contribute to an inclusive society? Are you a block of one of the many primary colours or are you part of a splash of multiple colours?

Becoming interculturally more competent must be a collective responsibility that we must own and develop for a Singapore that citizens of all cultural communities can call home, truly.

Thank you for listening. May you have a colourful day ahead.

Let me say that you can ask me anything, including service learning and leadership — and my personal life etc. It doesn’t have to about what I just shared!

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Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament, social entrepreneur, life coach and author of 50 Shades of Love. www.antheaong.com

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