Minister Lawrence Wong's speech
- See also: Lawrence Wong's views on LGBT rights
During a forum on identity politics organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on Tuesday, 23 November 2021, then Finance Minister Lawrence Wong discussed the different segments of Singapore’s population, whose identities may be linked to characteristics such as their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation,,,,. Wong pointed out that LGBTQ people felt that society did not accept them or even recognise them as different. He cautioned: "These are important concerns. One cannot say to any of these groups that their concerns are illegitimate or exaggerated. If we are to live up to the founding ethos of Singapore, every Singaporean deserves a place in our society, regardless of his or her background, status or racial or cultural identity. That is what a fair and just society must mean. And we cannot - in the name of avoiding the dangers of identity politics - deny the rights of a variety of groups to organise themselves, so as to gain recognition for their concerns, or seek to improve their conditions." For its part, the Government would not let any group feel unheard, excluded or ostracised,.
Wong's speech was followed-up by a panel discussion moderated by Mathew Matthews, the Institute of Policy Studies’ principal research fellow and head of its social lab. It comprised three speakers (Prof. Joseph Liow, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University, Prof. Vineeta Sinha, from the Department of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore, and Prof. David Chan, professor of psychology and director of the behavioural sciences initiative at the Singapore Management University) and three 'respondents' (Corinna Lim, executive director at the Association of Women for Action and Research, Sharvesh Leatchmanan, co-founder of Minority Voices, a platform for minorities who have faced discrimination to share their experiences, and Ng Yi-Sheng, a writer and LGBTQ activist).
Ng Yi-Sheng pointed out that some tribes, such as LGBTQ Singaporeans, had no leverage and could not engage on an equal footing with others. He argued that the use of social media by disenfranchised and marginalised groups to express their rage and sorrow could be an effective tool, as such groups may find it difficult to channel their concerns through more formal platforms such as academic conferences. Social media had been an important tool for those who were disempowered and that “rage is productive, sorrow is productive”. “Most people cannot express themselves through formal independent arguments or go through academic conferences which may or may not influence policy,” said Ng. “So going to social media and ranting, having that anger, that’s important... we should be angry especially when we face injustice.”
In response, Prof. David Chan said that being angry and expressing it may lead to “unintended negative consequences” especially when the issue at hand involved “strong value differences between groups”. “Even though you are very angry and you have every right to... the only result that will happen is that it causes the other opposing group to be equally angry if not angrier,” he added. “It is a disservice to the group that we are representing in trying to undo some of the injustices or to fight for the justices because it will backfire.” However, he clarified that he was not referring to any specific group when talking about refraining from anger, but was “speaking in more general terms”.
The clash between the LGBTQ community and more conservative groups such as some Christians was also discussed, sparking an appeal for a better platform for engagement by these groups outside social media. Prof Chan said that identities were multi-dimensional, and that some groups may be clashing from the standpoint of one set of identities, such as that of LGBTQ and conservative groups, but had other common identities, such as being Singaporean. “I hope from a practical point of view, we can try to think (our identities) through and perhaps refrain ourselves from being too angry whenever we disagree,” he said. “Differences can exist, disagreements can exist, but we do have many commonalities and we can complement each other, even though we are different.”
Ng said that while the conversation had been about addressing the issues faced by the LGBTQ community, there should also be attention paid to a group that had been “causing the LGBTQ community a lot of trouble”, which he referred to as the “conservative Christian community”. He claimed that it was these conservative groups that had a hand in incidents such as “Penguingate”, where a story book about two male penguins adopting a baby penguin was momentarily taken off the shelves at libraries, and the Facebook group ‘We are against Pink Dot in Singapore’, which was started in an attempt to halt the annual Pink Dot event supporting the LGBTQ community.
Responding to this, Prof. Joseph Liow said that both the LGBTQ and “conservative Christian” groups had “legitimate points”, but that both communities were “talking across purposes”. “The conservative Christian community does not seem to be interested in listening, and I would say that the LGBTQ community as well... there's a bit of talking ships passing in the night,” he said. Prof. Liow added that a proper platform of engagement outside of social media “seems to be necessary” so both parties can engage meaningfully.
Prof. Chan added that the differences between the two groups stemmed from a difference in values, which was often more difficult to reconcile. “It is very, very difficult to ask the LGBTQ group to look at it from the (conservative groups’) point of view and vice versa,” he said. “Values take many years to develop... it is your sense of what ought to be and what is right and wrong (and) to be consistent and coherent, you will want to advocate what you believe in.”
Sharvesh Leatchmanan pointed out that while both groups may differ in values, the power dynamic was nevertheless unbalanced. “In Singapore, you are able to exist as a Christian person freely, but it's not easy for you to exist as a LGBTQ person,” he said, referring to Section 377A of the Penal Code, which made it a crime for a man to commit any act of "gross indecency" with another man. “I think that's the biggest difference — that you're infringing upon someone else's right to be themselves, whereas I don't think LGBTQ people are trying to tell Christians not to be Christian.”
Responding to this, Prof. Chan agreed that there was an “asymmetry” between the two groups due to various disadvantages that one group faced that another did not. “People who are against LGBTQ (groups) might want to take a pause and realise that LGBTQ groups are going through things which you as a non-LGBTQ (person) do not have to go through,” he said.
Acknowledging these sentiments, Minister Lawrence Wong said people had very strong views on sexual orientation and gender identity, and this was the case all over the world. "But I would say to LGBTQ groups that the attitudes are not static, they are shifting," he added, noting that the Government frequently engaged people, including those from LGBTQ and religious groups, about the issue. "It's very clear (that) sentiment and attitudes are shifting especially among young people, but also shifting for the whole of society." This showed that conversations were not futile, he said, clarifying: "It's not as though things will be static forever. "As these attitudes and sentiments shift, society will have to think about where the balance might be. And the Government, too, will have to consider what balance would be appropriate for society and what policies we might have to adjust."
Ng Yi-Sheng's account
"The context was, I'd been invited as a respondent at Panel 1: Identities & Diversity. Three profs were given 8 min each to talk about the topic; three of us respondents had only 4 min each to talk back. Political scientist Joseph Liow started out emphasising how today's SG isn't an accident of history but meticulously constructed, based on mutual understanding & compromise; that it's necessary to create a framework so that none are undermining this oh-so-perfect system. Sociologist Vineeta Sinha talked about the multiple subjectivities & selves that we reflect, but rather than seeing difference as a problem to be solved, she urged us to see it as productive & dynamic, & reminded us of the importance of inclusion: "Diversity w/o genuine inclusion is vacuous at best." & psychologist David Chan talked about the malleability of identity, the importance of humility & diplomacy as well as pride, w a throwaway closing line: "Let's not be too angry."
I responded to each prof one by one. I challenged Dr Chan on anger (this was linked to Lawrence Wong's dismissal of social media), saying that v often rage is productive & legitimate, & not everyone experiencing injustice is going to be able to express it in coherent arguments in academic spaces. I took up Dr Liow's point about those who undermine the system, saying that no-one had so far mentioned an identity group that's been instrumental in oppression: conservative Christians, disproportionately represented in gov & finance, members of whom have been driving hate initiatives such as the AWARE takeover, PenguinGate, We Are Against Pink Dot. & I praised Dr Sinha (I called her a queen), & further noted that the extremely heterogenous LGBTQ+ community's had to deal w issues of inclusion & dynamism—the evolution of Pink Dot over the years shows how it's shifted to show solidarity across gender, class, & new identity markers such as nonbinary & pansexual folks.
Which is why I closed by saying, "Minister Lawrence Wong, if you want to learn about inclusion, come to Pink Dot." (According to Twitter, an audience member audibly gasped.)
Also proud of my complaint: "In Singapore we have five shared values: justice, equality, democracy, progress. But all we ever seem to care about is peace." What's the point of having a forum like this if it's all about maintaining the status quo? Why are we here if we're not fighting for progress?
I've also gotta say that my fellow respondents were awesome. Corinna Lim of AWARE pointed out that folks were enshrining the identity of Singapore citizen above all, but that doesn't include 40% of people on the island who fall btw the cracks, e.g. migrant spouses who can't get jobs—can we agree to abide by common rules & values instead? She also countered Lawrence Wong's rubbishing of "Chinese privilege" by noting it was not something to shy away from. (Sinha backed her up on this. Toldja she was a queen.) & Sharvesh Leatchamanan of Minority Voices revealed that he does not identify w Singaporeanness cos his belonging keeps being questioned through xenophobia & threatened by racism. (The moderator Mathew Mathews was like, hey, I feel like I belong! & so do people who answered to our study!) & when the Chinese men tried to say conservative Christians & LGBTQ+ folks should just sit down & talk it out—well, Corinna & Sharvesh spoke up about power differentials, so I didn't have to say a word.
But one of the most heartbreaking things was to hear the audience ask: what do we do when we get a complaint about injustice that is expressed very rudely? Do SGans not understand that correcting injustice is more important than demanding victims be polite? We really do care only about peace, & we think peace means silence.
Oh & there was also Panel 2: Innovating Engagement, w civil servant Aaron Maniam, media studies prof Zhang Weiyu, Joel Lim from ZYRUP Media & Chan Chi Ling from better.sg, all about how to get opposing groups to agree on things & express empathy for each other. The moderator conspicuously avoided asking the #1 question in the Q&A chat: why IPS hadn't invited any Malay speakers."
Straits Times article
On Wednesday, 24 November 2021, The Straits Times published an article on the discussion:
Editable text of the article:
THE STRAITS TIMES
Wednesday, November 24, 2021
Panellists speak on bias, privilege, differences and lived experiences
Linette Lai and Goh Yan Han
A panel of six speakers discussed identity at an IPS-RSIS conference on the topic, moderated by the Institute of Policy Studies’ principal research fellow and head of its social lab Mathew Mathews.
Here are some issues raised.
ACKNOWLEDGE CONCERNS OVER DISCRIMINATION
Professor Joseph Liow
Tan Kah Kee
Chair in Comparative and International Politics and dean of Nanyang Technological University’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
As Singapore works towards establishing a collective identity, it must evolve a framework to ensure no one is marginalised, Prof Liow said. It must also ensure that no one seeks to undermine the system by appealing to other identity markers, such as race and religion.
He noted that modern Singapore’s identity has been shaped by its historical and geographical context, and cannot be divorced from that reality. While it is legitimate for people to express unhappiness with certain issues, it is important to stop such situations from “cascading downhill, he added.
Countries must have platforms to discuss differences and foster engagement between groups, he said. “A lot of times, difference arises from the fact that there’s either disinterest or just... very deep aversion towards another party, without actually knowing what the other party represents.”
This means acknowledging, rather than downplaying, differences, and tackling legitimate expressions of concern about discrimination. "If it’s about 'we' and ’our’ - the collective - there needs to be an effort and an opportunity for every element in that collective to be able to express their fears... about not being part of that collective.”
DIFFERENCES NORMAL, NATURAL
Professor Vineeta Sinha
Sociologist at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
It is important to consider concepts such as gender, political orientation and class interests when discussing issues of diversity in Singapore. Prof Vineeta said.
And it is useful to frame differences in positive terms, rather than focusing on the potential tensions t hat can arise, she added.
“If we accept differences as normal and natural in all their genuine expressions, then it becomes part and parcel of the fabric of everyday lite.' she said.
She also spoke about the importance of building a society in which people are committed to letting others from different communities express themselves, which helps avoid identity politics.
“The minute you begin to think that only women should be concerned about women’s issues, or only ethnic minorities should be concerned about issues affecting ethnic minorities, is where you’ll begin to sec the cleavages.”
TALK OF MULTIPLE IDENTITIES
Professor David Chan
A psychologist and director of the Singapore Management University’s Behavioural Sciences Initiative
It is difficult to tell people that they should be "Singaporean first and foremost”, and that their other identities must always come second, Prof Chan said.
Instead, figure out how people can be fully committed to the country while remaining true to the aspects of identity they feel most strongly about, he suggested.
He pointed out that frictions often arise when identity differences stem from different values - that is, what people fundamentally believe to be right and wrong.
One way to mitigate this is to remind people that they are more than just one particular identity, and that relationships can be built despite the existence of areas of difference, Prof Chan said.
Those who hold dominant, mainstream values should be sensitive to what others in the minority are going through, he added.
DON’T SHY AWAY FROM PRIVILEGE
Ms Corinna Lim
Executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research
Ms Lim said terms such as privilege should not be something to shy away from, especially when linked to something sensitive, such as race. Instead, people should talk about them respectfully and with an understanding of what it means when the word “privilege" is used.
Ms Lim noted that social media has allowed for different types of identities to surface, and allows for engagement on topics where doors used to be closed.
She also cautioned that focusing on the Singaporean identity could create a division between Singaporeans and non-Singaporcans, given that 40 per cent of the population are not citizens.
“Using that as the means to try to bring people together - to me it has some downsides - and you’ll have people falling through the cracks, like the migrant spouses who have Singaporean children. Where do they lie?" she said.
"A better way is really to think about certain rules and values that we go by. What do we stand for? Inclusiveness. diversity - we make sure that whatever, whoever you arc. whatever your social identity, (there will be) no violence against you. the state will protect you."
MINORITIES’ LIVED EXPERIENCES
Mr Sharvesh Leatchmanan Co-founder and editor of Minority Voices
Mr Sharvesh said it is difficult for him to understand the Singaporean identity because his lived experience tells him that he is not part of this identity. "Because when I and many people who look like me arc questioned about our nationality and about our citizenship. very often that makes you feel like you are not part of the social fabric in Singapore." he said.
He also noted that some people from minorities have told him that they have gone through internalised racism and self-hatred of their own ethnicity or culture.
Having faced discrimination, they distance themselves from their culture and ethnicity, and later in life, it is difficult for them to eventually connect with their culture and their roots, he said.
He acknowledged that there are policies that include the different races, and efforts are made to include people from different groups. “But on the ground, (in) interpersonal relationships, and when you're experiencing racism on a day-to-day basis, it can really make you feel otherwise."
EXPRESSING ANGER IS IMPORTANT
Mr Ng Yi-Sheng Writer
Mr Ng, a gay Singaporean writer, noted that Prof Chan, in discussing the malleability of identity, had suggested refraining from being angry* when in disagreement with others.
Mr Ng said: “Rage is productive. Sorrow is productive... Most people cannot express themselves through formal independent arguments and going through academic conferences which may or may not influence policy. So going into social media and venting, having that anger, that’s important." He also said some groups have the right to be angry when there is injustice, and added: “You know, Singapore, we’ve got five shared values. We’ve got justice, equality, we’ve got democracy, we've got progress. But all that we seem to care about is peace."
(From left) Moderator Mathew Mathews with Professor Joseph Liow, Professor Vineeta Sinha and Professor David Chan at yesterday's conference. The three other speakers present (on screen) were Mr Ng Yi-Sheng (partially hidden). Ms Corinna Lim and Mr Sharvesh Leatchmanan. PHOTO: INSTITUTE OF POLICY STUDIES
Pink Dot's statement
STATEMENT IN RESPONSE TO MINISTER LAWRENCE WONG AT IPS-RSIS CONFERENCE
If our government is serious about addressing the concerns of minority groups that have been disenfranchised by society and policy, then it is time for concrete action.
We call on them to take the lead in addressing the inequality that has been called out so many times, have the conversations that will build the mutual understanding needed for a truly inclusive and harmonious society, and make the tough decisions that will move Singapore towards a fair future for everyone.
These are issues that cannot and should not be left to ‘evolve’ naturally on their own. Change is long overdue and we look forward to our government practicing what it preaches.
We are encouraged by Minister Lawrence Wong’s acknowledgement that the LGBTQ community, along with other marginalised groups, have fallen through the cracks in our society. Minister Wong’s stance that the government has an important role in addressing the issues faced by these groups is a welcome change. This is a significant departure from previous claims by the political Leadership that there is no discrimation against LGBTQ people in Singapore.
One of Pink Dot SG’s missions since its inception has been to change the hearts and minds of Singaporeans on LGBTQ issues, and we believe that one of the ways this can be done is by building spaces of shared understanding and belonging for everyone. It is hostile and unwelcoming environments that create tribalistic thinking, not the other way around. After all, when people on the margins feel excluded, it is only natural that they form their own tribes amongst themselves in order to find the protection and affirmation that they need.
We have seen this play out for the LGBTQ community in Singapore. The reality is that despite years of advocating for equal treatment, little progress has been made.
The existence of Section 377A of the Penal Code continues to cast its cruel shadow over the LGBTQ community. The trickle-down effects of this law still affect us in the areas of media representation, education, the workplace, and housing. We end up being constantly excluded in a nation that we should be building together; tiptoeing around discriminatory policies to carve out a semblance of a life that should be afforded to us as equal members of Singaporean society.
Straits Times op-eds
26 November 2021
Editable text of the article:
THE STRAITS TIMES
FRIDAY. NOVEMBER 26, 2021
How to deal with differences in identity politics
One way is to downplay differences over issues like race or sexual identity. Another is to acknowledge differences exist while trying to treat all equally. Or one can accept that some identities are more powerful than others.
Chua Mui Hoong
This week, identity issues took centre stage at a conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
The conference on identity issues comes at a time when race, religion, gender and sexuality, and their impact on the political sphere, are on the public agenda.
I watched the videos of the conference, which was held on Tuesday. Here's an outline of what I found salient, and what more needs to be discussed in future forums on such issues.
WHERE WE ARE NOW
First, some definitions.
All over the world, concern is being raised about identity politics taking root, polarising societies.
Identity politics takes place when people organise around identity (such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or other attributes) to lobby for political action. It is human to seek comfort among like-minded folks, but identity politics has a tendency to become exclusionary and zero-sum: for example, a group championing one religion or cultural group may want its practices legislated for inclusion in the workplace and schools, to the exclusion of others. Political parties that play up identity politics can drive wedges through societies.
Government leaders have been addressing such concerns for some time. Race and religion was a major theme in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally this year.
As Finance Minister Lawrence Wong highlighted in his keynote address at the conference, conflict over identity issues is by no means new. Many Singaporeans know about the racial riots between Chinese and Malays in 1964 that killed 36 people. But the deadliest riots in Singapore took place a century before.The 1854 riots between Hokkiens and Teachews killed around 400. As Mr Wong observed, it may seem astounding today, but back then, dialect identities among Chinese people in Singapore and China ‘trumped their racial, cultural or national identity as Chinese’.
Today, new forms of what Mr Wong called tribalism are emerging, and Singapore has to take care that thev do not destrov the social harmony so hard-won in Singapore that remains on a “knife edge”.
For example, issues over gender and sexual identity now feature alongside traditional identity issues of race and religion. These can become polarising if not managed well.
“The challenge is to acknowledge and do our best to address the legitimate concerns of every tribe’, without allowing our politics to be based exclusively on identities or tribal allegiances.’ he said.
Mr Wong suggested five ways to find common ground with one another, adding that his remarks were more ‘“in the nature of notes to prompt further discussion than a fully worked exposition".
The first three rules involve interacting with others: to strengthen human relationships: and avoid stereotyping people based on single traits; and choose cooperation and mutual benefit over conflict when working together.
Next, as a society, Singapore must give hope to all by having targeted support for marginalised groups while ensuring universal coverage on essential items.
And finaly, the Government must act as a fair, honest broker in these interactions.
He said: “We will never lot any group feel boxed in or ostracised. All must feel they are pan of the Singapore conversation, all must feel they are part of the Singapore family, all must feel there is hope for the future?
In the discussions that followed, panellists at the conference agreed that a person has multiple identities. Identity is multi-dimensional, malleable and multi-group, said Professor David Chan, director of the Singapore Management University’s Behavioural Sciences Initiative.
It was thus important to focus on what is common among different groups, several panellists concurred. For example, focusing on a sense of shared humanity can help people bridge divides, said Professor Vineeta Sinha, sociologist at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
I would savthis is where Singapore as a society is right now on identity issues. We uphold the importance of cohesion. We recognise there are more, and more complex and overlapping, identity issues that need to be discussed publicly. We recognise the need to acknowledge these differences and want to live with differences in a harmonious manner.
But we are unsure just how to deal with differences.
DEALING WITH DIFFERENCES 101
One way to deal with differences is to downplay them.
This has been Singapore's approach to race for over 50 years, when we preached racial harmony, and patted ourselves on our backs for our achievement. But in recent years, many young people from minority communities have spoken up passionately about how sweeping differences under the carpet has meant not educating majority-race Singaporeans about the need for sensitivity, leaving minorities to face the kind of casual racism that represents a thousand tiny cuts during daily interactions.
Downplaying differences is no longer a viable way to deal with issues that may divide society.
The second way to deal with differences is to acknowledge them and assure everyone they have space to air their views.
Elaborating on how to deal with differences, Prof Vineeta said differences are normal and natural among people. This means they should neither bo downplayed nor over-emphasised.
For example, humans do have differences in skin tones. Things become problematic only when people ascribe characteristics to those differences, for example, if they say people of certain skin tones are dirty. The key is to discuss differences without judgment or hierarchy, she said.
Such an approach might be what Mr Wong had in mind when he promised that no group would be unheard, ignored or excluded.
But does this mean that every identity group will have a seat at the table of discussion on how to forge a common future in Singapore? How realistic is that expectation? Will each group have an equal voice in participation? Will each have an equal say on the outcome?
After all, while the idealist says that differences are natural and can be accommodated, the realist knows that not all differences are equal. The scale of identity politics has different weights.
For example, while all of us have multiple identities, some identities have more power than others.
Being male is more powerful generally than being female (jokes about men fearful of their wives notwithstanding). Being Chinese in majority Chinese Singapore is more powerful than being Malay or Indian.
Within each person’s identity kit bag are also different-powered identities. For example, in warning against stereotyping people and viewing them through the lens of one identity attribute such as race, Mr Wong questioned the notion of “Chinese privilege’’, saying a poor Chinese woman would have a vastly different lived experience’ from a wealthy Chinese man.
But what Mr Wong failed to add is that belonging to the majority Chinese race does give said poor woman a certain majority privilege. When she applies for a job, for example, she is unlikely to be asked if she is really Singaporean; on the MRT, the empty seat next to her is unlikely to be shunned because of her race.
As Prof Vineeta put it, one aspect of privilege is the freedom not to be marked by one's identity markers.
THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE MAJORITY
For the discussion on identity issues to move forward, it is important for majority communities not to deny their own advantage and privilege, or deny minorities their lived experiences.
Power imbalances are as central to human society as the desire to belong to identity groups.
Those in positions of majority privilege, or in positions of power and dominance, must have the honesty to face up to their own privilege, and then the courage to use that privilege to extend the rights of those who are powerless.
This can form the basis of a third and more realistic wav to address differences: acknowledge differences are natural and human; welcome people to the table of discussion: and treat all as equal, while understanding that some come with more privilege, others with more disadvantages and even some trauma.
Just as the discussion on social mobility and inequality has sensitised Singapore to give more targeted assistance to low-income families so that their children can break out of poverty, so discussions around identity issues have to offer safe spaces to those who are most marginalised or ostracised, to speak without fear of being ridiculed or dismissed.
Such an attitude by the majority will then encourage the airing of views. Conversely, it is important for minorities to speak truthfully with candour, without embellishment or unfair blaming.
In his August rally speech, PM Lee had also addressed this issue when he stressed the importance of accommodating differences in identities, to preserve inter-racial harmony. He said that minority races are the ones most affected by racial discrimination and urged the majority to be more sensitive to their concerns and have the moral courage to take a stand against racist behaviour.
In another speech on race in June. Mr Wong specifically called on the majority community to recognise that it is harder to be a minority than a majority in a multiracial society. He urged the majority to "do more and take the extra step” to be sensitive to and consciousof the needs of minorities.
This rule of majority responsibility should be hard coded into Singapore's DNA on how to deal with identity politics. Such an attitude from the majority is crucial to preserve social cohesion as Singapore society engages in painful, honest conversations that allow minorities to air their views and express their emotions. Once minorities feel safe and heard by the majority community, both groups can work to enlarge the common ground.
Being the majority or any other dominant group in a society is a privilege and a responsibility.
Chinese Singaporeanscan recognise their own privileged position as the dominant ethnic group, without subscribing to the controversial views of critical race theory, which teaches that racial discrimination is historical and built into social structures and institutions.
That view might have resonance in America, with its history of Black slavery and legacy of coercive racist laws that privileged the White majority and targeted others. Such laws include those that enforced racial segregation in public spaces like buses and schools between Whites and persons of colour from 1877 to the mid-1950s; and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act suspending Chinese immigration.
When a Black American decries systemic discrimination and speaks of "white privilege", that cry comes from a historical and cultural context verv different from Singapore.
So those wary of importing the idea of "white privilege and conflating it with "Chinese privilege”, straight into Singapore are right to be cautious.
But one can understand the US-specific context of critical race theory as something foreign to Singapore, and still be alive to the general point that being a member of a dominant social group that holds most economic and political power, puts one in an advantaged position over someone from a minority group.
Recognising such a privilege should make us pause and cause us to give to others the respect we want given to us. This then requires us to exercise that privilege responsibly, and to use it to extend protection and shelter to those less privileged than ourselves.
Just as many societies teach men to both respect and protect women and children, so majority identity groups should use their dominance to hold space and create shelter for minorities.
For the majority, the key is to listen to the lived experiences with empathy and check ourselves for bias. Minorities too can help their own cause when they voice their experiences in a way that does not unfairly accuse their listeners.
Some Singaporeans may avoid such conversations for fear of importing polarising Western-style culture wars into Singapore. But that is classic slippery-slope, sloppy thinking based on catastrophic projection, which is when vou refuse to start doing something because you project it will end badly (for example, you read about patricide and decide you won’t have children).
Recognising the excesses of another society's polemical debates is no reason to stop our own from doing the right thing and beginning to set ourselves on a better path. Instead, we should be smart and intentional to avoid the mistakes other societies have made on identity issues.
For example, we must constantly make sure minorities are not discriminated against in the workplace so they become marginalised into poverty. Instead, national efforts are needed to broaden and deepen the social safety net to cover minorities, whether of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
Mr Wong hoped his "notes” on tribalism would prompt further discussion. He outlined a very practical and useful list of five steps to counter tribalist instincts. The principle of majority responsibility should be added to that framework.
So girded, Singapore society can then prepare for the next phase of discussions on identity issues, which is to address the sense of injustice felt by minorities and talk about how to address them. In this phase, the role of the Government as fair, honest broker will be pivotal.
3 December 2021
The following week, on Friday, 26 November 2021, Straits Times Associate Editor Chua Mui Hoong wrote a follow-up op-ed piece entitled, "Leadership, not just fair broker, needed to mediate identity politics".
Editable text of the article
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2021
THE STRAITS TIMES
OPINION | A21
Leadership, not just fair broker, needed to mediate identity politics
In dealing with values-driven, conflicting issues over identity, the state needs moral vision, conviction to do the right thing and the strength to get all on board
Chua Mui Hoong
In a recent conference on identity, a key member of the 4G political leadership promised that when it comes to identity issues, the Government will play a role as a ‘fair, honest broker’ in arbitrating between different points of view.
Mr Lawrence Wong, who is Finance Minister, has spoken on race and identity issues several times in recent months, and is one of three key leaders in the fourth generation team of Cabinet ministers tipped as most likely to succeed Mr Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister. Given Singapore’s generally collegial style of political leadership. Mr Wong s statement can be seen as reflective of the current Cabinet’s position on such issues.
What does it mean to be a fair, honest broker when different communities make competing claims on how they want society to be organised?
According to Mr Wong, it means, where possible, getting diverse groups to the discussion table so everyone can share views, be listened to respectfully, and make compromises to come to an agreement.
But where consensus is not possible. Mr Wong said, "the Government will do our utmost to recognise the challenges and needs of different groups, decide on the appropriate policy, and convince the rest of society that this is a fair way to move forward”.
In doing so. -we will never let any group feel unheard, ignored or excluded”. All must feel heard, feel apart of the Singapore familyand must have hope for the future, he said.
As Singapore goes through the process of learning to talk through difficult identity issues around race, religion, nationality and sexual identity, the role of the Government as fair, honest broker will become more important.
What might that role look like, especially when it comes to contentious issues? And is such a role sufficient?
BEYOND BROKERTO REFEREE AND COACH
In investment terms, a broker is an intermediary between a buyer and a seller of services. The broker is usually a neutral person who has no vested interest s of his own except to help the buyer make a transaction. Think of a stock broker or a real estate agent.
But a government is not just a go-between or a transactional agent; it has moral value, and moral values.
Singapore'sGovernment.ofall governments, has a forceful moral character with a set of principles and values it is not shy to articulate, that it actively seeks to promote among citizens. Indeed, its values are drawn from citizens, foragovemment is madeupof individuals from the citizenry, given a mandate to lead.
Perhaps a better description of the state’s role in mediating and managing identity politics is that of a referee and coach. As referee, its role is to enforce rules of engagement. As coach, it has a facilitative role, to encourage parties to the discussion to speak up. listen to one another and come to a compromise.
If no compromise is possible, it steps in as adjudicator. And its decision should be binding on all.
The idea of the state playing a role as both referee and coach, and as a fair adjudicator when there is disagreement, is not a novel one. but one derived from decades of nation-building.
The commitment to give space and voice to all communities, and not let the majority ride rough-shod over others, is embedded in Singapore’s foundational politics.
On race, for example, the Government ensures all races are respected. The majority Chinese race is not allowed to push its agenda exclusively (or Chinese, not English, might be the working language and medium of instruction in schools). Minorities are given special consideration for historical or polit ical reasons (special status of Muslimsunder the law for example: and laws ensuring minority representation in Parliament).
A more recent example of how public contention is managed is the 2009 Aware saga, when a group of conservative Christians tried to seize power at the women's organisation. In the wake of the episode, then Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng ske tched out the broad values that all groups, including religious ones, should abide by in public discussions and activism: mutual respect, restraint, tolerance, accommodation, and give and take.
Those values are equally applicable today, and can guide public discussion on identity issues.
DECIDING BETWEEN COMPETING CLAIMS
Apart from being respectful and tolerant. which is about the process of engagement. how does a soc iety made up of citizens with conflicting claims decide whose should prevail? How is the honest broker to decide?
One way to resolve conflicting claims is to ask everybody what they want and then try to forge agreement or a consensus. But this is difficult when the issue concerns deep-seated beliefs and values that lead groups to desire opposing outcomes.
Another way is logo with the majority viewpoint. The Government may appear to abide by this when it points to public opinion as a guide. Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in 2018 that when it comes to decidingon whether laws should be changed, the executive (government) puts up its proposal to Parliament, and public opinion can be relevant in such policy-making in Parliament.
But public opinion changes, and policy-making by majority can be problematic. In any case, it is not tenable that the majority’s view always prevail, especially if it is discriminatory of minorities.
A third option is to do nothing and let the status quo prevail until something upsets it But this is not ideal, especially if a law perpetuates or enables an injustice.
A fourth option is to make a decision based on the principles of fairness and justice. Moral philosophy offers guides on how to weigh competing claims.
Influential moral philosopher |ohn Rawls, for example, has suggested that when thinking about rival desired outcomes, one conducts a thought experiment behind a veil of ignorance’.
Supposing you have no idea of the gender, race, class, religion, or sexual orient ation you and others around you are born into. Now a group of you are being asked to devise rules for society. What rules would you agree to that are fair to yourself and others, behind this veil of ignorance?
For example, consider if you would then consent to a law that says a certain race should be barred from work or that a certain gender be paid less? What if you are in fad from that race or gender that is treated unfairly?
Rawls' theory of-justice as fairness” promotes the idea of equal basic liberties and equality of opportunity. In a society of free, equal citizens, coercive laws can be justified only if they advance the public good.
And when assessing laws, it is useful to ask if greater harm is done by imposing a coercive law on otherwise law-abiding citizens than removing it.
Another useful idea is the difference principle, which is that any inequality in rules should be designed to facilitate the maximum benefit to the least advantaged members of society. So, for example, tax high earners at a higher rate, and give fiscal benefits to those unable to work.
The idea of rules being weighted to help the marginalisedlevel up is a good one to follow, to redress power and resource imbalances minorities have had to deal with, and to assuage the anger that can accompany identity politics.
As the referee, the Government would test any claim among rival groups against such principles of equality, fairness and maximum benefit to the marginalised.
This requires the Government to make value judgments on identity issues and claims, as not all values or issues are of equal weight.
CASE STUDY: LGBTQ ISSUES
With the above framework, we can look at how one contentious identity issue is being played out and tty to tease out what a responsible government should do.
LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) issues are manifold and complex worldwide. In Singapore, the issue of consensual sex between adult men is the sharp line that divides two camps.
On one side are ranged gay activistsand other Singaporeans who believe Section 377A criminalising sex between men (enacted in 1938) is outdated and should be repealed.
On the other side are other Singaporeans who do not want to upset the status quo. or who believe repealing that law would open the floodgates to a slew of future demands to accept lifestyles that they think will damage the fabric of society, such as pressure for marriage equality and adoption rights for homosexual couples.
When two opposing groups make conflicting claims - repeal S377A, keep it - no amount of public discussion will arrive at a compromise. Can the Government make a decision by majority opinion?
On this, while opinion does shape public policy-making, as Mr Shanmugam acknowledged, it is a poor guide on what to do. This is because public opinion is shifting quickly on this.
Institute of Policy Studies survey data in 2013 showed six in 10 people in Singapore thought sexual relations between two people of the same sex was always wrong. In 2018. it fell to 50.4 percent.
Those who said there was nothing wrong with gay sex rose to 11.4 from 5.6 per cent over the same period. The rest thought gay sex was sometimes wrong. Attitudes were consistently more liberal among the young, which suggests public opinion in 2021 would be different from that in 2018 or 2013.
If fluctuating public opinionis not the best guide, perhaps doing nothing is a better option, while waiting for public opinion to settle on the issue?
This position might fit the status quo on S377A. The Government’s current position on S377A is to keep the law intact, but not enforce it This is a compromise position that wiD. however, satisty no one. Those who want it repealed will seethe status quo as a disappointing failure of moral resolve to do the right thing to get rid of a coercive and outdated law that has already faced several court challenges.
Those who believe gay sex is wrong a nd the thin end of a wedge to destroy families and society’s morals, will dec ry the wilful refusal to enforce the law.
Legislative inaction thus wins the Government few fans.
Or perhaps guidance can be sought in Rawls’ vision of just ice as fairness and the idea of giving minorities more say?
Using the veil of ignorance as a thought experiment, suppose the norm is gay sex and heterosexuality is the minority practice. Would heterosexuals then accept a law that criminalises sex between a man and woman or would they see it as coercive and unjust?
Coercive laws can be justified if they correct or prevent a harm to society. The harm prevented has to be weighed against the harm done to those the coercive law applies to. One might then ask what harm S377A does to gay men.
During the recent conference, a panellist, Mr Sharvesh Leatchmanan, co-founder and editor of social media platform Minority Voices, pointed out during a discussion on conservative Christian lobbying on LGBTQ issues: -In Singapore, you are able to exist as a Christian person freely, but it’s not easy for you to exist as a LGBTQ person."
He added: “1 think that's the biggest difference - that you’re infringing upon someone else’s nght to be themselves, whereas I don’t think LGBTQ people are trying to tell Christians not to be Christian."
Using Rawls’ difference principle of giving greater consideration to those who are most marginalised, one might argue that S377A targets and marginalises gay men and denies them a core huma n right to sexual expression, even when this is between consenting adults in private.
Weighed on this scale, one can argue that the law is causing greater harm to this group than the harm that will be caused to society if it is removed.
The first is an existential harm to a tangible group of individuals today; the other is a potential harm to society in the future that is debatable.
lam aware that many Singaporeans win not agree with my argument above. As I write this on Dec 1. World Aids Day. it is my wish as a citizen in a secular society, to see S377A, which I consider an unjust and outdated law. removed soon.
But I am mindful that there are equally convincing and committed individuals who will argue the opposite case on why retaining it is better for Singapore society.
In the end. the Government has to playa role in managing this issue, not only as broker, but also as referee and coach. Il takes leadership to manage the protracted and contentious process of debate; and moral vision to come up with a viable outcome. When it comes to identity politics issues, there is no doing away with the role of the state.
- Lawrence Wong's views on LGBT rights
- Singapore ex-gay movement
- Discrimination against homosexuals in Singapore
- Discrimination against transgender people in Singapore