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Concerns of groups such as women, minorities, LGBTQ are important, cannot be dismissed as ‘illegitimate or exaggerated’: Lawrence Wong

SINGAPORE — Different segments of Singapore’s population, whose identities may be linked to their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, have concerns that are important and cannot be dismissed as illegitimate or exaggerated, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said on Tuesday (Nov 23).

Concerns of groups such as women, minorities, LGBTQ are important, cannot be dismissed as ‘illegitimate or exaggerated’: Lawrence Wong

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong (pictured) spoke about the growing trend of identity politics and tribalism dividing countries despite their governments' efforts to forge a common nationality.

  • Different groups in society have valid concerns linked to their identities, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said
  • Singapore should not deny them rights to advocate for change, he added
  • On its part, the Government will do its utmost to listen and act as a fair and honest broker
  • Mr Wong suggested five approaches on the way forward for the country
  • One way is for people to adopt a “trader” instinct, which entails working towards reciprocity, trust and mutual benefit

 

SINGAPORE — Different segments of Singapore’s population, whose identities may be linked to their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, have concerns that are important and cannot be dismissed as illegitimate or exaggerated, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said on Tuesday (Nov 23).

“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,” Mr Wong added.

On its part, the Government will not let any group feel unheard, excluded or ostracised, he said.

Delivering a keynote speech at a conference on identity organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Mr Wong spoke about the growing trend of identity politics and tribalism dividing countries despite their governments' efforts to forge a common nationality.

The minister last spoke on the topic of race in June at another IPS-RSIS conference, following a spate of racist incidents at the time.

On Tuesday, he noted how other aspects of identity have surfaced since then, surrounding gender, sex or other causes for which people feel strongly.

“This is not surprising: The natural instinct of humans is to look out for those who are most like us. Around the world, we see the rise of what we might call a ‘new tribalism’ in politics, or ‘identity politics’ as it is commonly described,” he said.

In ethnically homogeneous countries such as Poland, for example, a “new tribalism” among people emerged out of differences in views on LGBTQ (lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender or queer) rights, with supporters and opposers of LGBTQ rights in a standoff.

Melting-pot societies such as the United States, too, have seen the rise of tribalism and identity politics based on which political party they support, causing even public health measures such as mask-wearing or vaccination to become markers of such identities, Mr Wong noted.

He suggested that the rise of tribalism was linked closely to the rise of individualism as the “reigning ethos”, which came at the expense of community and weakened connections between people.

This has caused them to fall back on such primeval defences that run deep in human societies when they feel lonely and alienated.

“Tribalism is inherently exclusionary and it’s based on mutual hate: ‘Us’ versus ‘them’, ‘friend’ versus ‘foe’. Once this sort of tribal identity takes root, it becomes difficult to achieve any compromise,” Mr Wong said.

“Because when we anchor our politics on identity, any compromise seems like dishonour.”

Singapore, too, cannot assume that its harmony is solid or permanent, as Singaporeans’ identities are formed from a diverse racial mix of three major Asian civilisational complexes — China, India, and Southeast Asia — with none of the long history or indigenous cultures in these civilisations to hold Singapore together.

Before the 1964 race riots, Singapore experienced “a far more violent conflict” between Hokkiens and Teochews in 1854 that had led to more than 400 people being killed, more wounded, and about 300 houses burned in more than 10 days of riots, Mr Wong said. The sectarian clash, based on historical records, came about due to a rebellion in China.

“It seems astounding to us today, but barely 150 years ago, tribal identities among Chinese here in Singapore trumped their racial, cultural or national identity as Chinese,” he added.

“Can we then really be sure, with the rise of China, India and Southeast Asia, that Singaporean nationalism will not deconstruct again into Chinese, Indian and Malay nationalisms?” 

He noted that Singapore has managed to avoid serious conflicts because its founding leaders went to great lengths to put in place measures to safeguard racial and religious harmony.

This meant tough action such as the Internal Security Act and short-term unpopular policies such as making English the main medium of instruction in schools, and the Housing and Development Board’s Ethnic Integration Policy. The policy helps to ensure a balanced mix of various ethnic communities in public housing estates and prevent the formation of racial enclaves.

“This harmonious state of affairs will always be on a knife-edge; so it needs constant attention and careful management,” Mr Wong emphasised.

Two recent webinars organised by TODAY and that were broadcast live on Instagram and TikTok also discussed issues of identity. One, on race and religion, focused on how social media and the Covid-19 pandemic have affected race relations and Singaporeans’ perceptions of racial and religious issues. 

In the second, panellists discussed LGBTQ issues, such as the discrimination they face, media representation of the LGBTQ community and how individuals can make a difference by having constructive conversations about these matters.

WHAT SINGAPORE MUST DO

Instead of ignoring identities and tribes, Singapore has to recognise that the pull of identity politics arises from real differences in lived realities as a starting point.

Mr Wong suggested five possible approaches to address the competing demands of diverse identity groups while maintaining a cohesive and harmonious society.

1. Strengthen human relationships

First, he advocated for Singaporeans to strengthen their spirit of reciprocity and kinship at the daily level, which would ultimately increase the mutual trust between people.

“We must be good friends, good neighbours, good Samaritans,” he said.

While the Government cannot compel people to build relationships, it can work to gird social norms — in caring for others, kindness and graciousness — that bring people together.

2. Avoid stereotyping groups of people

People should avoid assuming that each community is monolithic or homogenous.

Referring to his previous speech on race, Mr Wong said that the phrase “Chinese privilege” is a form of stereotype — a female Chinese from a poor background would have a vastly different lived experience compared to a male Chinese from a wealthy family, for example.

“Minorities especially are subject to such prejudices; and all of us must be more conscious of the stereotypes we might harbour. We must avoid reducing our understanding of each other to a single dimension,” he said.

Mr Wong added: “We may be Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, or any other race. But we are first and foremost Singaporeans. Likewise, regardless of our gender or sexual orientations, regardless of the cause we champion, we are all Singaporeans, first and foremost.

3. Singaporeans are traders by nature

While humans are tribalists, Singaporeans are also traders by nature, Mr Wong said, noting Singapore’s entrepot history. Traders are characterised by the desire to explore the unknown, meet new people to trade and live with, and grounded on norms of reciprocity, trust and mutual benefit.

“This same instinct is crucial in setting the tone of our society,” he added.

"We must continue in this vein — continue to engage with one another, cooperate and work towards mutual benefit. We must do so not only with those outside Singapore, but also between different segments of Singaporeans as well.”

That means listening, understanding, compromising and negotiating for win-win outcomes, knowing that the community will be stronger by cooperation.

4. Giving hope through inclusive growth

Mr Wong said that the Government must continue to give Singaporeans reason to “hope and a fair chance to have a good life”, noting the rising inequalities elsewhere in the world that have led to economic woes and, consequently, extreme politics.

“We must never allow this to happen in Singapore. So we will continue to work hard to promote inclusive growth and to ensure that all Singaporeans can succeed in their pursuits.” 

Through this, Singapore will be able to break out of having a zero-sum mindset, in which the success of one group comes at the expense of another.

5. Government as a fair and honest broker

Undergirding this is the Government’s duty to be fair and honest, even with the difficulties in establishing consensus on controversial issues.

“In such cases, 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,” Mr Wong said, referring to policies such as the Ethnic Integration Policy and the Special Assistance Plan for schools, which promotes the learning of Chinese language, culture and history.

Mr Wong also said that the authorities will never waver from its commitment to work with people to broaden common space and to build a society where every Singaporean can express their views and be empowered to effect positive change.

“We may not always arrive at a perfect solution.... but we will never let any group feel unheard, ignored or excluded. We will never let any group feel boxed in or ostracised.

"All must feel they are part of the Singapore conversation, all must feel they are part of the Singapore family, all must feel there is hope.”

Related topics

identity gender ethnicity race sexual orientation government Lawrence Wong tribalism

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