November 17th, 2012

Tolerance has its virtues but we must go beyond it

Tolerance must not mean the toleration of any form of discrimination, justified in the name of tradition, religion or culture. Rather, engagement with diversity must be founded on the recognition of our common humanity, over and above differences that are ultimately only skin-deep.

By Wong Pei Chi, Farhan Idris, Desiree Lim, and Nadzirah Samsudin

November 16 is the International Day of Tolerance. The UN defines tolerance as “neither indulgence nor indifference”: it is accepting that people are naturally diverse, and respecting the rights and freedoms of others. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon marked this Day by saying: “Our practice of tolerance must mean more than peaceful coexistence, crucial as that is. It must be an active understanding fostered through dialogue and positive engagement with others.”

Does such “dialogue and positive engagement” exist in Singapore? Singapore is generally seen as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society where racism and disparagement of diverse religions and cultures are not tolerated. In 2008, then Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong credited Singapore’s “underlying tenet of tolerance and respect” for bringing harmony, stability and progress. However, the well-publicised incidents of racism and xenophobia in recent months lead us to ask whether these vaunted values of “tolerance and respect” have been truly integrated into the fabric of Singapore society.

While it is laudable that Singaporeans should feel proud of being Singaporeans, is there a danger of national pride degenerating into xenophobic discrimination against non-Singaporeans? Placing a lower value on the lives and well-being of certain human beings because they happen to be non-Singaporeans has far-reaching implications for Singaporean society. If a category of people can be discriminated against because of their nationality, then what is there to stop us from discriminating against others because of their ethnicity, religion, age, socio-economic status, gender or any other difference? Once we justify discrimination against one category of people as legitimate, we would have opened the door to accepting discrimination against any other category of people, seen as different in one way or another.

Singapore’s rich history of cultural diversity, brought by migrants of many origins, has been reduced to four ethnic categories: Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (the fourth being a negatively defined catch-all). State policies reflect this ethnic division. HDB has an Ethnic Integration Policy which aims to “prevent the formation of racial enclaves by ensuring a balanced ethnic mix among the various ethnic communities living in public housing estates.”

Underlying the ethnic array is the praiseworthy value of recognising diversity while according equal status to different ethnic identities. The Singapore Constitution asserts that “there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth.” But what happens when discriminations occur? Discriminations that contravene Constitutional provisions have never been challenged in a court of law. Although a Presidential Council for Minority Rights scrutinizes bills to ensure that bills passed by Parliament do not discriminate against any racial or religious community, a 2002 forum on ethnic relations at the Institute for Policy Studies noted that the Council has never issued any negative report and that it is only “a toothless tiger and a mere rubber-stamp.”

Even poverty in Singapore is ethnicised, with “self-help groups” – Mendaki, Chinese Development Assistance Council, Sinda and Eurasian Association – dedicated to helping less advantaged Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians. This ethnicised approach to poverty seems to be inadequate, in view of the growing gap between rich and poor, with the Gini co-efficient increasing from 0.430 in 2000 to 0.452 in 2010. The PM has acknowledged that social stratification is “sharper than before” and that “the children of successful people are doing better” than others. In this context, we may ask, on the one hand, whether discriminatory practices have played any part in entrenching poverty in some sectors of the population, and on the other hand, whether sharpened social stratification has exacerbated ethnic tensions.

Diversity extends beyond ethnicity and religion to include socio-economic difference, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status and other forms of difference. In a globalising world, such diversity is bound to increase. A negative possibility resulting from this could be the proliferation of multiple ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomies, culminating in social fragmentation. But a positive outcome would be that we can be enriched by dialogues and engagements with a range of diversity far beyond four ethnic categories, defined in zero-sum terms.

Such enrichment would enable us to realise that cultures are not homogenous and that people are differently situated within a community. Women, in particular, tend to be discriminated against across different cultural traditions. But discrimination against women must not be justified by traditional, religious or cultural practices, as noted by the UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The same applies to discrimination against the disabled, the elderly or others who are marginalised. Tolerance must not mean the toleration of any form of discrimination, justified in the name of tradition, religion or culture. Rather, engagement with diversity must be founded on the recognition of our common humanity, over and above differences that are ultimately only skin-deep.

Wong Pei Chi is an AWARE Board Member, Farhan Idris is an activist, Desiree Lim is a postgraduate student in Philosophy at King’s College London & Nadzirah Samsudin is a Research and Advocacy Executive at AWARE. This piece was first published in Today on Nov 16, 2012. Read the published version here.

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