Saturday, August 16, 2008

Time to tolerate political diversity

By Cherian George

S'pore has handled diversity well in realms like race and religion, so why not politics?

A running theme in the story of Singapore has been the progressive embrace of diversity. Singapore in the 19th century was a city of tribes. Today, multiracialism is treated as a national value. Even if racial prejudices linger, we know where our society should be heading: towards greater tolerance and understanding.

Attitudes towards different political beliefs and practices remain immature and intolerant. Singaporeans seem not to have learnt from the way our society has handled diversity in other realms and become richer for it.

Similarly, Singapore's religious diversity is increasingly celebrated at major national events. Singaporean secularism is not about banishing various religions from public view to preserve a myth of homogeneity, but about keeping the state insulated and equidistant from each faith.

Attitudes towards differences in individual ability have also shifted. The polarising obsession with exam-defined success is giving way gradually to a more rounded understanding of talent, recognising that a meritocratic society should appreciate different kinds of merit.

One welcome result of this shift is that people with disabilities are today held up as part of the Singapore family, in a way that you would not have witnessed 10 years ago.

Differences in wealth have become more pronounced. But our society is resisting the feudal mindset that is all too prevalent through much of Asia.

In Singapore, being rich does not confer a licence to abuse the poor. And being poor does not mean limitless indignity: Our social norms dictate that nobody here should be homeless or have to beg.

Behind these various social attitudes towards people who are different, there appears to be a widely shared belief in the principle of fairness, as well as the pragmatic attitude that every citizen ought to matter - if for no other reason than that there are so few of us.

There is one area of life, however, that has yet to follow this national narrative. Politics. Attitudes towards different political beliefs and practices remain immature and intolerant. Singaporeans seem not to have learnt from the way our society has handled diversity in other realms and become richer for it.

No group is spared this culture of intolerance. In some circles, joining an opposition party brands you as a dangerous element, and about as welcome in Singapore as dengue-bearing mosquitoes and H5N1-infected chickens. But, in other Singaporeans' eyes, if you enter the ruling party's ranks you must be a self-serving sell-out, consumed by ambition and craving patronage.

Work as a civil servant, and some will assume you must be rigid and reactionary, resistant to changing anything in Singapore. On the other hand, if you get involved with a civil society group, some will conclude that you must be mindlessly apeing the West and pushing agendas that are, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, destabilising.

It seems that the only escape from this careless stereotyping is to retreat entirely from public affairs. Abject apathy is the only ideological stand that is immune to Singaporeans' political bigotry - even though it is the most anti-social and the most deserving of criticism.

Of course, the thing about stereotypes is that they are always grown from a grain of truth. It would not be hard to find an example or two who fit the mould of the opposition wild-man or the cravenly careerist People's Action Party (PAP) member. However, in dealing with ethnic diversity, Singaporeans are learning that it is wrong to apply racial stereotypes to entire communities. Perhaps, then, it is not too much to ask that we should stop imprisoning individuals of whatever political persuasion inside the cages in our mind.

Sometimes, these cages are recreated outside of our heads and built into the frameworks of actual politics: The PAP has fashioned rules of engagement that are premised on the assumption that dissenters are dangerous.

But it does not stop there, because intolerance tends to be reciprocated.

The resulting political culture may have hurt the PAP itself. There are many reasons for the chronic difficulty it faces in getting the ablest Singaporeans to serve in politics, but surely one of them is their reluctance to enter an arena that they perceive as lacking in civility.

In this regard, politicians could learn from religious leaders. Respectful inter-faith dialogue among leaders of the world's major religions is not aimed at erasing doctrinal differences, but is instead largely motivated by self-preservation. Surrounded by secularism, astute religious leaders know that they cannot protect the communal interests of their respective faiths unless they protect the status of Religion as such.

If they do not build a culture of tolerance towards people of other faiths and collectively highlight the good that religion can do for society, the ground will slip away beneath them. Similarly, partisanship in politics needs to be tempered by a collective investment in shared civic values.

If people who are engaged in public affairs from whatever angle sow intolerance instead, they will reap cynicism and apathy from the wider public. Nobody should be surprised when either bully talk by those with power or histrionics by those without leave the broad middle ground turned off.

In Singapore, the culture of political intolerance does not encourage youth engagement with public affairs. There is that well-known fear of taking positions that can be construed as anti-government. But there are also talented young people who feel embarrassed about joining the Government because their peers scorn such a path as lacking in idealism.

There is a practical reason it is worth working for a culture of mutual respect between political outsiders and insiders. Chances are that both will prove equally vital to any major national enterprise. History shows us that societies do not make great strides by everyone marching along a single, predictable path, to the beat of a single drum. National independence movements, environmental successes or equal rights for women, for example, all depended on a mix of people working for change within the system, and others pressing from the outside. Only in hindsight is it ever apparent which routes and methods are most productive, but invariably all have a part to play.

Singapore, facing its own challenges, would be foolish to put all its eggs in one basket. We need to judge people by their ability, passion and sincerity, not by the different paths they take.

The country needs many able men and women of conviction and conscience to continue joining the Government because there is simply no better avenue to achieving large changes quickly. Partly as a result of the late 20th century turn away from big government, the public sector is not seen as an avenue for changing the world - despite having the greatest wherewithal to do so.

No other organisation has the resources and power of the state, and individuals who step forward to help the state use that power for society's benefit deserve our support, not our contempt.

However, Singapore also needs some good people to join the opposition, as a long-term insurance policy for the day it needs an alternative government. Theirs is a lonely enough path; they do not need stones thrown at them.

Not all worthy causes are vote-winners, though, so Singapore also needs talented civil society activists who are prepared to push on without any pretensions of winning power.

Then, there are those who prefer to pour their passion into the intangibles. Singaporeans - who are practical-minded to a fault - should be glad of this, because history again tells us not to underestimate the importance of the poets, philosophers and public intellectuals. They can do a better job than any official scenario planner or strategist in highlighting inconvenient truths essential for the future.

Singaporeans have been accustomed to asking ourselves whether we can afford to tolerate political differences. Our experience in dealing with other types of differences - ethnic and class - should give us hope that we can try. Our complex and unclear future tells us we cannot afford not to.

The writer is an assistant professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University