Lawrence Wong outlines five strategies to prevent tribalism, identity politics taking root in Singapore

SINGAPORE – As Singapore turns the tide in its fight against Covid-19, it must not allow the differences that have emerged during the pandemic to become permanent divides that affect its politics, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (Nov 23).

This is especially since people are naturally drawn to the security of their own tribes in tough times, and are tempted to look at others as the cause of their frustrations and pressure, he added.

“Today we have a more diverse society, but we also have much more in common, and the Singaporean identity has become stronger,” Mr Wong noted. “So how can we balance the competing demands of diverse identity groups while maintaining a cohesive and harmonious society?”

Speaking at a roundtable on new tribalism and identity politics organised by the Institute of Policy Studies and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Mr Wong laid out five possible approaches.

1. Strengthen relationships among people

The first way is to strengthen human relationships through day-to-day interactions, he suggested. In doing so, people build up the trust they have in one another, which helps keep societies together.

Yet this is not something the Government can compel people to do, or do at scale, he observed. But it can work to strengthen the norms – such as being caring, kind and gracious – that bring people closer together.

In the pandemic, these norms have been personified in front-line workers who went above and beyond the call of duty, working to keep society going.

They are role models for society, Mr Wong said, adding: “These examples represent the best of us, and we should recognise the values they embody. We should take pride in our fellow Singaporeans who are prepared to set the interest of others ahead of their own, and serve the greater good.”

2. Avoid stereotyping groups

The minister also warned against stereotyping groups of people, or believing that communities are homogenous.

This is the case for the concept of Chinese privilege, where a poor Chinese woman would have a “vastly different lived experience” from a wealthy Chinese man. And the same logic applies to other concepts about which people may hold preconceived notions, such as on gender, religion or political allegiance.

Minority groups are especially subject to such prejudices, he said, adding that all Singaporeans must be more conscious of the stereotypes they might harbour.

“We must avoid reducing our understanding of each other to a single dimension,” Mr Wong stressed. “This hardens our views of those who are different from us, and over time, we see all issues through that particular lens. It will become increasingly difficult to find common ground, or solutions that benefit all groups.”

On the flip side, Singaporeans must also avoid breaking society into “ever smaller boxes”. This has been seen in some places – for example, where black feminists do not see eye to eye with their white counterparts, or with one minority group feeling it has to be more aggrieved than another.

People must fight the instinct to set themselves apart and pigeonhole others, and instead, be willing to build understanding and commonality across identity lines, he said.

The reality is that all people have multiple identities, he added.

But they are first and foremost Singaporeans, Mr Wong said. This is the case no matter one’s race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

“If we uphold this idea – that being Singaporean is a matter of conviction and choice, and that it takes priority over our other identities and affiliations – that would give all of us one important commonality around which to build understanding and trust, negotiate our differences and find common ground on difficult issues, and then we can continually look for ways to move forward together.”

3. Draw on “the better angels of our nature”

The minister then drew on Singapore’s history as a trading hub for an analogy on how the country can move forward.

Trade is grounded on norms of reciprocity, trust and mutual benefit, with the foundation of all trades lying in the willingness to exchange and cooperate, Mr Wong noted. To trade effectively, one must build long-term win-win relationships – an instinct that is crucial for setting the tone in Singapore society.

“We should draw on the better angels of our nature,” he said.

“From the beginning, our forefathers knew the importance of compromises and striking a fair deal for all. They knew cooperation, rather than competition and conflict, was the best way forward. This became not just the basis for our economy, but the outlook for our entire society,” he said, observing that this is perhaps why tripartism has been so successful here.

“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.”

4. Give hope, chance at a good life to all

In addition, Singapore must continue to give all its citizens a reason to hope and a fair chance at a good life, Mr Wong said. This means promoting inclusive growth and working to ensure all Singaporeans can succeed in their pursuits.

He pointed out how the problems of many advanced economies are related to their economic woes, with typical households stagnating and children doing worse than their parents.

“We must never allow this to happen in Singapore,” Mr Wong said, adding that by pursuing inclusive growth, Singapore can break out of a zero-sum mindset where certain groups feel that others’ success has come at their own expense.

“When it comes to social programmes, we will do our best to avoid such invidious comparisons by balancing targeted support with universal coverage for essential items,” he said.

5. Government must remain a fair, honest broker

Lastly, the Government must – and will always be – a fair and honest broker between different groups.

Mr Wong acknowledged that Singapore’s leaders may not always succeed in establishing a consensus on controversial issues, despite their best attempts.

“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,” he said.

Examples of policies on which this has been done include the Housing Board’s Ethnic Integration Policy, as well as the existence of Special Assistance Plan schools for Chinese-speaking students.

While the Government may not always arrive at a perfect solution, Mr Wong pledged that it 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 for the future.”