On 23 November 2021, RSIS co-hosted the “Conference on Identity” with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS). The conference was organised amid a growing appetite among Singaporeans to engage with complex social issues, many of which involve the negotiation of the Singaporean identity and the governance of difference, which have burgeoned in the age of social media. The conference was preceded by the IPS-RSIS Forum on Race and Racism” in Singapore held on 25 June 2021, which sparked important conversations on Singapore’s brand of multiculturalism.
Expanding the conversation beyond issues of race and religion, the Conference on Identity explored issues concerning class, gender, sexuality and disability, and what these mean for Singapore. The conference included a keynote speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s Finance Minister, and brought together distinguished scholars, practitioners, and activists in two panel discussions.
In his address, Mr Wong described the global rise of identity politics, in which even opinions on public safety (e.g., vaccination, mask-wearing) have become markers of identity. Mr Wong acknowledged that identity politics is motivated by legitimate concerns and lived realities. The challenge, however, is to address these concerns without allowing politics to be based exclusively on tribal allegiances, all while cultivating a larger, common Singaporean identity. Mr Wong emphasised the importance of inclusive growth, of mutual trust across identity lines, the strengthening of prosocial norms, and avoiding stereotypes.
Questions posed to Mr Wong revealed public interest in topics like safeguards available to protect individuals who flag racist incidences, the usefulness of race as a framework in Singapore, and how we can expand on notions of Singapore citizenship to incorporate differences beyond race. Audience members also broached the topic of the status of LGBTQ+ rights in Singapore amid shifting societal attitudes.
The first panel featured academics Professor Joseph Liow, Professor Vineeta Sinha, and Professor David Chan, and was enriched by the views of prominent civil society actors who served as respondents. It provided theoretical ground for the observation of pluralisation in Singapore and discussed the bridging of differences through commonalities. Panellists acknowledged that while the Singaporean identity was never meant to be monolithic and singular, some Singaporeans feel alienated from the Singaporean identity due to their lived experiences of microaggressions, racism, and prejudices. The panel also deliberated the nature of productive discourse — whether emotions have a role to play in public deliberation on difference, and the potential advantages of demystifying terms like “privilege” for a more nuanced understanding of inequalities.
Building on the discussions, the second panel, premised on the recognition of the need for spaces to harmonise diversity in Singapore, injected practicality into the conversation on managing diversity. The panel brought together diverse voices, featuring speakers Mr Aaron Maniam, Associate Professor Zhang Weiyu, Mr Joel Lim, and Ms Chan Chi Ling. The discussions gave form to the theoretics which the previous panel engaged in by extrapolating from personal and professional experiences to suggest methods for productive dialogue on identities and the reconciling of contradictions.
Singapore’s fate has always rested on its ability to manage pluralities and, as Mr Wong stated, living up to the founding ethos of Singapore means the inclusion of diverse peoples regardless of identity. Yet, the governing of diversity will only prove more challenging in an increasingly interconnected world. While there is no panacea at a time when identities may prove a source of division, there was consensus among participants at the conference that diversity is a strength, as opposed to a weakness, and that there is a need for commitment to accommodate difference within society.