Good afternoon and congratulations to IPS on your 30th anniversary. Thank you again for inviting me to join you. I’m looking forward to your questions and the discussion.
2 Addressing this issue of the politics of diversity management, we might begin asking if diversity needs to be managed. In most societies, and seminars like this, this would most likely be addressed as an ideological position. There will be a range of philosophies around it; a range of approaches on how to use politics appropriately to manage diversity.
3 But if we take a big picture view, these various philosophies and approaches lie on a spectrum. You can think of the spectrum in a number of ways. On one axis, you have a very heavy-handed, micro-managing interventionist approach. At the other end, you have a laissez-fare, laid-back posture where you assume that as long as all the other aspects of policy such as the economy, security, general education, social welfare are looked after, then the issues of diversity will be looked after by itself.
4 You might have more than one way of looking at this axis. On one end, you have a social expectation to see the hand of the State — visible, forceful, affirming, active. At the other end, the social expectation is that values will drive personal behaviour, and you aspire for that personal behaviour to overcome the negative outcomes that arise from the existence of diversity. Another way is to think that you can deal with this issue by precluding problems, avoiding conflict, go upstream, anticipate the issues, or right at the other end, expose, mitigate, ameliorate, dampening a problem, if and when it arises. The reality is, there will be negative outcomes as a result of diversity. History has shown us time after time that, left unmanaged with no intervention, the society-wide aggregate of individual choices and personal behaviour have repeatedly and consistently demonstrated negative outcomes for minorities, for people who reflect the various shades of diversity in any part of society, in every society.
5 When we think of these axes, where they lie for a given society is not fixed. Societies change, aspirations change, and our view on values change. The reality is that we should also not choose to position ourselves at the same point for all the dimensions of diversity. You cannot treat every issue of diversity in the same way from a purely philosophical point of view. And even if you try to, even those societies claiming a purist ideology-driven approach to this idea of diversity, they can be caught off-guard to new variables of diversity when introduced. The example of what happened in the United States, are a public view of what happens when you introduce new ideas on what constitutes diversity. In addition, time is required for social acceptance of a new issue of diversity.
6 I would argue that here in Singapore, in general, we lie somewhere in the middle. For some of these issues we have gone much more upstream with an interventionist approach. Race is an example. We created that construct with the CMIO model and we placed policy around it. We thought about our national identity and national education approach around it. That is at one end of the spectrum. We haven’t taken an ideological position on this. We have chosen a set of tools to achieve a functional outcome. But even for things where we have moved towards a much more laissez faire approach, it is on the basis of what are the outcomes that would arise from these issues of diversity. For instance, race, religion, language, gender, social equality. They have been treated differently for very good reasons. The factors that affect each of these dimensions of diversity along these variables have been different. They include: how interested are other countries in the functional outcomes here in Singapore? To what extent does this affect the economic opportunities for these individuals affected by these issues, are they affected by choices or by their circumstances? Is national security an issue or is it not an issue for that dimension of diversity? How might this issue be politicised, people mobilised around it? To what extent is the issue immutable? In our construct of race for example, as opposed to religion, where some of the anxieties and how we’ve chosen to manage it is based on the fact that it is mutable and there is the possibility of prosyletisation and conversion? How is the issue of diversity affected by the trajectory over time? For example for language and gender. Considering these desired functional outcomes, we have had to rely on policy at times, usually education and always and attempt to influence personal behaviour. Ultimately, each of these issues have a different relationship to our social values. However, social values, as reflected by personal behaviour, must be an important part of how we address these challenges. Because if there is going to be a significant discordance or divergence between our social values and our policies, we are not going to have peace and harmony in any of these dimensions. These issues have been handled differently by political leadership for good reasons, but usually with some elements of policy, education and influence of social behaviour.
7 The title of this seminar, Diversities New and Old, gives us the opportunity to think through the successes and the lessons from the political management of the old, and ask how we might approach the new. Despite my assertions that all diversities should be addressed differently, there are some commonalities and desired outcomes to take in. Each diversity can cause divisions in different ways, but cohesion, peace and harmony will always be desirable. Regardless of which issue of diversity you look at, the primary outcome we have desired is an increasingly cohesive society, through an increasingly enlarged common space together with a shared sense of progress. It is not an either or, it is all three things together. As far as possible, we also need to shy away from a zero-sum approach, trying not to frame the matter as winners or losers.
8 Think about all these issues that I am talking about — race, language, religion, gender, social equality. I am referring to gender in its historical, traditional sense. The education, healthcare, and access to social equality, of women. Think about the progress that we’ve made in the last 53 years. Think about each of these issues. Could you imagine the sense of cohesion today, if in each of these dimensions there needed to be winners and losers for us to progress? Can you imagine going forward and engaging with a community, that in order to progress, someone has to be a winner and a loser? We need progress around equality and diversity, without the sense of anyone losing. And our approach thus far has worked. You can see progress, the lived experiences have changed, and the functional outcomes have improved. Today’s Singaporeans in general, expect that this is the way things should be. We have now achieved a social expectation for middle ground politics and middle-ground policies. Attempts at extremes of mobilisation are generally not well received and not well rewarded. It is not to say that progress has been ideal for all of these issues but there is still work to be done.
9 We have not arrived completely. There is much work to be done to manage all these dimensions of diversity. And part of this, is because as we make progress, there are negative consequences that we have to deal with. People who are disadvantaged by diversity in some form will need some intervention to level the playing field to provide that equality of opportunity. What might we make of this recent heightened anxiety on social mobility and income inequality, especially in light of the numbers that we see — the positive trends, income growth, educational outcomes, employment, housing, healthcare, as well as policies that have delivered transformative, functional outcomes for us as society? We have seen the graphs, we have discussed the numbers. The reality is that much of the current angst is about social stratification, dignity, cohesion, perceptions of fairness and identity. These are not dimensions that can be managed through policy. These are about our subjective well-being, our aspirations and ultimately about our confidence in our future.
10 In thinking about this, one of the key issues we need to recognise in the management of diversity, is that that there is, for any individual, an element of random chance or luck. You don’t choose your parents; an individual does not have any choice over which of these variables affect them for better or for worse. At the start of your life, it is not a choice or morality or an attitude. It is random luck. We need processes and tools to deal with that, and policies to introduce a moral element of social development to mitigate the influence of chance. That’s what we have done, and we have to continue to do. And in order to do it well, we need to recognise that element of chance that needs to be mitigated. We have to hold fast in these ideals in terms of social outcomes that we want in this cohesive society through an enlarged common space, through a shared aspiration of progress. Without all these three functional outcomes persistently, repeatedly delivered and strengthened by every change that we make in policy, we are not going to be able to manage diversity positively. If we don’t have these three things, whatever our aspirations are going to be, we are not going to make progress. We need that as a platform — whether issues of diversity are historical, the problems that are still around today or if there are new issues that emerge over time, we need that platform and confidence moving forward.
11 This has been our approach to meritocracy and diversity. And not all meritocracies are the same. Just as not all democracies are the same. Each democracy has its own unique social compact. Our meritocracy has to be managed with an understanding of what Mr Janadas Devan talked about this morning — the plural values around diversity that we hold dear and he encapsulated this idea in the phrase that the dignity and our moral worth must not be equated with economic worth.
12 Our meritocracy has brought us far and continues to be the best way of ensuring that our ideal outcomes remain possible. Meritocracy does generate negative consequences. There are problems but we should deal with them rather than assuming that the entire approach is not working. The foundation of the political management of diversity remains meritocracy, and like democracy, it is not perfect. Like democracy, it may well be the least-worst way of dealing with an imperfect world as we try to make this imperfect world better for all of us.
13 Thank you very much.