The curious case of Singapore’s diversity

What makes us special? What makes us strong?

Singapore is not a perfect country, but to me, we’ve come quite a long way from the racial riots more than half a century ago, which messed everything up.

Religious diversity in Singapore vs other countries
Religious diversity in Singapore vs other countries (Source: Pew Research Centre)

Today, in an increasingly Islamophobic world, Singapore, its leaders (not just the political ones) and society, continue to set the tone for inclusive diversity, whereby race and religion are still factors for consideration, not to exclude, but to include.

Diversity in Singapore
Diversity in Singapore (Source: Yahoo!)

To include in HDB racial quotas, hiring policies (i.e. there should not be exclusion based on race or religion), school enrolment (I’ve had Muslim and Hindu classmates in my Christian-based school) etc.

The conscious effort to include doesn’t come easy.

Think about your lunch group. Are there certain dietary preferences you need to accommodate in order to include some colleagues for meals?

Types of dietary preferences for vegetarians
Types of dietary preferences for vegetarians (Source: George Primentas)

Do you make fun of their dietary preferences and give them “scientific” tips on why they should eat beef (for Hindus and some Buddhists), pork (for Muslims) or even meat (for vegetarians)?

Or do you respectfully ask them polite questions to try to understand their life choices?

Honestly, it took me a while to get used to having vegetarian colleagues in my first full time job, and I may have asked some pretty point blank questions.

But they were very accommodating and helped me understand why they chose this path, and that every person has a right to choose his or her own way that suits him/her best, regardless of what others think.

What we have here in Singapore is more than just tolerance for each other.

I would like to think that we’ve evolved from tolerance, to acceptance, to even some sort of respect for one another’s diverse background and life choices.

We may not fully understand the do’s and don’ts of others, but we respect their right to practise or avoid.

Yet in the same breath, religion can be quite stifling on our tolerance for alternative lifestyle choices, and our kiasu-ism (strong sense of competitiveness) sometimes inhibits us from including people with differing abilities into our social groups and workplaces.

Diversity is more than just a different colour skin tone or where we worship.

It could be:

– the nationality of the person we choose to love and marry

– our place of birth (a true Singaporean doesn’t have to be born in Singapore)

– our personalities
— choice of job
— not believing in any religion
— having/not having kids
— staying single
— hobbies we like
— courses we study
— fashion sense
— choice of music
— skills/abilities

So on and so forth.

It is not easy being inclusive towards everyone.

I have difficulties wanting to make friends with rabid radicals who think their choice of XXX is the one and only option anyone should make.

With Singapore getting more and more crowded and the individual having a greater impact on society than ever before, it will become more difficult to accept and respect others, especially when we feel they didn’t respect us in the first place.

Staying silent and tolerating is a short term option, but tempers get built up and it’s unhealthy because the eventual flare-up creates huge aftershocks.

How do we communicate better with each other to understand each other’s point of view, and maintain social cohesion despite our increasing differences?

Without respecting diversity and also each others’ personal space and preferences, it will be difficult for 5+ million people to coexist peacefully on this tiny piece of land we call home.

And to all foreigners who think you can import in your prejudices against certain groups of people, like your hatred against those of a particular religion, race, skin colour, and even look down on other members of your own race but a lower caste than yourself, maybe you’re better off staying at home in the comfort of homogeneity.