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Speech by Ms Sim Ann at the IPS Conference Singapore Perspectives 2014,Panel II: Living with New Differences
I would like to begin by wishing those who are celebrating the Lunar New Year a happy Year of the Horse. The season of loh-hei is upon us.
This year, I began the Chinese New Year loh-hei season at the Sri Mariamman Temple. The oldest and probably most famous Hindu temple in Singapore, it is located in the heart of Chinatown.
For the past 11 years, the temple’s management and volunteers have been organising Chinese New Year loh-hei for the less fortunate members of society, including residents from old folks’ homes. To mark the occasion, representatives from partner organisations like Chinatown businesses and the mosque next door were also invited.
The meal is prepared by the temple’s own kitchen and served by its volunteers. It features vegetarian raw fish salad or yusheng, and the starters are a mix of spring rolls and pakoras. Halfway through the meal, the Temple Chairman and I went round distributing angpows. I feel privileged to have been invited to such a special event.
I thought to myself, during and after the event, that there are not many places in the world where one can experience a meal like this. Examples like this reflect a commitment to racial and religious harmony that has taken many years to build. It also reflects the persistent effort of many community leaders who feel it is important to keep reaching out to each other. We have managed to make a big thing happen in a small place like Singapore.Diversity is all around us
One of the books by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, entitled “South of the Border, West of the Sun”, has a passage in it which sticks in my mind. Written in the voice of the protagonist, Hajime, it describes growing up in suburban Japan:“The town I grew up in was your typical middle-class suburbia. The classmates I was friendly with all lived in neat little row houses; some might have been a bit larger than mine, but you could count on them all having similar entranceways, pine trees in the garden. The works. My friends’ fathers were employed in companies or else were professionals of some sort. Hardly anyone’s mother worked. And most everyone had a cat or a dog. No one I knew lived in an apartment or a condo. Later on I moved to another part of town, but it was pretty much identical. The upshot of this is that until I moved to Tokyo to go to college, I was convinced everyone in the whole world lived in a single-family home with a garden and a pet, and commuted to work decked out in a suit. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine a different lifestyle.”
It sticks in my mind because this is more or less the complete opposite of my experience growing up - and probably those of many who grew up in Singapore. There are so many differentiators in our society that our childhood memories are probably a veritable kaleidoscope of different lifestyles and habits.Old vs new differences - a helpful distinction?
The topic of this panel is “living with new differences”. That implies a distinction between “old differences” - which I take to be race, language and religion - and “new differences” - which, as the conference brief helpfully suggests, are borne of immigration, new media and globalisation.
I have three thoughts to share. The first thought is really a question. Is it useful to think of differences as being “old” and “new”?
To some extent, I can see how certain differences beyond race, language and religion might strike us as “new”.
It is true that demographic changes, including those brought about by immigration, has introduced differences, some of which are quite visible.
Technology has also separated the world into digital natives and non-natives. It powerfully enables us to come into contact with people very different from ourselves, and yet also gives us an unprecedented ability to edit and control our own social circles. For example, if you have a Facebook account, you are more likely to be friends with people whose share basic characteristics and outlook with you, and it is very easy to unfriend them if you find their views unpalatable. Scrolling through update feeds from the list of friends you have personally curated can feel like an echo chamber.
But it is less obvious that other kinds of differences are “new differences”. Say, those between various age groups, or those of people with special needs, a topic that is close to my heart.
These are differences that we may talk about more often these days, or receive more public attention, as should be the case, but I don’t think it necessarily makes sense to characterise them as ‘new’.
Diversity is all around us, and this will continue to be the case. Even as some differences become less salient over time, others will emerge.
What matters is the philosophy underlying how we live with all kinds of differences. My take on this is that diversity well-managed is our strength. What doesn’t pull us apart makes us stronger.Appreciate differences
The second thought I have is that the basis for living well with diversity is the ability to appreciate differences.
I was reminded that the author Graham Greene once wrote that ‘hate was just a failure of imagination.’ Empathy is often identified as an essential ingredient for being able to appreciate and understand others. But what is empathy about?
It helps, of course, to have had personal experience that can be applied, so that we can tell someone “I know what it’s like to feel a certain way” or “I know what it’s like to have done something”.
But how about the many times when we can’t say “I know what it’s like”? How to instil and strengthen empathy, short of living another person’s life?
My personal view is that reading, and the study of literature, are of great help here.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that literature was my absolute favourite subject in school. It is more than a study in the beauty of thoughts expressed in words. It is a discipline for looking at the world with someone else’s eyes, to seek to understand why a person might feel or do or say something, however unlikely it might be for us to feel, do or say those things. By requiring students to hunt for and interpret textual clues, literature builds sensitivity to nuances, and a habit of observation before judgement. It requires, and in turn enriches, the reader’s understanding of history, psychology and many other fields.
I support MOE’s efforts in making literature as widely available to students as possible in schools, and NLB’s efforts to promote reading among the public at large.Preserving the common space
The third thought has to do with preserving the common space. I don’t think anyone in this room doubts the importance of preserving shared experience and common space in a diverse society like Singapore. How else to hold us all together?
My thought in particular is that the preservation of the common space can be an untidy business characterised more by goodwill and give-and-take, than by the application of abstract rules of logic and consistency.
If we get the empathy part right, then it is not very hard to see why this is the case. Every life, every experience lived by individuals of different affiliations, identities, and characteristics, is unique. To fully understand the perspective of someone different than you is to accept and embrace that uniqueness. To appreciate the accommodation that each group requires from society is also to recognise how important and singular it is to that group. It is difficult, if not impossible, to weigh one unique request against another. But if we agree that it is more important to stay together than to be apart, then it is possible to settle on agar-agar compromises. We can also let them evolve over time.
I was asked a question at a discussion yesterday about the government’s role in preserving the common space. Is there really pushback from the other groups when one group asks for special accommodation?
The term ‘pushback’ calls to mind the image of a thronging crowd, pushing and shoving against each other into a shrinking space, with government in the middle trying to persuade everyone to please stand back.
I don’t think this image is one that many groups have of themselves.
I have a rather different picture in my mind. Imagine a village formed by a ring of houses of all shapes and sizes backing onto a village square. The square is not very regular to begin with. The backs of some houses jut out more into the square than other. But the square is a place that villagers enjoy using for gatherings or walks.
One day, a family starts to build an extension to the back of its house and claims a bit of the square. It’s a very reasonable thing to do. The family is expanding, they need a bit more room, and in any case some houses already jut out into the square more than others and it was never regular to begin with. It is a small change that hurts none of its immediate neighbours. Not only is a reasonable thing for the family to do, it is necessary. No one can find a basis to object to their action, in fact it would be churlish to do so.
Another family finds that they, too, need a small extension onto the square, and builds it. A third family voices its support for the first two and quickly adds its own extension. This carries on for a while, and the village decides to regularise the practice for fairness. After vigorous and exhausting debate, the village comes up with a complex set of rules on how much of the square each family is entitled to. Eventually there is no square left.
A few things are true about this picture. Every family who wishes to make an extension has an eminently reasonable request. Applying a set of abstract rules, too, was a very logical thing to do. But it is also true that, at the end of the day, the village lost something.
That is the mental picture I have of the challenges of preserving the common space. Losing the village square, either bit by bit, or even altogether, is not necessarily the end of the world. But it does mean changing what the village looks like, and the experience of living in it. If we are that village, then we have to decide whether this is the approach we want.Conclusion
Allow me now to recap my three main points.
First, diversity is all around us. Whether it is living with ‘old’ or ‘new’ differences, we need a shared understanding that what doesn’t pull us apart makes us stronger.
Second, it is important to enable appreciation of differences. Literature helps.
Third, we need to preserve the common space. It’s not a neat approach of rules and logic, more an untidy business of give-and-take, but it’s our best bet.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) invites members of the public to nominate outstanding teachers for the President’s Award for Teachers 2014 (PAT). The award will be conferred by the President at the Istana on Teachers’ Day.
Now in its 17th year, the PAT recognises excellent teachers for their dedication and hard work in developing our young. 61 teachers have received the award since it was introduced in 1998.
Nominees must be teachers who are dedicated to leading, caring and inspiring students to believe in themselves and be the best they can be. They must be reflective practitioners who demonstrate deep pedagogy. Besides leading in and contributing to the professional growth of other teachers, they must also be role models for the teaching profession.
Nomination forms are available at all primary and secondary schools, junior colleges, centralised institute and MOE’s Customer Service Centre at 1 North Buona Vista Drive. Nomination forms can also be downloaded from the website of the Academy of Singapore Teachers (http://www.academyofsingaporeteachers.moe.gov.sg/). Nominations may also be made online at the Academy’s website.
The closing date for nominations is 21 February 2014.