We are living in troubling times for cross-cultural relations in the developed world. At a juncture in history when we need to pull together more than ever in the face of huge existential challenges – conflict, climate change and diminishing natural resources – it seems that age-old habits are tearing us apart.
We have a leader of the free world who, rather than appealing for unity, is focusing on building walls, closing doors and dividing people. Over in Europe, the extreme right appears to have rediscovered its mojo, carving electoral victories from the growing disquiet.
The dialogue in my own country, the United Kingdom, has grown increasingly toxic in recent years, fuelled by Brexit, while prejudice and discrimination are being legitimised by the thin veil of immigration debate.
“Multiculturalism isn’t working,” goes the typical argument. “These people come here and don’t integrate. They just create their own little ghettos and ignore our laws. Most of them don’t even bother to learn the language.”
While such division is being stoked and encouraged by the British tabloid media, the fragile peace between different branches of Christianity in Northern Ireland – which took decades to achieve – now threatens to unravel on account of post-Brexit border management issues and the incompatibility of the UK’s EU withdrawal with the Good Friday Agreement.
If we are truly unable to learn from history what happens when we pursue this road, then perhaps we can instead take a lesson from one of today’s biggest success stories of multiculturalism – the small but thriving city-nation of Singapore.
A melting pot of diversity and inclusion
Before my recent visit to Singapore (I am leaving the country on a bus as I write), I had little knowledge of its history, customs and languages – all I knew was that it was a rich financial centre with lots of tall buildings. My pre-flight research soon enlightened me with a picture of vibrancy and diversity.
Singapore has four official languages – English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay. While English is the language of business, it is the native language of less than a third of Singaporeans. The country has a broad church (excuse the pun) of religious affiliation according to its 2015 census: 33.2% buddhism, 18.8% Christianity, 18.3% no religion, 14% Islam, 11% Taoism, and 5% Hinduism.
If the narrative emanating from nationalists in Europe were to be believed, this must surely be a country of division and unrest, yes? With all those competing ideologies and nobody able to understand each other, it must be chaos! Well, the reality is the exact opposite.
Singaporean society is as harmonious as any place I have visited on Earth. Everybody gets along. Moreover, different ethnic and religious group cooperate, exchange and learn from one another. Crime is low, creativity and cultural expression high.
One of the common claims/fears/complaints (delete as appropriate) about promoting cultural diversity of this kind in the UK is that it somehow dilutes the national identity. “It’s not Britain anymore”. I guess all those centuries of pillaging the globe and imposing our culture elsewhere have left us a bit delicate and insecure.
Singapore is proof that integration between different communities does not weaken their respective identities, but on the contrary, it strengthens them. During my visit I saw that traditions are respected and celebrated. In Chinatown, the streets were buzzing with preparations for the coming Chinese New Year, and queues spilled out of the Chinese hawker food complexes. In Little India, the craft markets were awash with activity, and people clamoured to visit the sacred temples. In the Arab Quarter, revellers weaved in and out of the bazaars and supped in the cafés. And all over the city, the symbols, costumes and cuisines of many world cultures were on proud display.
This left me asking the question – how has this harmonious multicultural existence come about?
Fostering integration through policy and education
I found a clue to Singapore’s success while on a walking tour of Little India. Our guide took us to the 13th floor of a large block of apartments, with a spectacular view over the surrounding neighbourhood. It was a fitting setting for her to tell us about the government’s pioneering housing policy.
More than four in five Singaporeans live in public housing estates. In these estates, the government enforces a strict ethnic quota, aimed at avoiding the aforementioned ghettoisation that is so maligned in the UK. In blocks of apartments such as the one in which we were standing, maximum proportions are allocated to different ethnic groups that cannot be exceeded. If an apartment is sold, it cannot be to a particular ethnic group if it meant the quota would be exceeded.
According to the government’s website, the policy is to “prevent the formation of racial enclaves and promote ethnic integration”. Our guide put it more personably that people are encouraged to share and learn from one another.
The encouragement of diversity and cultural awareness begins at an early age. Singapore holds a ‘Racial Harmony Day’, when schoolchildren and students showcase their community traditions by wearing customary dress, preparing culinary delicacies and playing games.
Schoolchildren are also encouraged to learn and recite a declaration of religious harmony, which begins with the lines: “We, the people in Singapore, declare that religious harmony is vital for peace, progress and prosperity in our multi-racial and multi-religious Nation. We resolve to strengthen religious harmony through mutual tolerance, confidence, respect, and understanding.”
Cultural diversity spurring economic success?
Not only does Singapore demonstrate the possibilities of an inclusive society, but it possesses a thriving economy. For many years it has been one of the richest countries in the world per capita. Are the two qualities linked? The country’s government believes so.
“As a result of this policy Singapore has long enjoyed the benefits of an integrated society where citizens of all races live and work together,” said Singapore’s deputy prime minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, discussing the ethnic quotas for housing. “Citizens are also free to practice their religion and culture without fear of prejudice or persecution.”
Measures like the housing policy have been subject to criticism in the West for their authoritarian and prescriptive nature. But the Singaporean government argues that successful integration requires intervention and management.
“If we believe in social inclusion, if we believe in opportunities for all, we have to accept it doesn’t happen automatically because of the invisible hand of the market or the invisible hand of society,” said Shanmugaratnam.
While Singapore is by no means perfect, and these types of policies may not be palatable in Europe and North America (and nor would they guarantee success), it is impossible to ignore the positive outcomes.
As the West continues to convulse over immigration and collapse on itself, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and look for some inspiration from outside our little bubble. I believe my own country is so much stronger for the diversity of people we have welcomed from all over the world. It’s a shame we are spending so much time discussing how to cut ourselves off rather than how we can cooperate and grow.