Managing Diversities
Personal Experiences Navigating Diversity

Aaron Maniam

I am Singaporean, with a half-Indian, half-Eurasian father; a half-Pakistani, half-Malay mother. Dad converted to Islam from Roman Catholicism, so each year my brothers and I celebrate both Hari Raya and Christmas with different parts of our family. Cousins, aunts and uncles have also married outside their ethnicity and faith — their spouses are mostly Chinese Christians and Indian Hindus — so the Lunar New Year and Deepavali are bustlingly active times. As an Indian-Muslim, I used to attend youth activities at, and now volunteer with, both Yayasan Mendaki and the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), the respective self-help groups for the Malay/Muslim and Indian communities.

This interstitial existence, both within and among different ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, has given me more than my fair share of diversity-related stories. Once, I ordered drinks from an Indian stall owner at Newton Circus, asking in Malay for “tek tarik dua, bandung satu” (two teh tariks and one bandung). The stall owner replied in Tamil and, when I said I did not speak it, asked me: “Apa macam punya Mama, tak tahu cakap …” (What kind of Indian cannot speak Tamil…?), accompanied by a look of total disdain. On another occasion, I volunteered as the Master of Ceremonies at the SINDA Excellence Awards ceremony and was faced with the challenge of pronouncing the sometimes complex names of Tamil recipients. Thankfully, a very patient SINDA staff member was willing to walk me through the intricacies of what, in a poem I later wrote about the experience, I described as “rolling l’s and lolling r’s”.

Recently, I have had slightly less disconcerting experiences as a volunteer facilitator with the Southeast Community Development Council’s “Explorations into Faiths” programme. Affectionately called EIF, the programme brings people of different faith traditions (and some from no particular tradition) together to share experiences of how their beliefs are lived everyday. The programme’s staples are monthly dialogues, held at a different place of worship each month, starting with a tour-cum-introduction to the host community and followed by a dialogue on a pre-chosen theme. Previous dialogues have covered a wide range of issues, including “Faith and Water”, “Faith and the Mundane Life” and “Faith and International Relations”.

We often hear exhortations to find unity in diversity, to manage our differences so that they do not becomes sources of conflict or, worse, violence. The stories above remind me that we do not always hear details on how this process of “management” can be carried out. This paper suggests tentative thoughts on three principles that can help individuals and societies navigate their respective diversities, encapsulated in the idea that we must all strive to be reasonable persons of goodwill.

Reason and rationality

The idea of a reasonable person derives from a test in British Law that is applied on the basis of an intelligent non-expert (that is, reasonable) person, being put in a position to consider the evidence that might have been available at a place or time. The test involves asking the hypothetical question: what would a reasonable person do under these circumstances, given the evidence or being exposed to a particular situation? Implicit in

this is the notion that reasonable persons apply logic to situations, rather than make decisions based purely on emotion or primal causalities like ethnicity or tribe. Such persons deploy rigorous arguments in support of their claims or beliefs. They accept the principle of falsifiability i.e. that any ideas, whoever their originator, can possibly be proven wrong.

Reasonable persons are central in the effective navigation of diversity because they apply vigorous scientific thinking rather than succumb to the emotional or psychic pulls of “isms” and “ologies” which, unfettered, can precipitate conflict. Acceptance of falsifiability also keeps them humble, lubricating the exchange of ideas by reducing dogmatism and doctrinaire thinking. My family background has made me instinctively aware of this idea because, as far back as I remember remembering, any ideas I had about my ethnicity or faith continually rubbed corners with those of my family members. As a child, I knew but could not always articulate how they were both similar and different from me and my brothers. I first encountered the idea of a reasonable person in fully articulated form while I was a first-year undergraduate at Oxford, listening to Amartya Sen deliver the 1998 Romanes Lecture. His lecture title elegantly captured how we need to apply “Reason before Identity” in making assessments and decisions — similar to what the philosopher René Descartes called shining “the natural light of Reason” on situations. The stories above, together with other personal experiences, have made me realise that Reason provides three key insights for situations where we interact with diverse communities.

First, each of us, while individual, is also plural, with many interacting identities of our own. This may seem counterintuitive, given that the term “diversity” is usually applied socially, referring to the dimensions that mark out particular groups from others. Such conceptions of “Us vs Them” can be based on a range of markers: gender, ethnicity, race, religion, language, nation, professional affiliation, tribe, or educational background, among others. However, a less frequently used, but equally resonant, definition of diversity applies within individuals — like me, with mixed parentage and hyphenated identities, or who balance the different aspects of their professional, personal and other identities in a dynamic equilibrium. The recent policy shift to allow double-barrelled ethnicities on Singaporean identity cards reflects the growing prevalence and awareness of such individual diversity.

Second, an individual’s different identities matter more or less at different times and in different contexts. Attending a class reunion reinforces my sense of being from a particular school, being at work underscores my professional affiliations as a civil servant, going to the mosque on Hari Raya is a spiritual experience, visiting my paternal grandmother for Christmas is about spending time with family. This is not to suggest that some identities, like our ethnicity or faith, do not define us in significant and profound ways, but I would venture that their salience varies according to situation. Even as our identities interact, Reason helps us keep them conceptually distinct. A similar argument is made in Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence (2006); its telling subtitle intimates at how primordial identities like race and religion create “The Illusion of Destiny”, whereas logic tells us that no part of our identity should be tyrannical over all others at all times, no matter how resonant and powerful it may be.

Third, Reason helps us realise that each aspect of our multiple identities can generate connections between us and many, if not all, other people. I feel this particularly strongly when interacting with family on my father’s side. Growing up, my paternal grandmother told me stories from the Old Testament, emphasising how both Christians and Muslims celebrate the lives of Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and other great Biblical figures. As I grew older, I realised that the Lord’s Prayer and the Muslim Sura Al-Fatihah, while not identical, bear remarkable similarities. The line from the Prayer, “hallowed be Thy name, on earth as it is in heaven”, for instance, is similar to the Fatihah’s “praise be to God, the sustainer of all known and existing worlds”, while the idea of being led “not into temptation” is similar to the Fatihah’s plea to God to “guide us on the straight path”. Recently, when one of Dad’s Catholic aunts passed away, I was reminded of a further similarity, in different faiths’ prayers for the dead. Muslims, many Christians and some of the Hindus in our family hold prayers on the first three days after a funeral, then on the seventh, 40th and 100th days. All this helps create a lattice of shared cultural links between groups of ostensibly different backgrounds, even if the exact forms of our rituals differ.

The importance of persons

Applied alone, Reason can come across as slightly cold and clinical. It is therefore useful to temper it by recognising and valuing the person-hood in each individual. This is critical in making us reasonable persons, rather than mere automatons applying a Reason-imitating algorithm. Belief in person-hood is not a new idea. Across a range of belief systems, both faith-based and humanist, we can find an emphasis on a non-derogable core of humanity, resident in any individual, whatever the accoutrements of his/her identities and affiliations. One source of this in the liberal political tradition is clear; but it can also be justified spiritually, for example, in the belief of several faiths that there is an element of the divine in all of us, or the Muslim concept of each person occupying a special position in Creation as God’s vicegerent on Earth. Belief in individual person-hood is a prerequisite for meaningful reciprocity among people, where one obeys the Golden Rule and does unto others, according them the same respect, rights, entitlements and privileges that one expects in turn.

Such belief in person-hood does not mean fetishising individual rights to such an extent that the importance of traditions or the communal good is trivialised. Rather, it helps prevent tradition and regard for the community from becoming overwhelming sources of identity, since these must be balanced against preserving the dignity of individual persons. To use the language of political theory, reasonable persons are not just “liberal” selves, but rich “communitarian” selves, complete with traditions, cultures and multiple life narratives. In turn, the recognition that every individual is a variegated being helps us recognize the common humanity in all of us, rather than over-emphasising what Michael Ignatieff calls the “narcissism of minor difference” and reducing people who are different from us to mere abstract “others”.

Goodwill and good will

Goodwill is important for a society to move beyond merely tolerating to celebrating its diversity. With a thin, etiolated diversity, people reluctantly put up with differences. The existence of goodwill creates progress toward a richer appreciation of those things that make us distinct. There are different conceptions of such an expanded diversity — America’s “melting pot”, from which the many become one; or the non-assimilationist “unity in diversity” that Singapore and others adopt — but all rely on a fundamental bedrock of goodwill among peoples. This goodwill has three important consequences.

First, it reminds us that we have no monopoly on knowledge, and can learn together what we cannot know alone. This was brought home to me very powerfully on two recent occasions. During an EIF dialogue, one participant asked a Hindu speaker if he worshipped “one or many Gods”. The answer was Zen-like in its simultaneous simplicity and complexity: it does not matter whether there is one or are many Gods. What matters is that there is “only God”. I was struck by that, particularly as it reminded me that any single human conception of the Divine is necessarily limited. Sometimes, the path to deeper understanding of the nuances and complexities involved can be indicated by traditions outside the ones with which we grew up. A similar experience was with a Jewish friend, who mentioned that one of the Hebrew words for God was Elohim, the plural of the singular Elowah. The etymology of the word is interesting — it originated from pre-monotheistic days and referred to the multiple gods worshipped by the predecessors of Abraham, but gradually came to apply to the “one God” of the Israelites. I find it instructive that a plural noun is now used to signify the Divine, acting in its own quiet way as a reminder that human ideas about what is single or many pale in comparison to life’s larger truths.

Second, goodwill reminds us to give others the benefit of the doubt when they seem to offend us. While others have obligations not to cause offence in speech and action, each of us also has the prerogative not to take offence. Apparently racist remarks often stem from ignorance rather than malice, and being bigger persons helps us both to understand and address such situations with information, rather than indignation.

The natural consequence of realising we have no monopoly on truth and have a prerogative not to take offence leads to the third benefit of goodwill: it helps us deal with sensitive issues by building trust and accommodating differences. Attitudes of goodwill could, for instance, have helped defuse some of the tension over whether McDonald’s should have retained the pig figurine in its Lunar New Year toy line-up; just as some tense situations where HDB void decks have been double-booked, for Malay weddings and Chinese funerals, have been defused with a little give-and-take.

Ideals, pragmatism and policy

Being reasonable persons of goodwill helps us navigate the choppy and sometimes-uncharted waters of diversity, but it is not a panacea. Reason is neither uniformly nor universally distributed in most societies, so it requires careful nurturing through education and exposure, rather than being left to chance. Even where it is widespread, Reason also has limits, at which points powerful emotions start to come into play. I suspect this is one reason why interfaith marriages, while more numerous than before, still face so many obstacles today. Rising above these challenges requires not just vision, but also healthy realism. It will help if we view the navigation of diversity as a journey — where we are all, in the words of a friend of mine who is a Catholic priest, “fellow pilgrims” — rather than a final destination. To be translated into public policy, diversity-promoting measures will need to create space for dreams and aspirational goals, rather than fixate purely on what is achievable in the immediate or short-term. Emphasising the process and journey involved will also call for a mindset change and acceptance of success metrics that may not necessarily translate directly into easily concretised performance indicators. In addition, focusing on being reasonable persons of goodwill means supplementing (not supplanting) our current scepticism about the role(s) individuals can play in society, while also exercising sufficient caution about possibly creating cults of personality.

Concluding thoughts

Nations can base their organisation on ethnic nationalism, centred on common primordial ancestries like ethnicity or language; or rally around civic nationalism, which emphasises common values and attitudes. For a multicultural state like Singapore, reasonable persons of goodwill can provide a resilient base for the broader structures of a civic nation. In so doing, they also build a foundation for a robust deliberative democracy where voices are enabled, where the linguistic and experiential reference points required for coherent common narratives can be found and where legitimate different perspectives are accommodated and celebrated.

© Copyright 2012 National University of Singapore. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to reproduce this material for non-commercial purposes and please ensure you cite the source when doing so.

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