Vote for diversity, not division

Alex Tham /

A whole host of issues are being fought over in this year’s General Elections. At the national level, rising housing prices, the rate of immigration and income inequality are among the hot topics that animate public passions. In the political arena, the debate rages over the need for alternative representation in parliament and whether candidates without the necessary political maturity deserve a free pass.  At the district level, the usual carrot/whip of HDB upgrading has once again become a divisive issue. The personal has also not been spared, with accusations of abuse of power, incompetence and hidden agendas levelled on both sides of the PAP-Opposition fence. In the face of all these competing issues, the question is no longer just about who we should vote. It has now become extremely important to also consider what we are voting for.

Diversity versus Division – this is the choice facing all Singaporeans in the 2011 GE, regardless of the issues being contested.

Singapore’s success has much to do with how a community was forged out of diverse cultures. Diversity is a key ingredient for growth and resilience. One definition of entrepreneurship is the combination of previously unconnected resources to create an innovative new product. Similarly, almost everyone today knows that diversity is a crucial risk-management strategy for an investment portfolio. With regard to political and economic leadership, credit goes to the early leaders of the PAP who moved us away from racially-polarised politics with its corresponding ties to religion, and implemented economic policies that created a large middle-class. A glance at other countries divided along lines of race, religion or class will show that the unity we enjoy in Singapore is not to be taken for granted.

But even more credit must go to Singaporeans themselves, without whom none of what the country has achieved would be possible. From the blue collar workers of the 1970s to the professionals and service providers today, Singaporeans have participated collectively in nation-building. Even today we are one of the most hardworking people in the world. The 2008-09 Global Wages Report released by the International Labour Organisation showed that Singaporeans worked an average of more than 40 hours a week in 2008, more than South Korea and Taiwan.

Singapore’s best resource is its citizens. We possess diverse social and cultural forms of capital that are complemented with high levels of education. Singaporeans have the potential to create innovative, high-value products and services. Yet despite this potential, we currently lag behind comparable countries like Israel and Taiwan in our capacity for innovation. According to the 2010-11 Global Competitiveness Report, Singapore’s local supplier quality is worse than Cyprus, Slovenia and Costa Rica. Ironically, the report ranked Singapore first for wages that reflect productivity. But productivity, as was widely reported in 2010, is Singapore’s weak spot. So in fact, Singaporeans are already “cheaper, better, faster”. But we can be much more.

The problem is not the individual. On the contrary, the problem is too much individualism. Diversity does not automatically produce innovation or high-value. Without ties of solidarity connecting different groups together, diversity becomes division as individuals come into conflict with each other. People need to work together for the greater good, not out-compete each other to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, the direction Singapore has taken over the past five years has been towards more divisiveness and individualism, instead of a diverse and productive community.

The two casinos are emblematic of the move away from social cohesion towards economic individualism. As outgoing minister Lim Boon Heng acknowledged, the choice to do so was not easy. In the meantime, inequality has increased since the last two elections. In 2001, our Gini coefficient based on original income per household member was 0.456 (as reported by the Department of Statistics, Key Household Income Trends, 2010). This spiked to 0.489 in 2007 before remaining at 0.480 in 2010. In comparison, the US had a Gini of 0.466 in 2008. So although we lack many of the freedoms of the US, the current single-party regime has nevertheless taken on the negative aspects of America’s individualist ethos. If things carry on as they are, will we head down the slippery slope of privatising more and more of our public goods and sources of social solidarity?

This growth-at-all-costs model of economic development has created a climate where xenophobia is prone to breed. Modern Singapore was built by immigrants. It was the solidarity that came from community-building that made it possible to create a nation out of diverse groups. One of the forms of community-service that builds solidarity is National Service. As a crucial rite-of-passage that binds old and new Singaporeans together, NS should not be devalued by a fast and loose Permanent Resident policy. Care should also be taken to ensure that Singapore’s best resource — her citizens — is not exploited by foreigners. Many Singaporeans believe that wages are depressed by cheap foreign labour and that preferential hiring practices of foreign managers have created barriers to upward mobility. These beliefs have yet to be taken seriously, investigated and addressed. If there is genuine transfer of knowledge, the beneficiary will be a stronger and more diverse Singaporean community that will have no reason to resent foreigners.

Contrary to community solidarity, this GE has seen numerous instances of the ruling party fomenting division instead of diversity. Besides disgraceful personal slurs, the most egregious example of privileging division over diversity is the threat of withholding HDB upgrading. By definition, HDB upgrading should be a public good. However, the convergence of a single political party with the state has enabled the PAP to appropriate such public goods for private party interests. This political tactic of divide-and-rule has not created a climate of productive competition between Singaporeans, but a self-serving “me first” attitude. How does division help create a better Singapore for Singaporeans? As Singaporeans take on more complex identities in addition to race and religion in the future, this question will become even more pertinent.

Singapore has now become too multifaceted and the issues too complex for politics and policies to be handled by just one party. The sentiment on the ground this election shows the bottled up demand for diversity of representation. This can either happen gradually, which gives us time to learn how to be a mature community of citizens who can debate issues responsibly. Or it might be a drastic transition many years down the road, which might be too much too late. The change should be gradual and it should start with this election.

There is no reason to believe that greater diversity in politics will be divisive. In fact, how politics is conducted very much depends on the example set by the ruling party. No matter how well the Opposition does in the 2011 GE, the cabinet will still be led by the PAP. The Opposition’s role for now is to ensure that our parliament becomes a genuine forum for deliberative democracy. They definitely have good, high-calibre candidates for this important responsibility. More importantly, the Opposition’s “Singaporeans-first” ethos points in the right direction of community-building. By providing a much-needed diversity of representation, the Opposition can limit policy groupthink. The healthy political competition can spur Singapore’s civil service to formulate and test a wider range of innovative policies to better the lives of most of us and not just some of us.

Do you want Singapore to be a diverse community or a divided country? Your vote will determine which path Singapore takes.

Alex Tham is a Singaporean who served NS more than a decade ago and is currently doing his graduate studies at Princeton University.

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