by Kylie Foo
Kishore Mahbubani, former diplomat and current Dean and Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, spoke at my school a few years ago about the need for countries to recognize the growing role and necessity of the global economy; or of a global multi-civilizational mindset, more directly. He echoed and expanded on these sentiments in a recent article.
Truly, this has been Singapore’s necessary strength: both its capacity and insistence on maintaining not just allies but direct conversations and engagements with countries the world over. We are a proactive, global people who host the world in the our home.
In its reaction to Pink Dot, however, the Singaporean government risks undertaking a journey directly away from these strengths and into those actions which would cause a decline from our position that has become so entrenched in our ability to engage with and even accommodate foreigners. Simply put, most everything that keeps Singapore moving forward (according to the economic measures the government uses, anyway) is tinged with non-Singaporean influence. Property, leisure, education (with 70,000 foreign students), etc. have all been heavily influenced by those outside our borders. Arguably for better than worse, this is precisely what makes us Singaporean: in some ways, we are just a little red dot on the world map. Yet in many other ways, we find the whole world right here.
For the last seven years, I have lived as an overseas Singaporean in Berkeley, California. I would argue, too, that few have felt the impact of outside influencers as Berkeley residents and the UC Berkeley student community have, recently (link). It is frustrating to feel as if our own voices are vulnerable to non-Berkeleyan foreigners, and to see ourselves misrepresented in national (or even international) media. So when it comes to the government wanting to discern the “authentic” response of local Singaporeans – I get it, I really do.
Like Singapore however, Berkeley’s strength is in its continual willingness to engage with the world beyond, and to host the world at home. There are limitations in each case: UC Berkeley should retain high academic standards in discerning who receives the privilege of speaking on campus, and Singapore should continue to prioritize harmonious living on its small island. Chancellor Dirks was wrong to ban recent provocateurs without voicing the the much more important reasons that they brought little academic value to the discussion, and Singapore is wrong to reach for such a backward solution as militarized barriers around Hong Liam Park – the latter, in fact, echoes terrifying images of minority groups being contained and “rounded up” by authorities.
Issues of free speech and minority rights are tricky; there is no denying this. In places like Berkeley and Singapore, however, the willingness to engage with others even (or especially when) they are not local voices, the stakes are even higher. We risk undermining our core strengths and foundations when we put up barriers and choose not to expand the conversation.