S’pore “more than capable” of handling differences as long as govt, political parties “disavow exclusivist thinking”, says academician Cherian George

Singapore will be “more than capable” of handling differences “in ways that make Singapore a big-hearted home” as long as its political parties and governing institutions “disavow exclusivist thinking”, said Singaporean academician Cherian George earlier this week on Tuesday (2 February).

The academician was responding to a remark by Education Minister Lawrence Wong in Parliament the day before, in which the minister said that gender identity has become bitterly contested sources of division in the culture wars in some Western countries and societies.

In a Facebook post, Prof George, a professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication, concurred with Mr Wong’s call for Singaporeans to not import the said culture wars, saying that it takes more than one side to “perpetuate a war”.

Any “peace treaty” would require all sides to stand down, said Prof George.

“A call for ‘disarmament’ should apply to all, not selectively to certain groups based on political expediency,” he stressed.

Prof George noted that a call to address unfair discrimination is not necessarily a call to arms.

“People who feel offended by such calls, even when their own rights are not threatened, should learn to live and let live,” he said.

Prof George added that the “ultimate weapon of mass destruction” in this culture war is “any ideology that promotes us/them tribalism and denies other humans equal dignity”.

“Its ultimate counter-weapon is an inclusive mindset that embraces, not erases, difference,” he said.

Prof George opined that the ‘culture war’ in the United States was initiated decades ago by elements of the Christian Right there, who were unable to accept the country’s expanding diversity and concessions to feminists and minorities.

The ‘culture war’, he said, was supported by capitalists who were alarmed by the progress made by the labour class.

“The war was openly ‘declared’ by Pat Buchanan in 1992, in a call to mount a ‘religious war… for the soul of America’. Today, though, the War is also sustained by an equally self-righteous Cultural Left,” he wrote.

Prof George pointed out that although some of the language from the American ‘culture war’ has seeped into political discourse in Singapore, it is “alarmist” to say that Singapore is “in danger of heading towards the dysfunctional polarisation of American politics”.

The professor explained that events in the US escalated as much as they did due to how the Republican Party had “weaponised identity politics to distract from class inequality”.

Even in the rest of the world, Prof George highlights that “a vicious cycle sets in” when identity politics maps onto a partisan identity.

“Identity politics takes on a life of its own, making national conciliation and cooperation impossible,” he warned.

However, Prof George is optimistic that Singapore can deal with differences in a positive way, as long as political parties and governing institutions “disavow exclusionist thinking” and commit to justice and equality.

In an update to the post, Prof George also offered a clarification that the term ‘Culture War’ is best treated with “scepticism and caution”.

“Rather than describing some objective reality, the term itself may be used ideologically, to spur a response,” he said, adding that culture has always been part of social conflict.

He also explained that it is far more difficult to date cultural trends than when actual war is declared by the dropping of bombs or soldiers crossing a border.

“So who ‘started’ the ‘Culture War’ (if there is such a thing) is debatable,” he said.

Prof George then pointed out two developments in the American ‘Culture War’.

The first, he said, is that people became more self-conscious about defending or asserting their culture and values. Surveys have also shown that polarised rhetoric widens the divide among ordinary folks, he said.

The second is the harnessing of the culture war rhetoric in politics as a platform and electoral strategy.

This “makes cultural differences far uglier and divisive than they need to be”, said Prof George.

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