A colour-blind society of collaborative-spirited citizens, where people from different communities live and work together in harmony. Differences are never picked on, but understood and celebrated out of instinct, rather than institution. An inclusive country that exists and prospers in peaceful progress.
Sounds like Singapore? Does it?
An inclusive society defines itself as being open to everyone, an all-embracing community of sorts. Each individual will be seen as themselves, and not just a jarring representative of their culture or background. In his swearing-in speech of 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong clearly outlined the pressing need for an inclusive society for Singapore to prosper, including the disabled and those from various backgrounds. Twelve years on, as our country continuously experiences growth year on year, surely we have done our part.
Did we, really?
A study in 2013 by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and Onepeople.sg found that more than one in two Singaporeans did not have a close friend of another culture. Another study by the IPS in 2013 also showed that compared to 5 years prior, 32.1% of respondents believed there was now more prejudice against other nationalities. A more recent study by the Lien Foundation in May 2016 showed that only one in four children has friends with special needs. It also posits that there is a stark lack of conducive environment for the typically developed children to interact with children with disabilities. In a striking turn of irony, while 71% support the idea of inclusive education, only 50% of parents surveyed would be comfortable with their child sitting next to a child with special needs.
In today’s Singapore, it is easy to stick within our own comfort zones. Taking cue from strict sedition laws, there is a sense that our harmony is more enforced than organic. We’re comfortable with each other, though probably not that at ease.
But are there walls around these zones? Are we able and willing to be open about constructive discussions about issues around harmony and inclusiveness with our peers? Or, as some incidents hint, are we unable to differentiate an honest discussion from a critique of our identity? In turn, we become defensive and emotional when the other party was really just asking for clarification. What we can, and should, do now is to learn as much as we can about one another. We should be able to speak at the very least with our close friends about race, religion, and background with no fear, and still have close friends the next day.
We could start interacting with our colleagues or classmates with disabilities by seeing them for who they really are; people who share similar dreams and are trying to lead a happy and fruitful life, much like ourselves. We could strike up a conversation with a transient worker whom we cross paths with every day, and see their eyes light up when asked to share with us about their hometowns.
I was born in Singapore as a minority. I grew up with a bubbly cousin with a disability. I have had and still have amazing colleagues from other countries. I learnt a lot from them. I do not feel knowledgeable; on the contrary, I feel extremely humbled. Tourists flock here by the millions to be amazed by our multicultural make-up, which we often take for granted. It won’t hurt for us to also learn and appreciate the various cultures – both established and transient – that we have on the small island of Singapore.
It is natural for us to stick only to those we are comfortable with. We shun those who are unfamiliar and those with disabilities just because we are afraid. Yet, one easily finds that all it takes is a simple “hello” or a quick conversation to be a starting point.
I do think we have done well and are in a good place. But we can be better! And the good news is, we do want to be better. Of the people surveyed, most still want to befriend those who are not similar to them. Ideally, we will continue journeying towards the inclusive society that the Prime Minister mentioned way back in 2004. As Mahatma Gandhi puts it – “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization”.