The author of this article is Kuik Shiao-Yin, co-founder of The Thought Collective, a group of social enterprises that aims to build up Singapore’s social and emotional capital. Since 2014, she has also been a Nominated Member of Parliament.
2016 was a year of shock results.
Colombia’s peace referendum. The UK’s Brexit decision. The US Presidential Election.
Many understood that there were divisions in those countries, but few actually recognised how deep or wide those divides had become.
We too in Singapore also have much to reflect on about what’s happening in our own backyard.
What are the walls that we have been building within our own country?
And have we already allowed them to grow to such an impenetrable height where half the country has become blocked off and blind to how the other half lives, thinks or feels?
Since the US Election results, much attention has been given in particular to our online echo chambers. Some of us are wondering now about how far our filter bubbles have narrowed our view of the world and fuelled our prejudices about “The Other Side”.
If you look at any comment section of a sociopolitical news article, you can see the effects. Few commentators are there to understand. Even fewer expect to be understood. Most commentators’ end goal is not to establish relationship that helps them achieve better results for ‘their side’. They are there mostly to win the zero-sum game of “I’m right, you’re wrong”.
Most of us have come to just accept and even expect that online discussions are just going to be unkind. But should we just leave it as that?
What if there was an actual place where strangers got to lay down their arms, come out of their online trenches and just talk with someone from “The Other Side”?
That was why I initially created The De-Militarised Zone Dinners in 2015.
I wanted The DMZ Dinners to be more like a ‘peace talk’ to negotiate a relationship rather than a debate to rehash points of disagreement. I hoped that people would get to connect emotionally and relationally with the human being behind the hotly debated issues.
The component of eating together is significant. We don’t voluntarily go out of our way to dine with ‘The Enemy’. The honour of sharing a meal is often given only to those we already feel friendly with or at worse, just neutral towards. We let down our walls a little bit more easily when we share a common experience of hospitality.
In 2015, with the generous support of Singapore Kindness Movement, The DMZ Dinners kicked off with three dinners: Regardless of Race, Regardless of Language and Regardless of Religion.
Each dinner had an online series featuring a filmed conversation between a group of diverse diners which ended with an invite to the viewer to come for a public dinner conversation. The dinner was free – you paid for your place with a story about your feelings about the divide.
In 2016, after the spate of ISIS-inspired attacks and the rise of Islamophobia around the world, we wanted to have a more specific conversation between Muslims and non-Muslims. This time, we collaborated with a community partner with greater ground experience in these issues. Harmony Centre, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore’s (MUIS) interfaith arm, was our first choice.
Though the issues and stakeholders differ, every DMZ Dinner conversation is designed around building common ground.
First, we introduce ourselves with a story of our own past experience with the issue.
Then, we talk our personal stake in the present-day tensions between us.
Finally, the room comes together for a large discussion about what future hopes we have for each other as well as our communities.
So far, we have been encouraged by the diversity of viewpoints shared at the dinners.
However, the most challenging and recurring observations made by many participants is this: where are the hardliners?
When we take a rough straw poll of the room, it becomes evident that most of the people who come for our dinners are those who self-identify as “moderates”. They came because they were already relatively open to listening to views different from their own.
This caused some of them to despair: Is there hope then? Are we just talking in our own filter bubble again?
So now, one of the new questions we pose to the room at the end of the dinners is this: Who is missing from the table that can help this conversation move forward? And whose responsibility is it to get them to the table?
I usually end the dinner expressing my gratitude for everyone who came because I think they are precisely the answer to that question.
I believe the self-identified “moderates” in the middle ground who are the first to show up at the table to talk, to renegotiate the terms of engagement are going to be increasingly important as forces of division grow in the world.
They may not see themselves that way. They tend to be quieter than those on the extreme ends. They tend not to position themselves to be particularly brave or bold.
To me, they are the secret, ordinary heroes society needs, and they give me hope.
Because I see their willingness to be the first to step into the gap to meet “The Other” as a respected equal as courage.
Because sometimes the scariest thing for us to do is to admit to someone else, “I might be wrong in my views”, “I want to hear and learn from you” and “I need you to make this work.”
The first step to being a bridge-builder in a world of walls is learning to lean into the tension rather than lean away.
The moderate ones, the ones holding the middle ground are a stabilising centre in society.
May the centre hold, no matter how things fall apart.