A few months ago, my older sister, who hardly shares anything online, reposted a New York Times article about a professor challenging call-out culture, wondering if a better solution might be actually “calling people in”.

In the article, Professor Loretta Ross explains: “I think you can understand how calling out is toxic. It really does alienate people, and makes them fearful of speaking up.”

To me, this was a mindset shift, which led me to deep dive into the power – both positive and negative – of cancel culture.

More recently, a local article about not wanting to be woke sparked some attention. Woke isn’t just the past tense of “wake”, it now means something else as well to a different generation. For those as “unwoke” as I am, being woke in today’s lingo is about being aware of issues concerning social and racial justice.

Wait, then isn’t being woke a good thing?

As with most things in life, what is considered “good” is also conditional.

When being “woke” becomes some sort of competition or when we become overly sanctimonious about our beliefs, the well-intended term starts to take a different hue altogether.


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Unfortunately, for Dana Teoh, the author of that article, her piece sparked off an online backlash that ended in her education institution and her journalism supervisor calling for netizens to stop cyberbullying her.

Without going too much into the debate (it’s been more than a month), it must be noted that there is a certain degree of courage involved in expressing a personal opinion (informed or otherwise) while acknowledging the potential to be cancelled for it.

While there is nothing wrong with a robust exchange of views, it was unfortunate that some of the criticisms devolved into personal attacks. Let’s be more empathetic, especially when we disagree.

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A moral litmus test 

Last year, I came across an interesting moral conundrum. Called the Shopping Cart Theory, it asked a simple question: If there is no emergency, would you return a shopping cart to its designated spot? Given that the carts in Singapore have a coin deposit, I would think that a better local corollary would be the tray return issue.

Do you return your tray at hawker centers, kopitiams or fast-food restaurants? Interestingly, in the shopping cart debate, one of the arguments used to justify not returning the carts was that it created jobs for the supermarket handlers. Does that sound familiar to you?

It’s not my place to judge or question anyone for their actions. After all, we all fight battles that no one knows about. But an NEA survey on tray return showed an interesting mismatch between what we think we should do (nine in 10 Singaporeans believe we should return trays) and what we end up doing (only three in 10 actually do it).

So what does that say about us? Can we truly put actions to words, especially when no one is watching?

Choosing what to be “woke” about

Image source: Shutterstock/Lightspring

How do we choose what we want to be “woke” about? For me, the social issue that I feel strongly about is equality.

In February, the Institute of Policy Studies at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy published a survey on Our Singapore Values, which outlined how our values as a society have changed over the years. The global survey, which included 80 countries, covered issues like our personal ethics and views on a swathe of issues including gender equality, religion and political governance.

One of the interesting aspects of the survey for me was how richer Singaporeans seemed to prioritise freedom over equality.

Image source: IPS Exchange Series (Page 199, Our Singaporean Values)

But isn’t equality about giving everyone a fair opportunity to succeed? And shouldn’t the privileged have a moral obligation to lift up those who can’t help themselves?

In the survey, we also find that Singaporeans are generally supportive of (cis)gender equality, yet still almost one in five respondents (17%) agreed that “a university education is more important for a boy than for a girl”.  To be fair, this is an improvement from the figure of 26% in the 2012 poll.

In other words, Singaporeans are getting more “woke” on gender equality in the office and classroom, but we still have room to grow.

You can read more on that issue (and many others!) on the full report published here.

Gender equality has direct economic knock-on effects.

MOM reported in 2020 that based on 2018 data, in Singapore, the adjusted gender pay gap between males and females is 6%. This is the wage difference that remains after taking into account factors such as the employee’s industry, occupation, age and education.

Employers, are you paying your male employees more than your female staff of equal ability, roles and responsibility? Are you supportive of new fathers as primary caregivers, so their partner can thrive in their careers (and possibly narrow that 6% gap)?

If your answer is yes and no respectively, then I say this with all due respect – you are part of the problem.

Learning about unconscious bias 

Image source: Shutterstock/Igor Kisselev

Most of the time, however, our decisions are not overtly ill-intentioned, but a result of us falling prey to our unconscious bias.

Ever felt a sense of affinity to those who are similar to you? How about giving them more chances if they are good-looking? Have you formed an immediate judgement of someone just because of their age, gender, body type, even name or race? Uh oh.

How about seeking self-affirming evidence and ignoring critical details (confirmation bias), or following the crowd to avoid being different, regardless of outcome (conformity bias)?

We need to constantly ask these questions to keep ourselves in check for unconscious bias. Often, these questions are best formulated by others who come from different backgrounds.

Diversity and equality builds innovation and inclusion 

Image source: Shutterstock/GoodStudio

According to Kantar, a market research company that compiled the Inclusion Index in 2019, Singapore is second-worst globally for workplace diversity.

Surely that cannot be true! We are a multi-racial society!

That said, I have yet to find local public data on workplace diversity (weighted) by sector, industry, executive and board divisions. What’s readily available is local workforce demographics related to age, qualification, gender, median income and marital status.

What about other dimensions that contribute to diversity, such as ethnicity, religious and political beliefs, sexual orientation and disabilities?

The lack of measurement (or at least publicly-accessible data) in these aspects can potentially give rise to a blind spot.

In 2020, The Diversity Study by Campaign Asia Pacific in partnership with Kantar, revealed that gender and racial inequality is deepening among adults working in the media and marketing industry from across 18 countries in the Asia Pacific region.

It is important to note that the study acknowledges that a greater awareness of identifying bias, may not necessarily mean that the underlying conditions are worsening, simply that people are getting more aware of the issue.

There is also the economic argument for diversity. A study in 2017 by management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group showed that there is a positive relationship between management diversity and innovation.

However, reaching that potential requires moving beyond token diversity; for example innovation revenues (income from new products or services in the past three years) showed a greater increase when more than 20% of leadership at a company are female, the study found.

Inclusion Requires Systematic, Bold Actions

Image source: Shutterstock/Marie Maerz

Last year, consultancy McKinsey & Company published a report on diversity – How Inclusion Matters – based on data from the US and the UK.

The report found that companies with more diverse executive leadership are more likely to outperform those that aren’t. Yet, firms still face challenges with equality. The workplace experience on inclusivity is only 29% positive amongst its respondents.

According to the report, the three indicators of inclusion are equality, openness, and belonging.

The firm found particularly high levels of negative sentiment about equality and fairness of opportunity, and proposes systematic and bold actions to strengthen inclusion, based on best practices.

This says to me that inclusion is a laborious process, and equality is tough to achieve.

Nonetheless, if equality is important to many of us (and it is to me!), then we must make the effort.

As poet and activist Maya Angelou said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Focus on what we can contribute, and encourage others to do so as well, to a positive effect.

That is what I’ve always felt strongly about, and that is why I’m choosing to be woke about equality.

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