Certain conflicts are necessary for long-lasting peace, but only if leaders are able to navigate and negotiate boundaries, former nominated member of parliament Kuik Shiao-yin said in a Facebook post on Jun. 16.
Kuik was responding to the government's handling of an incident in which a couple's wedding photo was used as a Hari Raya decorations standee in Tiong Bahru Orchid estate at Bukit Merah recently.
In her post, Kuik acknowledged that how the government handled the situation was a legitimate and acceptable way to resolve the conflict, but pointed out that it may also have incurred high costs in terms of building relationships between different groups in society.
Background to the incident
The incident first came into the public eye when communications specialist Sarah Bagharib, whose photo was used in the decorations, wrote about it on Instagram.
This prompted swift action, with the standee being taken down "immediately", and apologies from those involved.
However, Sarah said on Jun. 1 that the apology from the PA had "glaring gaps" that indicate a superficial understanding of the gravity of the mistake.
She said that the mistake was larger than just an infringement of copyright or privacy, as using a wedding photo as "a caricature of Malay people" is disrespectful to the community.
She also said that she hopes to be engaged in a meaningful conversation with the PA so as to "move beyond superficial understanding and promote deeper cohesion".
In response to this, the PA had apparently offered to meet with Sarah and her husband, but rescinded its offer on Jun. 14, taking issue with some of Sarah's comments in an online interview on Jun. 7, and the fact that she was publicly gathering views on the incident, from "unrelated" persons.
However, the PA outlined the steps it would be taking to prevent similar mistakes in future, including establishing a resource panel.
Sarah responded to this on Jun. 15 by calling the meeting's cancellation "a missed opportunity for constructive dialogue", saying that she and her husband would "continue to advocate for deeper intercultural understanding and greater social cohesion" in her personal capacity.
Viewing the incident through the lens of conflict negotiation
In her post, Kuik acknowledged that how the government handled the situation was a legitimate and acceptable way to resolve the conflict, when viewed "through the lens of conflict negotiation."
However, she pointed out that it may also have incurred high costs in terms of building relationships between different groups in society.
Leaders need to help others navigate conflict
Kuik said that conflict negotiation was a "key skill for anyone" that was "especially relevant" for leaders.
She explained that leaders have to be able to negotiate conflict by helping others to navigate and negotiate boundaries, when they inadvertently get crossed.
Such boundaries take the form of expectations, standards, and values, and act like "invisible tripwires" that set off explosions when crossed.
Yet, "you cannot wish away boundaries", she explained, adding that these boundaries represent people's ideas of "what is right, what is expected, what is desired," and are essential to individuals' sense of identity.
Kuik explained, however, that going through "necessary conflict" could result in "long-lasting peace", provided that those involved learn to negotiate their boundaries and redraw new ones.
How should a leader help others navigate conflict?
Kuik sad that conflict negotiation cannot be approached from the binary perspective of "I’m right-you’re wrong", even though this is "a very human habit" since those involved in conflict tend to believe that they are right.
With this in mind, Kuik said, "the negotiator/leader must lean against his inclinations to 'be right at all costs'."
Instead, the leader has to think about the intended results before deciding how to negotiate the conflict at hand, and adopt the right tactics.
"Winning through a power move (eg: “I’m right, suck it up, snowflakes”) is often the tactic of absolute last resort," wrote Kuik, in an apparent reference to former People's Action Party (PAP) MP Amrin Amin.
Amrin had come out in support of the PA, sharing its Jun. 14 statement on his Facebook page, and saying that he did not find the misused wedding photo an example of racism.
He then responded snappily to a disagreeing commenter with the line, "don't take offence too easily snowflake."
Interests, rights, power
Kuik then outlined three possible approaches to conflict negotiation.
These three approaches could be visualised on a three-step staircase, starting with interests-based negotiation on the lowest step, followed by rights/rules-based negotiation, and with power-based negotation at the top.
"All three are legit, acceptable moves to resolve a conflict. You just have to know what you’re doing and accept the consequences," said Kuik.
But she explained that "higher" approaches also incurred higher costs, whether financial, relational, political, or relating to productivity, time, health, and so on.
"You only trigger a power move if you’re prepared to pay the high costs," Kuik said, since using power to win conflict saves time, but causes damage to relationships.
On the other hand, "lower" approaches give each stakeholder more control over the outcomes, even if it took more time.
Thus, Kuik said, "the rule of thumb is as far as possible, always find a way back to interests-based negotiation," which is one in which stakeholders collaborate toward an outcome where each of them has "control and say", allowing relations to be preserved.
How did the government respond to the incident in Radin Mas?
Kuik then characterised the government's response to the incident in Radin Mas as one where "power play entered the picture."
She explained that an interests-based negotiation could have taken place, due to the parties sharing the common interests of "better interracial, inter generational, conservative-liberal understanding".
However, this became impossible because of "a unilateral power move to shut down negotiations".
Kuik said that such a move went against the strategic interests of a leader trying to build relationships among people, adding that "nobody likes being subjected to a unilateral power move", which would create long-term unhappiness.
"If your declared intent and mission is to restore harmony and build relations among the people, using power unilaterally to shut down and win a conflict is not on-mission. You also make enemies where previously there were none," she wrote.
Top image via Gov.sg/YouTube and sarahbagharib/Instagram