Lawrence Wong: LGBTQ & other groups have 'valid concerns', but impossible to fulfil every request

Wong said that the government may not always arrive at the perfect solution, but they will never let any group feel ostracised.

Low Jia Ying | November 23, 2021, 06:47 PM

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Different segments of Singapore's population have legitimate concerns which should be acknowledged. However, if every group pushes for "maximum rights and entitlements for themselves", it will not be possible to accommodate all of these requests.

This is what Minister for Finance and co-chair of the Multi Ministry Taskforce (MTF) Lawrence Wong said at the IPS-RSIS Conference on Identity on Tuesday (Nov. 23).

In his speech, he touched on the rise of identity politics, or a "new tribalism"  in politics, and how this has affected politics in Singapore.

He also elaborated on how a fair balance must be struck such that all Singaporeans feel included and share in the hope for Singapore's future.

New forms of identity politics in Singapore beyond race & religion

In his speech, Wong noted that the way societies have evolved has made people more susceptible to tribalism.

He harked back to life in Singapore during the 50s and 60s, where despite the "many problems" at the time, communities across the board were more connected and the "Kampong Spirit" was still very much alive.

But as individualism started becoming the "reigning ethos", connections with others become weakened and people begin to feel isolated and alienated, causing them to turn to "tribes" as a primeval defence against loneliness, said Wong.

Wong warned against this trend:

"Tribalism is inherently exclusionary, and it’s based on mutual hate: “us” versus “them”, “friend” vs “foe”. Once this sort of tribal identity takes root, it becomes difficult to achieve any compromise. Because when we anchor our politics on identity, any compromise seems like dishonour."

Tribalism in Singapore

Wong said that Singapore's "seemingly stable" identities of race — Chinese, Malay and Indian — should not be taken for granted, considering how these racial categories weren't quite so stable just a century or two ago.

He cited the example of how even Singapore's own nationalism had its roots in separate nationalisms of the different component races here.

Without inspiration from the Chinese Revolutions, the Indian national movement, or the Indonesian Revolution, no Singaporean then "would have conceived it possible to have a Singaporean nationalism", said Wong.

Wong then asked: "Can we then really be sure, with the rise of China, India and Southeast Asia, that Singaporean nationalism will not deconstruct again into Chinese, Indian and Malay nationalisms?"

Singapore's "harmonious state of affairs will always be on a knife-edge; so it needs constant attention and careful management", said Wong.

The way forward to manage any new tensions is not to pretend that differences do not exist, however.

Groups in Singapore with "real and valid concerns and anxieties"

In his speech, Wong highlighted that culture wars that started in the West have created new forms of identity politics in Singapore, beyond that of race and religion.

He stressed that Singapore must be careful not to let this "new tribalism" take root such that politics here will be defined by identity issues as well.

However, he also recognised that "different segments of our population will have their own real and valid concerns and anxieties".

Specifically, Wong brought up how women, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community have "important concerns", which includes them feeling like they are not part of or accepted in Singapore society.

Wong said that these concerns should not be dismissed as "illegitimate or exaggerated".

Instead, Singaporeans should aspire to the "founding ethos" of Singapore, that "every Singaporean deserves a place in our society, regardless of his or her background, status or racial or cultural identity," said Wong.

The challenge then, Wong said, is for society to do its best to address these concerns, without allowing politics to be based exclusively on identities or tribal allegiances.

Later during the Q&A segment, Wong elaborated that the way forward in this new phase of development is for Singaporeans to engage deeply and listen to one another:

"It's not just about every group pushing for maximum rights and entitlements for themselves, because it will not be possible to accommodate all of these requests. There will be trade-offs that have to be made."

Avoid stereotyping groups

Wong then outlined some possible approaches that Singapore can take in order to tackle tribalism and identity politics.

One approach is to avoid stereotyping groups and assuming that each community is homogenous.

He had previously spoken about how the Chinese community in Singapore cannot be treated as monolithic during a speech in June this year.

Emphasising this point in his Nov. 23 speech, Wong said that "Chinese privilege" can be one such stereotype, because a "female Chinese from a poor background would have a vastly different lived experience compared to a male Chinese from a wealthy family".

Wong also said that there may be preconceived notions about each other’s ethnicity, gender, religion, or political allegiance — prejudices which minorities are especially subject to.

"We must avoid reducing our understanding of each other to a single dimension. This hardens our views of those who are different from us, and over time, we see all issues through that lens." he said.

Given that everyone has "multiple identities", Wong highlighted the importance of prioritising the Singaporean identity:

"We may be Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, or any other race. But we are first and foremost Singaporeans. Likewise, regardless of our gender or sexual orientations, regardless of the cause we champion, we are all Singaporeans, first and foremost."

Government to try to be an "honest broker"

Wong stressed that the government "must and will always be a fair and honest broker".

Despite the government's best attempts, they "might not always succeed in establishing a consensus on especially controversial issues".

In the Q&A segment, Wong said that the government will try to "listen to different sides of the debate" and understand how attitudes and mindsets shift over time before considering their next move:

"It's not a static position. And as we do that, where there are policy decisions to be made, we will strive to find the appropriate policy setting. In some instances, we may decide after lengthy deliberation and discussion to make adjustments to our policies, like we did with the wearing of tudung for nurses."

Towards the end of his speech, Wong said:

"We may not always arrive at a perfect solution. But we will never let any group feel unheard, ignored or excluded. We will never let any group feel boxed in or ostracised.

All must feel that they are part of the Singapore conversation; all must feel they are part of the Singapore family; all must feel there is hope for the future."

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Top photo via Jacky Ho/Institute of Policy Studies, NUS