Going deeper and beyond multiculturalism

“Inter-culturalism assumes an openess that encourages an interplay of different culture presences in an environment where mutual respect governs the power dynamics… Multi-culturalism is recognising cultural differences, but it stops at there, recognising difference, full stop.”

Alvin Tan, The Necessary Stage

Despite the lip service to integration among the different ethnic groups, Singapore’s policy of multiculturalism has always been one that keeps them apart. As pointed out by The Necessary Stage’s Alvin Tan in the recent Work-Life seminar, there is a limitation to the government’s definition of the word. Instead, he proposed “inter-culturalism”, where the different communities actually interact in a manner that create a new culture based. Two examples of these communities amongst us are the Eurasians and the Peranakans, of which Alvin belongs to.

The late Kuo Pao Kun also had a beautiful quote on multiculturalism:

“Multiculturally the deeper you go, you actually find these recesses are connected. The deeper you go, the more connected you are. The shallower you become, they more separated they are. Or put it another way, the higher you reach into the respective cultures, the more you see all the branches and leaves touching each other. But the stalk, the stem, the trunk are very separated.

This is where our level of art is — they are separated. But if you go deeper, the roots touch. You go higher, the branches touch, the leaves touch. And of course, the cross-pollination is done up there. And you absorb the same nutrients, deep underneath. And this is the beauty of multiculturalism.”

I do feel that Singapore is at a stage where we should confidently try go deeper and encourage more spontaneous inter-mingling between our communities instead of being so formulaic about it. The recent expansion of the Ethnic Integration Policy in public housing estates to include permanent residents only serves to maintain the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) racial structure that has defined Singapore thus far. In fact, another recent change in law to allow Singaporeans who marry foreigners to choose their race also shows how problematic and inflexible the CMIO model is today.

Rather than try to regulate some magic formula of ethnicity that creates a Singaporean, we should just encourage interaction amongst all groups. It is more important to have respect and tolerance for one another than to know the composition of Singapore.

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