The “New” Multiculturalism: National and Educational Perspectives, pp. 3 of 11

Singapore citizens, in spite of the post-2011 elections, have genuine reasons to be proud of the country’s achievements as evident by consistent good governance, unrelenting commitment to meritocracy and substantial socio-centric policies. Citizens will generally support the statement by Prime Minister (PM) Mr. Lee Hsien Loong (Lee, 2006) that,

We did not reach this happy state of affairs by chance. It is the result of many years of patient effort. Singaporeans of all races learnt to trust one another, to give and take, and to accommodate each another’s different customs and ways of life. The Government fostered racial harmony through many policies. We have upheld meritocracy and equal opportunity for all. We have integrated our population in HDB estates. We have ensured that the minority communities have the space to keep their heritages alive, and not feel pressured by the majority Chinese community.

Abundant self-congratulations were offered as evidence of this commendable state of affairs when Singaporeans of all backgrounds came to condemn any perceived acts that were disrespectful, insensitive or racist towards members of CMIEO. The now infamous racial online commentary of a permanent resident Malaysian-born Chinese in October 2012 became a national story with PM Lee and Foreign Affairs and Law Minister Mr. K. Shanmugam registering their disapproval. The latter judged the postings as “shameful and completely unacceptable” (Anon, 2012). The incident was one of the more high-profile cases in which the nation collectively stood by the national principles of respect for the various groups of CMIEO and affirmed the credentials and success of both national and education policies. Collective pragmatism has seemingly evolved and been epitomised in credible national behavioural patterns where diversity has become a factual norm rather than an exercise in national and/or educational sloganeering.

Reassuring though this might be, there are noted contrary assessments of the state of diversity and concomitant multicultural education. While not an absolute disavowal of what the nation has achieved, this paper contends that while policies since 1965 have been adroitly adapted to evolving national and global imperatives, there must now be a more nuanced understanding of diversity and differences, and an informed recognition of the interplay of visible and invisibly embedded multiple power structures. There is a pressing need to go “beyond CMIEO” and engage more fruitfully with those communities who exist outside the traditional framework of reference.

The education system, not just as a co-opted but as a symbiotic partner in this societal governance and management, will need to address uncomfortable and at times questionable notions of how diversity is understood and presented as institutionalised, dominant narratives. While this might have sufficed in the past decades, the reliance on what this author has constantly claimed to be the “3Fs” (Ismail, 2007) of understanding difference through the prism of “Food, Fashion and Festival” or the commodification of difference through the “3Cs” of “cuisines, costumes and celebrations” (Ismail & Shaw, 2014), has unfortunate unintended consequences of perpetuating stereotypes, exotifying differences and embedding in/visible power structures. The call is to go beyond the passivity and negative associations of tolerance to an understanding that includes genuine empathy and not mere accommodation of the “other.”

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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