Singapore prides itself on being a tolerant society. We are told repeatedly that the reason we remain united despite our large diversity of cultures, values and traditions is because of our tolerance of beliefs and practices different from our own, and because, as a nation, we do not take sides, and treat every member of society equally.
This narrative, however, is marred by a disconcerting fact.
Toleration in Singapore seems to only exist within exclusive boundaries, cast by an orthodoxy that takes its own moral authority for granted. Those who fall within these boundaries are protected, but those outside are not. Let me illustrate this.
It is a fact that the beliefs and practices of one religious group may not be agreeable to another. Yet, in Singapore, religious groups tolerate each other, and do not attempt to stamp each other out. In fact, we have made laws to protect these beliefs and practices; this is of course a good thing.
While tolerance between major religions exists and is protected by law, beliefs and practices that fall outside of this exclusive club are not. For example, the reason Section 377A of the Penal Code still remains is due to the argument that it contradicts “public values” – in other words, values not shared by all.
However, the beliefs and practices of any single religion may not be shared by all, perhaps not even by a majority. Yet, we tolerate them, and in fact, we are extremely proud of this.
We boast to others about how in Singapore, a church, temple and mosque can exist side by side in harmony. Yet, we do not ask: why do we not tolerate the belief and practices of some groups of people but not others? Why the double standard? Should religion and sexual orientation be treated differently? After all, they both constitute a person’s identity and are integral to the way he/she wishes to live his/her life.
Any group whose beliefs and practices causes no actual harm to another, and are yet a victim of discrimination by another segment of society should be protected, not persecuted by law.
Tolerance appears to be an exclusive club whose members get equal treatment, but those without membership are left in the lurch, and are blind to this fact. It is this fact that makes it appear that tolerance in Singapore is becoming more and more a celebrated myth than a practical reality.
When I was a child, every textbook taught me that Singapore has 4 races – Chinese, Indian, Malay and Eurasian, 4 languages – English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, and 4 religions – Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. Textbooks expressed harmony as caricatures representing each of these groups holding hands and living peacefully with one another.
However, they were what they were – caricatures – simplistic, exclusive and sometimes arbitrary definitions of what Singapore apparently “constitute of”. Creating such arbitrary boundaries will inevitably leave out the interests of those who do not fall within.
Tolerance does not mean an oligopoly of ideas, where several dominant ideas reign supreme and are united in shutting everyone else out.
As our population grows and our society becomes ever more globally connected, we will only grow even more diverse. This means new values and new beliefs permeating our society. We think that we are a very tolerant society, and that unlike other societies, we will have no problem embracing them. However, is this true?
My fear is that we constructed a narrative and continue to convince ourselves of its validity despite proof of the contrary. Why are we so afraid to challenge this narrative? Perhaps tolerance and harmony are such a key parts of our national identity that we cannot fathom an alternate reality. If so, then our undying faith in the narrative is no more than a product of our insecurity.
We are about to become victims of our own denial.
Admitting to a problem is the first step to solving it. Unless we accept the problem and begin a search for a cure, the disease that is out double standards towards tolerance will only grow. The more we delay, the more we stand to lose.