Cultivating a Dialogical Society: Reflections of IPS’ Singapore Perspectives 2021

The recently concluded Singapore Perspectives 2021 conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies has created an impact on the Singaporean intelligentsia.

Among the topics discussed was the issue of ‘Chinese Privilege’ touched upon by panelists discussing the theme of ‘Identities and Cohesion’1. One speaker expressed she was “agitated” with the use of the term within Singaporean society. She and a few like-minded members of the panel argued that Chinese privilege is not “useful” as a concept, as it involved a direct “importation of ideas” from the original notion of ‘White Privilege’ developed in the US. Their fear is that we dismiss our own “thinkers and indigenous intellectual traditions”. They explained that simply transplanting such ideas of privilege into Singapore society “bring[s] in the history of another society without being critical” of our own. This led to various rejoinders through online articles on Coconuts and Mothership and local podcasts, such as Thinking with Thambis and Walid Jumblatt’s Instagram video discussion series, Teh Tarik with Walid.

The discussion was given further impetus in a subsequent panel where the concept of ‘Chinese Privilege’ was highlighted as “not useful”, as the majority Chinese in Singapore empathise with the plight of the nation’s minority groups as they had experienced a similar situation where they had to give in to the demands of the government. Specifically, this occurred during the earlier period of Singapore’s development when “the Chinese community was told by Lee Kuan Yew that they should set aside their claims for majoritarianism and accept that Chinese would not be the national language even though they were the overwhelming majority population”. Another example was the community’s reluctant though eventual agreement to the 1980s merger of the Chinese-oriented Nanyang University with the University of Singapore to make way for the establishment of the English language-based National University of Singapore. It was emphasised that the event had been “painful” for the Chinese- educated community as students had to attend classes in English, a language they were not equipped to handle at the tertiary level. Because of this similarity of experience, the assertion is that the term ‘Chinese Privilege’ will not be suitable for Singapore society, as it implies ignorance of the state of affairs by the majority group. This is not a correct reflection of the situation on the ground. Nevertheless, there was an admission by the panel that minorities in Singapore “face racism, including institutional racism”.

With the first argument, we agree on the point that context matters. A good example to illustrate this was an on-air banter heard during a show by a local English language radio station some time back. A DJ was giving her review of the movie Crazy Rich Asians during its first few screenings in Singapore. She was lamenting the fact that apart from two minor roles, there were no other characters in the Chinese-dominated cast representing Singapore’s minority races. She used the term ‘People of Colour’ to refer to these ethnic communities in contrast to the country’s dominant Chinese population. The DJ was probably not critically aware that the term, which originated in the US, is used to delineate the non-White from the White residents. In that social context, the term ‘People of Colour’ does, by default, encompass all people of Asian origin including ethnic Chinese. Taking aside our aversion to any form of ethnic labelling, this example validates the panel’s objection against any direct transplanting of labels borne out of another society’s circumstance.

We are, however, reluctant to agree with the second rationale that the concept does not have a place in Singaporean society because of past events where the Chinese were at the receiving end of similar unfair treatment. By virtue of this emotional familiarity, the argument reasons out that the dominant community should not suffer guilt arising from notions of privilege since there is already an understanding of the situation on their part. From our perspective, this is a flawed argument as awareness of the impact of a situation does not absolve one of the fact that problems exist.

Even if the intersectionality between race, class, gender and achievements may align differently between our Singaporean society and the US, no one can deny the emotional toll arising from feelings of unequal treatment. This makes it necessary to embark on discussions relating to the root causes of such turmoil. In this respect, we will agree to the vision of a Singaporean dialogical society as conceptualised by Ambassador Mohammad Alami Musa.

According to scholars Hermans and Hermans-Konopka, a dialogical society is premised on each individual’s reflexive process of self-awareness brought about by interacting with others different from the self. This is in contrast to a layperson’s definition of a “dialogical society”, which points only to the increased facilitation of dialogue among citizens. The former is more complex as it necessitates the application of intrapersonal mechanisms of introspection and subsequent interrogation of the self. This encourages oneself to be more conscious of one’s own mental shortcomings and biases.

We have noticed a worrisome trend of Singaporeans at risk of unreflexive labelling as our community adjusts to accommodate progressively diverse opinions on specific issues. This development mirrors the evolution of a globalised marketplace of ideas and beliefs that expands apace with the cosmopolitanisation of societies. The latter has been unavoidable despite political leaders decrying how the import of foreign ideas are undermining their local societies. For example, when forced to confront the countenance of Western liberalism, France’s politicians and public intellectuals denounced what they see as uncontrollable US’ woke extreme-leftism and cancel culture that had taken root in their country’s socio-political landscape.

Similarly, the Digital Age has enabled discussions to spill onto the online world leading to a deluge of casual yet unstructured conversations on various themes. Once gone viral, remarks on issues relating to race and sexuality by laypeople often outshine grand forums reported on traditional media. The digital world is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, forums, comment sections, parody videos and online community groups’ comment threads across platforms like Reddit, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter have become platforms that democratise information access and provide citizens the opportunity to both flex their communication muscles and exercise reflexivity. This allows for moral sensibilities to be shaped by public reason, and vice versa. On the other hand, digital platforms have also exacerbated clashes among users, which are unfortunately reinforced by algorithms which create echo-chambers that bolster biases and impede reflexivity.

A cursory glance through local online forums and websites tells us that Baby Boomers and Gen Xs are as vocal and present in the cyberworld as are the Millennials and Gen Zs. It tells us that although network access, digital literacy and structural issues are concerns of many countries, the number of digital outcasts in Singapore is actually shrinking; a result of updated school curriculums, numerous campaigns, upskilling programmes and free-for-public digital literacy training packages.

While the current situation raises the need for sustained and open dialogue to mitigate the caustic effects arising from the clash of opinions, here lie some questions: As we welcome the values of a dialogical society, how can we ensure that discussions shed light on society’s blind spots and shortcomings while considering the complexities of age divides, culture, ideology, history and structures of power? What happens when we speak the same language but are mutually unintelligible? The way in which the young and old communicate online already tells us of a communication gap. The writings of the older generation are more formal than the younger digital natives who are more likely to express emotions via text with adaptations made by spelling innovations and capitalisation. The more matured Boomers, for instance, may miss the mocking tone of texts presented through the Gen Z’s utilisation of random capitalisation. The alternate use of text form in the following: “ChiNesE pRiviLege is nOT usEFul aS a coNCept as iT iS…” is intuitively seen by most digital natives as a mockery of the speaker. But digital ‘immigrants’ and ‘outcasts’ who are not familiar with this meme may simply see it as a typo.

In another forum on Soul of the Nation, Professor Audrey Yue remarked that “a culture of communication essentially binds Singapore citizens together”2.The consensus was that a shared culture of communication nurtures the soul of the nation. With this aim in mind, community leaders in Singapore must aspire to helm productive dialogues among people of varying convictions in hopes of uniting them.

It is becoming common for the public to take part in structured dialogues such as town hall meetings and forums with a presupposition that citizens are given space to express their views. These dialogues are conducted with a moderator opening up a predetermined topic of discussion with a panel of experts whose intended function is to inform and advise. The formulaic selection of topics, presence of moderator and panel of experts have become the cornerstone of structured dialogues in Singapore.

The principles behind a dialogical society imply the need to genuinely acknowledge the existence of underlying problems in society before proceeding to come up with ideas to mitigate them. Participants must challenge the inherent antagonisms as they appear in our discourses. Such undertakings also imply that participants must communicate in a manner which is socially acceptable and abide by house rules. Arguably, if done well, structured dialogues provide a conducive environment for citizens to practise public reflexivity, easing the local community into an elevated culture of communication that pre-empts the formation of a dialogical society.

Similarly, in discussing issues surrounding ‘Chinese Privilege’ (we unfortunately will have to use this term until an alternative can be agreed upon), participants must first admit their awareness of discriminatory undertones and structural inequalities in society which marginalise those from minority ethnic groups. First, dialogue participants need to understand that inequality is not shaped or experienced equally by individuals and social groups. Instead of competing to put each other down the way activist Elizabeth Martínez had expressed as ‘Oppression Olympics’3, participants instead need to stand in solidarity with each other. The accepted norm should not only be for minority groups to assimilate themselves into the larger society, but for the majority to take the step forward to empathise and understand potential differences in culture and practice. Individuals and social institutions alike should see value in diversity and meet each other in the middle.

Second, to set the framework for fair discussions, a dialogical society must ensure that the normative standards, which minority groups are measured against, are critically evaluated. For instance, minority rights should not be looked upon as an afterthought of dominant narratives. The Malay-Muslim community is a case in point. Often mistakenly perceived by outsiders as a monolithic entity, the everyday experiences of its individual members should not be generalised as a litmus test of what is ‘backward’ or ‘progressive’ for the entire community. Such perceptions are especially flawed when judged against overly secular and humanistic values of dominant traditions. Articulations should be appropriately applied to the local context and not be simply forced upon in a dialogue.

In conclusion, self-awareness, reflexivity and empathy are excellent tools to cultivate in a dialogical society. By engaging in productive dialogue, problematic assumptions and prickly definitions can be contested leading to he creation of an informed nation. ⬛

1 Sin, Y. Racial and Social Identity Issues Will Pose Constant Challenge: Observers. The Straits Times. 2021, January 15
2 Vignehsa, K., Koh, J., Takano, A., Winslow, M. and Yue, A. Forum 6: Soul of the Nation, of Singapore Perspectives 2021: Reset. Institute of Policy Studies. 2021. Available at:
3 Davis, A., & Martinez, E. Coalition Building Among People of Color. Inscriptions. 1994. pp. 42-53


Dr Shamsuri Juhari is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the National University of Singapore. He specialises in research focusing on Singapore’s Malay-Muslim community.

Aisyah Yusoff is a Research Assistant with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the National University of Singapore. She holds an MPhil in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge.

Amanina Hidayah is a Research Assistant with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the National University of Singapore. She does research on ethnic minority issues, specifically on the Malay-Muslim community, as well as on heritage and culture.

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