Monday 26 October 2015

Encourage civic friendship for social harmony

By Adrian Kwek, Published The Sunday Times, 25 Oct 2015

The theme for this year's SG50 celebrations is the celebration of our diversity as a nation. The fact that Singapore has been successful in achieving social harmony and integration despite our differences in race and faith is not something to be taken for granted. It is the result of both an astute balancing of government policies and the awareness of the need for tolerance among different groups.

No doubt, our harmony demands a mindful forbearance. At a recent SG50 book launch, Professor Tommy Koh advised: "We should grow a culture of tolerance. We can have different attitudes towards issues, without seeing each other as enemies."

Can tolerance for one another be enough to ensure that we continue to embrace our differences and thrive peacefully? When we recite the National Pledge as "one united people regardless of race, language or religion", the unity must be grounded on more than tolerance. This is because tolerance, even with the best intentions, can go awry.

In a society like ours where multiracial and multi-religious groups live in close proximity to one another, one community's beliefs and practices can easily grate against the sensitivities of another. In recent years, we have witnessed the fervent expression of divided views on issues such as homosexuality, non-traditional family structures, proselytising, and even cultural practices like void deck weddings and funerals, and the smell of our neighbour's curry.


In June last year, the application for a permit to build a mosque in Bendigo, a city in Victoria, Australia, resulted in heated debate on terrorism, crime, depressed property value and Islamic rules. The city councillors voted overwhelmingly in favour of building the mosque. However, Mr Mohamad Tabbaa, who for two years was the media spokesman for the Islamic Council of Victoria, remarked wryly about the reasons for the favourable votes: "One tolerates their neighbour's barking dog. One tolerates long lines at the bank or the cashier. In short, one tolerates the inconvenient and annoying. One does not tolerate a peer or equal; tolerance is by no means equality. In this bind, Muslims are always positioned as outsiders, not equal counterparts."

There are three ways in which tolerance can be negatively perceived by those who are being tolerated. They may think that society is indifferent to them, patronising them, or even treating them as a means to its ends. The problem with tolerance is that at its most superficial level, it can result in a diverse society that appears harmonious on the outside, but is in fact festering inter-community resentment that can chisel fault lines beneath the surface.

The United Nations Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (1995) states: "Tolerance is not concession, condescension or indulgence. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others."

However, even in the name of "love" and "respect", tolerance as a way of putting up with one another may still not withstand the test of trials. This is because it is hard to engender love as an intimate emotion with genuine care and concern for fellow citizens outside of our social and family circles. Respect for the rights of others can be exercised flippantly, disdainfully or instrumentally.

Aristotle famously claimed that justice is not complete without friendship. The friendship in question is civic friendship. The philosopher Sibyl Schwarzenbach writes that civic friendship, unlike other forms of friendship where there is knowledge of each other's life and a close emotional bond, is one in which the friends are concerned for each other, render help to each other and have goodwill for each other solely for the other person's sake. Such a friendship gives us a reason to tolerate without being indifferent, patronising or having an ulterior motive.

Civic friendship can only come about if we first value every person's intrinsic worth and recognise that respect for a person's beliefs and practices is derived from respect for his intrinsic worth, not the other way around. Based on this, care and concern for another is possible outside of intimate bonds.

So does civic friendship exist in Singapore? Several incidents that happened in just one month this year suggested so. Someone stood up for a teenager who was verbally harassed on the MRT. A stranger volunteered to speed a woman in labour to the hospital and she eventually gave birth in his car. In yet another case, many people rallied to lift a truck off someone who was trapped under it.


In each incident, strangers were involved; there was no emotional intimacy or loving relationship to speak of. Instead, there was plausibly a genuine concern for the well-being of the party being helped.

We can encourage and cultivate more civic friendship in Singapore in three practical ways. First, religious authorities can emphasise aspects of their moral doctrines that affirm civic friendship based on every person's intrinsic worth, whether or not the person belongs to the faith. Given that according to the 2010 census, 83 per cent of Singaporeans have a religion, the influence of such religious and moral teachings cannot be underestimated.

Second, in schools, many everyday virtues that we already teach can be used to demonstrate civic friendship. For example, good sportsmanship requires us to have care and concern for our competitors despite the fact that they are strangers who have just defeated us, rather than extending care and concern only if it can help us win at some future point. To a student who already values good sportsmanship, this distinction can forcefully convey and inculcate civic friendship.

Third, raise the profile and number of volunteer community mediators with the Ministry of Law's Community Mediation Centres. The encouragement and training of mediation skills such as objective communication and understanding of the other's point of view can contribute to civic friendship in Singapore.

Dr Adrian Kwek is a lecturer at SIM University.

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