Integration, S'pore style: A mix of laws and social norms

Integration, S'pore style: A mix of laws and social norms
Illustration for the article "Integration, S’pore style: A mix of laws and social norms"

The massacre of cartoonists, editors, writers and staff of Charlie Hebdo, and the subsequent targeted killings in the kosher supermarket and of police officers caused me to think hard about managing diversity in general and Singapore in particular.

What happened in the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan 7 triggered off heated discussions in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.

Yes, they were terrible murderous acts of terrorists in the name of religion, and as acts of terrorism must be condemned and are condemned. Many Muslims reiterate that this is not what Islam teaches or represents. They are deeply dismayed and angry at the repeated insults of their Prophet and religion.

How should one think about the Charlie Hebdo incident? What is the issue at stake here? In the multitude of articles that were published in the following weeks, there were broadly two kinds of reactions.

The first says: The issue is about free speech and free speech is an absolute right.

This is what democracy is about. The unity march of millions in Paris joined by world leaders was a demonstration that people who espouse this view, uphold the principle unequivocally.

But I suspect a few of the leaders who marched were taking a stand against terrorism rather than free speech, in effect suggesting that no matter how insulting the message, it did not justify the violent and brutal attacks.

The second type of reaction says: While free speech is an important right, respect for the religion of others is a no less important virtue. In fact, if a democracy believes in freedom of religion, that freedom must be supported by respect for the religion of others and tolerance. It follows that there must be some reasonable constraints on free speech, such as not wilfully mocking, insulting or humiliating another religion.

In the United States, there is greater sensitivity about political correctness in universities and in the media. This puts a curb on absolute free speech. Respected New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that a satirical magazine like Charlie Hebdo would never be published on any American university campus. On US campuses where political correctness reigns, anti-Semitic, racist, and anti-black comments are not just frowned upon, speakers can be shouted out of a classroom.

One has to be careful with sexist remarks about women too, which is a good thing. Professors and journalists have lost jobs for uttering the inappropriate statement. Professor Larry Summers had to step down from his post as president of Harvard after making remarks at a Boston conference in 2005 that suggested under-representation of women in science was due to "innate differences" between men and women. His remarks triggered a firestorm. Social norms set the constraints.

The Financial Times interviewed nine Muslim-French people from the Paris and Lyon region recently and found them hurt, depressed and resigned about their situation and future. There are media reports that as many as 10,000 French Jews are expected to leave for Israel this year, many citing rising anti-Semitism in Europe.

What is the impact of Charlie Hebdo in Singapore?

Response in Singapore

My own sense is that with the majority of the population, there was shock at the terrorist murders, but not much discussion.

Among the Singapore Muslim population, there was a great deal of discussion in the mosques and on social media, which is still ongoing. Singapore Muslims are angry at the utter disrespect for the religion of others demonstrated in Charlie Hebdo and the double standards of the West. They are quite disturbed that another cartoon was published again of the Prophet which was just as unacceptable.

On the scale of one to 10, the few Muslim leaders I spoke to rated the anger of the community as eight. They liked what Pope Francis said (that one cannot provoke and insult the faith of others) because he showed understanding. The Muslim leaders I spoke to said Muslims wanted to express their anger in the open but did not do so because they did not want to be misunderstood by Singaporeans or the authorities.

Reflecting on the fragility of religious and ethnic relations in France today, I have always held the view that integration is not a condition one can take for granted. It is not as if a society can cross the bar to become an integrated society, and then that integration cannot be undone or frayed. A society or country can become more integrated or less integrated depending on the circumstances and context. Integration is something that must be worked on continuously.

Singapore adopted the right strategy from the start when our leaders declared we would treat every race, language and religion as equal. This is independent Singapore's founding principle. We opted for integration of the different ethnic and religious groups.

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