Diversity by Default

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

Post-conference withdrawal really happens, and I’m all the better for it. As part of the Young Leaders Programme, I recently participated in the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies, with more than a hundred other international delegates coming together beforehand in an UnConference* to explore the common challenges of engaging in interfaith dialogue and fostering diversity. Now that I’ve stepped back into daily life, it’s as if the scales have fallen from my eyes and I cannot help but sense the urgency of building communities that recognise and respect human dignity and diversity today.

I’m guilty of taking diversity for granted, having grown up in a Peranakan family that is racially and religiously diverse. Far from being a theoretical inconvenience, we confront diversity in a practical way every time we meet through the languages we hear spoken, the doctrines we reference, and the foods we serve. Our identities are sui generis - a synthesis of multiple influences - and we’ve done our best to preserve it from being submerged or subsumed into convenient categories. Perhaps for that very reason, I find it hard to identify with or subscribe to the prescribed labels that define our efficient brand of diversity in Singapore. Which leads me to my reflections. They’re not fully formed but are an attempt at making sense of what I experienced at ICCS 2019 in my life and work:

  1. Diversity is default. It is the stuff of life; evolutionary; built into our DNA. It defines what it means to be human. As such, diversity is not simply something to be managed between races or religions. Instead, within any particular race, religion, or category, diversity exists.

  2. Diversity is work-in-progress. I don’t think we can point to any place or period in time and say that the people there achieved a perfect state of diversity and harmony. This is both sobering and liberating.

  3. Respect for human dignity and diversity is best fostered face-to-face, not mediated through a screen. But where people congregate on social media platforms, we need to recognise how our online habits of communicating and filtering content has changed the way we behave offline, and take steps to reverse polarities.

  4. The work of building cohesion is not just a social imperative but a spiritual one. And until all religious groups are able to authentically arrive at their own theological reasoning and response towards respecting diversity, and are able to consistently and coherently articulate this to believers and the rest of society, the work of building cohesion can only move in fits and starts.

In his opening keynote address, King Abdullah II of Jordan recalled the importance of building cohesion together:

"The vast majority of peoples of earth are members of a spiritual community. Each has its own traditions and convictions. But our world religions also have something profound in common - the commandment to show compassion and respect for others...the fact is, to love one’s neighbour is not just an ideal. It is the golden rule that enables all of us to live side by side, to look beyond ourselves, and to achieve what we can only achieve in common."

It all boils down to choice: how I personally respond to someone who looks, sounds, smells, perceives, thinks, feels, works, or prays differently from myself. And how I, in turn, would like others to respond to me. If grappling with this makes me feel uncomfortable, that might be an indication that I’m walking on the right path of compassion, that I need to step out of my comfort zone and sit with the tensions instead of prettifying or cutting off the parts that are troubling.

A moment of realisation occurred in one of the breakout sessions on the topic of those who identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’. It is a growing phenomenon. Delegates shared their experience of encountering young people who felt alienated, disenfranchised, or frustrated with religious groups. Having decided to eschew any particular faith tradition, they instead practice and pursue a sense of the spiritual through meditation and other non-religious activities.

I wonder if dichotomies between belief and practice, doctrine and spirituality, faith and science, work and life, etc, are an expression of a very modern approach to systematising life: we’re taught to break down, make clean distinctions, analyse, and critique in our fields of study, and we apply this approach to areas which were once considered messy wholes. Our religions confront us with uncomfortable realities such as violence, abuses, or hypocrisy that many might find difficult to reconcile with. And who can blame them? But where past believers acknowledged these tensions as part of their faith experience and saw no other choice but to work within their religious groups to bring about justice and peace, present believers may choose to do away with religions altogether by living out their personal spiritual pursuits away from any religious group.

As the conference spilled over into panel discussions and coffee break conversations, I started an experiment collecting diversity-related questions from fellow delegates based on what was salient for them from their countries and contexts of origin. Their questions not only reveal the progress made but the race that still needs to be run.

Which of your identities [race, nationality, religion, etc] do you first use to identify yourself? - Rianne Meurzec, Singapore

Which voices are missing/unheard at ICCS? How do we involve/amplify these voices next time? - Richard Pringle, Birmingham, United Kingdom, The Faith & Belief Forum

Is it fair to say that, unlike [the] European, [the] African perspective(s) has/have been under-represented at this conference? If so, why? - Evi Koumi, London, United Kingdom, The Faith & Belief Forum

What are the sacrifices you made for a cohesive society? - Khairul, Singapore

I'm curious, are the participants [on the] same page [on] interfaith dialogue? - Pandu, Indonesia, Youth Interfaith Community

Do you see any difference between social cohesion and social harmony? - Meiling Chow, Victoria, Australia, Multifaith Multicultural Centre, PLCCA

How can we come out of our bubbles and reach people who don't think like us? - Mikolaj Ciechanowicz, Berlin, Germany, German Foundation for Integration

Imagine a model society - what would that look like to you? - Ow Yeong Wai Kit, Singapore, Explorations into Faith

Were there ever any social cohesion initiatives in Singapore which failed? - Evi Koumi, London, United Kingdom, The Faith & Belief Forum

These post-conference reflections are a start. I plan to continue collecting questions like these, and welcome your contributions here. But more importantly, I hope to bring together these questions in a deck (tentatively titled Diversity by Default?) to stoke conversations between now and the next conference about what unity in diversity can look like. Taking inspiration from Evi’s question, I’m intrigued by how a compendium on social cohesion initiatives that failed can help us become better at fostering diversity. Failure is a great teacher; I’d rather learn from it than bury it.

I deliberately chose not to begin my reflection with a wordy definition of what diversity or cohesion means. Instead, I’m curious to hear what you think:

  1. What does respecting diversity look like?

  2. Share an experience of being respected/disrespected on account of your race/religion.

  3. Who would you most like to speak to to find out more about fostering diversity and cohesion?

* "An UnConference is any event where the agenda is set by those who attend. The rules of an un-conference are simple:

Rule #1: Whoever shows up are the right people

Rule #2: Whatever happens is fine

Rule #3: Whenever it starts is the right time

Rule #4: It is over when it’s over

In less flowery language this just means ditch expectation and don’t try to control the experience."

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