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 religiou