By Gemma Keogh Peters

“We have been fortunate that 50 years ago our leaders had the foresight to deal with this problem without being clouded by ideology. They were practical, they were focused and their ideology was ‘we want everybody to be together’, which is a noble ideology.”

These were the words of Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs, K Shanmugam, as he addressed the Singapore parliament on October 3rd 2017. He was talking about Singapore’s long standing commitment to creating a multi-racial society that could also see itself as “one people, one nation, one Singapore.”

Diversity is now at the forefront of the conversation on hiring practices. On November 2017, the European Commission announced a quota system requiring a minimum of 40% representation of women on company boards. Corporations are beginning to see the value of filling their own quotas, as well as implementing effective Inclusion and Diversity policies. But within the discussion on diversity also lies a discourse of division that infects our politics, our universities and our lives. Never has there been such a time for quality dialogue and greater harmony from opposing sides to bring about a more unified solution to our problems.

History and the lessons of others is always a great starting point.

Singapore is widely known as one of the safest, most cosmopolitan countries in the world. It has a diverse population of races, cultures and religions all living together in harmony. It is a country where as a woman, I feel safe when out running in the dark and don’t feel scared as I do when I walk alone elsewhere in the world. Yet the country did not start out this way.

Post colonial Singapore had many problems. Record high unemployment (over 40%), political turmoil, and racial tension all contributed to a difficult start for the fledgling independent nation. The tensions turned into violence and blood on the streets as riots broke out. Many people were targeted and killed based on the colour of their skin. Chinese killed Malays and vice-versa. Post-colonial resentment also lead to incidents of Caucasians being targeted and killed on the street.

Back then, the colonial authorities urged Singapore to restore order through the use of force. The Singapore government disagreed. They felt the use of force would be counterproductive, that it would drive a deeper wedge between the people and create even greater resentment. After years of being under the thumb of the colonial hegemony, Singapore’s leaders understood that the people were angry because they felt they were being treated unfairly. They felt like they didn’t have a voice. The path to peace was not through more oppression. It was through dialogue. That the people needed their voices to be heard, for all their voices to be heard.

In 1964 it was the People’s Action Party (P.A.P.), an ethnically diverse political party that was voted into office. It was their philosophy that in order for Singapore to survive and thrive, the nation of many races, religions and cultures had to see themselves as one united people. Singaporeans.

To that end, the government adopted some policies that were seen to be controversial at the time.

As the nation grew in prosperity, the government noted an emerging problem. Spatially, Singaporeans were self-organising into impromptu ethnic enclaves. It was a perfectly natural occurrence, but when it comes to creating and maintaining a cohesive multiracial nation, this unconscious human behaviour was determined to lead to undesirable outcomes.

As ethnicities begin to silo themselves geographically, they also silo themselves culturally. They create stronger “in group” affiliations and begin to view those unlike them as an “outgroup”. To prevent this situation from growing out of hand the P.A.P. took advantage of Singapore’s housing policies.


Most Singaporeans live in government built public housing.

So in 1989 the government implemented the Ethnic Integration Policy, requiring every public housing district to have an ethnic quota that is reflective of the different races of the country. Would be residents could only buy an apartment if that district was still within the quota limits for their race. What the government wanted was, if not intermingling then, for members of other races and cultures to, at least, be a common place sight for all Singaporeans.

As important to what they did, is what they did not do. At the time of implementation, several districts were already heavily ethnically slanted. Not wanting to create an uproar, the government did not forcibly remove residents. Instead it simply left the quota restrictions in place and added a caveat: off quota purchases could only be done if both the buyer and seller were of the same race. This prevented the spatial distribution issue from growing, without unduly affecting a home-owner’s ability to sell. While Singapore’s quota policy is not perfect, it is effective. Not only is Singapore a very safe place to live, it ranks in the top three around the world in terms of talent.

“…we found that companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams—not only with respect to absolute representation but also of variety or mix of ethnicities—are 33 percent more likely to outperform their peers on profitability…companies in the fourth quartile on both gender and ethnic diversity are more likely to underperform their industry peers financially.”

Diversity Matters 2015, McKinsey & Company

What the Singaporean leadership understands about fostering diversity, is that it is a… Click to Tweet

“Successful diversity programmes have clear objectives and are led from the top (not just the CEO, but the entire top team). They foster active involvement from the wider organization and require the infrastructure to actively manage against targets (not quotas) to hold individuals accountable for outcomes.”

Diversity Matters 2015, McKinsey & Company

Just as Singapore’s commitment to diversity starts with the government, the McKinsey study revealed that implementing effective Inclusion & Diversity policies starts with a company’s leadership. Without representation at the decision making level, any effort to recruit a more diverse workforce, be it women or ethnic minorities, will meet with tremendous difficulties. It is something I have seen firsthand and it is a sobering look at the power of unconscious bias.

“I think unconscious bias is one of the hardest things to get at.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Unconscious bias is so embedded a heuristic that we simply cannot see it for ourselves. Think of it like an accent. It’s never noticeable until someone else notices it. And it is never noticeable within one’s “in group”. Back home in Manchester, most people don’t think I have an accent, yet my Mancunian (North Western, English) accent is obvious to everyone when I’m in Singapore. Similar to the way we learn our accents, we learn our unconscious biases from the people we are surrounded with: our family, our friends, the people we interact with daily. And like accent reduction, working on unconscious bias takes training, practice, and exposure.

Quotas are an imperfect, but important first step because the change starts with the people we are surrounded with. However, without serious commitment and proper oversight, unconscious biases can easily break down any real effort at improving diversity within a company. The change will be an uncomfortable, even painful process, until you get used to it. That is because our unconscious biases affect more than our recruiting decisions, they affect our entire world view.

“The air is the only place free from prejudice.” – Bessie Coleman

The internet broke down the physical borders between all the world’s people. It allowed people an unprecedented ability to connect with anyone, any place, instantly. It offered tremendous freedom in that regard, in the beginning. As the new technology and the market matured, however, natural human tendencies took over. People began to silo themselves within specific “in groups”. This drive is so powerful that companies took notice and created matching algorithms to enable it with the aim of more effectively monetising content. Social media, it turns out, is both a blessing and a curse.

The #MeToo movement has given women the courage to speak out against sexual harassment by talking about their own experiences, sharing them with other women, and saying “you are not alone”. In a world where many women hide their experiences, due to fear, shame, misplaced guilt, or social pressure, it took courage to talk about these things. It took courage to stand together and this public discourse on sexual harassment was important for men too. It opened their eyes to how ubiquitous sexual harassment is to women, and started an important dialogue about the topic.

However it is also now being used as a banner to launch attacks on men, whether out of frustration or political expediency. Women become the “in-group” and men become the “out-group” of homogeneous Harvey Weinstein’s who deserve nothing more than derision and disdain. That such a shift can happen so quickly and easily is something we have to acknowledge and address.

Despite the strides it has made in fostering harmony, even Singapore is not immune from the growing divisions in the world today.

That is because division is diversity, with fangs. In Chinese Taoist philosophy, harmony is represented by the Taijitu: an image of contradictory opposites–female and male, dark and light–which complement each other. Each side also having an element of the other.

Division seeks to separate the two, to see the black and the white as different, incompatible and undesirable. Diversity is to see the difference as part of a larger whole, attuned and in balance when neither side overwhelms the other.

Diversity isn’t about winning. It’s about win-win.

It is a lesson that Singapore learnt over 50 years ago. Creating a unified Singapore was not about blending the black and white it into a single, homogenous grey. It was about respecting each group’s cultural identity, each culture’s approach to life. It was about seeing those differences as a heterogenous whole and maintaining balance.

“Set realistic goals, keep re-evaluating, and be consistent.” Venus Williams

To seek to eliminate prejudice is a lofty and idealistic goal, but it is precisely that idealism that can lead us astray. Too often it becomes about forcing our own prejudices onto others. As we #PressForProgress let us be sure not to lose our way and instead of seeking to eliminate prejudice, focus on overcoming the imbalances brought about by it.