Interrogating multiculturalism

Feb 2016    

In June 2011, I wrote an article for The Straits Times on multiculturalism in Singapore at the invitation of The United Nations Alliance of Civilisation. In the article, I argued that the Government’s approach has succeeded in fostering social cohesion in multi-racial Singapore. I suggested that the Singapore model could provide insights on how the West could address some of the conundrums it is experiencing with state multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism is no doubt one of the defining features of Singapore history and society. Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, is right to identify multiculturalism as one of the ‘soft powers’ of the nation- state, together with leadership and governance.

The Bible provides a number of powerful pictures of cultural diversity. For example, in Revelation 7:9 (ESV), we have the wonderful portrayal of the multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” praising God in the new creation.

Ethnic and cultural diversity are not the result of human rebellion and sin. They are part of God’s good creation, an expression of the inexhaustible originative genius of the Creator. Cultural diversity should therefore be celebrated.

Undergirding this great diversity is a profound unity. The story of the creation of Adam and Eve underscores the fact that human beings from every race and culture share the same genetic ancestry. And, as Genesis 1:26 makes clear, all human beings are created in the image of God and are thus equally valued and loved by their Creator.

The Incarnation brings out the importance of our shared humanity and the value of cultural and ethnic identity in a way that is at once profound and elegant. In taking up our humanity, the eternal Son of God affirmed its goodness and value. And in coming as a Jew in the Incarnation, the Son underscores the significance of ethnic identity.

Human rebellion and sin, however, has distorted and perverted the unity and diversity of the human race in grave and destructive ways.

Firstly, it introduced enmity and mutual suspicion into cultural diversity, fracturing human relationships and turning ethnic identity into an idolatrous ethnocentricity. Secondly, as the story of the Tower of Babel indicates, it promoted a false unity that is in fact a species of tyrannical totalitarianism.

Sin can also corrupt our philosophies and practices of multiculturalism, causing them to be short-sighted, parochial and alienating.

Multiculturalism could easily be hijacked by postmodern relativism that insists that morality is relative to particular cultures. Such moral relativism, when mixed with the rhetoric of tolerance and a penchant for political correctness, could foster the belief that members of one culture have no right to make judgements about the practices of another culture or tradition.

In some cases, even legitimate observations or criticisms could lead to charges of racism, Islamophobia or homophobia. For example, Thilo Sarrazin was asked to step down from his position on the board of the Deutsche Bundesbank for writing a book that criticised Muslim immigrants for refusing to integrate into German society.

Here then is the unsettling irony: Imbued with moral relativism, multiculturalism can become an extremely intolerant ideology.

Multiculturalism could also promote a species of irrationalism and a naïve emotionalism that can unleash chaos in public life and may prove detrimental to social stability. By substituting slogans – “racism”, “intolerance”, “Islamophobia”, and “homophobia” – for rigorous thought, multiculturalism could induce a subtle but destructive intellectual and moral stupor.

Multiculturalism may sometimes use the language of “cultural rights” to legitimise traditional practices even though they violate the dignity of certain members of the community. Female genital mutilation, which is practised in certain Asian and North and Central African countries as well as immigrant groups and which is deemed demeaning and unethical by many, is a case in point.

On its own, multiculturalism appears quite incapable of resolving the conflict between “cultural rights” and universal rights.

Finally, multiculturalism could lead to the radical insularisation of individual ethnic communities that may cause societies to become fractured, fragmented and divisive.

This is largely the problem with multiculturalism in Europe, which led Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the former French President Nicholas Sarkozy to declare it an “utter failure”. David Cameron hit the nail on the head when he said that state multiculturalism in Europe has not worked because it has “failed to provide a vision of society”.

Instead of engendering a more inclusive society, multiculturalism can foster a segregating parochialism that alienates communities from each other and from the rest of society.

Multiculturalism is about acknowledging, respecting and celebrating our cultural differences and particularities. But it should also be about how we must transcend these particularities in order that we may build our common life together.

 Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor to the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity (


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