When Barack Obama first won the presidency in 2008, the world celebrated a truly historic achievement: the election of the first African American President of the United States. I remember watching it from my home back in Singapore, and marveling at the moment. By the fact of its sheer size and influence on the global economy, international politics and academia, the U.S. draws the attention and curiosity of people around the world. Even in Singapore, the average person takes a far greater interest in America's history and politics than those of most other countries. So I watched Obama take his place behind the podium and begin his acceptance speech by saying, "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."
It was an inspiring moment. I remember being in awe of how far America had come—from when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and called for a reclamation of the American dream for scores of African Americans, to Obama being sworn in as the country’s first Black president. That such deep and significant progress could be made, even in the midst of a global economic crisis, gave me tremendous hope for the future.
That moment was twelve years ago. I don't know if Obama lived up to everything that was hoped of him. Honestly, I don't know if anybody could have. But I'm writing about this now, because in that particular moment in history, Obama was right:
"It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled — Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of red states and blue states; we are, and always will be, the United States of America."
- President-Elect Barack Obama, November 4th, 2008
America is an immigrant country, largely made up of people who have crossed land and sea to arrive at its shores in hopes of a better life. In this respect, America is a melting pot of different cultures, perspectives, histories, values and visions of the ideal society. I had always admired the American ability to combine diversity and difference with progress and prosperity. In Singapore, we are always told that we are a small boat, subject to the turbulent waves of the world; so our only defense is our agility. You cannot steer a boat quickly and effectively if people are always fighting for the wheel. Therefore, we accept harmony and unity as our priorities and look unkindly upon forces that could disturb the peace. What we give up in return is the celebration of diversity and respect for individuality. We preach racial tolerance and religious harmony, discourage political dissent and curtail civil liberties, in exchange for the promise of prosperity for all. The message is, “Keep your head down, and you will be rewarded with a gilded life.” It is an attractive premise to be sure. However, like the citizens of Omelas, deep down we know that someone is paying the price, be it those who fall through the cracks in a highly unequal society, or racial and other minorities who face discrimination.
I left Singapore in 2012 to study in the United States at a liberal arts college on the East Coast. There, I marveled at the activism on campus—the protests of the LGBTQ community when Rick Santorum was invited to speak, and the snaking line of students in support of Aung San Suu Kyi's fight for Myanmar's democracy. I was also faced with questions about Singapore: "Protesting is illegal? Then how do you get the government to do what you want?" Or "Chewing gum is illegal? That seems extreme!" I found myself defending my country's policies. I’d say, "Well protesting is technically not illegal; you can apply for a permit to hold a protest in a designated area, and there are other means of giving feedback on government policies that are less disruptive"; and "Well technically you can chew gum, but you can't sell it. Singaporeans don't really have a habit of chewing gum and the streets are better off without it." As someone who sees herself as an advocate for more opposition voices in parliament and greater civil liberties in Singapore, it was a strange and somewhat uncomfortable position to be in. I began to realize that systems of democracy need to be understood within their specific cultural contexts.
I returned to the U.S. for graduate school in late 2019. This past year, I’ve felt like I’ve been in the middle of a maelstrom. Politics in the U.S. seems more polarized than ever. Indeed, by some studies, Americans have rarely been as divided as they are today. Protests over racial injustice broke out across the country in all 50 states, while others argue that the fracturing of society along distinct identity groups is undermining unity. There is an increasing distrust in mainstream media as media sources tell different versions of the truth. And “cancel culture” and its effects on free speech are fervently debated.
At 55 years old, Singapore stands much younger than America's almost 250 years. Yet, the U.S. and Singapore share many similarities: a multicultural society with a dominant majority race, and the firm belief in meritocracy and capitalism as organizing principles of society. Both countries shy away from the comprehensive welfare systems seen in the social democracies of the Nordic countries and most of western Europe. Both countries are grappling with clashes between liberal progress and traditional values.
As such, in many ways, the U.S. serves as both a positive and negative model to younger democracies—such as Singapore—as we grapple with similar issues. It is easy to look at the divisiveness America faces today, and the violence and unrest that occurred in some parts of the country, and conclude that it is better to avoid such controversial and potentially polarizing discussions in favor of peace and unity. Fear that America’s ‘culture wars’ were being imported into Singapore has also influenced how Singaporeans view and talk about rights and freedoms.
In the run up to the Singapore elections in July this year, the Worker's Party (the main opposition party) candidate, Raeesah Khan, came under fire when a member of the public alleged that a Facebook post by Khan was postulating that the legal system favors the ethnic Chinese majority and Christians and that the system promoted enmity between different groups on the grounds of race or religion. The responses to the incident were varied, with Singaporeans mainly split into two camps. #IStandWithRaeesah began trending on Twitter in Singapore, and supporters argued that Khan was merely highlighting the systemic racism and discrimination against minorities. Khan’s supporters asserted that investigations against her comments were unwarranted, and she was being unfairly silenced for speaking out against racial inequalities. On the other hand, detractors argued that casting aspersions on the integrity of the judiciary undermines trust in public institutions and the rule of law. They accused Khan of being influenced by external socio-political narratives, and harmfully projecting America’s fault lines onto Singapore.
Watching the developments in the U.S. and Singapore, I am reminded that democracy is always a work in progress, and that the march towards justice and equality is often messy and rarely linear. Having grown up in Singapore where protests are rare and violence in the streets is practically unheard of, watching the unrest that unfolded in the U.S. made me deeply uncomfortable. However, amidst this discomfort, it was clear to me that America’s movement for racial justice was driving progressive change in a way Singapore can learn from. Across the board there was a reckoning within institutions and society: police reforms have been announced by several cities across the U.S., corporations have made steps to increase diversity and inclusivity, and schools are updating their curricula to include more diverse authors, histories, and subjects, as well as specifically anti-racist teachings. To dismiss the campaigns that secured these reforms or to shy away from activism on the basis that such campaigns are ‘disruptive’ would be to turn a blind eye to injustices in society. Ultimately, while messy, democracy has shown to be the crucible through which progress can be made.
Singapore has come a long way in its democratic development. In 2020, a record number of total candidates contested in the General Elections in the country, and record numbers of female candidates and opposition members entered Parliament. Raeesah Khan became the first female Malay opposition candidate to win a parliamentary seat. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Workers' Party leader Pritam Singh would be designated the official Leader of the Opposition, thereby allowing the opposition to formally access staff support and resources to perform their role. This move was unprecedented, and represented a recognition of the desire for greater diversity in Parliament and a more robust democracy in Singapore.
As Singapore continues to grow democratically, it is my hope that the discussions that came up in the Singapore 2020 elections and the increasing diversity in parliament will crack a window open for us to engage meaningfully with sensitive topics: economic inequality, racial inequity and the tension between progressive and religious values. I hope that we do not shy away from engaging with people who think differently from us and continue to hold space for them in their telling of personal beliefs and experiences. I hope that as we look to more developed democracies for inspiration, we will learn from the best parts of their society–the political vitality, the deep ownership they feel over their country and the respect for freedom of speech—while charting our own path and finding language specific to our contexts. Singapore does not share America’s historical legacy in slavery that underscores racial tensions in the U.S., nor the socio-economic structures that divide this country along rural-urban lines. In the absence of a two party system and within the context of a far more communitarian society, the “left” and “right” mean different things in Singapore’s context, as does “liberalism” vs “conservatism.” Perhaps our relative youth as a nation and a democracy means that we get to define these discussions on our own terms and decide how we engage on these topics. In doing so, as we have done in the spheres of economy and foreign policy, we can carve out our own model of democracy that combines the best tenants of freedom of speech, grants minorities and underprivileged communities the space to fight against injustice, and advances a more equitable society—while still maintaining the values that Singaporeans commonly hold dear.
As for the United States, my hope is this – that as you negotiate the differences inherent in your nation’s diversity, you will do so in good faith, grounded in your shared humanity and love for the country. We have seen how divided a nation can become when those who are different from us are painted to be an alien “other”, as a threat to all we hold dear and a caricature of fanatical beliefs. Joe Biden’s election as the 46th President of the United States of America can be seen as a repudiation of Trump’s divisive politics, but how close the race was suggests that the true test of the strength of America’s democracy will be how well Americans can reach across political divides and come together as a nation moving forward. Perhaps I am being idealistic, but I truly believe that America is a place where all things are possible, where the arc of history will continue to bend towards justice, and America will prove that its exceptionalism lies in the power of its democracy and its ability to be a beacon of progress for younger democracies around the world.