A New Tribe for New Geographies: Reasonable People of Goodwill


I am Singaporean, with a half-Indian, half-Eurasian father; a half-Pakistani, half-Malay mother. Dad converted to Islam from Roman Catholicism; each year my brothers and I celebrate Eid ful Fitr, Eid ul Adha and Christmas with different parts of our family. Cousins, aunts and uncles have married outside their ethnicity and faith – to Chinese Christians and Indian Hindus – so the Lunar New Year and Deepavali, the South Indian “Festival of Lights”, are also bustling times.

This interstitial existence, both within and among different ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, has given me more than my fair share of diversity-related stories. Once, I ordered drinks from an Indian stall owner at Newton Circus, a popular food centre in Singapore. I asked in Malay for “tek dua, bandung satu” [two teas and one bandung, a local drink mixing syrup and condensed milk]. The stall owner replied in Tamil. When I said I didn’t speak it, he asked: “Apa macam punya Mama, tak tahu cakap …” [What kind of Indian cannot speak Tamil?], with a look of total disdain. The expectation that people of Indian ethnicity in Singapore speak Tamil is common, given that most Singaporean Indians are Tamil.

On another occasion, I was the Master of Ceremonies at an awards ceremony and was faced with the challenge of pronouncing the sometimes complex names of Tamil recipients. Thankfully, a very patient staff member was willing to walk me through the intricacies of what, in a poem I later wrote about the experience, I described as “rolling l’s and lolling r’s”.

We often hear exhortations to find “unity in diversity”, to manage our differences so they do not become sources of conflict. This is particularly critical in modern cities like multi-religious, multi-ethnic Singapore, which increasingly attract a globally cosmopolitan class of multiple backgrounds, heritages and cultures, all densely-packed into an area slightly smaller than New York City.  

My personal history has often prompted me to wonder how such diversity can be more than managed, but also celebrated and optimized. I suggest some tentative thoughts on three principles that can help individuals and urban societies navigate their respective diversities, encapsulated in the idea that we must all strive to form a new sort of tribe, comprising “reasonable persons of goodwill”.

Reason and Rationality

To succeed, diverse societies, need to be peopled by reasonable individuals who apply logic and vigorous scientific thinking rather than isms and ologies which, unfettered, can precipitate conflict. My family background has made me instinctively aware of this idea since as a child, I knew but could not always articulate how they were at the same time both similar and distinct from my brothers and me.

I first encountered the idea of a reasonable person when, as a first-year undergraduate at Oxford, I listened to Amartya Sen deliver a lecture about the need to apply “Reason before Identity” in making assessments and decisions - similar to what the philosopher Rene Descartes called shining “the natural light of Reason” to situations.

I’ve realised now that being reasonable provides three critical insights. First, each of us, while individual, is also plural, with many interacting identities.

This may seem counterintuitive, given that the term “diversity” is usually applied to mark particular groups from others. Such conceptions of “Us vs Them” can be based on a range of markers: gender, ethnicity, race, religion, language, nation, professional affiliation, tribe, educational background, among others.

However, a less frequently used, but equally resonant, definition of diversity applies within individuals – those like me, with mixed parentage and “hyphenated identities”, or who balance the different aspects of their professional, personal and other identities in a dynamic equilibrium.

Second, an individual’s different identities matter more or less at different times.

Being at work underscores my professional affiliations as a civil servant; going to the mosque on Fridays is a spiritual experience; visiting my paternal grandmother for Christmas is about spending time with family. I recall dressing up as Santa Claus in 2009, because many of my younger nieces and nephews were old enough to appreciate getting presents on Christmas Eve. Was it ironic that a Muslim adopted the garb of a traditional Christmas icon? Perhaps, but it made perfect sense in my head after I reasoned that this was in the spirit of fun, festivity and family.

Identities, like our ethnicity or faith, define us in profound ways, but   their salience varies with situations. Even as our identities interact, Reason helps us keep them conceptually distinct. A similar argument is made in Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence (2006); its telling subtitle suggests that primordial identities like race and religion create “The Illusion of Destiny”, whereas logic tells us that no part of our identity should be tyrannical over all others, no matter how resonant and powerful it may be.

Third, Reason helps us realise that each aspect of our multiple identities generates connections between us and many, if not all, other people.

I feel this particularly strongly when interacting with family on my father’s side. Growing up, my paternal grandmother told me stories from the Old Testament, emphasizing how both the Christian and Muslim segments of our family  celebrate the lives of Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. Recently, when one of Dad’s Catholic aunts passed away, I was reminded of a further similarity, in different faiths’ prayers for the dead. Muslims, many Christians and some of the Hindus in our family hold prayers on the first three days after a funeral, then on the seventh, 40th and 100th days. There is a lattice of shared cultural links between groups of ostensibly different backgrounds, even if our rituals differ.

The Importance of Persons

Applied alone, Reason can come across as cold and clinical. It is therefore useful to temper it by recognising and valuing the person-hood in each individual. This is critical in making us “reasonable persons”, rather than mere automatons applying a Reason-imitating algorithm.

Belief in person-hood is not a new idea. Across a range of belief systems, we find an emphasis on the core of humanity, resident in any individual.  The liberal humanist tradition is one source of this approach, but it can also be justified spiritually in the belief that there is an element of the divine in all of us, like the Christian idea of being made “in the image of God” or the Muslim concept of each person occupying a special position in Creation as God’s vicegerent on Earth.

Belief in individual person-hood is a prerequisite for meaningful reciprocity among people, where one obeys the Golden Rule and “does unto others”. I find an emphasis on person-hood a wonderful antidote to simplistic thinking about people who are ostensibly “different” from us. It would be easy to see some of my non-Indian friends as utterly distinct, or some of my non-Muslim family as irrevocably different. But once I start remembering that they are each unique individuals, not just abstract “Others”, it is easier to embrace fully the many connections we share.

Goodwill and Good Will

Goodwill is also critical for moving beyond toleration to celebrating diversity.  Generally, people reluctantly put up with differences.  Goodwill allows us a richer appreciation of those distinctions. There are different conceptions of such an expanded diversity – America’s “melting pot”, from which the many become one; or the non-assimilationist ‘unity in diversity’ of Singapore and other countries. All rely on a fundamental bedrock of goodwill among peoples, with three important consequences.

First, we learn together what we cannot know alone. This was brought home to me very powerfully, when one participant at a conference asked a Hindu if he worshipped “one or many Gods”. The answer was zen-like in its simple complexity: it does not matter whether is one or are many Gods. What matters is that there is “Only God”. This reminded me that human ideas often pale in comparison to life’s larger truths. Sometimes, deeper understanding of our own beliefs can be suggested by traditions outside our own.

Second, goodwill reminds us to give others the benefit of the doubt.  Others have obligations not to cause offence in speech and action, but each of us also has the prerogative not to take offence. After all, offensive remarks often stem from ignorance rather than malice. We can reply to such ignorance with   information, rather than indignation. Like all ethnic and religious minorities, I have experienced a fair number of awkward situations – being served pork, or invited to drink alcohol, or to eat during daytime during the fasting month of Ramadhan. Not taking take offence is not always easy, but does serve to maintain friendships and creates sometimes risible memories.

The third benefit of goodwill lies in helping build   trust and accommodating differences. Land-scarce Singapore has a quaint practice where the street-level floors of the apartments provided by our Housing and Development Board (HDB) – called void decks – can be leased by residents. They are frequently used for Malay weddings and Chinese funerals – and uncomfortable double-bookings do arise. Often, these have been defused with a little reasoned give-and-take.

Balancing Ideals & Pragmatism

Being reasonable persons of goodwill helps us navigate the choppy and sometimes uncharted waters of diversity. But Reason is neither uniformly nor universally distributed in most societies, so it must be carefully nurtured through education and exposure, rather than left to chance. Even where it is widespread, Reason also has limits, at which points powerful emotions start to come into play.

Rising above these challenges requires not just vision, but healthy realism. Rather than a final destination, it is better to view the navigation of diversity as a journey – where we are all, in the words of a friend who is a Catholic priest, “fellow pilgrims” and part of a tribe with common values, even if we don’t all wear the same outer markings.

Aaron Maniam is a Singaporean Muslim from a large and diverse family. He volunteers with Singapore’s National Youth Council and groups of young leaders in Singapore’s Muslim and Indian communities. He was identified by the Asia Society as an Asia 21 Young Leader in 2006 and a “Next Generation Policy Leader” in 2010.

Photo by AndyLeo@Photography