You Can’t Have One Without the Other: The Dangers of Decoupling Diversity and Inclusion

At the end of the Malaysian Peninsula lies an island. In ancient times it was known as Lion City, or Singapura in the native Malay language. In the early 1800s, the British Empire chose this island to be their main port in the region. It was ideally placed to funnel Asian riches via the East India Trading Company back to the motherland. The British acquired the island from the native Malays under Britain’s trademark murky imperialist methods. Sign here, give us sovereignty, we’ll protect you, wink wink. Or else.

After colonization, the island’s population quickly grew from a few thousand Malays to include thousands of Chinese immigrants who came to work on gambier and pepper plantations. Singapura became known, in English, as Singapore. Fast forward to 2019 — this island city-state had the second highest population density in the world. 5.7 million people reside on 280 square miles. Ethnic Chinese dominance remains the status quo at 76% of the population, while Malays represent 15% of the population, followed by Indians at 7.5%.

Singapore’s path to becoming an independent country in 1965 was rocky. The Japanese successfully invaded Singapore during World War II and left the island war-ravaged by the time they surrendered in 1945. Singaporeans needed to rebuild and decide on a path forward. Gaining their sovereignty back from Britain in 1959 was just the beginning. Leadership needed to right colonial wrongs, balance power amongst an ethnically diverse populace and choose an economic system to create stability. Their initial decision to merge with the neighboring Malaysian government proved disastrous.

Violent ethnic conflict between Malays and Chinese shook Singapore in 1964. As a result of irreconcilable differences, Malaysia and Singapore separated. To prevent any future division along ethnic faultlines, the newly independent Singaporean government decided to implement policies in an effort to foster peace. These included: an integrated educational system, the bilingual policy, the Internal Security Act and resettling people in integrated new public housing developments. These interventionist policies aimed to create a multicultural state where everyone was treated equally. Diversity is enforced by law. Each public housing block is a representative ethnic microcosm of the country as a whole. Unlike public housing in the United States, which is seen as marginal and undesirable, four out of five people live in Singapore’s public housing. It is the norm, not the exception.

On the surface, Singapore’s policies might seem overwhelmingly successful. Violent crime is rare. The country is ranked as third least corrupt in the world. In 2017, Singapore elected its first female president, Halimah Yacob, who is Malay. Singapore changed the constitution to ensure racial rotation in the presidency. If the presidents had been of the same race for five consecutive terms, the next one had to be of a different race. That allowed Yacob to win in 2017. However, when you look beyond symbolic diversity metrics, daily life for Singapore’s minority Malay population is not equal to that of the majority Chinese.

In 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism and Racial Discrimination Githu Muigai visited Singapore to understand how the country’s minority populations were faring. Researcher Hussin Mutalib summarized Muigai’s observations for the Asian Survey Journal:

“Malay students were not moving in tandem with the rest of the student population; Malays encountered “difficulties and stereotypes” in the employment sector and were under-represented in senior positions in the military, police, intelligence services and the judiciary; because of “historical inequalities…special measures within clearly defined timelines” should be pursued to assist Malays to improve their educational plight within the meritocratic system.”

Muigai recognized the great progress that Singapore’s policies made in terms of racial harmony, but stressed that these policies also created blindspots that needed to be discussed and addressed. He explains, “while there may be no institutionalised racial discrimination in Singapore, several policies have further marginalized of certain ethnic groups.” Strict meritocracy entrenches racial groups in defined socio-economic hierarchies. Chinese as the rich, educated and powerful while Malay as the poor and less educated working class. The colonial legacy lives on despite laudable policy efforts. Trying to create racial unity by ticking the diversity box with integrated housing policies misses the key ingredient for progress — inclusion.

Researchers Bourke and Dillon found that high diversity without the necessary puzzle piece of inclusion can actually cause performance to decline. However, when both diversity and inclusion conditions are high, the researchers found an 80% increase in performance in three large Australian manufacturing, retail and healthcare companies. More specifically, there was an 83% increase in ability to innovate, 31% increase in responsiveness to changing customer needs and a 42% increase in team collaboration. This finding could be useful to help improve the situation of the Malay Singaporeans, which the Singaporean government is trying to do.

Yet, out of fear of ethnic conflict, Singapore’s government suppresses or ignores minority voices that demand better treatment. Singapore’s Internal Security Act grants executive powers against actions that “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or other classes of the population likely to cause violence.” The UN Special Rapporteur on Racism and Racial Discrimination Githu Muigai stressed the need for Singapore to ease these restrictions to allow for free speech and free assembly. Singapore is classified as a ‘partly free’ in terms of political and civil liberties.

This tactic of quashing minority voices is detrimental to the country’s overall progress. Moving forward, they could apply inclusion research findings to create more nuanced policies that allow for dissent and adapt to minorities’ needs. These efforts to cultivate inclusion would lead to leaps in individual, and therefore overall, performance. As Bourke and Dillon poetically note about their findings “it’s a beautiful story of collective intelligence, driven by diverse ideas which are set free through inclusive behaviours.”

France, in contrast to Singapore, does not collect racial data. It is illegal to do so. The government believes in a universalist, colorblind system to foster societal cohesion. Everyone is the same and should be treated as such, goes their thinking. France shares Singapore’s aim of societal togetherness but uses the opposite approach. Instead of exploring differences amongst France’s increasingly diverse immigrant populace, the government suppresses and condemns discussion of those differences. Yet there are different racial realities for French citizens. Black people in France occupy fewer positions of power than in the United States, reports the New York Times. One of France’s top anti-racism activists, Rokhaya Diallo, says that growing up in France “the only positive images of Black people that I saw came from the United States.”

In the wake of the racial justice movement’s renaissance in the United States, similar protests and conversations sparked in France. However, top French officials and academics brushed these issues aside and chalked them up to the dangerous Americanization of a formerly unified French culture. Diversity is an American “concept” not welcome in France. This sentiment is inclusion gone way overboard. France’s situation is further evidence of the pitfalls that occur when diversity and inclusion are implemented as separate strategies.

Thought Leaders in the field of Inclusive Diversity