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September 2021 Pulse

‘We made a conscious determination to be multiracial, multi-religious, and that no one would be squatted upon on account of racial or religious beliefs. That commitment to our people will not waver … We should not allow it to waver, and we must update our laws to make sure that we keep to that commitment.’

These words were spoken by Home Affairs and Law Minister, K. Shanmugam, at a forum on religion, extremism and identity politics organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the Ministry of Home Affairs on 24 July 2019. The context was a discussion on the proposed amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which was enacted in 1990.

The commitment that the minister spoke about is important because, according to Mathew Mathews and Melvin Tay of IPS, ‘Singapore, being an open and highly-connected society is by no means immune to foreign religious influences.’

Our minister and researchers are of course right. In a globalised world, Singapore cannot be insulated or immunised from identity politics and the polarisations they may ignite. In fact, the multi-religious and multi-cultural nature of our society makes us more vulnerable to the negative and harmful influences that hail from elsewhere.

But what is identity politics? In what ways can identity politics be harmful to the social fabric of a nation? And how can the Christian social ethic, which emphasises love of neighbour and commitment to the common good, address the problem of politicising identities?

The Question of Identities

On the surface, the question of identity may appear to some to be quite straightforward. But in reality, identity both as a concept and as a social reality is extremely complex. This means that there can be no simple solutions to the problem of identity politics.

The Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells maintains that identity must be understood in relation to what he calls ‘social actors’ as ‘the process of construction of meaning on the basis of a cultural attribute or related set of cultural attributes that is / are given priority over other sources of meaning.’

Castells makes the important distinction between identities and roles. Roles such as an employee or a parent are defined by ‘norms structured by the institutions and organisations of society.’ Identities (e.g., gay, feminist, etc), however, are somewhat more complex because they are ‘sources of meaning for actors themselves, and by themselves, constructed through a process of individuation.’

Adding to the complexity is the fact that an individual, participating in multiple political and social arenas, may have many different identities. This has led scholars such as Robert Bailey to coin the term ‘identity multiplexing’ to describe ‘the layering and ranking by individuals of their different identities in different arenas.’

To cite a hypothetical example: a person may emphasise her identity as ‘African American’ when lobbying for racial equality. That same individual may stress that she is a ‘feminist’ when addressing the issue of gender equality in employment and a ‘lesbian’ when championing same-sex marriage.

Castells describes three forms of identity and their origins, thus further complexifying the concept. There is legitimizing identity which Castell explains is ‘introduced by the dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalise their domination vis-à-vis social actors.’ An example would be the identity of citizens whose political actions are limited or confined to established state power.

The second form is resistance identity which is engendered by ‘those actors that are in positions / conditions devalued and / or stigmatised by the logic of domination, thus building trenches or resistance and survival on the basis of principles different from, or opposed to, those permeating the institutions of society.’ This sort of identity construction creates enclaves or ghettos which involve the ‘exclusion of the excluders by the excluded.’

And finally, there is the project identity constructions. Although rare, this occurs, according to Castells, ‘when social actors, on the basis of whichever cultural materials are available to them, build a new identity that redefines their position in society and, by so doing, seek the transformation of overall social structure.’

The example that Castells gives for this third form of identity is feminists who ‘challenge patriarchalism, thus the patriarchal family, thus the entire structure of production, reproduction, sexuality, and personality on which societies have been historically based.’

Thus, identity is a multivalent concept and reality. Richard Deleon has summarised the modern (constructionist) understanding of identities thus: ‘Identities are self-defined psychocultural constructs that give meaning and purpose to an individual’s life. They are constructed through a process of internal dialogue and social interaction. Individuals have complex and multiple identities that are selectively expressed in different arenas at different times.’

On Politicising Identities

It is one thing to form and have identities, it is quite another to politicise them in such a way that would result in the fragmentation and fracture of society. As we move from the discussion on identities to focus now on identity politics, let us begin with a succinct definition of the latter.

In their article entitled ‘Identity and Political Theory’, Clarissa Rile Hayward and Ron Watson defined identity politics as ‘the politics in which people engage when they mobilise on the basis of, and when they define their experiences, their political problems, and their aims in terms of the good of the identity groups.’

Seen in this way, there is a sense in which identity politics is inescapable. Philosophers and political scientists tell us that it has always been implausible to see society merely as a collection of individuals or as an abstraction like ‘nation’ or ‘people’.

Any attempt to speak in such abstract notions would be vulnerable today to the accusation of being elitist, economistic, or obscurantist. It is elitist because it appears to be speaking from a superior place to subordinated groups instead of from them.

It is economistic because it focuses on ‘objectivity’ markers of poverty and inequality. As Anne Philips puts it, it fails to ‘register the additional injuries associated with disparagement of minority characteristics or the stereotyping of identity groups.’

And it is obscurantist – and deliberately so – because it presents a vague commonality of condition that is really quite different from the actual experiences of people in certain minority groups. All this means that we now inhabit an ethos that makes it quite difficult to understand politics apart from groupings by race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, religion or class.

Identity politics has brought to the surface some important social conditions and sensibilities that any society would do well to take seriously.

There is a profound sense in which identity politics has exposed the myths that we have hitherto chosen to keep alive even though they are based on a fallacious belief. One striking example is the naïve notions of ‘national’ or even ‘human’ identity that are used to cancel out or transcend differences.

Identity politics shows that this and other forms of assimilationist models of citizenship is possible only up to a point. Thus, although the universalising discourses that speak of a unified ‘we’ may be inspiring or energising at a certain level, we must not be carried away by the idealism they convey. Differences remain and in multicultural democracies (like Singapore and indeed many other nations), these differences matter.

But identity politics can generate the sense of nagging dissatisfaction and exclusion that can be toxic for society as a whole. In her book States of Injury Wendy Brown refers to the ‘wounded’ character of most of identity politics, thus revealing the pathologies associated with them.

Groups that protest against marginalisation or subordination are very often too bound up with their own sense of exclusion, she argues. Consequently, they become trapped in a politics of recrimination and rancour and obsessed by the need for their injuries to be acknowledged by the rest of society.

Neighbourly Love and the Common Good

Whereas identity politics almost always begins with emphasising the differences between groups and therefore with that which distinguishes and divides, the Christian worldview begins with our common humanity and that which unites. The central concept is found in the first book of the Bible where we are told that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of their Creator (Genesis 1:26-27).

The implications of this remarkable assertion are far-reaching. It means that every human being – regardless of sex, gender, race, social status, etc – is accorded with dignity and is valuable in the eyes of the Creator.

This of course does not mean that the Christian worldview naively turns a blind eye to ethnic, cultural and other particularities and differences. But it emphasises the fact that there is something more fundamental about what it means to be human which transcends these differences, namely, our common humanity – the fact that we are all bearers of the divine image.

Starting with our common humanity would enable us to resist the temptation to deconstruct human society by introducing endless sub-divisions. Anne Philips describes this modern predilection in this way: ‘We deconstruct humanity, for example, into women and men, but then find that women sub-divide according to their race, age, class, sexuality, and the ubiquitous et cetera; and each movement that forms around one of the sub-divisions threatens to sub-divide further into even smaller identity formations.’

In fact, it is only when we acknowledge our common humanity that we will truly celebrate the marvellous diversity of the human family.

Furthermore, by acknowledging that every human being is the bearer of the divine image we are able then to treat each other with dignity. As Pope Benedict XVI explains, ‘As one created in the image of God, each individual human being has the dignity of the person; he or she is not just something but someone, free, self-giving and entering into communion with others.’

This is the basis for Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Mark 12:30-31). Obeying this command would mean that the Christian must always look beyond the needs and rights of his or her own community to the common good of society. It means that the Christian must stand in solidarity with his fellowmen regardless of their race, religion, or social status.

For it is only when we stand in solidarity with one another that we learn to share our fears and hopes with each other. We learn to suffer with and for others and strive together for the sake of truth and justice.

To quote once again the words of Benedict XVI: ‘True solidarity – though it begins with the acknowledgement of the equal worth of the other – comes to fulfilment only when I willingly place my life at the service of others.’

By obeying Jesus’ command, we replace the polarising and toxic practice of identity politics with the politics of agape, the self-forgetting service of others which enables us to negotiate differences for the sake of their flourishing and wellbeing.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.