While the COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented shock to the global order, it is being played out against the backdrop of a trend that has been developing for some time: that of stark political polarisation. This is most clearly exemplified by the deep divisions in western democracies like the United States of America, in Latin American States like Brazil and Colombia, and in the growing popularity of the far-right and the far-left in European politics.
Such divisions, coupled with a steady decline in trust in governments and public institutions over the last decade,1 translate into real and very different responses by individuals to implemented policies. The way different societies have responded to the pandemic underscores this, with several movements across the globe protesting the use of facemasks and social distancing measures,2 in direct contradiction of the advice of both medical professionals and political representatives.
These are not just differences of opinion—they represent disconnects between narratives and the lived realities of people living in the same society. When such divisions come to the fore, they clash, sometimes violently, against each other: such as the recent fracas in the US3 between the far-right, pro-Trump group Proud Boys,4 and the leftist group Antifa.5
Clearly, policymaking in our time must take into account the deep differences that can arise in co-existing societal narratives, and their far-reaching implications.
Shifting, Divergent and Stubborn Worldviews
The term “narrative” is shorthand for the range of interconnected stories that we tell ourselves to construct a coherent picture of our thoughts, experiences, and values. Humans, as sense-making creatures, do not perceive our experiences in isolation; to “make sense” of our reality, we subconsciously identify pieces of information and fit them into a mental story that relates to our lived experiences and inherited values.6 Narratives matter because they shape mindsets and behaviours by constituting a critical component of one’s self-conception.
Narratives are not mere opinions; they represent worldviews, identities, and lived experiences. Their formation can also be dependent on dynamic factors, such as the unique relationship between political leaders and their people at a particular moment in a society’s history—such as the experience of war, occupation, or independence. This was a point Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat acknowledged in his speech at the “Building Our Future Singapore Together Dialogue” in June 2019.7 Such powerful narratives, arising from a combination of unique factors that cannot be replicated, cannot persist over successive generations “without the same life-and-death struggles”. As successive new generations enter the social fold, with different life experiences and varying responses to the socio-economic conditions of the day, new narratives and identities proliferate. Over time, this can lead to a divergence of perspectives, even on established policy positions and societal norms that were uncontested or broadly accepted in the past.
The dilemma for policymakers is that research has repeatedly shown that trying to convince people of views other than their own usually ends in failure. In fact, such attempts can have the opposite effect,8 causing people who do not hold strong views to dig their heels for their chosen position: a phenomenon that is referred to as the “Backfire Effect”.9 In other words, leaving aside the truly undecided citizen, trying too hard to persuade a person who is already supportive of a policy or worldview will lead to them being even more supportive, while a person who disagrees is likely to be even further alienated. This suggests that societies who are heterogeneous in composition or viewpoint risk devolving over time into increasingly polarised camps trapped in a brittle gridlock.
This concern is particularly poignant for a nation such as Singapore, where the social fabric consists of a rich tapestry of differences, and is still evolving and in flux. How can Singapore design and implement policies for a population in which communities and worldviews may become increasingly disparate and divergent?
As successive new generations enter the social fold, with different life experiences, new narratives and identities proliferate. Over time, this can lead to a divergence of perspectives, even on established policy positions and societal norms that were uncontested or broadly accepted in the past.
The Antifragile Society
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of “antifragility” offers useful insight into how dynamic and diverse societies might better understand their divisions and find strength in their differences, towards the common good.
In his book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Taleb describes antifragility as a property of systems that thrive in face of stressors, shocks, and failures. This is in contrast with robustness and resilience—which are the abilities to resist and recover from failure respectively. Embedded in the concepts of robustness and resilience is a notion of the status quo: that is to say that they are non-aspirational; they focus on how to shield and how to rebound, but not necessarily how to do or be better than before. Under Taleb’s framework, a system (such as a society) that is merely resilient and robust—i.e., it is primarily reactionary or anticipatory in nature—may eventually experience a shock strong enough to bring down the whole structure.
Taleb argues that antifragility goes beyond robustness and resilience: it refers to systems that improve when exposed to adversity. It embraces the view that there will always be random variables and stressors—both internal and external—that can shock the system. An antifragile system has decentralised nodes that are responsive and adaptable to shocks—and in the long run, these outperform a central point of control.
An antifragile nation, for instance, would be one that survives and thrives in a more complex and adverse future, because every segment of society is autonomously engaged, with every individual regarding themselves as active members (as opposed to passive followers)—of a larger community. Imbued with a sense of agency and purpose, each citizen of such a society could self-mobilise and respond to challenges to our collective wellbeing, bringing their different viewpoints and capacities to bear.
While notions of collective responsibility and co-creation are not new to policymakers, this notion of antifragility is particularly pertinent to Singapore—a nation built from a society of differences. Seen through the lens of antifragility, our differences are an asset, not a liability.
An antifragile nation would be one that survives and thrives in a more complex and adverse future, because every segment of society is autonomously engaged. Seen through the lens of antifragility, our differences are an asset, not a liability.
COVID-19, and Hints of an Antifragile Singapore
Reassuringly, the response from Singaporeans to the COVID-19 crisis suggests that elements of antifragility exist within Singapore. This offers a hopeful glimpse for our future development as a nation.
One example is the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition. Their efforts, which earned them the “Leaders of Good” award at the President's Volunteerism & Philanthropy Awards 2020 Special Edition, saw volunteers from existing NGOs coming together to support migrant workers—especially those isolated in dormitories—by providing delivered meals, essential support items and even haircuts. To date, they have also raised upwards of S$800,000 in donations.10
Non-profits like Lingua Singapura or Hush TeaBar crowdsourced items such as masks or self-care kits for those who did not have access to them.11 Temasek Trust, the philanthropic arm of Temasek, also launched a S$10 million fund called “oscar@sg” to bolster community-driven COVID-19 initiatives. Students have come together to teach those facing disruptions how to use technology like Zoom.12 Social enterprises like Touch have connected with and taught seniors how to use software to reduce the impact of social isolation during the circuit-breaker period.13
These and numerous other examples demonstrate how, during a time of crisis, Singaporean residents of different backgrounds have come together to offer compassion and support to those who may hold very different worldviews from themselves. These showcase what antifragile responses look like: different individuals and communities coming together to support one another in adversity.
During a time of crisis, Singaporean residents of different backgrounds have come together to offer compassion and support to those who may hold very different worldviews from themselves.
The Path to an Antifragile Nation: Conversations and Emphatic Understanding
No single campaign, clarion call or targeted nudge led to this organic and wide-ranging response by Singaporeans to contribute to the greater good at a time of crisis. It seems fair to argue, however, that the significant, decades-long efforts of the Singapore government to foster common spaces and a sense of shared nationhood has laid the groundwork for this culture to emerge: by making it a matter of state policy to promote emphatic understanding between people holding different narratives.14 Where once this was passively implemented by the government of the day, we have seen over the last decade a far greater push towards active engagements, dialogues, and conversations. And yet, as always, more can still be done.
The instituting of shared experiences in the social sphere, and the principle of giving every individual a stake in the collective wellbeing, have been key to Singapore’s social and national development policies. This is why today’s Singaporeans have grown up with policies directing social mixing in public housing, shared practices such as the recitation of the national pledge every morning in schools and participation in community service through the Community Involvement Programme (CIP). However, such activities, while important, are generally passive—insofar as understanding and tolerance are meant to be by-products of greater social interaction. In an increasingly divided world, however, mixing and mingling may not be enough. We may need to take more active steps to create bridges for people holding different views—so that when it comes to the crunch, they will still stand with each other as one people.
Greater understanding between groups of people promotes antifragile behaviour: because knowing that others have different beliefs and ideals and act differently under different situations enables us to each play to our strengths, contributing in ways that we understand others may not be willing or able to do. We come to realise that we need to cover for each other’s blind spots. Recent research shows that this is as true of small workplaces as it is for large organisations—and presumably then for even larger structures.15 What’s crucial is the tacit acknowledgement that despite our differences, we are all building towards a greater future for everyone, not just ourselves. Greater understanding between those with different perspectives paves the path for acceptance and cooperation despite, and even because of, our differences.
Greater understanding between those with different perspectives paves the path for acceptance and cooperation despite, and even because of, our differences.
As policymakers, it is important for us to recognise, accept, and indeed internalise that Singapore is a nation that is built on differences. To build an antifragile Singapore, we must bring our differences out into the fold and discuss them respectfully and tactfully, with empathy and understanding. The key is to approach such issues from a human perspective—we should be primed to ask not the what (i.e., that one person might hold a particular view which we may find disagreeable), but the why (i.e., what life experiences might have led to this person have to hold such a view). This paves the path for conversations, understanding, and genuine but respectful disagreement.
Crucially, it is in this regard that the national conversations of the past few years—including 2015’s “Our Singapore Conversations” and 2020’s “Emerging Stronger Conversations”— distinguish themselves. Where the state once sought to shape the contents and practices of a national narrative and identity,16 it now seeks to facilitate and provide a structure through which different narratives can converge. Indeed, in contrast with the public consultations of old, which were largely perceived to be top-down initiatives,17 citizen voices have played a crucial role in shaping what has emerged from the recent national conversations, including genuine policy changes.18 Furthermore, these national conversations have been observed to reflect the increasing diversity of Singapore’s population.19
Nevertheless, it is important to hold such conversations regardless of whether they produce tangible, measurable outcomes: the process of the conversations themselves, and the willingness of its participants (including the government and public service) to listen to each other, is itself an important aspect of building common ground as a society. Listening deeply to others in this way is the only way we can encounter and appreciate different perspectives and narratives—especially those we do not share or even know about. It helps us better understand why we need each other and what we have to share with one another. It lays the foundation for deeper and more meaningful conversations to come.
The process of the conversations themselves, and the willingness of its participants to listen to each other, is itself an important aspect of building common ground as a society.
The path forward involves more of such conversations to promote deeper understanding between people who ascribe to different narratives. Thoughtful communication is imperative—we should not draw people to public consultations with promises that they will stand to gain some benefit or advantage by participating. Instead, these must be presented and practised as authentic exercises in active listening and co-creation. Such engagements should not be purely sense-making exercises. It is not just a matter of what we as policymakers can learn from engagements, it is also a matter of what Singaporeans can learn from these encounters, from the Public Service and, crucially, from each other: it is only with understanding that we will develop a truly antifragile society.
In this quest for a truly antifragile society, it is imperative to keep in mind that communication must be bi-directional. This is not something we should leave to chance, since it requires substantial investment, training and practice in active listening and other skills needed to facilitate these conversations successfully. These are skills that public agencies and officers would do well to acquire and refine.
Communication must be bi-directional: this is not something we should leave to chance, since it requires substantial investment, training and practice in active listening and other skills.
Stories of Singaporeans stepping up to help each other cope with COVID-19 are a rich source of information to get more conversations going. Ordinary Singaporeans’ extraordinary responses in light of COVID-19 give us hope that Singapore is indeed heading in a hopeful and more antifragile direction: having shown how our differences can be convened as diverse strengths to see us through a time of crisis.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Azfer A. Khan is currently a Senior Investigation Officer with Tanglin Division in the Singapore Police Force. He enjoys teaching as an Adjunct Faculty at the Singapore Management University School of Law, and he also enjoys being neck-deep in innovation and tech-related projects.
Ang Kheng Kiat is currently a Senior Officer (Communications & Engagement Planning) in the Ministry of Education (MOE). In this capacity, he plans and coordinates MOE’s medium-term communications and engagement strategy. Kheng Kiat also double hats in MOE’s Planning Division, where he works on policies to strengthen support for disadvantaged students.
This article was written in the authors’ personal capacity; the opinions in the article are the authors’ own and the article does not reflect the views of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Education or the Singapore Government.
- Grant Duncan, “Commentary: The Decline of Trust in Governments around the World”, CNA, November 28, 2018, accessed January 21, 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/the-decline-of-trust-in-governments-around-the-world-10954030.
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- Elizabeth Svoboda, “Why Is It So Hard to Change People’s Minds?”, Greater Good Magazine, June 27, 2017, accessed January 21, 2021, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_is_it_so_hard_to_change_peoples_minds.
- B. Swire-Thompson, J. DeGutis, and D. Lazer , “Searching for the Backfire Effect: Measurement and Design Considerations”, Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 9, no. 3 (September 2020): 286–299, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2020.06.006.
- Ray of Hope, “Covid-19 migrant Support Coalition”, accessed November 23, 2020, https://rayofhope.sg/campaign/covid-19-migrant-support-coalition/.
- Anthea Ong, “Responding to the Covid-19 Crisis as One Singapore Community”, Today, April 6, 2020, accessed January 21, 2021, https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/responding-covid-19-crisis-one-singapore-community.
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