The dream of creating an inclusive society – where all members benefit from progress and equality of opportunity, diversity is celebrated instead of shunned, and all individuals are allowed to participate in deciding the creation and direction of social institutions – is a lofty one. It is often criticised for being quixotic and for neglecting the fact that existing measures tend to inevitably emphasise the differences between individuals; that there are finite resources for an infinite number of groups, and that achieving a truly inclusive society requires an overhaul of the ways in which Western capitalist economies and the international economy function. While an inclusive society is certainly desirable because it promotes a more tolerant society to live in and encourages individuals in society to unleash their fullest potential and contribute to society in unconventional, creative ways, the process of achieving an inclusive society is a contentious one. In fact, it is often argued that efforts to make society more inclusive is often unrealistic and might even conflict with the need to be factually accurate.
Even the more calibrated approaches which we use today to promote the acceptance of society inadvertently create a society that is made aware of such differences, but are tolerant and not truly accepting of them.Singapore, for instance, adopted the multicultural approach towards nation-building, which saw the construction of a national identity which could accommodate ethnic and linguistic pluralism while simultaneously inculcating an overarching sense of nationhood. Multicultural policies such as the Ethnic Integration Policy, the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) racial classification model and the Reserved Presidential Elections stress the importance of peaceful coexistence while reminding us that we are indeed, very different people from very different social groups. While Singapore claims to have achieved a ‘harmonious and inclusive’ society, in reality, racial and religious tensions simmer beneath the surface; according to a recent YouGov survey, 23% of Singaporeans claim to have experienced discrimination while renting properties. Minorities seem to be disproportionately affected, with 49% of Indians surveyed and 34% of Malays reporting such experiences. More than 80% of minorities also report the occurrence of ‘microaggressions’ in their daily lives, suggesting that even a society like Singapore which tries its best to be inclusive has a long way to go. The inadequacy of current measures means that an inclusive society will have to remain a pipe dream for now.
An inclusive society is also one where all its members benefit from its progress. In today’s context, this is often achieved through taxation and government transfers, such as unemployment assistance, with the objective of ensuring that the poorest do not trail behind in the wake of the rich. It can be argued that to achieve this is impossible, since there are finite resources for an infinite number of social groups clamouring for their voices to be heard. Governments have to prioritise between devoting their resources to promoting the progress of certain groups and ensuring that others are not left behind. Even social democracies which have high taxation rates are not necessarily able to mitigate inequality. Norway, which has an astounding personal income tax rate of 38.52% and a widely lauded social security net, has seen an increase in poverty and inequality, from 7.7% of the population to 9.3% in just the last 4 years. In other countries like Singapore, even after tax transfers facilitated by the government, the Gini coefficient is relatively high at 0.41, suggesting that the efforts of governments alone are insufficient. Besides direct government transfers, governments have to prioritise when devoting resources to agencies helping different social groups, hence making an inclusive society a chimeric fantasy.
Furthermore, eradicating income inequality and the inequality of opportunities require an overhaul of the capitalist system of Western nations and the global economy, which is simply quixotic and unrealistic. The free movement of labour, goods and capital across national borders along with rapid technological advancement means that technically able, high-skilled workers tend to command higher wages, while low-skilled manual workers are easily displaced by an influx of workers from less developed countries. Inequality has risen drastically across the world, in both developing and developed countries as a result: in Brazil, the top 1% accounts for 25% of national income; in Russia, the income share of the top 1% of the population increased from 4% in 1980 to 20% in 2015. Likewise, in India, that figure rose from 6% in 1982 to 22% in 2013 and in China, it surged from 6% in 1978 to 14% in 2015. Compound this with the fact that the rich tend to pass on financial and social privileges to their offspring, and inequality is entangled with decreasing levels of social mobility. This suggests that attempts to create an inclusive society have to take into account the overarching societal framework which we operate in, and a total overhaul of it seems implausible. Even in countries which adopt alternative models such as communism, there is often skyrocketing inequality as well. Even though communist countries like the Soviet Union managed to reduce income inequality to unprecedented levels, it did so by reducing the size of the pie for everyone, and displacing existing capitalist structures with other hierarchies that disadvantaged the poor and the unfortunate. It appears that in the current context, achieving an inclusive society might just be an ideal, at best.
At the same time, we need to recognize that the above arguments rest on the assumption that an inclusive society is desirable; it well may not be, indeed. Many argue that an inclusive society where diversity is celebrated and not resented is a more tolerant, pleasant one to live in, and allows individuals of varied talents to live up to their true potential. If Singapore had not created a space for entrepreneurship, or encouraged its students to deviate from traditional models of success, the likes of Carousell, honestbee and ViSenze would not have existed. That said, however, efforts to make society more inclusive might conflict with the need to be factually accurate. For instance, sporting authorities in the Western world have permitted the participation of transsexual individuals in sporting events, as societies become more progressive and inclusive over time. However, critics often cite the unfair advantage that pre-transition transgender athletes have over biological females, which is ignored when transgender athletes are allowed to participate as females, as an example of ‘inclusivity’ being taken to the extreme, to the extent that reality is wilfully distorted.
By and large, an inclusive society is desirable and pleasant to live in, as it maximises human potential, if it is created or done in moderation. However, because there are finite resources for an infinite number of social groups clamouring to be included, the reality is that achieving an inclusive society can only remain a pipe dream for now.