In thinking about the United States’ enduring racial divide, I found myself intrigued by lessons from an unlikely source: Singapore. To help prepare for a trip there next week (as a guest of the National University of Singapore), I asked the country’s deputy prime minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, what he regarded as the country’s biggest success. I imagined that he would talk about economics, since the city-state’s per capita GDP now outstrips that of the United States, Japan and Hong Kong. He spoke instead about social harmony.
“We were a nation that was not meant to be,” Shanmugaratnam said. The swamp-ridden island, expelled from Malaysia in 1965, had a polyglot population of migrants with myriad religions, cultures and belief systems. “What’s interesting and unique about Singapore, more than economics, are our social strategies. We respected peoples’ differences yet melded a nation and made an advantage out of diversity,” he said in an interview, echoing remarks he made at the St. Gallen Symposium last month in Switzerland.