Research & Publications


Multicultural challenges and Sustainable Democracy in Europe and Asia

Research Workshop, 28 February 2013

The twin issues of multicultural challenges and sustainable democracy are faced by developed countries in Europe and Asia. The research workshop was convened in partnership with Korea University to explore these issues comparatively through cases in Germany, Korea, Japan and Singapore.

Terence Chong (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore) laid out the context for Singapore’s policies of multiculturalism by revisiting its history. Racial riots in the 1960s, and fears of its reprise, had coloured the ethnic policies of Singapore’s leaders. The Ethnic Integration Policy on housing implemented in 1989, for instance, seeks to ensure a balanced ethnic mix among the various ethnic communities living in public housing estates. While hyphenated identities are allowed to persist in Singapore (that is, the identities of the Chinese-, Malay- and Indian-Singaporean), no one ethnic community can have the sole stake in defining the national Singaporean identity. The concentric circles model, as posited by former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, illustrates that that each ethnic community in Singapore retains and celebrates its own cultural practices, but the national Singaporean identity is in fact agglomeration of all of them.

Lee Jong Doo (Peace & Democracy Institute, Korea University) presented findings from his study of the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) TV programme, ‘Love in Asia’, taking it as a test case to examine the perceptions and attitudes towards marriage migrants in Korea, and how media conveyed and shaped some of these perceptions . Given that the majority of marriage migrants are females from less economically advanced Asian countries, he found that they have painted – in the mind of the average Korean – an image of the rest of the Asian region as a reflection of Korea’s past as a traditional, less developed country. This led him to conclude that ‘Asia’ as conceived in the popular imagination of Koreans refers to the region without the main countries of China, Japan and Korea. He noted that this closely follows outdated Western perceptions of Asia as the exotic, Oriental ‘Other’.

Hwang Jung-Mee (Asiatic Research Institute, Korea University) further explored the issue of multicultural coexistence in Korea by framing it in terms of citizenship. One of the various approaches to the topic Hwang raised was of ‘post-post-national citizenship’ (Varsanyi 2006), in which citizenship is conceived flexibly, but nonetheless still under the hegemony of the nation-state. This frames the growing phenomenon of ‘local citizenship’ in Korea and Japan, where foreign residents are becoming de facto “national” citizens within the context of the cities of their abode. In examining the cases of Kawasaki city in Japan and Ansan city in Korea, Hwang illustrated how local authorities are cooperating with NGOs offering the immigrants in their local communities the “citizenship” rights and services denied by the nation-state. Hwang also introduced an additional variable of the degree of centralisation within a country – Japan’s local governments are given a high level of autonomy, whereas Korea is a more centralised state. While the ‘local citizenship’ phenomenon is more bottom up in Japan than in Korea, there has nevertheless been a remarkable change in policy concerns about the rights of foreign residents.

Park Chae-Bok (Sookmyung Women’s University, Seoul) examined fertility policies in the context of changing social norms over time, with a focus on Germany. She noted that in the discussion of fertility policies in Germany, the focus is shifting from gender equality and equal opportunity policies to the abolition of discrimination in all areas and gender mainstreaming. Park found that the existence of government supported child care facilities does indeed affect the birthrate. The Parental Leave System implemented in Germany in 2007 succeeded because the government intervened actively to reform the public services and infrastructure to create a society where children can be borne and raised with ease and parents can balance work and family life.

Through the comparative discussions, it was noted how the concept of multiculturalism has sometimes been misappropriated to refer to simply any policy that concerns non-citizens. The academic conceptualisation of multiculturalism clearly distinguishes it from cultural assimilation, which is quite different from the existence of cultural diversity. On issues of sustainable growth, whether related to multiculturalism or fertility rates, shifting socio-political norms are keys to changing long-held policy paradigms. The more interesting research question that follows the discussions on multiculturalism and diversity concerns how the latter can impact social cohesion, and broader issues of political legitimacy and democracy.