Global Government Summit report; part 2

By on 23/05/2017 | Updated on 24/05/2017
Serge Dupont, deputy clerk of the privy council, Canada

From France through the UK to the USA, rapid inward migration has been closely linked to the rise of right-wing populism. At this year’s Global Government Summit, top officials from 11 countries examined how two very different nations have worked to bring together their highly diverse societies. Matt Ross presents the second part of our report on this unique annual event

For some years, the challenges around social diversity have been seen in the light of issues around community cohesion, terrorism, poverty and inequality; but the rapid rise of populist leaders across the Western world has demonstrated that immigration can reshape politics just as powerfully as it alters societies and economies.

With economic changes squeezing many people’s incomes and trust in established political systems in decline, far-right and anti-establishment politicians are getting traction with a narrative that seeks to pin the blame for people’s suffering on immigrants. “We have a really serious problem at the moment on social cohesion, because of the migration issues and the way they’re being exploited by politicians. It’s very scary,” commented one delegate at the 2017 Global Government Summit – an annual gathering of civil service central and corporate leaders, organised by Global Government Summit and hosted this year by the Singapore Civil Service.

Whilst many of the challenges around immigration are common, though, the solutions will vary between countries. And this session’s presentations, from representatives of Canada and Singapore, showed two powerful – and very different – approaches to the challenge of dovetailing diverse local cultures with the creation of a strong, common identity.

The Canadian approach: champion diversity

First up was Canada’s Serge Dupont, Deputy Clerk of the Privy Council; and he painted a positive picture of the country’s attitudes to immigration. Diversity is hard-wired into this nation’s history and fabric, he said, and seen as an asset: a source of creativity, innovation and prosperity.

Serge Dupont, deputy clerk of the privy council, Canada

Getting to this point has not been a straight road. Dupont acknowledged the wrongs suffered by Canada’s indigenous peoples, including forced assimilation of indigenous children over a period of 100 years. An official apology, an historic legal settlement, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and now a process of reconciliation are laying the foundations for improvement, he said. And he highlighted the referenda on secession in French-speaking Quebec in 1980 and 1995, both won by the “no” side – though in 1995 by the thinnest of margins. “Our history has been one of overcoming such struggles in the pursuit of a unique, cohesive and prosperous society,” he said.

Following more recent waves of immigration, particularly from Asia, Canada’s 35m-strong population includes 7m born overseas, and some 13 ethnic groups of greater than 1m people. But Dupont argued that a few key assets have enabled Canada to absorb these migrants whilst protecting its national character, social cohesion and sense of common purpose.

The first comprises the institutions, laws, policies and programmes introduced to recognise and promote diversity – particularly the 1982 Constitution’s protections for indigenous rights, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And the second, he said, is “leadership that emerged at critical times to build and sustain the political support that must underpin social cohesion and progress”.

Dupont noted that the promotion of diversity and inclusion is an explicit priority of the current government. “In forming his government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set the tone,” he said. “The Cabinet is gender-balanced and it is diverse. Our Minister for the Status of Women entered Canada as a refugee from Afghanistan. Our Minister of Immigration was born and raised in Somalia. Our Minister for Justice is a member of a First Nation from British Columbia. Our Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities was a Paralympic swimmer.”

Third, there’s an openness to immigration, combined with an objective, points-based system designed to attract skilled immigrants. Would-be Canadians “get points based on a number of criteria, such as age, education, skills and experience, that try to predict their capacity to succeed in Canadian society,” Dupont explained. “These new Canadians are not only getting jobs; they’re actually helping to create jobs.”

Finally, there’s a strong and coordinated effort to help less fortunate immigrants to settle in. Canada has accepted nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015 – and they benefit from comprehensive resettlement programmes “involving all levels of government, private sector partners, community groups and volunteers,” he explained. “We’re taking the time to help new permanent residents navigate unfamiliar territory, with daily language training and help finding jobs.”

Canada has had no choice but to embrace diversity, Dupont concluded: indeed, it is set to become still more diverse. “Our economy is such that we need more talent from more sources, not less,” he said. “What is a choice is inclusion. We know that intolerance, prejudice, divisions and feelings of isolation can spread quickly, and that we mustn’t become complacent. Still, a welcoming and inclusive environment fits better our national character. And we draw strength from remarkable personal stories of success.”

“We can’t force people into a certain notion of national identity,” he added. “But we can bake the idea of diversity into a common understanding of who we are.”

The Singaporean approach: create shared experiences

Singapore has taken quite a different approach, explained Lim Shung Yar – Director of the Community Relations and Engagement Division in the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Yet its goals are very similar to Canada’s: the country’s leaders want “citizens of all faiths and cultures to accept each other as equals; and, more than that, to take pride in the fact that each of our individual cultures are part of the collective national identity of Singapore,” he said. “Everyone should keep their own beliefs and cultures, while we all meet in the middle – and we want to maximise this middle portion called the common space.”

Lim Shung Yar, director (community relations and engagement division), Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth

Underpinning these goals, Singapore has many of the same foundations for cohesion as Canada: a constitution safeguarding minority rights and a set of laws outlawing discrimination, for example. But the country takes a much more interventionalist, directive approach to supporting cohesion – an approach which, Lim Shung Yar suggested, has its roots in the long push to transform Singapore from a rigidly-segregated trading post into a nation state.

With a population mixing Chinese, Malays, Indians and temporary residents – and hit by intercommunal violence in the 1850s and again in the 1960s – Singapore’s leaders have understood since the country’s foundation that it was “absolutely necessary to manage social cohesion,” he explained. “It was about the fault lines of race and religion right from the beginning.”

Singapore’s most eye-catching attempt to expand that “common space” is its policy around public housing, which comprises 80% of the country’s homes: the government ensures that every apartment block is ethnically mixed, with the proportions reflecting the ethnic makeup of Singapore. Each neighbourhood also includes community centres, schools and leisure facilities, “so there’s a community of experience; people see others of different races, different cultures every day, and that becomes part of everyday life,” commented Lim Shung Yar. “The everyday lived experience is very important.”

This planned mixing extends into politics, where the presidency is passed between ethnic groups, and the use of ‘Group Representation Constituencies’ ensures that minorities are fairly represented in parliament. It reaches into schools and national service, where the communities are carefully brought together for shared experiences. It even reaches into religion, where faith leaders are encouraged to sit on shared panels to foster mutual communication and understanding.

“These ‘hard’ policy measures impose on citizens certain things they ought to do or ought not to do,” commented Lim Shung Yar. “That’s difficult.” So the government also uses ‘soft’ policy levers – “because ultimately, social cohesion is about hearts and minds: having people accept and appreciate others.” These, for example, include the creation of a mixed youth corps providing voluntary work with the poor and elderly; a community-wide communications campaign to challenge Islamic radicalism; and the encouragement of workplace and sporting activities that bring different communities together.

Reactions and responses

Singapore’s activist, planned multiculturalism made quite an impression on Summit delegates. “You have a pretty structured set of policies throughout, which have made integration here a lot better than the rest of us,” commented one European official. “But we don’t have the levers to create the same sort of structures.” And it’s much harder to create those levers, said another, when countries have been built around a shared cultural identity rather than the concept of mixing different peoples: “We have two types of nations,” he said. “Those where the whole nation is built on the idea of diversity – like Canada or Singapore – and those traditionally based on one identity. And there’s a difference when it comes to integration policy.”

It was clear from the discussion that several delegates felt that their countries had not handled diversity as well as Canada or Singapore – with immigrants performing poorly in educational and economic terms, and remaining isolated from mainstream society. Others, though, felt that they had the right approach to absorbing new immigrants – but were being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of migrants fleeing areas of conflict or seeking economic opportunities.

Turkey, for example, has taken in 3m Syrian refugees since 2011; and Akin Ak, a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, noted that “the government has spent over €25bn [$26bn or £21bn] in four years: we have to provide education, healthcare, and it’s really imposed a burden on the government.” His colleague Özer Kontoglu, the Deputy Undersecretary of the Prime Ministry, argued that “the people in Turkey and Syria were living together peacefully under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, and many families had members in both countries. Integration is not a problem – but education and employment are.”

Akin Ak, senior expert at Prime Minister’s Office, Turkey

“In terms of the citizen’s acceptance of immigrants, it’s not just the absolute percentage of immigrants that matters, but also the pace at which people arrive,” commented Peter Ong. “If it happens too fast, the public reaction tends to be very strong; but if it can be moderated over a period of time, with good policies to ensure proper integration, most societies can adjust”.

That certainly reflects Canada’s experience, said Dupont: “You’ve got to process inflows, and ensure you’re doing it in such a way that you can accommodate people,” he said. “For us, it’s a matter of ensuring we do it at a measured pace.”

This approach struck a chord with many delegates. Rapid inflows of immigrants make integration harder to achieve, the feeling was, but the real deciding factor is whether the host state gets on the front foot and gives new arrivals the tools to build a new life: language skills; job opportunities; access to social and community activities. It is not enough simply to provide a space; people need help to connect into wider society.

Sometimes, commented Matthias Freundlieb – a Head of Directorate from Germany’s Federal Chancellery – governments have more control over integration policies than they do over the pace of new arrivals. Germany received over 1.3m refugees between 2015 and 2016, he said, and “the Chancellor was criticised for opening the borders; but that’s not true. The borders in Europe were open!”

Matthias Freundlieb, head of directorate, Personnel – the Federal Government; Administration, Federal Chancellery

Set at the heart of the EU’s Schengen border-free zone, Germany didn’t have the luxury of controlling the rate of immigration from faraway countries. But as Freundlieb said, this won’t be the first time that the country has tackled a major integration challenge: when East and West Germany we reunified in 1990, “there were two diverse societies, and they had to grow together.”

“I think we managed it,” he concluded. “And in the end we will manage this too.”

You can read part 1 of our report here, covering the challenges of managing today’s skewed, fast-changing global economy. In part 3, we’ll cover delegates’ discussions around one of the thorniest problems facing governments: how to restore citizens’ declining trust in democratic politics and the modern state. The full report is available here

What brought you here?

Gus O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, UK

“The great benefit of these Summits is that they’re informal. In some international meetings, individuals read out prepared scripts; but here people come in a personal capacity, and you get a genuinely informal discussion.

“You also get the views of countries that you don’t get in lots of other forums – like a fast-growing, low-income country like Cambodia; like Malaysia, which is successfully transforming its public services; and like Russia, a country where relations can be difficult at times but which is grappling with precisely the same issues as the rest of us.”


About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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