Singapore is an example of a society where multiculturalism works.  Our ethnic diversity is a key feature of how we think of ourselves as a nation and how we brand ourselves to the outside world – for example, in many years of tourism campaigns.

Our diversity is a central theme of the annual National Day celebrations and many other occasions throughout the year, including multiple religious festivals and Racial Harmony Day that is marked every July.

In a globalized world, businesses frequently extol the benefits of diversity and inclusion. Indeed, in my own research as an associate professor at NUS Business School, I’m interested in how diversity impacts organisational effectiveness, as well as broader social issues such as how diversity impacts our communities and neighborhoods.

That’s because diversity – whether within a business or within the wider community – exposes us to different opinions, new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking; all factors which are critical to addressing the challenges of an increasingly complex and volatile world.

But while the virtues of diversity are often raised, what is less widely acknowledged is the sustained effort needed to harness its benefits.

When there is diversity but no contact, organisations and communities – however diverse they might be – risk falling into segregation, mistrust and potentially conflict.

Diversity is only beneficial when there is ongoing contact in the form of communication and engagement between different groups. When there is diversity but no contact, organisations and communities – however diverse they might be – risk falling into segregation, mistrust and potentially conflict.

It is partly for this reason that there has recently been a backlash from some quarters against diversity. In Europe and North America, for example, we have seen politicians from various extremes pointing to crime-ridden inner-city housing estates as evidence that multiculturalism as a concept has failed.

Ethnic balance

In Singapore, ethnic integration policies first introduced in the late 1980s have helped prevent the emergence of communal ghettos, ensuring that the ethnic balance in public housing developments reflects that of the nation as a whole.

For the past two decades we have also marked Racial Harmony Day every year on July 21, the anniversary of the 1964 race riots.

Proactive measures like these are aimed at fostering social cohesion by building communities that are more conducive for people of different ethnicities to have regular contact with each other.

But what evidence is there that living in diverse communities does actually bring people together?

In 2007 a US study by Harvard professor Robert Putnam caused a huge stir when it appeared to find that residents of more diverse areas were more distrustful of their neighbours and less inclined to engage in community-focused behavior such as volunteerism or giving to charity.

For some the study was taken as evidence that greater diversity creates division within communities and causes people to “hunker down”, in Putnam’s words, into their own ethnic groups.

In a recent research paper that I co-wrote with colleagues in Singapore and in the US, we wanted to test this interpretation. In a series of studies we found compelling counter evidence that people living in more ethnically diverse neighborhoods actually have a broader sense of communal identity and express this through being more helpful.

In our first study using data from Twitter, we analysed the sentiment of tweets from residents in the 200 largest cities in the US. We found that tweets which leaned towards positivity, helpfulness and social acceptance were significantly higher from people in more diverse areas such as New York and San Francisco, compared to less diverse cities.

In another study testing responses to a local disaster, we looked at how communities in Boston responded in the wake of the 2013 bomb attacks on the city’s marathon. Using data from a website set up by a local newspaper, we mapped offers of help for people who had been stranded and found those offers were significantly more likely to come from people living in more racially diverse areas.

In a third study we looked at data from the annual Gallup World Poll to see whether diversity at a country level had an impact on helpfulness. We found that people in more diverse countries – such as Canada, New Zealand and Belgium – were more likely to say they had helped someone in the past month. In contrast, less diverse countries such as Argentina, Poland and Saudi Arabia reported much lower levels of helpfulness.

Common humanity

These three initial studies offered encouraging support for the idea that living in diverse communities makes people more helpful. However, this raises an important question: does exposure to diversity also shape a person’s identity with a broader community – one that is beyond their own ethnicity?

Testing this scientifically is more complicated. We could not realistically conduct an experiment that allocated people to live in different neighborhoods and see how this altered their helpfulness.

To overcome this, we used a psychological research method known as priming, asking a selected group of volunteers to imagine themselves in communities of varying levels of diversity. Our results showed that by picturing themselves living in a more ethnically diverse neighborhood, people tended to develop a more inclusive identity beyond race; identifying themselves as part of a larger community. This larger identifier or ‘common humanity’ also made them more willing to help strangers and to engage in other so-called prosocial behavior in support of their community.

Our study does not prove definitively that diversity is beneficial to society. But the consistency of its results does offer strong indications that people tend to develop a more inclusive identity, beyond race, when they are living among people who are different from themselves.

This also lends weight to the idea that proactive measures which encourage people of different ethnicities to have more contact with each other are conducive to building stronger and more supportive communities.

Work in progress

We should recognise that harmony is not about building a homogenous society or suppressing different identities, but about building contact and mutual respect between different groups in society.

It is easy to be skeptical about efforts such as Racial Harmony Day – it is, after all, just one day of the year. But such events are important reminders against complacency. They create opportunities for dialogue and contact across racial boundaries.

Rather than a goal to be achieved or a box to be ticked, we should see harmony between different ethnicities as a work in progress; an ongoing national project that requires conscious, sustained effort and continuous opportunities for contact across racial boundaries.

This requires dialogue – the very form of contact that brings out the real benefits of diversity and builds more resilient, more helpful communities.

There is indeed evidence that Singapore as a nation has served as an example to the world on how to make diversity work. But we must remember it is not a task that is finished; rather it is one that requires continuous engagement from all races in the nation.