When getting in a taxi, making small talk at the neighbourhood deli, or after the first handshake at a job interview, the question on everyone’s minds is: “What are you?” And for good reason – identity, or at least the attributes that identity confers, helps us to navigate a complex world. It is a heuristic that helps us discern friend from foe, activate appropriate behaviours and assess the usefulness of a new connection. It also helps identify tribes that are deserving of protection or alienation. From the very beginning, humanity has grappled with these questions: What am I? What are we?

It is unsurprising that young, city-state Singapore has been far from immune to this constant introspection: Who are its people? What is its place in the world? How does its identity help with navigating its relationships with neighbours and the global community? How do the identities of its people guide social policy and shape its urban environment? The answers to these questions are complex and constantly evolving. Besides, at just 54 years old, many will agree that the paint on the young republic is still wet.

The Centre for Strategic Futures has often considered these questions as underlying threads in our research. We have been particularly interested to discover new identities, new ways to think about identity, and how there may be ways we currently think about identity that need to be relooked. At Foresight Conference 2017, rich discussions transpired about the forces that reshape identity and how society and the state will evolve in response. This article explores four ideas around identity that have profound implications for the state, corporations and people.

The contradictions of an identity trinity

An easy way to think about the concept of identity is to consider these three aspects:
1. State-ascribed identity: how the state confers administrative categories on its people
2. Society-ascribed identity: labels that groups apply to individuals, which impact their acceptance or rejection of individuals
3. Subjective identity: an identity that an individual ascribes to oneself

There are assumptions around these identities that are often made. For instance, many forget that while the three identities can come into alignment, they can also come into conflict with one another. When such conflict arises, the state, community and individuals must understand the need for discursive space to unpack and understand the precise nature of the conflict. In a world with increasingly polarised values and politics, we can expect such conflicts to occur more often and be more greatly amplified by social media and an increasingly sensational fourth estate. We must also note that identity navigation can be a highly emotionally-charged affair. Engaging identities on purely rational, cognitive terms alone will be insufficient; worse, disastrous. It is yet unclear what frameworks would be best-suited to understand identity-based conflict. One possible frame could be found in Moral Foundations Theory.

“Even if we identify as Singaporean, our understanding of the obligations, values and behaviours of being Singaporean may differ from someone else’s.”

In his book, The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt proposes an alternative lens we can use to understand one another: moral foundations. The theory states that humans have six basic intuitions which confer feelings of right and wrong on various ethical outcomes. For instance, why do we feel that pushing someone off a swing is clearly wrong? Why does maid abuse feel wrong? The reasons for why we feel these things to be unethical are not always the same and could be based off differing moral foundations. Studies have shown that these six foundations could offer alternative indicators for normative beliefs beyond traditional indicators such as age, ethnicity and income status.

Another common assumption is that a common identity automatically confers solidarity. Just because you identify as a Singaporean, your understanding of the obligations, values and behaviours of being Singaporean are not necessarily the same as another Singaporean’s. Often, our human biases assume this based on several heuristics, among them skin colour, language spoken, profession and age. It is also important to note that common identity does not preclude conflict. Examples can be found all over the world: conflicts between Sunnis and Shias, tensions between liberal and conservative Americans, and strain between pro-Beijing and pro-independence Hong Kongers.

Beware the Medusa Syndrome

There are several strong forces that shape identity, the strongest in some cultures being the state. Singapore is an excellent example of a place that fostered strong state-ascribed identity in its early nation-building years. Security, infrastructure, economic development and foreign policy were pursued at a great pace soon after independence out of sheer desperation. Developing the urban environment and its administration necessitated a structured approach to organising its people into ethnic groups. This practice found its way into administrative structures that pervade many aspects of Singaporean life today.

As interracial marriages continue to make up a fifth of all marriages each year, and transnational marriages make up a third, ethnic classifications will become more and more contested as mixed-heritage citizens become the norm rather than the exception. One point of contestation has typically been that of language policy, as one’s ethnicity has typically dictated the second language studied in school. As language shapes cultural identity, this has serious implications for individuals, families and communities. Kwame Anthony Appiah wittily says that “what the state gazes upon, it tends to turn to stone.” Aptly named the Medusa Syndrome, state-backed identities could run the risk of ossification, even as external forces continuously reshape lived experiences.

Beyond cultural implications of one’s second language, there could also be tensions that result from viewing identities in a rigid manner. For instance, there might be increasingly difficult-to-hold conversations around obligations and values, as the state, its people and communities wrongly confer expectations and attitudes upon each other. The active “classification” of people by the state also inadvertently creates a sense of being watched, cultivating a sense of power asymmetry.

To counter this, it is suggested that states build “trellises” to nurture identities that work well for the respective governance contexts. These could take the form of common values that are regularly discussed, cultural institutions that preserve old identities while embracing new ones or facilitating a more participative citizenry in regular debates on policy and legislation.

Whither the symbolic economy?

The digital economy, mass automation and the augmentation of humans using AI in the course of work have led many to believe that work will be reduced and many of us will spend less time being productive. Whether it be a future with less work or one where employment is discontinuous (especially in an economically uncertain world), people who typically ascribe value to themselves through their profession would lose a critical source of identity. As professions begin to unravel, so would the centrality of work to our identities.

In many theses on the future of work, it is suggested that people might find meaning in other ways, such as through charity and volunteer work, or risk developing mental health issues due to identity anxiety. Another possibility is a rise in the symbolic economy — symbolic goods such as social networks, status and cultural experiences could become even more central to people’s lives. This is already observed among the super-rich — Robert Frank paints that little-known parallel of the super-rich in his 2007 book Richistan, showing, among obnoxious status symbols and priorities of these “financial foreigners”, a pursuit of passion projects in the arts and culture. The pursuit of some symbols today transcends social status. For example, Emirati across social strata enjoy falconry, a sport popularised by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Falconry is seen to symbolise patience, strength and intelligence, and its popularity has risen significantly in recent years.

“Symbolic goods like social status and networks could become ever more central to our identities.”

Some aspects of symbolic economy are increasingly accessible to the masses today and probably will be to the “displaced” of tomorrow. Social connections and status will be increasingly created and maintained on social networks and virtual worlds — spaces that are likely to be more democratised in the future as the technology becomes more widely available and digital corporations fight to capture people in a competitive attention economy. What might be less accessible to the poor of the future could in fact be a meaningful symbolic economy in the real world.

 Pervasive digital technology has given rise to a phenomenon termed surveillance capitalism — described as a perverse form of capitalism where companies provide free digital services to people in exchange for data that allows service providers to monitor user behaviours in great detail, often without consent. A term introduced by Shoshana Zuboff in her 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “surveillance capitalism” allows those who obtain detailed user data to make predictions about our behaviour. Subconscious behaviours and preferences are attributes of identity that are often not known even to their owners. These behaviours, once private and complex, are now known and interpreted by someone else for monetary or political gain. As people spend more time in virtual worlds, a new underclass could emerge — one that has little agency over their behavioural data, manipulated in the mutually-reinforcing cycle of the attention economy.

The platform makes – or breaks – the digital identity

Social media-powered digital communities have been likened to various things at various moments: a new source of social resilience, a digital sanctuary for the physically disabled, or even a wellspring of social change. On many levels, this is true; we have witnessed the power of a hashtag to spark significant shifts in social debates — the #MeToo movement is a case in point. The Overton Window has shifted rapidly in this age of hyper-connectivity — absolutist political rhetoric and extreme political vocabulary have become normalised in our social consciousness. Words and ideas once taboo mere years ago have become acceptable utterances at a politician’s whim. In another instance of empowerment through connectivity, a disabled teenager living a near-solitary life created a vast network of close friends as he became a virtual mentor to them in an MMORPG — a fact that only became known to his friends in the real world on the occasion of his funeral, when some of these “virtual” friends flew in to pay their respects.

Even as the power of digital communities and identities has been transformative, it also has limitations. At the community level, it is up for debate whether digital communities would confer solidarity amongst its members in real life — would your affiliation to your local World of Warcraft group be so strong that it compels you to help a fellow player during a real-world terror attack?

Games, in fact, have long been viewed as promoting antisocial behaviour and being detrimental to real-life communities, which is not always true. In The Proteus Paradox, psychologist Nick Yee taps on extensive research into the lives of MMORPG gamers to show that social norms and leadership skills are equally, if not more strongly, expressed in-game compared to real life. Norms and irrational behaviours, such as superstition, are also observed in the game world, as are courtship and rivalries. In Second Life, an online game where users create and inhabit virtual worlds, users were inclined to replicate real world places rather than imagine fictitious ones. But not all games amplify real world identities — new games where many functions and narratives are automated, and where players can easily be self-sufficient, are limiting the need for social interaction and the formation of new communities. These types of games not only minimise social interactions online, but could worsen loneliness in the longer term — a growing concern in many countries.

“Would your affiliation to your local World of Warcraft group be so strong that it compels you to help a fellow player during a real-world terror attack?”

In “The Sound of Breaking Up” by Felicity Savage, an isolated yet hyper-connected world has given rise to a culture that professionalises real-life interactions. The protagonist, for example, works as a virtual divorce broker. Science fiction aside, the idea of physical social skills becoming a rarity is not implausible. Might a pervasive internet culture render analogue skills and experiences a mark of privilege, helping to distinguish the elites from the masses?

Identity based on common humanity

Identity is complex, malleable and ever-evolving. While driving forces like technology and hyper-connectivity could drastically reshape them, states should also appreciate the profound role they play. States, communities and individuals must appreciate the “hyphenated” and ever-changing nature of identity. Nonetheless, we should also not lose sight of the underlying continuities driving identity. As Haidt says: “Identity politics is not bad; you have to have a politics of identity. But you can have one based on a common humanity, which is what we say works. Or you can have one based on a common enemy …. That may feel good and there may be some truth to it, but it is not an effective way to bring about change.”

About the author:

Liana Tang is Deputy Head of the Centre for Strategic Futures in the Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore. It serves as a focal point for futures thinking within the Singapore Government. This piece was first published in the centre’s biennial publication Foresight, which covers research into international megatrends and emerging issues.