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The Star - Sharing the Nation - Diversity our source of strength (7 February 2016)
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Diversity our source of strength

We don’t need studies to tell us that being a multi-ethnic society makes us brighter, more creative and more likely to come up with the right answers. We know it because we are now living it.

THE past few weeks, I have been reading articles on how social diversity makes us smarter. Putting together people of different races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations actually leads us to make smarter and more innovative decisions than homogeneous groups.

Just interacting with others who are different forces us to work harder: we prepare better, we anticipate differences of opinion and perspective, and we know that we need to make more effort to reach consensus.

Numerous studies are available on this. One Forbes study identified workforce diversity and inclusion as a key driver of internal innovations and business growth.

A McKinsey study found that companies with diverse executive boards enjoy significantly higher earnings and returns on equity.

A Harvard Business School study revealed that multicultural networks promote creativity. Another study of 177 national banks in the United States revealed that increases in racial diversity were clearly related to enhanced financial performance.

A Credit Suisse Research Institute report which examined 2,360 companies globally from 2005-2011 found that companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing of debt to equity and better average growth.

Another study of 1.5 million scientific papers written between 1985-2008 found that papers written by ethnically diverse groups receive more citations and have higher impact factors than papers written by people of the same ethnic group.

In a study on the effect of racial and ethnic diversity on finding accurate answers to analytical problems, academics Sheen Levine and David Stark found that when participants were in diverse company, their answers were 58% more accurate. Conducting the experiments in the United States and Singapore, the researchers found that when surrounded by others of the same ethnic or racial group, participants were more likely to copy others, in the wrong direction. Mistakes spread as they mindlessly imitate.

In the diverse groups, participants were more likely to distinguish between wrong and accurate answers. Diversity they said, brought cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation.

“When surrounded by people ‘like ourselves,’ we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas. Diversity prompts better critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting towards miscalculation,” they concluded.

In making the case for affirmative action in universities to admit historically disadvantaged groups, they argue that racial and ethnic diversity matter for learning and promote sharper thinking for everyone, thus benefiting both majority and minority groups.

In Malaysia, we have always said our diversity is our strength. We even sell the country on the basis of our diversity: Malaysia Truly Asia. And yet for over a decade now, we have been shooting ourselves in the foot, negating our diversity.

Those different from us are seen as threats to the race, to the religion. Our schools have become mono-ethnic. Our universities, public or private, are dominated by one ethnic group or another. Our Islam that once embraced our plural heritage is becoming monochrome and intolerant of diversity.

And yet, more than any other country, we should today have been the leading light in the practice of multi-culturalism in a world that is increasingly diverse.

We should have much to share on how to manage diversity and eschew a winner takes all game in nation building. We should have benefited the most from our long history and tradition of living together in diversity.

In a world that is getting younger, more entrepreneurial, more diverse, more plural, we should be at the forefront.

But alas, we continue to dig ourselves deeper into a dark hole, negating what is best about us. Today, our political stability is no longer a competitive advantage.

Economic analysis of Malaysia’s investment climate today cites not just the growing racial and religious intolerance as a threat, but more seriously the silence of the political leadership in dealing with inflammatory and threatening agitation as an even bigger concern.

In fact, crisis after crisis are orchestrated by labelling, condemning, and taking actions against those who speak out for rule of law, for diversity, for rights and freedoms. If only that same amount of time and human resources and cunning are put forward to build bridges and embrace our diversity, we could have been in Davos selling our success story to a Europe that feels so threatened by the influx of people different from them.

How long more can this country take this pummelling by those determined to tear it apart for immediate political and economic gain? We all have a sense of foreboding that if the political leadership shows no will to seek solutions to infractious problems, to build bridges across the many divides and to do the right thing, then we might just prove the prophets of gloom and doom right.

That’s why we see individuals and civil society groups speaking out to push for change, to take the bull by the horns and deal with the contentious issues of race and religion that threaten to tear us apart.

If the leaders can’t lead, if our institutions are failing us, then it is the rakyat who will show the way to maintain ethnic peace, to uphold the rule of law, to search for solutions, to stand up for justice and fairness, to lead where others dare not go. It is because we love this country that we cannot afford to stand by helplessly.

But the reality is we are one multi-ethnic country that has embraced diversity and saw it as a source of strength like no other.

We have learnt to work and live together for so long. Our founding leaders have always believed this country could not survive without the different ethnic groups being able to live together to share the nation. This has been our political leitmotif.

We really don’t need any scientific research to prove that diversity is strength, diversity makes us smart, bright, innovative, creative and helps us reach the right answers. We know it because we lived it. And we know what happens when various locations where we live, study, work, play, and make decisions lack diversity, or see diversity as a threat. We come out the worse for it. We know it because we are now living it.

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