Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the Harmonyworks! Conference 2022 on Sunday, 24 July 2022 at ITE College Central.
Chairman of OnePeople.sg, Dr Janil Puthucheary,
Parliamentary colleague, Mdm Rahayu Mahzam,
Very good to see all of you here this afternoon. I am glad to join you today for this year’s HarmonyWorks! Conference.
The theme of the conference is about “Kampung 2.0 - Weaving multiple identities and forging common ground” – I think it is especially appropriate in our diverse multi-racial and multi-religious society.
To begin with, I think all of us will agree we all have multiple identities and affiliations. For many, race and religion will be key aspects of their identities. But there are also other ways that we identify with one another. For example, the schools we go to. Those who are students now may feel a very strong sense of loyalty and identity as alumni of their school after they graduate, or it could be the interests and causes that we share with one another.
These are also forms of identities. And it is natural for us to want to connect and identify with the people whom we think, or feel are similar to us, who share similar perspectives, views and causes.
But regardless of our diverse backgrounds, there is also something very special about the commonality we share, all of us as Singaporeans. And for a young diverse nation like Singapore, we can be very proud that this sense of a distinctive Singaporean identity is growing stronger year by year.
It may be difficult to express in words what this Singaporean identity is. If I were to ask, what makes you Singaporean, what makes us Singaporeans? We may not always be able to express it eloquently in words, but I would say it is in our attitudes. It is in our mindsets and our shared experiences. It is certainly in our food, and our lifestyle. It is in the way we work, the way we talk, the way we cheer for Team Singapore together.
In fact, it is quite easy to tell a Singaporean Chinese from an ethnic Chinese from any other country. You can easily pick out the Singaporean. The same goes for a Singaporean Malay or a Singaporean Indian. You may find a Malay or Indian with others of similar backgrounds, but you know who amongst them is a Singaporean. And that is why when you go overseas, it is always very easy to tell a fellow Singaporean and pick that fellow Singaporean out. Because I think there is something uniquely Singaporean about us and that distinctive Singaporean identity is becoming stronger.
This did not come about by chance; it has grown over the years through our shared experiences. I am 50 this year, so my formative years were largely in the 70s and 80s. Because of my age, my experiences may be different from many of yours in the audience.
But if I think about my own experiences growing up, and the common spaces and shared experiences brought me and my friends from diverse backgrounds together: It was firstly growing up in a HDB estate – the void decks, the playgrounds around us, and playing with friends with different backgrounds. It was growing up going to the kindergarten near our home, and all the schools near our home.
For me, it was Marine Parade in the east, all my friends lived nearby, therefore we would go the same schools, primary and secondary. And after school, we would get together, very often it would be at the beach along the East Coast, where we would have barbecues and go cycling on the weekends. Sometimes we would watch a movie around the Parkway Parade area because that was where we grew up.
It was also eating at our hawker centres, again all around the East in Marine Parade. Till today, my friends and I can tell you where the best food is, whether it is Roti John, Roti Prata, Hokkien Mee, Prawn Noodles, Oyster Omelette, whatever it is, because those were our experiences growing up.
It was doing National Service where we trained together and we came together as a team, from being recruits to training as officer cadets and then later on in the infantry battalion that we served.
It was also at National Stadium where we all came together to cheer for our football team during the Malaysia Cup matches.
Our shared experience encompassed the TV shows that we watched. For many of us older folks, there was only SBC TV serials to watch. It is not just Chinese people, because it was in Mandarin, but everyone watched them. From “The Awakening” to other shows, we all watched the same shows, and grew up talking about them.
So, these are my recollections. And some of these shared experiences are still relevant today. HDB is still highly relevant, hawker centres, schools, National Service, they are still very important experiences to build our common ground on. We should never take them for granted, and therefore we should cherish these common platforms, common spaces, these institutions that bring us together, and work to make them even better. And that is why I think we should celebrate that our hawker centres are now enshrined as part of the UNESCO intangible heritage, because it is certainly an important part of our culture and heritage.
But in other areas, it has become harder to come together. For example sports – football is clearly still one sport that can bring the most number of people together in Singapore, in my view, compared to other sports. But the reality is people follow many other sports today, and many other teams beyond our local teams. The most recent example of this when the National Stadium had a well-attended event recently, not for the Singapore football team, but for Liverpool FC. And in Singapore we also have Manchester United fans, FC Barcelona fans, etc. We have got more options.
TV experiences are also more fragmented than before. We no longer watch the same thing on TV, because there are so many more options now. It is not just free-to-air, but cable, and streaming channels too. Take your pick – Amazon, Netflix, Disney, whatever it is, we all watch different things now.
Social media too is fragmenting audiences because it allows us to connect with like-minded people – those who share the same interests and passions – but it also means we can fall back on our own familiar groups and it reduces the diversity of our interactions.
So, some things that bring us come together still remain, but there are also many areas where our interactions are becoming more limited. And all this means fewer opportunities for shared experiences and fewer opportunities to connect with one another.
Over time, if we are not careful, we may retreat in our silos and find comfort in our own tribes and have fewer interactions with others. And if this were to happen, it means we will find it harder to understand our fellow Singaporeans who hold different views, live in different communities, or have different lived experiences.
We may even end up with a situation where one day you say “I can never understand your experience; and you can never understand mine” because we literally live in different worlds. All this can easily increase misunderstandings, mistrust and undermine our social cohesion.
This is not just a theoretical proposition; it has happened in other places. Take the US for example – more than 20 years ago, nearly two-thirds of Americans surveyed would say they had good or a great deal of trust in the wisdom of their fellow citizens; now it has come down to about a third.
Two generations ago in the US – if you asked people “are your neighbours trustworthy”, close to 50% said yes. Now it is only 30%; and for the millennials and GenZ when they poll different age groups, it is much lower than 30%. One reason is because for the younger generation, you have fewer shared experiences, fewer bonding experiences, and so trust levels are lower.
We want to ensure this never happens in Singapore, because if we start to lose in faith in each other, our nation collapses.
And that is why we must continue to protect the common spaces in our society that everyone shares – in our HDB estates, our neighbourhoods and schools – and strive to maximise our interactions between different groups in society.
Each one of us must also do our part too – to work harder to seek out and engage with those who are different from us, online or otherwise. We should speak up against racism whenever we encounter it, wherever it is.
We should strengthen the social norms that bring us closer together – like graciousness, kindness, and the care and consideration of others.
We should make the extra effort ourselves to interact with people from different races – have a meal with them, bond with them, make friends with them.
And while we have done better over the years, I think there is a lot more that can be done. We just have to ask ourselves how many friends each of us have of a different race. I think for most people, the honest answer is that most of our close friends come from the same backgrounds as us. So clearly, there is more that can be done.
With a foundation of strong relationships across various communities, we will be able find common ground when difficult issues arise, and we can build understanding across identity lines, and find ways to move forward as a society.
Concurrently, we must always strive to ensure that our society is one where everyone can progress and have a better life, across all communities, that no one and certainly no community is left behind.
And there are many cautionary lessons when you look at what has happened in developed Western countries.
In many of these places, they have experienced years of income stagnation, especially among the lower income but even amongst the middle income too, and a vast majority of people feel that they have been left out from the nation’s progress. They feel the system only benefits the rich.
When that happens, people lose trust in the system, and they lost trust in one another. As a result, you have social and political divisions in many of these places that have become so entrenched that getting an agreement even on simple issues becomes very difficult, if not impossible.
The lesson for us is clear: inclusive growth is essential to keeping our society harmonious, cohesive, and strong. And that is why we must always build a society that benefits many and not a few; that celebrates all individuals for who they are and what they can achieve; that provides everyone with opportunities to do better throughout their lives.
Of course, it is not always possible for the economy to do well all the time. From time to time, we will have setbacks. We don’t wish for crises or hard times to happen to Singapore at all; But if these occasions do arise, we can embrace these difficult times as crucible experiences for us to come together and tackle our challenges as one people and strengthen our solidarity as a nation. This is precisely what Singapore has done all these years, from crisis to crisis, starting from the very first crisis when we were booted out of the Malayan Federation and became an independent nation.
And throughout the decades, we have encountered other crises. In the last 20 years, we have the Asian Financial Crisis, SARS, Global Financial Crisis. And in the last 2 years we have been tackling Covid-19 together.
In every crisis, we have never succumbed and given up. Instead, we have rallied together, we have held together as one people, dealt with the challenges head-on and emerged stronger as a people and as a nation.
Indeed, in the last two years, we have seen the best of Singaporeans. Many went out of their way, went the extra mile to help their fellow citizens. Others made sacrifices to help keep everyone safe. So, I am confident that we will emerge stronger from this Covid-19 crisis.
Looking ahead, we do face many other challenges – the pandemic is not over, it is better now but we know it is not over. We have also got the Ukraine war that has changed in our external environment. It has already caused an economic slowdown and a spike in inflation, especially in energy and food.
But in these difficult times, we must work even harder to strengthen our social compact. Because it is in times of difficulties and crises like this that our values and convictions as a people are crystallised.
And that is why we are embarking on the Forward Singapore exercise – to refresh and strengthen our social compact, and to ensure we remain strong and united as a nation as we chart our new way forward.
All of you, our youths, are key to the refreshing of the social compact. We want to work with you to co-create this new compact for Singapore, to shape our future, and chart our new way forward together.
This is why youth-led forums like this are important. They provide a valuable platform for youth to engage one another, to share and discuss your views and ideas on how we can strengthen our society and take Singapore forward. So later on, at our engagement session, I certainly look forward to hearing your perspectives and views.
To conclude, the trust that we all have in Singapore is our most crucial and valuable resource. It is something we must never take for granted. Singapore is a high trust society. There is strong trust between the government and the people but importantly, a very high level of trust between Singaporeans. You cannot say that for almost any other country in the world, so that is quite special, and that is a crucial and valuable resource which we must continue to strengthen.
Let us find ways to keep it going, and to keep Singapore strong and united. Let us work hand-in-hand to forge a better Singapore. And together realise a fairer, and a more cohesive and inclusive society, with opportunities for all.
Thank you very much.
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