Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies on 8 September 2022.
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Mr Edwin Tong
Chairman, Council of Presidential Advisers, Mr Eddie Teo Parliamentary Colleagues
Distinguished Guests and Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen
I’m very happy to join you here today for your last day of the conference and to see such a large crowd here. To all our overseas guest, a warm welcome! I hope you have had a very fruitful event so far, interacting with one another and learning new insights about how we can build more cohesive societies. This event could not have come at a better time, because about a week ago we relaxed our Covid measures further – we have said that masks are optional now indoors. Optional means that you can still wear if you want to. It is interesting that, in this room everyone has decided not to. It is okay if you choose to wear a mask for personal reasons, please do not feel uneasy. That is fine. Of course, if you choose not to wear a mask, that is okay too.
It’s no mean feat to gather so many of us from all over the world here in one room. I’m sure we all treasure such physical gatherings more than ever, especially after what we have been through these last two and a half years.
We’ve all had our own experience navigating the last two and a half years of Covid-19. It has been a difficult journey, full of ups and downs. We have our share of setbacks everywhere around the world, but I believe it has taught us some valuable lessons. Beyond a public health crisis, the pandemic was also a test of social cohesion. It demanded the best of everyone in society. From government to healthcare workers, from essential workers to ordinary citizens, everyone had to come together and do their part. Key to that collective action was trust – trust in the medical authorities and in one’s government to manage the crisis; trust in one another to do the right thing. Under the pressing strain of a pandemic, the true texture of society shone through. Whether people would mask up and get themselves vaccinated. Whether they would exercise personal and social responsibility and whether they would rally together to support one another. All these revealed the strength of trust and social cohesion of our societies, and indeed it turned out to be a key factor why some countries fared better than others in dealing with the pandemic.
An Oxford study, for example, found that high-trust countries had lower Covid death rates1. They looked at all the different factors, whether it was a country’s healthcare system, or medical advice, but in the end none of these things were the defining factors that resulted in lower death rates. The key factor was the level of trust in a society. So having a strong foundation of trust matters, and it matters greatly. When a crisis hits, if trust is high, half the battle is won.
Across many countries we are fortunately now in a better situation than before where Covid is concerned, but the challenges never end. Supply chain disruptions have led to the rising costs of food, fuel, and electricity, straining social cohesion in many places. Geopolitical tensions have made the world even more dangerous, troubled and volatile. In such a backdrop, peace and stability in Asia can no longer be taken for granted. Each of our societies will be tested, perhaps severely in the coming years. Therefore, the question for all of us is this: How can we deepen the reservoir of trust in our societies, to strengthen social cohesion in our societies as we enter a more volatile world?
Naturally, every society has its own circumstances, its unique cultural and historical context. While we can learn from one another’s experiences, it is up to each society to negotiate and balance the competing interests among its people. Let me today share very briefly a few of my own reflections from Singapore’s vantage point today. I hope these may resonate with you in your various fields of work.
If I were to distil Singapore’s approach, it would be this: That social cohesion does not come about by chance, but it is achieved only through a deliberate and consistent effort to understand one another, to accommodate one another, and to flourish together. Let me touch on these three points briefly.
First, social cohesion begins with all of us working together sincerely to understand one another. Because we naturally gravitate towards those who look or sound like us, and away from those who appear different. That is just human tendency. If we let these instincts take charge and get in the way of mutual understanding, social cohesion will be doomed. So we must actively seek to overcome these basic human tendencies.
This starts with something very fundamental – the idea of contact and interaction between people of different backgrounds. In Singapore, again we do not leave this by chance, we do this very deliberately.
For example, our public housing policy ensures that people of different races live in the same block, in the same neighbourhood, so they have opportunities to interact with each other in their daily lives. Their children will play together in the same playground, and they grow up together, fostering that sense of common identity.
Our national schools as well as National Service in Singapore (or compulsory military service for males) are the common formative experiences for all young Singaporeans, regardless of their backgrounds. Whether it is playing together, eating at the same hawker centres, or going to the same schools, these shared experiences help our people see that they have more in common than they might have first imagined.
At the same time, we put much effort into promoting dialogue amongst community, religious, and Government leaders. One way we do this is through the multi-racial and multi-religious Harmony Circles. This brings together local leaders and their communities. They visit one another’s places of worship, they learn about other communities’ histories and cultures, and even participate in each other’s religious and ethnic celebrations. Through such platforms, Singaporeans of different faiths and different races interact with one another, understand one another’s perspectives – and hopefully establish friendship and trust with each other.
But engendering social contact alone is not enough, because in diverse societies, and many of ours are diverse societies, there are bound to be issues where we will not see eye to eye. There may even be deeply held positions stemming from fundamentally different world views. Often, these are strong convictions that we cannot easily set aside. The question then is how do we resolve these fundamental disagreements – how do we strike how do we strike a balance, and not allow different views tear a society apart?
Across the world, we’ve seen many instances of such disagreements leading to division. In the absence of dialogue and compromise, the issues turn into zero-sum battles – if I win, you lose; there is no other way. Groups start pitting themselves one against another. The texture of society changes, to one of suspicion andantagonism. Under such strain, it becomes difficult to even tackle existential issues where we all have stakes in, like climate change.
Singapore’s own history in resolving such differences was instructive because we had experienced violent racial riots in the sixties, and after that lesson, we resolved to go down a different path.
This leads me to my second point, that we have decided to resolve differences through negotiation and compromise – by fostering a culture of accommodation.
How have we done this? Our guiding principle is to preserve maximum space for each community to lead their lives. You do not have to assimilate to any common standard. Every community is given space to lead their lives freely. It does not mean giving each group everything they want, but rather we strive to arrive at a balance of interests that everyone can accept and live with. It also means rejecting calls for maximum entitlements by any single group and avoiding attempts to construe every compromise as an injustice. This is not easy to do, but, over time, it has become ingrained in our collective mindset, and when people see that this is not only possible, but valuable and precious, it spurs them on to engage with one another, build consensus, find ways to compromise different views and deepen social cohesion in the process.
This is of course a never-ending journey. It is always a work in progress because society’s norms and views will continue to evolve, and so too must our policies, and the balance we strike in our society. So, we continually review and update our policies not through forceful top-down decisions, but through negotiation and compromise.
Finally, to foster social cohesion and trust, societies must allow everyone to flourish together. At the end of the day, individuals in a society must feel that they are part of the society, where they can: benefit from the nation’s progress, forge dignified and fulfilling lives for themselves and their families; and see their children doing better than they did. In short, they must see an arc of progress in their society, and not feel eclipsed by it. That is why it is important that we pursue inclusive growth, where a rising tide does lift all boats, where prosperity is shared widely by all segments of society.
Again, it is easier said than done as we all know. Across many places around the world, we have seen inequality stretch out the gap between the haves and the have-nots. In the developed world, stagnant wages have led the middle class in many places to lose hope for a betterlife. When people find themselves excluded from the nation’s progress, they grow resentful. They feel that the system is not fair, and that the system is stacked against them.
All these unhappiness and frustration become fertile ground for exclusionary and xenophobic politics, which only exacerbates social divides. No society is immune from these forces – certainly not Singapore. That is why we continually review our policies to see how can pursue inclusive growth and continue to narrow our income gaps. And that is why we have embarked recently on an exercise to refresh and strengthen our social compact. To ensure that we can pursue robust and inclusive growth, with opportunities for every citizen, and to provide assurance to our people that they will be supported if they fall on hard times. That they will not be left to fend for themselves in a dangerous and volatile world.
We have called this exercise Forward Singapore because we hope to build consensus on the way forward, and, in so doing, deepen our social cohesion. Crucially, we want everyone in Singapore to have a part to play in shaping this new social compact, because building a better, more inclusive Singapore is not just the Government’s responsibility, but also that of every community and every citizen. So for the Singaporeans here, I hope you will actively contribute your ideas and efforts to this exercise, as an extension of the conversations you’ve been having these past few days, and as we urge society to come together, to hear from one another, and examine what each of us can contribute, and what trade-offs we would be prepared to accept, I am confident that we can strengthen our social compact to arrive at the future we all want as Singaporeans.
Meanwhile, to our international friends, we are sharing what we have done in Singapore; we hope it will be useful for you and wilI provide food for thought as you go back to your respective countries and think about how you might chart your own way forward to build more cohesive societies.
To conclude. Each of us is involved in the project of social cohesion in different ways, in our respective communities andsocieties. It is not easy, and it can often seem like an uphill battle. Sometimes it seems like you take three steps forward, only to then take another two steps back. But I hope as a community of practitioners and leaders, we will encourage one another, and we will press on in our shared labours, because the work is never finished, and it must carry on. For if we do, if we deepen, tighten, and strengthen the societies we belong to, we will also do our part to make this world better, and perhaps a little brighter and that is certainly a project well worth our while to pursue.
Thank you very much.
1 Thomas Hale, Noam Angrist, Rafel Goldszmidt, Beatriz Kira, Anna Petherick, Toby Phillips, Samuel Webster, Emily Cameron-Blake, Laura Hallas, Saptarshi Majumdar, and Helen Tatlow. (2021). “A global panel database of pandemic policies (Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker).” Nature Human Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01079-8
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