Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the Joint Initiative “Grateful for the Present, Nurturing the Future” in Support of the Lee Kuan Yew Centennial Fund on 15 September 2023.
Leaders of the Business Chambers, Clans and Community Associations,
Distinguished Guests, Students,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very glad to join all of you here at this Joint Initiative in Support of the Lee Kuan Yew Centennial Fund.
Tomorrow will be the centenary of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s birth. If he was still with us, Mr Lee would be 100 years old tomorrow. Reflecting on his life and with the desire to thank him, I think this truly is an opportunity for all of us to consider the values, principles and ideals upon which modern Singapore was built: multi-racialism, meritocracy, incorruptibility, just to name a few.
These ideals have shaped our society. They have been the bedrock of our success over the decades. When most people think about Singapore’s success, they usually think about our economic success – how we transformed from “3rd world to 1st within one generation”.
What is even more remarkable is that we have, in a very short period of time, built a nation out of a collection of migrants, and people from diverse backgrounds.
As Mr Lee himself said on 9 Aug 1965 when Singapore became independent: we are going to be a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion”.
On that basis, Mr Lee and our founding leaders worked hard to build today’s Singapore, where people from different backgrounds, different races not only live side by side harmoniously, but we actively supported one another, and we progress together as one united people.
It is this same spirit of nation building that underpins this joint initiative today. It was initiated by Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA) the President, Mr. Thomas Chua, and SCCCI and its President, Mr Kho Choon Keng. So we thank both organisations and their leaders for initiating this.
They also decided to reach out to the other organisations, who responded very enthusiastically.
Today all of you here, business chambers across the different segments of our society, our clans, trade and business associations representing our different races, have all come together to raise funds for the Lee Kuan Yew Centennial Fund to support the development of our youth. And I am glad there are many young people here in this room as well, representing them.
Working with your respective network, your members, schools, trade associations as well as all your community partners – from what I understand, close to 400 organisations – you rallied Singaporeans from all walks of life to support this very meaningful initiative.
Through your collective efforts, you have raised more than $10 million within a very short period of time. Today I would like to acknowledge the efforts of everyone involved in this joint initiative; and also to our many donors who contributed generously – a very big thank you to all of you!
The funds will be used for a cause that is very close to Mr Lee’s heart. He always recognised that Singapore’s only resource is our people. And our people are our most critical and precious assets. So he made investing in our people, especially our youth, a top priority.
The funds you have raised will go a long way in supporting scholarships, development programmes, and additional support for disadvantaged students at our Institutes of Higher Learning. You can all be assured that we will make good use of these funds to continue supporting young people in Singapore.
As we mark Mr Lee’s Centenary, the best tribute we can pay to him is not just by fundraising, but importantly, by upholding the founding values, principles and ideals upon which we have built today’s Singapore.
This is why I am glad that all of you also rallied Singaporeans to pledge their support – to sign on the signature books and pledge their support for these founding values. I understand a sizeable number of signatures have been collected and there will be a big reveal of this later.
The pledges and the signatures demonstrate that there is strong resonance of these founding values and ideals in our society today.
One core value very important to us is multi-racialism and mutual support. It is something we have nurtured over the years. Credit must go to all our business chambers, and self-help groups that are involved in this.
Whether it is keeping our major events open to all races – it is something we do in Singapore which is very unique, because we not only celebrate the major festivals of all our races, but we do it in an open an inclusive manner. We invite friends of different races and religions to join us; or collaborating with other organisations across different racial groups and ethnic groups to pursue business opportunities; or working together as self-help groups to support the vulnerable, these shared initiatives are ways in which all of you helped to promote multi-culturalism, even as you served your own members and communities. Because of your hard work, because of all your efforts, we have in Singapore a very strong spirit of solidarity across racial and religious lines.
It is now so intrinsic, so much part of our everyday life, so embedded within our Singapore DNA, that it is something we have grown to expect as very natural. It is easy to take for granted in Singapore.
But if you look around us, you look at countries everywhere around the world, what we have here in Singapore is a very remarkable state of affairs. In so many other places when there are differences, the differences become entrenched, they become tribal, people break up into tribes, and deep divisions form around these tribes, and you have a divided society, you have a polarised society.
This has not happened in Singapore. Instead, we have found strength amidst our diversity. It is what makes Singapore distinctive and unique compared to many other places. And we must treasure this, and continue to strengthen our multiculturalism and unity across generations.
Looking ahead, our operating environment is changing rapidly. Externally, we face a more volatile and uncertain world, characterised by heightened geopolitical contestation and increased protectionism. Within Singapore, we have to deal with our own challenges, including social changes and a rapidly ageing population.
Navigating all of these changes will require us to re-affirm the core values which have enabled Singapore to succeed.
At the same time, we must need the courage to change where change is needed. We must also know when to re-examine our assumptions and policies, and update them to suit our own circumstances. It cannot be everything stays unchanged – you have to affirm some values, some things should remain the same, but some things also need to change.
This was something Mr Lee Kuan Yew was always very conscious about. Of course, if you have interacted with Mr Lee, you will know he has very strong views on many things. If you want to debate with him, you better be well prepared. But he never failed to question the way we did things and was always prepared to change his mind. As he would say, we are not idealogues in Singapore; we are practical, we are pragmatic people, we are not inhibited by theory because our test is, does the idea work? Does it bring benefits to Singaporeans? So if you have a better idea, if someone has a better idea, then we should be open minded and we should embrace the new idea. We should not always say what we do today is the best and we must never change – that is not the Singaporean way and that was certainly not how Mr Lee Kuan Yew behaved.
In fact, throughout his lifetime, you would know he changed his mind on many occasions – he changed his mind on the F1. We are having an F1 race this weekend. For a long time, Singapore said F1 was bad, no F1. He changed his mind on the F1, and we have F1 today, and it brought tremendous success for Singapore. He changed his mind on the casino and the Integrated Resort. And again, it has transformed our economy, created many good jobs for Singaporeans. He changed his mind on preschool education, and in recent years, the government has invested significantly in early childhood education to give every Singaporean a good start in life.
What should we retain and uphold? What should we change? These are the questions that we are constantly asking ourselves, and we are in fact now deliberating over these questions as part of the Forward Singapore exercise. We are engaging Singaporeans widely and reviewing our policies comprehensively. We want to see what programmes we can put in place, and what we might do differently to refresh our social compact and keep our society cohesive and strong.
But crucially, this exercise is not just about what the Government can do. It is also about what all of us can do together. Many Singaporeans we engaged aspired to have a society where we all feel a deep sense of kinship and responsibility for one another.
Business and community groups like yourselves play a key role in strengthening this sense of solidarity. I would like to encourage all of you to continue to work together and consider more ways that you can contribute to our society.
From a government’s point of view, we want to see more ground up, shared initiatives, more ground up joint initiatives, like the Lee Kuan Yew Centennial Fund, and today’s very meaningful programme.
There are many things you can do together across a wide range of social issues, e.g. to come together to help businesses expand overseas; to support the disadvantaged and vulnerable segments in our society; nurture our youth; or strengthen multi-racialism in our society etc. All of you are key partners in this endeavour of nation building, and all of you can contribute to our next phase of building a better Singapore.
40 years ago, Mr Lee Kuan Yew marked his 60th birthday. He spoke at the event – he was 60 years old and was in a rather reflective mood. He thought about the past, and contemplated the future. He said: “(the past is) not preordained. Nor is the future. There will be unexpected problems ahead, as there were in the past. They have to be met, grappled with and resolved. For only a people who are willing to face up to their problems, and are prepared to work with their leaders to meet unexpected hardships with courage and resolution deserve to thrive and to prosper….(I) hope that Singaporeans will be such a people”.
These words by Mr Lee 40 years ago, when he was 60 years old, continue to ring through today. The best way for us to uphold his legacy, to thank Mr Lee, is to demonstrate we are indeed a people who will be prepared to confront whatever problems we have together. The past was not fore-ordained. Neither is the future predestined. There will be many curveballs and disruptions ahead of us, as there were in the past.
In the last three years – we battled the pandemic and COVID-19 together. And looking back at what we have been through, I think we can draw courage and confidence that we have nothing to fear. We will always overcome. We will always prevail, so long as we continue to stand side by side in solidarity with one another, and work together as “one united people”.
Hand in hand, let us chart our way forward, and build a better and stronger Singapore for all, for that is the best way in which we can uphold the legacy of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Thank you very much.
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