SM Teo Chee Hean at the Opening Ceremony of the 4th Singapore-China Social Governance Forum

SM Teo Chee Hean | 19 June 2024

Keynote address by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean at the opening ceremony of the 4th Singapore-China Social Governance Forum on 19 June 2024.


Opportunities for All, Where Everyone has a Stake –
Singapore’s Approach to Social Harmony

His Excellency Chen Wenqing
Member of the Political Bureau, Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee of the People’s Republic of China

His Excellency Masagos Zulkifli
Minister for Social and Family Development of the Republic of Singapore

His Excellency Yin Bai
Secretary-General of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee of the People’s Republic of China


Ladies and Gentlemen

Good morning, and a very warm welcome to Secretary Chen Wenqing and his delegation to the 4th Singapore-China Social Governance Forum, and to Singapore.

Last year, President Xi Jinping and then-Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong agreed to upgrade bilateral relations to an “All-Round High-Quality Future-Oriented Partnership”. Both sides agreed to make full use of existing intergovernmental mechanisms to strengthen cooperation between Singapore and China. We welcome the resumption of the Social Governance Forum, in accordance with the direction from our leaders. The Social Governance Forum allows us to share experiences, concepts, and ideas to achieve harmony in our societies.

While our countries differ greatly in size, we share important similarities. China and Singapore have both experienced rapid economic growth. This has resulted in changes to our social structure and our workforce over a relatively short span of time. We both have diverse populations. And we now face challenges with rising expectations from our citizens and also our ageing societies.

This forum is an important platform for us to exchange perspectives on how we each address these common issues in our societies, and adapt any useful lessons from each other to our own country’s context. I am pleased to have this opportunity to share with you the principles behind Singapore’s approach.

A Stake in Singapore for Everyone

The theme for the 4th Social Governance Forum, “Governance for Social Harmony”, is highly relevant to the times. Singapore has always been an open society, one that is open to people and ideas. This has been a source of strength and progress. However, there is also the risk that this diversity of people and ideas can create divisions and fissures in our society. This is particularly so in today’s turbulent world. This is magnified by the rapid spread of influences through the internet and social media platforms. Maintaining a strong foundation for social cohesion is essential, so that we can continue reaping the benefits of a diverse and open society, rather than being pulled apart by differences and exclusivism. How do we achieve this?

Our guiding philosophy for social governance is to give every Singaporean a stake in Singapore’s success. If every citizen knows that they will enjoy a fair share of the benefits from Singapore’s progress, then they will be committed to helping Singapore achieve that progress. Today, I will speak about how this philosophy is applied in three key areas.

First, in managing race and religion.

Second, in our labour relations.

And third, in housing and our local communities.

A Stake Regardless of Race, Language, or Religion

First, managing race and religion.

Singapore is racially diverse. 74% of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, 14% are Malay, 9% are Indian, and 3% are from other races.

In our early years as a British colony, ethnic communities lived separately, segregated in their own enclaves. Interactions were largely within these closed circles, and seldom across ethnic lines. To our colonial masters, maintaining social harmony meant keeping different communities apart.

This model of keeping communities apart was no longer appropriate when Singapore became independent in 1965. We had to come together as one people. Our shared experiences shaped our values and approach to nation-building. More than a century under colonial rule, and more than three years of Japanese Occupation during the Second World War, taught us that we had much in common with each other. We were then part of Malaysia from 1963 to 1965. During that period, the ethnic Chinese of Singaporeans came to know how it felt to be an ethnic minority. So our founding fathers, though from different races, passionately fought for their shared vision of multiracialism.

At independence, our founding Prime Minister, the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, declared that, “This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal, language, culture, and religion.” The message was clear: all Singaporeans, regardless of racial or religious affiliation, would have an equal stake in Singapore.

This principle of equal treatment shaped our system of governance very fundamentally. Let me give two examples.

First, we adopted English as our common language, which is why I am speaking to you in English today. This gave everyone, regardless of linguistic background, an equal opportunity to do well in the workplace. The ethnic Chinese majority accepted this policy, even though the use of English put those who only spoke Mandarin and Chinese dialects at a disadvantage. English also became the language of instruction in our national schools. As a result, children of all races go to school together. To preserve our cultural roots, all students also learn their mother tongue.

Second, we designed our political system to ensure minority races are well-represented. In 1988, we introduced our Group Representation Constituencies (or GRCs) to ensure representation from minority communities in Parliament. To illustrate, each GRC elects multiple Members of Parliament as a group; at least one member of that team must be from an ethnic minority. Today, 22 out of 87 elected Members of Parliament are from minority races. More recently, we introduced the reserved election for the Elected Presidency. The President is an important symbol of our country and people. We amended the Constitution to reserve the election for candidates of a particular race if no one from that community had been elected for five terms, or 30 years. With this change in the Constitution, every Singaporean knows that someone from his or her community can and will occupy the highest office in the country from time to time.

Beyond race, we are also the most religiously diverse country in the world. No one religion is a majority religion; every religion is in the minority in Singapore. While we are a secular state, our Constitution provides for the freedom to profess, practice, and promote one’s religion.

Singapore has laws to protect religious harmony, but these are not often used. We have instead established formal institutions and policies, as well as informal structures to facilitate social discourse, interactions between communities, and mutual understanding.

One example is the Inter-Religious Organisation, or IRO, which is a non-governmental organization founded by leaders of the major faiths in Singapore in 1949. There are currently 10 faiths represented in the IRO. The IRO provides a platform for members of different faiths to learn about one another. They engage in charity projects, bestow blessings at events of national significance, and most crucially, at moments of interfaith tension, they help to manage sensitive issues with mutual trust and respect.

Most recently, in response to the war in Gaza, all 10 religions of the IRO got together to pray for peace. The religious leaders of the Muslim community and Jewish community in Singapore exchanged letters after the 7 October attacks, both expressing hope for peace and that we should maintain our harmony in Singapore.

Singaporeans of different faiths have learnt to co-exist peacefully. We join in the celebrations of each other’s festivals, and accommodate each other’s religious needs. It is common to see our non-Muslim Members of Parliament join their Muslim constituents to break their fast during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

The racial and religious harmony we enjoy has also required compromise from all communities. This has allowed us to have common spaces for all, even as we celebrate our diverse cultural roots. Senior Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth, Low Yen Ling, will speak more about this during her presentation on Promoting Social Cohesion through Community Engagement.

A Stake in the Fruit of Our Labour

The second area where we foster a sense of ownership in Singapore’s progress is in our labour relations. We have achieved this through a unique tripartite partnership between workers, employers, and government.

Our founding fathers believed in “industrial peace with justice”. Industrial peace was important – labour disputes arising from workers’ strikes against their employers are disruptive to the economy. This discourages investment and job creation, and in the long-term workers will also suffer. However, such peace should not come at the expense of justice for workers. Workers must trust that their unions will negotiate to get them a fair wage, and unions must remember that the needs of management and of government also matter when it comes to delivering benefits to the workers.

Let me illustrate what this looks like in Singapore.

The National Wages Council, which was established in 1972, is a key tripartite institution comprising representatives from employers, trade unions, and the Government. Every year, the Council meets to forge a national consensus on wage matters.

In good times, the Council recommends suitable wage increases and higher variable payments, ensuring that the fruits of growth are shared by workers, especially lower-wage workers.

In difficult times, the Council works to protect jobs. In Singapore’s first post-independence recession in 1985, the unions and workers agreed on a wage cut for two years so that the economy would remain competitive, and employers agreed to avoid retrenchments and to restore wages when things got better. By 1988, the recession was over, and employers kept their word, and wages were restored. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council did the same, recommending reasonable wage cuts, with special consideration for low-wage workers, and for retrenchment to be a last resort. Instead of cutting jobs to save costs, companies and workers agreed to save jobs by cutting wage costs.

The objective of tripartism is therefore to find win-win solutions that are both pro-growth and pro-worker. We seek to make enterprises more profitable by increasing productivity, and through this give workers more prosperity – better wages, better employee benefits, and better conditions of service. The Government supports tripartism in various ways. We help provide funding for companies and workers for skills upgrading and investments that improve productivity. We also have institutions that help workers and unions to resolve differences with employers. In this way, tripartism ensures that a worker’s work is rewarded, and everyone has a share in the fruits of progress.

Workers know that going on strike disrupts the economy, which also hurts themselves. In 1959, the year Singapore become self-governing, 26,600 man-days were lost to labour disputes. There was always some group of workers on strike throughout that year. Today, that number is close to zero. Minister of State for Communications and Information, Mdm Rahayu Mahzam, will speak more about this during her presentation on Resolving Differences through Social Governance.

A Stake in our Homes

The third area where we foster a sense of ownership is in housing, and the local communities in which we live. A key example of this is our home ownership policy.

From independence, our founding fathers wanted to build a society of homeowners, so that every citizen would have a real stake in the country. This was particularly important because we are a country of immigrants. If you own a home, you have a stake in our country. Home ownership continues to be the cornerstone of Singapore’s public housing policy. Approximately 90% of our people own their own homes. This is one of the highest levels of home ownership in the world. Today, the government continues to provide young couples with affordable public housing and financial support so that they can own a home.

Home ownership has helped forge a sense of rootedness in Singapore. This is critical for a country comprising immigrants from different races and religions with no common history. It has prevented our housing estates from becoming segregated racial enclaves, slums, or places of civil commotion. Instead, our neighbourhoods are a place to form collective memories and a shared identity.

Singaporeans also know that their homes give them a tangible and valuable stake in Singapore and in Singapore’s growth. If Singapore is stable and prosperous, their homes will be a good store of value. Home ownership motivates Singaporeans to work hard and invest in building a better Singapore. Singaporeans performing National Service in the armed forces, police, and civil defence force, will fight to protect their homes and country should we come under threat. As homeowners, our young families work hard and with each other to make their neighbourhood and Singapore a great place for their children to grow up in.

Around their homes we have built many community spaces and common facilities – schools, community activity centres, places of worship, eateries, and parks. Singaporeans of all races and different socioeconomic backgrounds live, study, play, and have their favourite meals side-by-side. Citizens are also given opportunities and encouraged to play an active role in their local community through the grassroots organisations and other avenues. We look forward to showing this to you during the visit to one of our town centres this afternoon.


Singapore has been reasonably successful in building a sense of ownership through multiculturalism, tripartism, and the homes and local communities of our people. This has brought us many decades of social harmony and economic progress. However, societies are constantly evolving, and we will have to keep refreshing our approach. The next stage of Singapore’s journey of nationhood will bring new challenges, a greater diversity of views, and higher expectations and aspirations from our citizens.

Prime Minister Lawrence Wong recently led a nationwide exercise gathering views from Singaporeans – it is called Forward Singapore – to define our refreshed social compact together with our citizens. We are now taking steps to realise this new social compact. Minister Masagos will speak on this shortly.

I look forward also to hearing the views and experiences of our friends from China. Maintaining social harmony in a diverse population is not easy. But we believe that by giving citizens a stake in their country’s progress, they will feel a collective sense of responsibility to each other, and for the progress of their country. I am confident that we will have an enriching and insightful exchange of experiences over the course of the Forum, and learn how we can make our societies and the lives of our people better. I wish all of you a fruitful discussion. I look forward to hearing Secretary Chen’s speech. Thank you very much.