Working with Singaporeans as partners to shape Singapore’s future together
SG Together Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at National Youth Council’s “Let’s Talk About Our Future, Together” Youth Engagement Session, at Raffles City Convention Centre
18 January 2020
- Every generation defines its own dreams and is in turn defined by the struggles to get there. I am sure you have very different life experiences and aspirations from your grandparents, even your parents.
- If they lived in Singapore in the 1960s, the nearby Padang would have been a venue for important gatherings. If they had been there on the celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in 1964, they would have heard shouts of “Chinese fight Malays!” and “Malays fight Chinese!” Some of them would have even seen a truck full of men dressed in black Silat garbs, armed and ready to attack, and Chinese men poised to fight back with broken glass bottles.
- The fights that day spread quickly and widely. Even if your grandparents had lived as far away as Chai Chee, they would have heard men running down the street, shouting at one another to arm themselves. If they lived in Geylang, fires were being set to houses, families forced to run for their lives. The fighting would have claimed lives; children crying and families fearful in every kampong.
- What I just described is a memory from Mr Yeo Hong Eng1 who lived through the 1964 racial riots. He was interviewed as part of the Singapore Memory Project. In his words, his hair stood on ends when word spread about the fighting, fires and casualties in Geylang.
- For days, people were too afraid to leave their homes. Overnight, neighbours became suspicious of one another. Mr Yeo recalled that when he was riding the bus home one day, an elderly Malay lady was so afraid, she refused to take the only available seat next to a Chinese person.
- It was a dark period in our history. But in darkness, we see light. Some of us chose to rise above the fear and prejudice. Another Singaporean interviewed by the Singapore Memory Project was Mdm Salmah binte Abdullah.2 A lady in her eighties, she gave her interview in a mix of Malay, English and even Hokkien. Madam Salmah lived on a street that was mainly occupied by Chinese families. Rather than turn against one another, everybody chose instead to stay united. They took turns to patrol the area, look out for troublemakers, and protect one another. They all stayed safe together.
- Our forefathers who made the personal choice of friendship over division, laid the foundations for the peace and harmony we all enjoy today. It was clear that we had to build bridges and earn one another’s trust. Thus, many of the policies and institutions that the past generations of Singapore’s leaders put in place were to create a society where social mixing across race and religion could become the norm.
a. People’s Association organised common activities to encourage people to interact across the various communities.
b. We built national schools for all our children to study together.
c. We had the Ethnic Integration Policy, to ensure that every HDB neighbourhood reflected the ethnic diversity of our society, and
d. We enacted laws like the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act to help maintain order and deter violence.
- We have enjoyed five decades of peace since. The laws and policies have been useful guardrails, but the truth is that no Government can command people to care for one another; to be cohesive despite differences, to trust or to be confident in their shared future. The choice between friendship and division, peace and violence, is one that every citizen continues to make.
- And societies reflect the collective choices of their people. Too many societies today are divided, wrought by conflict.
a. Chile, a country with deep socio-economic divides, has been experiencing civil unrest since October last year. 29 people have already died, 2,500 injured.
b. Last Easter, an Islamic extremist group bombed three churches in Colombo, Sri Lanka, killing 259 people and injuring hundreds. In the months that ensued, anti-Muslim riots broke out. Another 9 lives were lost, and over a hundred more injured.3
c. In El Paso, US, last August, 22 people, going about their usual errands on a regular Wednesday in Walmart, were murdered because they were Hispanic.4
- Yet, I am optimistic about Singapore. This is because I have encountered many Singaporeans who have made choices that give me this confidence.
- A few months ago, I met our Team Singapore Goalball Teams and their coach, Hansen, at a training session. Goalball is a Paralympic team sport for the visually disabled. What they do is they have to launch and use their bodies to block an opponents’ incoming ball. It is a very, very physically challenging thing. Our men and women’s teams are preparing for the 2020 Asian Para Games. The training schedule is gruelling, and yet our para-athletes were committed. There is such a strong sense of commitment and it was so palpable as I talked to them, because they all want to do their best for Singapore. I was moved by the volunteers who have been supporting our para-athletes through the years. These volunteers contribute in every way that they can to support the para-athletes. Some help with training – in fact Coach Hansen’s wife, Brenda, is a volunteer coach. Some bring their special skills – like the volunteer physiotherapists who come to treat the athletes’ injuries and the volunteers trained in judo who teach the athletes moves to break their falls; others help the para-athletes just get to and from training – moving from their home to the training venue. All of them in support of our para-athletes in their pursuit of sports.
- In my constituency, I also have the privilege of working with a group of civic-minded volunteers in my Community Emergency and Engagement Committee, or commonly known as C2E. These volunteers come from all walks of life; some are also new citizens and permanent residents. Some came from Belarus, China, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. A very, very wide spectrum but all have decided, bound by one common vision in serving the local community. They provide first-aid expertise, assist with crowd control during community events, and help educate the community on emergency response. In April last year, an elderly resident fell during one of the walks organised by the Community Club. Our volunteers came to her assistance immediately, gave her first aid and got her quickly to the hospital. Their civic attitudes are influencing others positively. Through their relentless effort in outreach, they have rallied over 450 residents to volunteer with the constituency’s Community Emergency Response Team. People with diverse backgrounds, coming together from different nationalities originally but all decided to make this place home, contributing their precious weekends; helping, saving and educating their neighbours.
- Another group of Singaporeans I am proud to have met is the participants of the Young Leaders’ Programme of the 2019 International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS). These participants come from a wide variety of backgrounds – not only are they of different races and religions, they come from a range of organisations, from faith-based institutions to corporates. They exchanged notes on building social cohesion in their respective fields. And they did not stop after the conference. They keep in touch regularly to share ideas and support one another’s work. Some of them have started collaborative projects. I feel very encouraged that these young Singaporeans are taking the time to devote themselves to interfaith work, to build bonds of trust and friendship with leaders of other faiths, and to make our society more resilient. So instead of shunning away, excluding themselves, they are actively proactively reaching out to one another.
- Some of us are devoting time to the make Singapore more inclusive. Isabel Phua founded Migrant X Me to help bridge locals and migrant worker communities. Isabel wants to dispel derogatory stereotypes about migrant workers, and she does that by organising learning journeys for students to learn more about the migrant worker community, and encouraging them to befriend the workers in their own estates or school compounds.
- Team Ceres of Youth Corps Singapore worked with Lakeside Family Services Centre to offer adventure trails and other programmes on environment to children served by the Family Services Centre and others from the neighbourhood. The children not only learnt about environmental protection but also developed a sense of community and belonging. They know they are important because there are others who care for them.
- The people and organisations I mentioned have chosen to take on complex challenges of diversity and inclusion, religious harmony and social mobility. These are issues that many other societies have found intractable. Yet, these Singaporeans have shown us that by choosing to act, to care, and by working in partnership with others, they can make a positive difference.
- When I reflect on their achievement, I am convinced that the Government’s role is not just about law and order. It must do more to empower more people to be the positive social change they want to see. We must work with Singaporeans as partners.
- As Government, we help bring various stakeholders together to jointly develop the best solution for our shared concerns; we facilitate dialogue between different groups, create platforms for citizen action, and support with resources.
a. We created programmes like Our Singapore Leadership Programme (OSLP) to connect youth change-makers with Government representatives, so that they can exchange perspectives on national issues, and discuss the policy considerations and trade-offs.
b. An OSLP alumnus, Ms Joanna Chuah, who is a lawyer and an urban farmer – told me that she met Chief Executive of URA, Mr Lim Eng Hwee, during the programme. In a discussion about urban redevelopment in Singapore, she shared her disappointment on how vegetation along a drain near her home in Ang Mo Kio had been cleared. As a result, migrating ducks no longer came. To her surprise, Mr Lim was not only very interested in her account, but also gave her useful suggestions on how to go about re-growing plants in the area. Through the efforts of the community leaders and Joanna, trees were planted and growing again.
- We want to work with more Singaporeans to shape our future. This is the essence of the SG Together movement, and the heart of DPM’s message, when he said, and I quote “we need to shift from a government that focusses primarily on working for you, to a government that also works with you.
- We know that young Singaporeans like you have much to contribute. Last year, we introduced the SG Youth Action Plan, to support young Singaporeans who have a vision for a better Singapore in the year 2025, and here is what the youth in the SG Youth Action Plan have to say,
“Before we change the world, we must first change ourselves. We may not always get it right, but with hard work, compassion and determination, we’ll foster a more inclusive, sustainable and progressive Singapore. We’ll create a home where Singaporeans care for one another, and have a fair shot at their dreams. 2025, we’re coming for you!”
- It is not just all talk. If we want a better Singapore, we have to roll up our sleeves and do the work. Therefore, as part of the SG Youth Action Plan, we are launching the Youth Action Challenge. This is a six-month journey for young Singaporeans who want to take action on the issues they care about – it can be about the environment, social issues, or jobs and the future of work. We have put together a group of mentors to work with youth participants. The mentors come from a wide range of backgrounds so that we benefit from more and new perspectives. They are leaders from the industry, community and government. The top teams will receive up to $50,000 in grants to turn their ideas into reality.
- Building a strong society is not something that the Government can do alone. The Government does not have all the answers. We are excited about the ideas and solutions coming out of the Youth Action Challenge.
- Finally, I would like to leave you by asking this question. We all have to ask ourselves this question, and that is; what kind of society do we want Singapore to be, and what we, as Singaporeans, are prepared to do about it.
a. Can we be a society that recognises the value and dignity of each member, regardless of race, religion, ability or class? Can we choose unity over division, and celebrate the strength in our diversity? Can we forge consensus and consider the trade-offs required as we advance our respective agendas?
b. I think it boils down to whether we, as individuals, are prepared to stand up against discrimination, to lend a helping hand when we see someone struggling, whether we are prepared to reach out across social divides, and work with fellow Singaporeans for the common good.
- If you have a vision for Singapore, make it happen. Make the choice to care for one another; to unite despite our differences, and to act for our shared future. As citizens, it is both our right and responsibility to shape the future of our nation. Let us give our future the best chance we can create, by building a democracy of deeds, together.
1 Singapore Memory Project, Memory of Mr Yeo Hong Eng, recorded on 22/07/2014.
2 Singapore Memory Project, Memory of Mdm Salmah Bte Abdullah recorded on 8/11/2014.
3 Source: Asia Times
4 Press release from the City of El Paso, Municipal Government