Working with our youths towards a more caring and inclusive Singapore
Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law at the debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address 2020
03 September 2020
Mdm Deputy Speaker,
- Before I begin my speech, with your permission, may I ask the Clerks to distribute some handouts.
- At first glance, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth seems like a potpourri with ingredients thrown together out of convenience – there are culture, community, youth, and of course, sports.
- These four strands hold and bind Singaporeans and Singapore society together, for the long term.
a. And I would say – they are no less important than the foundations of our country’s economic and security framework.
- Like Mr Sitoh said earlier, I believe Culture, Community, Youth and Sports coming together synergistically is critical not only to providing an outlet to rebound from the current pandemic, but also to our long-term goals in nation-building.
a. They foster a national identity and consensus in a way that no other facet of society can.
b. I am honoured and humbled to be given this opportunity as Minister to lead in this endeavour, to build on the solid foundations established by my predecessors.
- In this speech, I will focus on Youth, and on the kind of society we want to foster.
a. There is no strict definition of youths.
b. In MCCY, we have defined youths as those between 15 and 35 years – sadly excluding myself – so this covers everyone from secondary school to young adults in their thirties who have completed their formal education or just entered the workforce.
c. This group makes up about a quarter of our population in Singapore.
- Our young people are a crucial segment of our society.
a. The youths of today are the leaders of tomorrow.
b. They are the people who must have a say in the kind of society they want to be in and play a part in shaping the kind of future they want to leave behind.
- The Government is here to help them reach their personal and collective potential, but the future is in their own hands.
- There is a Chinese saying, “年轻有为”.
a. It is usually used to describe a young person who is capable and outstanding.
b. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent of this for older people, because no one talks about “年老有为”.
- While this saying usually describes young people, it also describes a very positive and hopeful state of affairs with being young – the young are full of potential, promise and eventual accomplishment.
- For the young, with the luxury of having time on their side and the endowment of energy and imagination, the sky’s the limit.
- However, amid the backdrop of Covid-19, there is a perceptible sense that the positivity in our youths might be slightly diminished.
a. I understand their concerns - about the impact of the pandemic on bread and butter issues now.
b. This is only to be expected in the current climate, but we must ensure that while we are realistic and remain aware of the situation, our youths do not become discouraged, defeatist or even disenchanted.
c. The pandemic will pass, but our aspirations and dreams should and must remain.
d. 年轻有为 still applies.
e. Perhaps even more so in today’s context.
- In the last few weeks, I spoke with some youths, across a range of different backgrounds.
a. I asked them about their concerns and aspirations, and what they felt we should address in this new term of Government.
b. I promised them I would bring these issues to Parliament, so let me share some of their thoughts with you.
- Understandably, many concerns revolve around the current economic climate:
a. Will I be able to find a good job when I graduate?
b. Will my skills still be relevant in a post-COVID world, which has seen disruption upon disruption?
c. Will I be able to stay competitive, especially in this climate when foreigners can compete for the job and perhaps even do it remotely from another country?
d. Will I be able to afford the things that matter to me at this point in life: getting married, buying a home, looking after my parents, whilst trying to start my own family?
- At the same time, they are also thinking deeply about the way we are as a people, dealing with broader societal issues, and the values and ideals they wish to see in our society.
- While previous generations chased the traditional 5Cs, this generation is concerned with some other Cs – climate change, constant competition, and caring communities.
- At the top of their minds are questions such as:
a. How do we care better for one another?
b. Can we better support vulnerable communities, and how do we ensure that we leave no one behind?
c. How can our society be more inclusive? Can we move from just tolerating, to truly embracing our diversity?
- Youths also asked hard questions about the fairness and the tone of political campaigns at the recent General Elections.
- They asked to see more diverse views in Parliament, more checks and balances, and more open debates on constructive policy alternatives.
a. These concerns and questions are entirely valid, and reflect the rapid changes in our economic, political and social environment, amplified and catalysed by the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic.
b. A participant from my youth engagements summed this up:
“Youths seem to be dealing a lot with uncertainties – clashing ideologies, existential threat of climate disruptions, fundamental economic shifts. It’s scary having to navigate a future that feels so hostile and full of unknowns.”
- I think all of us have empathy for this sentiment – the future is uncertain.
- But I would also say – we are at the cusp of a very different future that is promising in so many ways.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has animated a strong spirit of care, cohesion and active citizenry in our society – with many organising their own ground-up initiatives to assist those in need.
a. For example, Project Stable Staples raised $150,000 in funds to give NTUC vouchers to 2,500 individuals they saw and identified as being financially impacted by COVID-19.
b. The Youth Corps Singapore volunteers also supported food distribution drives to deliver meals to nearly 9,000 beneficiaries.
c. Various student groups have helped to share messages of encouragement and translate content for migrant workers staying in the Changi Exhibition Centre Integrated Community Care and Recovery Facility.
d. Others have contributed through SGUnited, a movement and one-stop digital portal for Singaporeans to contribute toward the national response to the COVID-19 outbreak, through donations, volunteering and taking parts with others in community projects.
- All of these were initiatives by volunteers, who stepped up, even as they were, at the same time, worried about their own lives and livelihood. This is very heartening, and we need to encourage more of these efforts, work together with them, and build on them.
- In the best of times, the Government does not have all the answers.
a. Today, in an uncertain environment with complex challenges, all the more we must chart a path together.
b. As a Government, we need to partner with the community, including our young people, to leverage our shared values, and forge a way forward.
- Today, I hope to address some of these concerns raised – not just through our policies and our programmes – but also in our broader efforts to partner and work with young people to catalyse the solutions and tackle these issues together.
- I will be addressing two broad questions that our youths have raised.
a. First, how can I secure a good future and achieve my aspirations in these turbulent times?
b. This question deals not only with bread and butter issues in these uncertain times, but also how we can collectively address longer term challenges, like climate change, sustainability and the environment.
c. Second, how can I help realise the vision of Singapore as a more caring and inclusive society? How do we become the kind of society that we want to live in, and would be happy to leave behind, for our children?
d. This second question is both philosophical and practical – how do we weave the Tapestry of Singapore’s society to accommodate a diversity of threads seamlessly, so that the Tapestry is at once both beautiful to behold and comforting to touch.
- Sometimes, the Tapestry can be more beautiful to behold from afar than to touch and feel textually. Keeping it together, keeping it nice beautiful and nice to the touch is a constant work in progress.
a. The threads are woven together, sometimes by suasion, sometimes by policy, and the feel can be kind of uneven and rough. Sometimes a thread or two may come loose and we have to put them back in place, with some effort.
b. But we have to, because each thread that comes loose threatens the integrity of the thread next to it, and if left unchecked, could eventually unravel the entire fabric.
c. This is an important aspect of the work in my Ministry, and I will come back to this point.
Ensuring a good future and achieving aspirations
- Let me start with the first question.
- The youths of today face intense competition once they start formal schooling. Globalisation presents new opportunities of exchange, but also opens up academic competition beyond national boundaries.
a. This competition gets sharper in the workplace.
b. And it is exacerbated during the current COVID-19 Pandemic when global economies are in recession, and opportunities are fewer to come by.
c. My colleagues have outlined the steps to protect Singaporeans better, but the hard truth is that competition is a fact of life and we cannot influence the trajectory of other countries.
d. Yet I want to encourage our youths to realise that competition drives us to excel. Competition pushes us out of our comfort zone to be more than what we thought we could be and realise a better version of ourselves.
- We will support you on this journey as best as we can.
- Whether it is in getting work experience, facilitating job and training opportunities or skills development.
- Let me outline a few recent efforts.
a. Together with the National Youth Council (NYC), MCCY has set up a Youth Corps Internship Scheme to allow our students from Institutes of Higher Learning to be placed into on-the-job training to ready themselves with experience for jobs eventually. Internships and work experience could otherwise be more difficult to come by because of the on-going pandemic.
b. NYC has also launched the Asia-Ready Exposure Programme (AEP) for youths to acquire cross-cultural skills and understand the region better, to widen their prospects and range of opportunities.
c. We have also set up a portal called gradgowhere.sg that contains resources for youths looking for jobs.
d. The National Jobs Council is coordinating efforts to provide 100,000 jobs and skills opportunities for jobseekers, including graduates and working youths, under the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package.
e. MCCY and NYC will also set up a “YouthTech” programme to equip 1,000 youths, in the first instance, with digital skills, and training and then deploy them to the community to help social sector organisations upskill and digitalise.
- These programs to equip youths with skills and provide more employment opportunities will help address their immediate concerns about day-to-day living.
- For more details on these programs, please refer to the handouts.
- While youths are concerned about the immediate bread and butter issues, they are equally concerned about broader longer term questions, such as : (i) how do we look after the mental well-being of young people and (ii) how do we better entrench our environmental sustainability. These are important issues, and I know that many young people angst over them.
- Our youths are very much at the front and centre of these efforts.
a. Our youths have called for action to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues, and greater awareness and openness in seeking help.
b. Young people in Singapore, like their peers around the world, are the vanguard of an environmentally sustainable future, advocating new ways of living and making a living. In this way, they are active agents of change and we need to tap on this dynamic resource.
- We will expand our partnerships with youths on these and other issues.
a. We have been engaging youths through projects such as the Youth Mental Well-being Network, which was launched earlier this year.
b. We have started a Youth Circle with MSE (Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment) to partner youths to create proposals and workable solutions that can improve our environment and enhance sustainability.
- The Honourable Ms Raeesah Khan said that youths need to have a seat at the table to look at such issues. We agree.
a. The above are just some examples of how we want to engage our youths to participate and contribute actively to being an architect of their own future and to matters of national concern.
b. We will continue to create more opportunities and avenues for youths to partner the Government and society on issues that matter to them, on a regular and sustained basis.
A caring and inclusive society
- Let me now turn to the second question – what drives a caring and inclusive society, and how can our youths help realise the vision of such a society?
- When we engaged youths under the SG Youth Action Plan last year, they outlined their vision for a better society not just for themselves, but for all Singaporeans.
- Inherent in the push for a more caring and inclusive Singapore are key considerations of:
a. Reducing social inequality.
b. Building a more tightly knit society; and
c. Improving civic discourse and participation.
- Which in turn brings up even more fundamental questions of what kind of social compact and politics we desire for our country, both now and in the long term.
- An important consideration for me – how can we harness youthful energy to bring about positive change, to allow our young to blossom, instead of allowing uncertainty and discontent to fester amongst our young and result in negative confrontation?
- I see two things: First, we need to allow the young to give voice to their dreams and aspirations.
a. We need to give them the space and the avenues to engage with the rest of society, and have conversations with older generations to implement change, whilst understanding the constraints and trade-offs that age and experience sometimes can give insights to.
b. The older generations in turn need to be a little more patient, accepting and appreciative of generationally differing views. Both sides need to come together.
c. These shared ideas help take us forward. Let me give you some examples.
(i) For example, we are working with Singaporeans across generations to reflect on our shared identity, and to think about the values and legacy we want to leave behind for our children and grandchildren.
(ii) More than 80,000 people of all ages have contributed their ideas and views to the Founders’ Memorial to date, on how best to honour our past and create a beacon of inspiration, for our future.
(iii) This year, 74 Singaporeans aged between 17 and 73 have come together to discuss – so a fairly broad spectrum of almost six decades – and put together what they think every Singaporean ought to know, and create content to update the Singapore Citizenship Journey for new citizens.
d. We are a society comprising both the young and the old. Neither can exist alone, and we must learn to recognise that all of us have a stake at the table and a part to play in moulding our future.
- Second, societies need to give the young hope. Hope of a brighter future, including good jobs, and good lives.
a. Many of the young in other developed countries see the dreams of their parents slipping beyond their grasp and are reacting against a system which they might feel is no longer capable of giving them hope. We cannot let this happen to us.
b. Our society needs to remain meritocratic, but not ossified. The forces that enabled the Boomers and Gen X to progress ought not be allowed to stratify society.
c. We must therefore work hard to ensure that meritocracy does not develop into structural inequality.
d. We need to make sure that our society remains fair, transparent, has equality of opportunity, and that the fires of the Singaporean dream keep burning.
- The story of today’s Singapore youths, like the youths before them, must therefore be woven from the fabric of hope.
- So I return to the Singapore Tapestry metaphor I mentioned earlier.
a. This Tapestry is really the heart of Singapore. A Singapore for all Singaporeans.
b. The Singapore Tapestry will always have yarns of different colour, sizes and even nature.
c. Some are old threads, some are young threads.
- But whatever the case, there are certain enduring truths to our Tapestry.
a. Each of us, each thread and fibre, is part of a larger whole.
b. All of us play a role in keeping the Singapore Tapestry from fraying or worse, being stretched or ripped apart.
- Yet, even as there is only one Tapestry, we remain individuals, with our own identities, dreams and aspirations.
a. In fact, it is this very diversity of yarns that make Singapore exciting and more beautiful.
b. In contrast to a Tapestry which, had it been spun out of a single spool of fibre, would have yielded a uniformly plain and monochromatic Singapore Cloth.
c. Our differences, our diverse ethnicities, cultures, heritage and beliefs, make for a collective which is far richer, and for a whole which is far greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s the Singapore Tapestry.
- At the same time, because of the diversity inherent in the Singapore Tapestry, texturally we can be a little rough at times.
a. There will be rough and tough times when some threads question why they are in this tapestry, or why other threads are in the tapestry.
b. These questions do not just revolve around questions of race and religion, but on other newer, divisive and contentious issues, including questions concerning LGBTQ+, equality, personal freedoms etc.
- How then do we weave the Singapore Tapestry tightly, while keeping enough space in between different threads for diversity to exist harmoniously?
a. This is quite a paradox, but it is a paradox that we must, we can, and we will overcome.
Race and religion
- Ms Sylvia Lim spoke about becoming a race-blind society.
- We share the same aspiration, recognising the individuality of each of our races, but at the same time reaping the strength in that diversity behind the common Singaporean identity.
- Race is one of the primary threads of our social fabric, and the fact that different races are acknowledged while also bound by a shared belonging is what make our Tapestry strong, cohesive and highly unique.
- This is an ideal that we have been striving towards for more than 55 years since we begin as a little nation.
- This work started the day we became independent.
- On Separation Day itself, Mr Lee Kuan Yew affirmed that Singapore is “not a Malay nation, not a Chinese nation, not an Indian nation. Everybody will have a place in Singapore”.
- And after decades of nation-building, we are today less race-conscious and more tolerant of each other — more “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion.”
- The young especially are closer to the ideal than perhaps their parents and grandparents.
- We must ask ourselves how did we get here?
a. There was certainly nothing natural or expected in this progression from Singapore to Singaporean, as the tagline for the Singapore Bicentennial last year put it.
- If it were an expected or natural progression, it would have occurred elsewhere in the world naturally, including among our neighbours in ASEAN.
- We got here precisely because we have worked consistently and systematically at it, through policies that touch almost every aspect of our lives:
a. We live together, our children play and study together, our sons do National Service together.
b. We recognise that communities can be narrow and exclusive, as well as generous and inclusive. Our policies must aim to promote the latter and counter the former.
c. Common spaces like our public parks, schools, libraries, sports facilities, and public housing where all races interact, deliberately or accidentally, help to promote a more open and shared outlook across communities by creating opportunities for social mixing and simply doing things together.
d. The whole gamut of policies and programs that SM Tharman once famously described as “most intrusive”. And amongst them, the EIP (Ethnic Integration Policy), which SM Tharman described as our “most important” social policy, and our “greatest strength”.
- There is absolutely nothing natural or inevitable about any of this.
- This did not happen by itself, and it is not something which will endure by itself.
a. We must not think we have arrived.
b. Or think that the ideal post-racial state has been attained, and that no more effort by way of these policies will need to be put in place.
- Race and religion remain fault lines and are emotive issues.
a. The risk of regressing on what we have achieved is always there, and we cannot assume that our progress will be in a straight line.
b. Yes, we are by no means perfect.
c. Discrimination remains a visceral lived reality for some, as Honorary Members Faisal Manap and Carrie Tan have pointed out, and we must continue to find ways to do better.
- In Singapore, consciousness of race cannot be erased – nor should it be.
a. Indeed, if we were all the same, we would have nothing unique to contribute, nor anything to learn from others.
b. Because we are not the same, we each have something unique to contribute, something only we can give to the common good of all of us. The more diverse we are, the richer our culture becomes.
c. We should view difference from the lens of contribution, and not separation.
- Nor should being “one united people, regardless of race” mean we should renounce our cultural affinities or discourage people of the same community from coming together to support each other, and others in the community.
- The affinities of race have been harnessed to foster a spirit of self-help among our communities.
a. The ethnic self-help groups (SHGs) have rallied their respective communities to serve the more vulnerable across the spectrum of race and ethnicity.
b. For example, Vibrance @ Yishun organizes programs to serve all ethnic groups, even while it also conducts programs specifically to meet the needs of respective communities.
c. SHGs may be race based, but they are far from race-bound.
d. Not only are the beneficiaries across racial lines – so are the volunteers. Almost a quarter of the volunteers at Mendaki today are not from the Malay race.
- Our ideal is that one day, we want to see a Singapore, where we do not need such SHGs. But that is not going to come about by wishing the differences away.
- It can only come about by working at it actively, daily, consciously.
- And on critical issues such as education, economic upliftment, beyond the main efforts by the Government, the communities and SHGs are mobilized, ground up with their own initiatives – and this is to be welcomed.
- Our diversity and geography mean that we must always be conscious and do what we can to sustain our multi-racial society. We are not starting from a blank slate, but we cannot take the peace we enjoy for granted.
- Nor can we take our social fabric, built up over generations, for granted.
a. We must recognise that it takes years to weave a good tapestry, but mere moments to destroy it.
b. And once the threads start unravelling, it will be difficult to bridge the social divide, the racial divide, the ethic divide and stitch the Tapestry will be a mammoth task.
- I believe our youths must have as much a voice in this discourse as anyone else.
a. On issues of race and other aspects of our Tapestry, not only between youths themselves, but also across generations.
- We need to talk about how we can refresh and revitalize the bonds that bind us, because the social solidarity that we enjoy today, and sometimes take for granted, that has proven so important during this crisis, is not a given. It needs constant attention.
- The ructions and affray bedevilling a migrant society such as the United States are constants reminder that inclusiveness will always be a work in progress for us. Nor are older societies, like Germany, where an anti-lockdown movement is emerging, immune from divisions and distrust that cause society to fracture under stress.
- When society is torn apart by xenophobia and prejudices that appeal not to our better self, but to our worst instincts, it becomes impossible to even talk about a caring society.
- And that is something we need to keep at the back of our minds as we build a more caring and inclusive society.
- It means we have to practice and work on inclusiveness every day. We must acknowledge our differences and accept that despite these differences, we will live together peacefully and happily because we know we are in the same boat, come what may.
- I should add that inclusiveness is not about ignoring or just living with differences or denying that different groups have different or even conflicting agendas.
a. It is about accepting that there is always going to be some give and take.
b. And appreciating that everyone is entitled to their positions as long as those positions does not encroach on another group’s right to also have a position, albeit a different one, and even one that you might disagree with.
c. Inclusiveness is about acceptance and appreciation, and not about changing others to something in your own image.
d. This requires a certain maturity of thought in order for a meaningful discourse to take place.
e. It also requires common values that anchor the social compact between Singaporeans, as well as between the Government and the people.
- The Singapore Tapestry can magically enlarge the space that we share beyond the physical limitations of our small island city-state, and it mysteriously deepens the roots of our young country. It exists beyond the realm of material goods, physical infrastructure, and GDP growth.
- And so I return to the discussion of the other pillars in MCCY.
- The four pillars of MCCY may be more “software” than hardware, but they play a big part in holding the Singapore Tapestry together.
- Sports, arts, culture and a shared heritage are the avenues which help connect people, and lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and who and where we are in the community.
- In this vein, MCCY will play our part in this journey of deepening our roots and increasing our common spaces so that a more inclusive and caring Singapore will come into being.
a. Our SG Arts Plan, SG Heritage Plan and Sports Vision 2030 are some of the masterplans that MCCY will be working on with Singaporeans from all walks of life to build a better home together.
- I would like to end by returning to the basics of what makes Singapore, well, Singapore.
a. Our country has been forged from our shared belief in the tenets of democracy, multiracialism, religious harmony, rule of law and meritocracy.
b. Our security framework ensures our political existence as a nation while our economic activity supports our physical prosperity.
- These two are critical but are in themselves insufficient for our long-term survival as a sovereign and thriving city state.
- There is always that something more, something abstract that makes our nation great.
- In our case, it is the heart and spirit of Singapore which is embodied by the Singapore Tapestry.
a. A tapestry that is woven out of diversity and adversity.
b. Its colours brightened by the idealism and energy of our youths.
c. Its threads tightly bound by a shared sense of community, culture and ultimately, destiny.
- To our youths, I would also like to say this.
a. Don’t stop dreaming and never lose that youthful sense of optimism.
b. This is not a “lost generation” despite what some have said.
c. This is a generation of opportunity.
d. Whether you want to be an engineer or a dancer, a sports man or woman, doctor, or a content creator, stay true and committed to your goals.
- We will work with you to realise your dreams.
- And one day, you can tell your own kids of how mom and dad overcame the crisis of a generation. And how did they do that?
a. By uniting with fellow Singaporeans.
b. And by leaving behind a more beautiful and tightly knitted Tapestry as a legacy for generations of Singaporeans to come.
- Madam, I support the motion.
Last updated on 03 September 2020