Our Singapore Leadership Programme 2022 on 1 October 2022
Opening Address by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law at the Closing Reflection Session of Our Singapore Leadership Programme 2022 on 1 October 2022
11 October 2022
Good afternoon, everyone. Glad to be here at the closing reflection session.
Singapore’s Approach to Governance
I understand that over this four-day programme, you’ve heard from many speakers and experts on so many things, from governance, strategy, national security, urban development and redevelopment to sustainability and social support.
In many ways, these are not separate pockets, and I think you all can see why. There are so many trade-offs and so much interdependence between each of them. For example, if you want to grow the economy, you need to put in a lot of investments, but there’s a trade-off because it will mean we need manpower, we need immigration. And it also means that we have to look at how we do our net zero. What is our 30 by 30 plan if we want to grow the economy, and if we want to grow consumerism?
So these are questions that we will come to, as we face these challenges in our country. And part of what we want to do in these sessions is to talk about them and unpack the problems. It's important to do that in a way in which we break down, not just the problems, but also the way we will view it, including the stereotyping that we put into some of the problems. And when we can unpack it in this way, start with a clean canvas, you’ll be surprised the kind of ideas that you’ll have and can come up with.
Forward Singapore and the Unite Pillar
DPM Lawrence Wong launched the Forward Singapore Exercise in June this year. The common goal is to look at refreshing our social compact.
To be very candid, when we first launched it, you might ask, “what, another conversation?” And to be very honest, many of us did also reflect on that, and thought about whether we needed it, whether we wanted it and whether it might not create a sense of cynicism about another conversation. But several things persuaded me that this is different.
First, I think the real game changer, the elephant in the room, is COVID. The way we do things, the way we socialise and interact, the way we work, how we work, when we work, have all changed. Global macro shifts, changes in the world today, whether it’s Russia-Ukraine that just happened last night, or US-China, China-Taiwan and a whole bunch of other socio-political problems around us have really changed the paradigm. And being Singapore, we are small, any shift in the waves or the winds, will affect us.
It's useful to use this opportunity to look at refreshing this compact, because we are dealing with a new generation and going into a new paradigm. In my view, the compact has to be a dynamic one, it cannot be something that we look at, discuss, agree on, and say that’s what is going to be fine for the next generation. It’s got to be constantly moving, constantly adapting, and reacting to what new changes are, and has to take into account both aspirations and concerns about people, both of which are very important.
At the same time, it also sets expectations for the roles and responsibilities of everyone in society, not just government alone, not just civil society alone, not just private sector, but how that partnership can come together cohesively. This is the third and perhaps the most important outcome of these Forward Singapore conversations. How do we find our interplay between each of these important parts of Singapore – coming together, working dynamically, working cohesively, while at the same time challenging each groups’ assumptions, and also stereotypes.
This is particularly important when we are looking at a population with increasingly diverse views. I take a look around the room – most of you are in your 20s, some little bit older, but certainly much younger than me. When I was your age, I’m pretty sure that many of the issues that we talked about were not questions I thought about. But that’s a good thing. Increasing awareness, greater education, more diversity of thought, more well-read, and more plugged-in and more interested in issues of today. And so, we have to harness this energy with the younger population with you playing a key role in trying to plug that gap, trying to forge that new compact and devise those new solutions.
The constant question we get asked, is how can we continue to make sure that Singapore remains confident and cohesive. And I think cohesive also includes inclusive, it’s got to be inclusive in order for it to be cohesive.
That’s really the fundamental assumption and question behind the Unite pillar, one of the six Forward Singapore pillars that I am co-leading to try and tackle these questions, and find the foundation of unity, on which build our plans.
The goal of the Unite pillar is anchored in our National pledge, where we pledge ourselves as one united people. I can think of the pillar in three aspects.
Belong: Where we feel a strong sense of belonging to Singapore, and to one another, a strong sense of common identity as fellow citizens of Singapore.
Bond: Where we maintain, foster and continue to reach out across diverse groups and fault lines and build strong and close bonds with one another and, going back to the pledge, regardless of race, language or religion.
Build: Where we can work together to build a better society, not just as a society, but for one another, to help one another, especially those who are not as fortunate, not as privileged, to ensure that those in need get carried, those who lag behind get brought along. And through this we can make our society a place where everyone has a place in the sun for themselves, whatever the starting point in life, that person might find himself or herself, based on justice and equality.
First on belonging, it is really a place you would want to call home. And home is not just a physical place. It is a place where we can have a shared mindset, identify with one another, feel comfortable, be at ease and be yourself.
Second, to stay united, we must keep at working on our relationships and bonds with one another. Singapore, perhaps in a cliché way, is multicultural, multiracial, multireligious, almost multi-everything. But it is so special in our context because there are not many other countries in the world where we can do the things that we do, across different religions, across divides of faiths, across different ideology, different colour and creed. And this is something that we must work very hard to maintain all the time.
Beyond the laws and policies, and there are laws and policies that regulate and set up framework and a structure for religious harmony, it is important that we go one, two or three levels down, beyond just these institutions. We can reach out to one another, reach across lines, fault lines to develop open conversations built on shared understanding.
There are many passionate, ground-up social activists, civic-minded groups that have come up. Groups like hash.peace, Roses of Peace, Interfaith Youth Circle, bringing young people together, giving a platform that is safe, respectful, and encourages a diversity of views. It is important that these views that are different, that are challenged, that you may not agree with, gets ventilated. There will be things that you and I will disagree on. But that’s good, that’s okay. Because if you don’t do that, those views will surface and manifest in some other way. And it will not be healthy for society.
The National Youth Council is developing a series of toolkits for youths to engage in conversations about complex issues, such as race and religion, local-foreign relations, and intergenerational bonding. These three areas are just amongst some of the different fault lines we need to talk about.
In fact, the idea to develop this toolkit came from one of our very own OSLP participants. Faheema Founder of hash.peace, raised the idea of having a toolkit to educate youths on engaging about race and religion, about a year ago now. I’m very glad that we’re now able to do this, have a way in which we can really go down to the ground with a series of very practical, pragmatic ways in which we can reach out and talk about conversations, that sometimes on its own is difficult to start.
Indeed, we must continue to build this trust among Singaporeans. When I look at trust, it’s a small and simple word, but means so much in our context. Just take COVID, we would not have been able to do even this session today, had we not been successful, reasonably successful in our COVID fight. And that fight wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t trust one another. We believe that we will help one another when we comply with SMMs, difficult as it might be for ourselves, but we knew that this would help not just ourselves, our family, but our loved ones, our neighbours, our friends. And these are amongst the kind of things that when we do, we do together, the trust index being strongly correlated with success in the COVID battle is no coincidence. You look anywhere around the world today, that is the key feature across all countries that have done well in dealing with COVID.
We must also build trust by ensuring that we remain an open, communicative society. One that is not navel-gazing, looking down all the time, one that is not xenophobic. Welcoming foreigners and new citizens into our open and global city must remain a key part of our identity, a key part of our strategy. Not only because we need this as a workforce, not only because we are facing an ageing population, which we are, but Singapore traditionally, historically, has always been a place where if you are not open to the world, we are not globalised, our place and our relevance will be diminished. So we must continue to allow them to add richness to society by bringing new, different perspectives, melding with ours, integrating with us, fostering a new sense of identity, and how we get on with the foreigners who come to Singapore will define how gracious we are as a society as well.
We must also teach our children to value and respect others. And indeed, I always say, the child does not come out to school for the first time, bearing any hidden agenda, or any grudges or any sense of differentiation between races, between religion. Sometimes it is contextualised for them. Sometimes, it is because of the environment that they are in. Today with social media, with the advent of the internet, a lot more information is accessible, and people get a lot more influences. So we do have to consciously look at how we can teach the young, bring them along and start young.
Third, we must act to help one another, and really to build a better society that is not just with and for each other, but also bearing in mind future generations of Singaporeans.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore, we saw this spirit of kindness, generosity, selflessness shine through brightly.
If there’s one silver lining that we can build on, I hope you can build on this by inculcating that same spirit, to continue running its rich link through our communities, where we lend a helping hand to one another. This can be done irrespective of and independent of COVID, in normal times.
And indeed there are opportunities for each of us to give back to society in so many ways.
This month, for example, Youth Corps Singapore launches its Do Good Festival. There are close to 3,000 volunteering opportunities in areas such as seniors, children, those living with special needs, for you to be involved in. It is timely that we do so, and I think it’s important to capitalise on the gains that we made through COVID, to make this part of our DNA, to make this part our lived experiences in Singapore, whether we have COVID or otherwise.
Call to Action
To achieve these three outcomes that I have outlined, my colleagues and I will lead the Unite pillar by inviting people, all of you, young, old, across the spectrum of Singapore, across different race, different fault lines, to share about what makes us Singaporean. How we can remain united, despite the adversity and some of the chaos that goes on around the world, and how we can continue to celebrate our diversity? It is something that we oftentimes take for granted, And how do we celebrate it and show the world that this is a shining example of what it means to be truly multicultural, not just in words, in slogan, but indeed in our everyday lives?
In the coming months, there will be new platforms such as physical pop-up exhibitions and digital engagements.
I encourage all of you to not just take part in it, engage in it, but rally your friends, those who are around you, in work, in school, family and loved ones to come and contribute your views, our shared views on what refreshed social compact should look like.
We also continue to organise engagements to hear from specific groups on how their respective communities can contributed to keeping Singapore united.
You can be part of a series of National Youth Dialogues, organised by NYC, on key issues such as sustainability and housing.
The Youth Action Challenge Season 4 has also begun and youths will be developing ground-up initiatives to address important national issues such as inclusivity and supporting vulnerable groups.
Finally as I conclude, let me just share a little bit of how I see this pillar, as we discussed the six pillars and I talked to DPM about what it means to co- lead this pillar, and what our key objectives will be. I see unity as being at the heart of what we want to achieve as a country. We will have other pillars that will look at some of the hardware like how we move the needle on manpower, how we do training, education, how we care for our seniors, improving healthcare, building our infrastructure.
But unity lies at the heart of what we do. It is the foundation on which we can build our success as a country. Because however strong, however progressive we do in other areas, if we are not doing this together, we’re not sharing our commitment together now and for the future and our next generations, it will be difficult for Singapore to sustain this. We want to build it and want to make sure that it rests on strong, solid foundations. And those foundations are found in being united as Singaporeans, going back to the three points I just raised earlier.
As young people, as youths, all of you have, in my view, an outsized influence, an outsized, over-represented, and I think importantly so, voice in this conversation, because much of this, you are engaged in today, and much of this, you remain invested in tomorrow. So I hope that your views, your voices, your opinions, your disagreements even, can come forward, can be put into the melting pot for us to consider and think about.
I go back to my original point about how it's important to break down some stereotypes, unpack the problem, build it up again. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater necessarily, for no good reason, but come at problems that you want to talk about and see with a very fresh perspective. And all of you are here in this room because, you’re all- even at your young age, tender age in some cases, are already leaders in your own communities. And we value that leadership, and we value the experience that comes with that leadership, for you to contribute to these conversations. So this compact must take into account each of our fears and concerns, our dreams and our aspirations because to make this compact that it truly represents something in it for all of us, and that’s the only way in which you can make this compact sustainable and enduring for the long term.
So let’s all come into this conversation with an open mind to receive contrarian ideas, even if it runs against your own DNA. Because by doing that, I think we’ll really be able to build something special for the future, for Singapore. Thank you.