Our Spirit As a Nation through the Founders’ Memorial
Speech By Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community And Youth & Second Minister for Law, at the launch of Semangat yang Baru: Forging a New Singapore Spirit on 20 April 2023
21 April 2023
I am really very happy to be here today to launch the Semangat yang Baru: Forging a New Singapore Spirit exhibition.
This exhibition invites us to reflect on the values upheld by our founding leaders during the early days of our nation.
It explores the key historical milestones where they exemplified
Boldness, in the face of adversity
Openness, in the face of uncertainty
Selflessness, when sacrifice for the greater good was necessary.
It invites us to draw inspiration and lessons learnt from the past, to forge a new spirit for our next chapter of nation-building.
Our Spirit as a Nation
‘Semangat yang Baru’ means precisely that – “new spirit”. We recognise this phrase from our national anthem.
But what does it mean to forge a new spirit for a nation?
For our founding leaders, it meant rallying people in a time of turmoil, uncertainty and unrest towards the vision they had for Singapore –
a multicultural nation bound together by our shared convictions and our shared values
a society where each generation strives to improve on what it has, laying the foundation for the next generation
a country which gives a chance to everyone, regardless of their race, religion or socio-economic status.
They did this for Singapore's survival and progress in a post-war era, while dealing with fundamental issues like
fighting for our independence,
putting a roof over people’s heads,
educating them and giving them jobs.
Indeed, our Singapore spirit was born of adversity.
Why it matters
Fast forward to today, as we have survived, progressed, and not only that, but thrived and prospered as a nation.
But let us not forget where we began and the journey we have taken.
That our history is brightly lit with people and moments of inspiration that have brought us precisely to where we are today.
This is the heartbeat behind this exhibition and the entire Founders’ Memorial effort.
As we commemorate the legacy of our founding leaders and the values they stood for, we want visitors to walk away with a deepened sense of appreciation for how far we have come as a nation.
We also want them to walk away with a stronger conviction to work towards an even better future.
So we ask ourselves the same questions that confronted our first-generation leaders back then
What kind of nation do we – do I – myself personally as I made my way through the exhibition, what do we want to build for future generations?
Who do we want to be as a people? What values will define us and will we live by?
We face a different set of challenges today as a nation. A different time, a different context. The nuances are different.
A new global order shaped by US-China rivalry, fast-changing technology and forms of work, climate change, an ageing population, slowing social mobility, just to name a few.
How Singapore can emerge and will emerge on the other side of these challenges will depend, as it did back then and is the same today, on our unity and solidarity.
Our sense of us, our shared values, and resolve to see it through.
It is also not enough just to have a good standard of living or quality of life.
A safe, clean and green environment, good infrastructure, accessible services, stable governance – yes, we treasure these things in our country.
But these are words that can be used to describe a nice hotel.
Indeed it is our people, the heart of Singapore, that we will be able to find greener pastures elsewhere.
Instead, we want our people to call Singapore home, not a hotel.
A home we love and care for, even when the going gets tough.
A home we are committed to build, even if it means putting aside our own individual preferences to ensure the common good we can aspire towards.
This speaks to something deeper.
To quote our Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew from a speech he delivered in 1968 .
“…a Singaporean is a person who either by birth and upbringing or residence in Singapore feels committed to upholding this society as it is – multiracial, tolerant, accommodating, forward-looking – and is prepared to stake his life for this community.”
Public engagement to shape the Founders’ Memorial
So it is timely we embark on this journey to forge a new Singapore Spirit.
It is not just the end-product – a well-designed Founders’ Memorial interpretive gallery – that matters, but the process of coming together as Singaporeans to share, shape and own this shared narrative.
This is why every step of the Founders’ Memorial journey is done with Singaporeans.
Mr Lee Tzu Yang spoke earlier about how many Singaporeans have indeed contributed to the Memorial’s development.
The Semangat Yang Baru exhibition, as a pilot for the narrative and visitor experience for the Founders’ Memorial, is part of this continued public engagement.
The exhibition you will experience is the product of the feedback shared by the citizens and stakeholders we engaged.
Singaporeans have shared how they want the exhibition's narrative to be presented in a way that is authentic and resonant.
You will see that the exhibition delves into the difficult decisions and dilemmas that have confronted our leaders.
Artefacts such as the first Concept Plan from 1971, a long-term land-use and infrastructure plan to chart Singapore’s physical development for 50 years on.
or an Anti-Pollution map titled “Existing and Future Areas Subject to Pollution” that hung in Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s Istana Office from the 1970s.
These bring to life how our founding leaders looked far into the horizon and did not shy away from confronting difficult decisions on competing land use.
You will also see the exhibition features lesser-known stories, such as those of women leaders who boldly championed the Women’s Charter and advocated for family planning to improve the lives of women, despite receiving strong public criticism at that time.
One of them is Mrs Shirin Fozdar, a prominent champion for women’s rights.
Mrs Fozdar co-founded the Singapore Council of Women that campaigned for monogamy in 1952.
She also initiated Singapore’s first girls’ club at Joo Chiat Welfare Centre to teach women practical skills, math and languages in 1953. In 1953, that move was well ahead of its time.
We are honoured to have Mr Jamshed Fozdar, son of Mrs Shirin Fozdar, here with us today.
Through these exhibits, we reflect deeply on not just the achievements, but the sacrifices, tensions, the conflict and difficult trade-offs, that were critical to our nation’s progress.
So I thank everyone who has helped shape this meaningful visitor experience.
I just saw it and I was struck by how much it resonated with me, and many of the artefacts that each of you here have loaned us for this exhibition – they are both evocative as well as inspiring.
And I look forward to Singaporeans continuing to share their feedback on the exhibition, to further improve and refine the Founders’ Memorial experience.
Commemorating Mr Lee Kuan Yew's Life
This year is the 100th anniversary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s birth. To commemorate this milestone,
The National Museum of Singapore and the Founders’ Memorial will be launching a digital trail for visitors to find out more about Mr Lee’s life and career, and how his ideas and actions have shaped the path of our nation.
The trail will span the Semangat yang Baru exhibition and the post-war Singapore section of the Singapore History Gallery.
There are other activities being planned in the National Heritage Board’s museums to commemorate this anniversary.
The National Museum is commissioning Singaporean filmmaker Royston Tan to produce a short film based on Mr Lee’s historic speeches.
The Children’s Museum Singapore is planning an exhibition where children can be introduced to and learn more about Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, including taking a look into his childhood and student days.
Acknowledgement of stakeholders and family members
I would like to thank
the working team and volunteers from the Founders’ Memorial and National Museum of Singapore for the hard work, tireless dedication working through COVID-19, in preparing for the exhibition;
the Founders’ Memorial Committee for their advice and counsel.
They represent Singaporeans across all communities and bring with them rich expertise in diverse areas.
The families and close associates of the founding leaders who are here with us today. I am very privileged to be in your company.
The opportunity to speak with all of you about our leaders with whom you have the most direct and personal insight, have given us a far greater insider experience into their lives and what they stood for, even away from the public eye.
We know their sacrifices for our nation were also shouldered by you.
So we extend our deepest gratitude, and I thank you for being here./l/li>
To conclude, if there is one thing we wish for people to take away from the exhibition, it is this –
The best legacy that our founding leaders have left us are the values they lived by and fought for, as they built Singapore brick by brick, step by step.
They have become fundamental parts of our shared identity as Singaporeans.
They have guided and steered our nation through many storms.
The baton is now with us.
Another 50 years into the future, when subsequent generations similarly reflect on their heritage, my hope is that they will look back at this point in history with pride.
That Singaporeans came together to forge a new spirit, and charted the way forward for an even better Singapore.
It has been a long but truly enriching journey thus far, but we still have some way to go.
I look forward to continue working with Singaporeans in the making of our Founders’ Memorial.