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Speech by Minister Desmond Lee at IPS 30th Anniversary Conference 2018

​​1   Good morning. I thank IPS for inviting me to join this panel, and look forward to a good discussion.

Singapore’s Identity Built on Common Space

2   Contrary to what Prof Eleanor has said, I see myself as a student. I am here to learn from all of you on social issues we need to look at. As far as I seek to share some thoughts on social identity on Singapore, I am more keen to listen to you.

3   Our focus is on emerging forms of social identity, and what this means for our identity as a nation.

4   A few weeks ago, I participated in a work-plan seminar. During the warm-up, we played a game called “Diversity Circles”.

  • Each of us was asked to hold a card to our foreheads.
  • Each card bore a big circle. But they were of many different colours.
  • We could see the card that others carried, but not our own.
  • The facilitator asked us to “group ourselves”, and gave us 1 min.
  • We weren’t allowed to speak. Not allowed to communicate verbally.
  • As we scrambled around the room in silence, some would point and signal to us to join this group or that group.
  • In turn we tried to be helpful and sort and arrange. At the end of 1 minute, we had grouped ourselves according to the colour of the circles. It was perfect grouping and everyone was happy.
  • During reflection, the facilitator challenged the group to explain why we grouped ourselves this way. Somebody said “because we all carried circles of the same colour, so same identity”. Same group, its natural.
  • Then the facilitator asked, “was there any other way we could have grouped ourselves”? Because the instructions were simply group yourselves. Not this or that.
  • Some replied – we could have grouped ourselves entirely randomly, disregarding shape and colour. Others said we could have formed groups that had one circle from each colour in the room. Then someone said – hey, why not form one big group? We were of different colours, but all of us carried the same circles. Look at the commonalities, try to look beyond the distinctions and differences. And construct a broader identity.
  • But this was after deliberate thought, and it wasn’t immediately instinctive.
  • It was a simple exercise all done in under 10 minutes. Warmed up then ready to go into work plan. It was a valuable reminder about the motivations, instincts and behaviours that identity can drive in all of us.

5 Indeed, identity is as much a decision as a matter of fact. The circles have colours but it was a decision to let colour matter. This awareness about identity is critical for our cohesion in Singapore, because with globalisation and the increased permeability of ideas, beliefs and practices across borders, Singapore has become indeed more diverse, more colourful.

6   Diversity, however, is not new to us. It has always been core to our national identity. As a society, we are multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual. But beyond race, culture, language and religion, people also wear multiple other identities – such as:

  • Gender
  • Generation – Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials
  • Socio-economic status and various indicators of it
  • Common life experiences
  • Our professions or trades
  • Our interests or the causes that move us to action and arouse our passions– such as the environment, the arts, sport, heritage, social causes,
  • And so on.

7   If we group tightly and exclusively along our own set of identities, it can segment and stratify us. Diversity becomes a method for division. But if we establish a broader, common identity, and also draw strength from our differences, diversity can be a method for addition and cohesion. We have framed our overarching national identity along principles like meritocracy, fairness, cohesion and trust.

8   What this means is that we recognise our diverse heritage, while working towards a common future. Singapore achieves progress, which in turn brings benefits to every citizen. In the same vein, we maximise common space through shared experiences, such as in our schools, National Service and more, which help strengthen our sense of national identity and being.

9   There are also common, enduring values that underpin the story of Singapore.

  • We strive to be a caring society, built on strong families and communities, where we look out for each other and also give back. As DPM Tharman said last night, the Singapore ambition is to continue moving up the escalator, and if anyone should fall behind, we should all be prepared to lend a hand.
  • We also value cohesion, where each of us puts the common good above our own interests. This involves moving beyond tolerance, towards deeper mutual understanding and appreciation for our different communities.
  • And looking forward, we desire a confident future where there is trust between Singaporeans, as well as in our institutions. Where there is dialogue and conversation.

10   Building common space is an ongoing, conscious and active endeavour, as each new generation of Singaporeans seek to renew the social compact. The common spaces of today may not be enough. We need new spaces to dialogue. In the real world and the virtual space.

New Social Forms and their Implications on National Identity

11   Let me move on to some brief observations on race, nationality, family, religion and class.

12   Our families are becoming more culturally diverse. More Singaporeans are marrying partners from a different race or nationality.

  • The percentage of inter-ethnic marriages was 22% last year, an increase of 6 percentage points over a ten-year period.
  • A significant proportion of Singaporeans are also marrying foreigners. More than 1 in 3 citizen marriages last year involved transnational couples.
  • With this, there are more inter-ethnic babies, and mixed-race identities.
  • With immigration, we are also seeing greater diversity in our cultural makeup over time.

13   Religious identity has also evolved. One aspect of this is increasing religiosity, and secularism too.

  • Partly due to influence beyond our shores and the ease of the Internet, growing segments of our population are holding their religious beliefs and doctrine more strongly.
  • While others are advocating for non-religious approaches and strict models of secularism.

14   Religious extremism is a particular concern, as problematic or exclusivist doctrines from elsewhere are imported into Singapore.

  • For example, we have seen some Singaporeans become self-radicalised online.
  • This can lead to deep misunderstandings about the nature of Islam, and breed fear and distrust between Muslims and non-Muslims.
  • And Islamophobia has grown in many parts of the world, and we are certainly not immune to it. We need to actively keep watch for this.

15   More recently, the class divide has been drawn in sharp relief. Much of the discussion last night and in fact this morning was along the lines of inequality and poverty. Some have argued that it is the sharpest social division; not race, and or religion. IPS released a study last year that showed how many Singaporeans do not have diverse social networks with people from a different class. And this is something the Government has been concerned with, and is committed to working with the community to address. Inequality is a global phenomenon, and the realities of economic and technological disruption will affect our social mobility. Professor Walter Theseira and my colleague, Minister Josephine Teo, had discussed this with all of you earlier in the morning.

On Family

16   Let me spend some time on family.

17   Family continues to be a fundamental pillar of society. The social norm in our society is that of a couple marrying, and bringing up children. Indeed, Singaporeans continue to have strong aspirations to get married and have children. Today, as families get smaller, we also see the extended family coming in to provide meaningful relationships and support. Every individual is still very much a part of a family, regardless of their age, marital status, or living arrangement.

18   More types of family forms have been emerging over the years, and gradually shaping our conception of Singaporean families. These are not forms that have risen overnight. They have evolved over years and decades.

19   First, as mentioned earlier, transnational couples form a significant part of our marriage cohort. This has led to greater ethnic and cultural diversity in our families.

20   Second, we have seen a rise in the number of reconstituted families.

  • More people divorce and then remarry.
  • In reconstituted households, one or both parents have children from a previous marriage, some can be young and some can be grown up, and they may live without their children, or with their step-children in a new family.
  • Last year, 23% of marriages were remarriages for one or both parties, just a 4% increase from 2000.

21   Third, there is a growing number of people who are delaying marriage, or not marrying at all.

  • We have seen an increase in one-person households, which more than doubled from the year 2000 to last year. In 2017, there were 168,000 of such households.
  • Supporting marriage and parenthood remains a key priority.
  • However, we have been adjusting our policies over the years to meet the needs of those who remain single.
  • Since 2013, singles aged 35 and above have been able to apply for BTOs flats, and are eligible for HDB housing grants. Those who buy resale flats to live with or near their parents, and near their parents was added only recently, are also eligible for the grants.

22   The fourth observation is on single parent households, which are about 7% of all resident households. These households are mainly headed by widowed, divorced or separated parents, but they also include unwed parents, unwed mothers, unwed fathers

  • Parliament debated the issue of extending paid maternity leave to unwed mothers over many years.
  • We made that change in 2017, so that they can better care for their children.
  • This year, HDB removed the 3-year time bar for divorcees to buy or own a subsidised flat, to support their housing needs and that of their children.
  • And, we will continue and must continue to review our policies to accommodate families in different circumstances.

23   The final observation is that, besides the family and its variant forms, there are also other social forms in Singapore society that we should be aware about:

  • I spoke about single parent households earlier, largely headed by divorcees or widows, but also including single unwed mothers or fathers.
  • Second, there are households where we see grandparents effectively taking on the role of parents, to look after their grandchildren, because the parents are no longer in the picture, for a variety of reasons. This could be because of divorce, abandonment, demise or incarceration of the parents. The grandparents often apply to be legal guardians and play the role of parents.
  • Third, we also see households where the older siblings exhibit parentified behaviour, or they behave like parents to their younger siblings – they have to step up to perform the role played by parents, even at a young age, because the parents are absent. I have seen some cases, for example, where siblings have to fend for themselves because their parents divorce, each re-marry, form their own families, and neither side wants the children from their initial families. In some cases, extended family – uncles, aunts, step in. But when they grow up, they end up being on their own.
  • Fourth, we have co-habitee households. These can comprise heterosexual or homosexual couples.

24   Our social policies balance between maintaining strong support for marriage and family, while making space for the increasingly prominent diversity in family and social forms. But it is not government policy on its own that decides the future of society and family forms and social forms. Societies themselves, communities, families are what shape social discourse and the direction in which society evolves.

Forging a New Social Compact

25   Diversity will always be central to the Singapore story.

26   But to draw strength from diversity is not always natural and cannot be left to mere instinct, as the diversity circles sample shows. We tend to go towards what is safe and familiar, which tends to pull in the other direction. We need the community to provide counterweights. So the Government is partnering the community to create more spaces and platforms, and newer spaces and plarforms, for people of different backgrounds to come together. I will just highlight two. You may know of them:

  • One is the Singapore Cares Movement, which celebrates and supports ground-up volunteerism and giving.
  • We work with charities to identify and share more about needs on the ground, shape volunteering opportunities and match givers to causes. Anyone can sign up to volunteer if you download the SG Cares app.
  • In the course of giving you mix with people from different backgrounds. Different points of views. Different socio economic status. Different perspectives. You can make friends with other volunteers who are passionate about similar causes. And you may also find that you have much in common with the communities you started off intending to support.
  • Another effort is BRIDGE (Broadening Religious/Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education).It is a series of community-driven initiatives by MCCY with communitypartners to foster better understanding and appreciation across religions and cultures in Singapore.
  • One initiative that encourages open respectful conversation is the “Ask Me Anything” series under BRIDGE, and you see an example on the screen, where people of different religions put themselves in the hot seat to answer questions. The conversations sometimes get uncomfortable, because nothing about religion is off-limits – but that is precisely the point of the exercise. It is a safe space to discuss sensitive issues. This is a refreshing way to learn to approach racial and religious diversity which continue to be fault lines which we must watch carefully.

Forming our Singaporean Identity Together

27   Identity constantly evolves, changes and forms and reforms. It is not immutable. Our Singaporean identity also has to be constantly formed and re-formed as society and its aspirations change.

28   Society in ingapore must continue to celebrate diversity and strive for inclusivity. We must remember the idea of Singapore – that we may all be different, but yet, in many important ways – we are the same. We love our food, we do NS, we speak Singlish, we drink recycled water. We are all the same in the broader circle of things. And we must continue to feel this way, to do this is in spite of the challenges and trends that are pulling in different directions. There may be calls towards exclusive identities that pull away from the broader Singapore narrative. More than ever we have to put our heads together, and retain our commitment to work towards a common future. This is our responsibility and duty to one another and the future generations.

29   Thank you.

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Published On Fri, Oct 26, 2018
Last Reviewed On Thu, Nov 8, 2018

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