Speech to the Young President’s Organisation: Fault-lines in Singapore

Members of the Young Presidents’ Organisation and distinguished guests,

Thank you for this kind invitation to speak at your event.


COVID-19 has been the overriding the event of these times, overshadowing almost every facet of our lives. We have seen it wrack havoc against the backdrop of troubling events played out in public and online over the past year. Racially-motivated attacks and slurs against foreigners, amongst others, prompted much soul-searching and honest conversation. But we heard uplifting stories too – a timely reminder of who we are as a people, laying aside culture, class or political allegiance. That in spite our differences, there is still a future that we can all rally behind. It demonstrated that at the very least, the idea of Singapore—as a society with shared aspirations—still matters.

But the sobering reality is that the journey is messy and difficult. As Singapore continues to mature as a nation and a people, disagreements and tensions will be an inevitable facet of life. We should not allow this to cause us too much fear and anxiety. In fact, it presents us with valuable opportunities: to think more deeply about these fault-lines and revisit how we negotiate them and where we can do better. Where necessary, we may have to reinvent our approaches.

I do not have all the answers. But allow me perhaps to shed light on three sources of tension that have grown more pronounced in recent years. They will likely continue to demand our attention and careful management in much of the foreseeable future.

The public and the private

First, we see increasingly fierce debates about where to draw the line between the public and the private spheres.

The Government has always tried to maintain a distinction between the two. Through private engagement of community groups, it sees itself as a neutral referee that balances the interests of different sides. Moving forward, there is a need to lower temperatures between groups that have competing visions of what makes a just and ethical society.

Take for example, rising tensions between religious groups and caused-based groups, such as LGBT organisations. Both contribute to the public space and the growth of Singapore, but find themselves pitted against each other. Over the last few years, in response to movements aimed against each other by those on the LGBT side on the one hand and faith-based organisations on the other, leaders including then-Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam urged groups to not push their beliefs and preferences too strongly. In the same vein, then Minister for Muslim Affairs, Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim called on Singaporeans to accommodate the differences sure to exist in any society.

To some, it would seem as though we are trapped in a permanent gridlock, with no way to appease all groups. But one way forward may be to recognize the importance of distinguishing between the public and private space. The public, or secular space, is shared, and where religious views have their place – as a moral compass for many of us.

Cause-based groups cannot expect to change the beliefs of religious communities. These are often profoundly personal matters. The latter, on the other hand, must also refrain from imposing their beliefs and taboos on the wider public. While Singapore protects the rights and freedom of communities to practice their faiths, religious beliefs do not influence matters of policy. Attitudes regarding what can be permitted for wider society, therefore, should be allowed to evolve as a compromise.

This is a process of constant negotiation, as it involves a clash of social and cultural values. Some of these views are entrenched and cannot be undone in a short amount of time. This extends to matters that involve other cultural practices that spill over into the public sphere and become the subject of debate.

In 2016, live music was once again permitted for Thaipusam processions after 46 years. It was finally relaxed after feedback sessions conducted with representatives of the Hindu community. Another example to look to is the permissibility of Muslim women donning headscarves at the workplace. At the National Day Rally, the Prime Minister announced a change in the Government’s position following consultations with Muslim religious leaders.

Muslim nurses are now allowed to incorporate the tudung into their uniform. This reflects how the Government handles such changes in a gradual and delicate manner. But the Government alone cannot shoulder the burden of settling differences. Singaporeans on the ground must begin to develop the capacity to navigate cultural and ideological frictions on their own. Topics previously confined to the private sphere would need to be tackled more openly, lest they fester in the dark or online. Racism is one of them. To be fair, there are some birth-pangs of this happening – open conversations – and that is a good thing, but it is a long road ahead yet.

The political culture in Singapore has long treated the open discussion of racial issues as a taboo, but commentaries and discussions about them online reveal that many Singaporeans are capable of handling them sensitively and critically. We should look towards expanding the space for such productive exchanges. Of course, we still need laws that deal with harmful hate speech that pose security threats. But we also need to consider how they interact with the honest conversations Singaporeans need to hold on such sensitive topics and ensure that laws do not unwittingly operate to limit those conversations.

Likewise, superficial displays of racial harmony and understanding will not be enough to generate genuine empathy and understanding. What’s needed is the space for public conversation over time, and the challenge is in ensuring they do not become mean-spirited. And you and I and every citizen has a role to play in this.

After all, an important aspect of active citizenry is in cultivating healthy norms for engagement and debate. As we urge people to upgrade their work-skills to keep up with the new digital economy, we shouldn’t overlook more subtle ones, such as the art of healthy disagreement. As opinions and beliefs in Singapore become more diverse, the ability to engage one another with empathy and maturity is also an increasingly important skill to master.

Foreigners and Locals

The second source of tension we continue to witness is that between foreigners and locals. Having a large pool of foreign talent and labour is a function of Singapore’s position as a trading centre. But globalisation will always have its undesirable consequences. While many of us appreciate and enjoy our city’s international character, difference can also breed resentment. The Government needs to keep a close watch when these sentiments bubble over into ugly displays of prejudice.

Outsiders become an easy target for blame in times of trouble and crisis. As migrant worker dormitories became the epicentres of Singapore’s COVID-19 outbreak last year, many laid the blame on the workers’ deficient cultural habits. But migrant-worker aid groups like TWC2 had highlighted that what made them vulnerable to mass infection was cramped living conditions.

Meanwhile, foreign professionals have also received the brunt of such prejudice and xenophobia. Recently there has been unhappiness over the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, or CECA. Online sentiment determined that there were too many foreign professionals allowed entry under the CECA agreement, contrary to what the data that has been released actually shows, even if that data was released in a drip-drip fashion by the Government, for reasons best known to themselves. What should be noted is how difficult it was for opposition MPs to secure information on Intra-Corporate Transferees under CECA, in spite of having elected MPs in Parliament to ask these questions on the public’s mind, so as to promote a civil public conversation.

More disturbingly, much of the vitriol was targeted specifically at Indian nationals, with openly racist overtones. Such views should have no place in a Singapore where we wish to see our children grow and thrive.

As I mentioned in Parliament in July, the Government can do more to make such information accessible earlier. This will go a long way to resolve avoidable misunderstandings that lead to public discontent.

At the same time, we cannot ignore where this widespread resentment of foreigners comes from. Discrimination against locals and the steady transfer of skills to locals must be reflected on regularly, in addition to underemployment. It is not enough that we combat perceptions that foreigners are threatening local job security. Policies and measures must be in place and adjusted to keep local underemployment low and maintain the competitiveness of Singaporeans in the job market, so positions that can already be filled by Singaporeans do not go to foreigners.

The Prime Minister’s announcement to continue gradually tightening Employment Pass and S-Pass criteria is welcome, but it remains to be seen what these measures entail. Raised salary cut-offs currently in place are one way to ensure foreign work pass holders are hired based on quality and not employers’ informal networks or preference for their own countrymen.

Be that as it may, we have to be clear about why these measures are needed. They are not meant to deter foreign firms from setting up shop in Singapore, but to ensure those opportunities they create are also available equitably to locals. This is what sustains the health of Singapore’s economy, which benefits foreign companies based here as well. You cannot raise Singaporeans with strong passion for our improbable nation, with Singaporeans feeling discriminated at the workplace. It does not take a genius to figure this out.

While Singapore remains reliant on foreign labour, COVID-19 has emphasised that we must maintain a robust domestic workforce. We are not alone in this regard. We will have to work very hard at this – maintaining our competitiveness in the global economy while protecting local jobs is a difficult balancing act facing all open economies today. But we are Singapore, a much much smaller country compared to many other advanced economies. We can do it and we are only limited by our orthodoxies.

And we cannot shut the world out. Due to circumstances of geography and history, Singapore’s continued openness is of existential importance. But we can calibrate the systems in place to ensure that the influx of overseas talent is kept at a reasonable rate with direct reference to the employment outcome prospects of Singaporeans. Supporting our local workforce should not, however, be a license for us to adopt a generally hostile attitude towards the presence of foreigners here. The objective of these measures is to mitigate differences in material outcomes that may arise between the two, ensure fair opportunities for all, and reduce tensions. Singaporeans must also play their part in embracing the important contributions of our international colleagues, secure in the protection of our interests and livelihoods.

East and West

Which brings me to the third and final wedge driving a growing divide in Singapore, the hostility between East and West. There are conditions that we in Singapore can manage domestically, but we cannot control shifting patterns happening on a global scale. With advances in social media and communication technology, foreign ideas inform our opinions with greater intensity.

Much of this conflict is generational: a new cohort of internet-savvy youths has emerged, connected to movements and ideologies stirring far beyond our shores. These conversations touch on issues ranging from race and privilege to gender and identity.

Meanwhile, older Singaporeans are concerned that the young are applying concepts from the West to Singapore. Many see this as an imposition from one very different context to another. However, other voices argue that these concepts are being adapted to help us understand our local situation better. It is to be expected that when new ways of thinking are introduced to any society, this leads to discomfort and resistance.

This is nothing new for a place like Singapore. As a port-city we have always had to face the strange and unfamiliar. This includes not just people and cultures but also ideas and perspectives. Our ability to keep up with developments abroad has been one of our greatest strengths. New concepts and debates on social issues may put many assumptions of the Singapore Way to the test. But having a strong Singaporean core means being able to tackle these potentially uncomfortable conversations with confidence. A durable society rises to the challenges posed by rapidly changing times.

Other matters demand a greater sense of unity and common purpose. The U.S.-China divide puts Singapore in a difficult position, as Singapore is an ethnic Chinese-majority society. The occasional persuasions made based on our racial makeup risk upsetting our commitment to multiracial equality. Shadow operations to seed divisive narratives on the back of our relatively open society may become common. Commentators-at-large openly advance the cause of either side, in opinion editorials and other public pronouncements.

I must stress that Singapore’s independence remains paramount. The public must be on the same page on this principle. In the climate of great-power rivalry that can compromise our sovereignty, we have to close ranks.

The United States is a resident power in Southeast Asia, and China has its own interests and presence in the region. Both are our strategic partners in trade and security. The two must find ways to cooperate, and commit to a rules-based international system. This path safeguards the continued survival of small and vulnerable nations like Singapore.


The three fault-lines I identified—between public and private, local and foreign, East and West—can all be seen as symptoms of Singapore’s growing pains or the reality of the times. They are visible manifestations of deeper transitions taking place as the country enters a new phase of its history. On one level, they signal a stronger sense of nationalism. Singaporeans are becoming more assured of their identity after decades of independence. They are keen to guard what has taken so much toil and sacrifice to build. Yet there are others amongst us also eager to seek new vistas and avenues, to question the things we have taken for granted. That also comes from a place of care and concern for one’s country.

Whether or not they are aware of it, Singaporeans on opposite ends of these different debates are really pursuing the same thing: a better society, a Singapore that truly lives up to its highest ideals. In this process, more tension is likely and increasingly diverse views are expected, including louder minority views. We must recognize that this is par for the course.

As the French thinker Ernest Renan argued, being a nation is not just about a shared heritage. It is also about a constant desire to live together. This is a decision we make every day. We cannot last if we expect to stay the same way forever. As I’m sure we all know from personal experience, even the people closest and dearest to us change and we learn to accommodate those changes the best we can. That takes necessary work. Both the people of Singapore, and its politicians have to be prepared to speak the language of accommodation, compromise and moderation. I have little doubt that we are more than equal to the task.

Thank you once again for the honour to speak to you, and I wish the Young President’s Organisation every success.

3 December 2021

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