TL;DR – We have to work hard to be a cohesive society.
DPM Tharman is worried.
As much as he would like to see Singapore become an innovative, vibrant and creative society, he is worried that we may end up as a society where people get “elbowed out”.
Why does he worry that? He said:
“I would say that I worry mainly because I see what is happening in the rest of the world – in the region immediately around us as well as in the most mature democracies. We know that we are not special people. We are a human society like any others, and the natural workings of society, if we just let it go with market, can very easily lead to divisions deepening. So we have to avoid it.”
DPM Tharman was speaking at the inaugural NTU Majulah Lecture last Wednesday (20 Sep 2017) when he shared these thoughts.
Indeed, many countries have seen increasing tensions along various fault lines. The most obvious is in USA, where racial relations are getting increasingly more tense. There, you see white supremacists clashing with those who would rather see a more diverse USA. Some times, these clashes turn violent, even fatal.
Can something like this happen in Singapore? It wasn’t too long ago that Singapore was torn asunder by racial riots. That was part of our founding history. It’s a part of our history that we have worked strenuously to never repeat. As DPM Tharman explained:
“It requires continuous work, and should never pretend that just leaving it to the market would lead to more understanding, more harmony, greater multiculturalism. It doesn’t happen that way anywhere in the world. It requires conscious action, conscious acts of the State, which work if they are supported by people. That’s how we have come so far and that’s how we will have to go into the future.”
Some of things that we have done include a very intrusive housing policy.
And of course, it also includes the reserved presidential election. DPM Tharman acknowledged that people would have preferred a contest. He also professed that he would have preferred a contest too. But he is also very proud that Mdm Halimah is our President.
At the lecture, DPM Tharman also recounted reading an article by the Malaysia Mingguan, a major Malaysian media publication, commenting on Madam Halimah’s election:
“They said it was unimaginable that Singapore would have a Malay president when it has 75 per cent Chinese. They compared it with what happens to the minorities elsewhere. They didn’t want to talk too much about Malaysia, so they talked about Indonesia. What happened to the Chinese candidate who contested the Jakarta gubernatorial elections – he fell from a 75 per cent popular rating all the way down through a campaign based on ethnicity and religion, lost, and was then jailed. An insightful piece, because they are not great fans of Singapore. But they decided to write an editorial commending what happened, and expressing that it was remarkable that it happened.”
But this remarkable outcome didn’t happen because we are a special people. It happened because we made special effort to make it happen.
And, while DPM Tharman hopes that one day race will not matter, he’s realistic. He knows that we need to keep on working at it. He said:
“Giving every child a chance to succeed, it doesn’t happen naturally. It requires conscious effort. And never forget that growing up as a minority is different from growing up in the majority. Never pretend it is the same. It requires extra action, extra empathy, and that sense of sharing the same boat together – 风雨同舟 (feng yu tong zhou).”
Let’s hope the day that race doesn’t matter will come sooner than later.