Speech by Mr Ng Chee Meng, Acting Minister for Education, at Singapore Perspectives 2016, 18 January 2016

Published Date: 18 January 2016 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Professor Wang Gungwu, Chairman of the Governing Board of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Professor Tommy Koh, Special Adviser to the Institute of Policy Studies

Mr Janadas Devan, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen,


1.  A very good morning to all of you. I am very delighted to be here this morning to share my thoughts with you and more importantly, to hear your perspectives as One Singapore.

Cohesive Diversity

2.  The term “cohesive diversity” is, according to Mr Ho Kwon Ping, a “delightful oxymoron”. Indeed it is but I won’t go too much into the English of it today. Diversity in itself is a neutral concept - it simply means variety. Therefore, the merits or pitfalls of diversity are context-specific. For example, in an organisation, diversity can be a source of strength. Because from this diversity, different ideas and viewpoints can be put on the table. The resultant decision would likely benefit from this plethora of viewpoints from the marketplace. However, this is assuming that after the decision, all would rally behind the decision. But in the same example, what if even after the decision is taken, different parties don’t buy in and continue to pull in different directions? Then diversity would be divisive. Therefore, whether diversity brings strength or whether diversity divides depends not only in the thinking, but also in the “Doing” ; As such, harnessing diversity for strength involves both ideation and unity of action. Likewise for Singapore, where there is more than one social, cultural or economic group, including racial and religious groups, diversity can be either a good thing, or a bad thing. In our history, we have had to manage significant tensions, where diversity led to social unrest. In our earlier years, Singapore faced intra-racial riots, ideological differences and threatened to pull our society apart. But over the last 50 years, we have rallied together and forged what I think we can call “cohesive diversity” in Singapore.

The Singapore Pledge as our Vision for “Cohesive Diversity”

3.  Singapore’s “cohesive diversity” started out as a vision, crystallised in our Pledge. In our early years, the Pledge emerged as we struggled to forge a sense of national identity, a sense of nationhood. We pledge ourselves first, as “One United People”, and committed to build a nation “regardless of race, language, or religion”. Our founding fathers believed that race, language and religion had the potential to divide, and the late Mr S Rajaratnam wrote the Pledge to call upon Singaporeans to be united, and overcome these differences and adversities as we build a common future together. Getting the vision right is very important, but a vision alone would not have led us to where we are today as One Singapore. What did? In my view, it is our inclusive politics and policies that drive us towards our vision. These are careful policies; deliberate policies; pragmatic policies. Our politics did not shy away from difficult decisions to create common spaces for all groups to live, work and play together - common spaces that we guard jealously. These policies create, enlarge, and defend our common spaces. They are not static. These policies will evolve over time as our society evolves and matures.

Changing times

4.  Today, more of us are championing causes we believe in, causes such as environmental sustainability, animal rights. As we globalise, income inequality will remain an issue, and Singaporeans themselves are also becoming more diverse, due to more inter-marriages and immigration. The texture of our society has become more complex, and the idea of multiculturalism has become more nuanced. We want Singaporeans to care about the community and to serve. We want Singaporeans who choose to believe in Singapore, and believe in making a difference here. The challenge is - will we be able to continue to progress towards our vision of “One United People”, even as we appear to be more different and diverse?

Evolving the Singapore Approach

5.  Our vision has not changed. Even as we may disagree on many issues, we agree on one thing - our common vision as “One United People”. What will make a real difference is how we continue with our inclusive politics and policies. The policies may change over time, but the core elements such as education, meritocracy and leaving no one behind must remain. As a society, Singaporeans must respect our differences, and proactively defend our common spaces, regardless of whether they are Singapore-born or new citizens, regardless of religion and regardless of whether we are rich or poor. Our Integration and Naturalisation Champions (INCs) actively reach out to new citizens and PRs. Over time, these new citizens and PRs can contribute more to our community and at the same time, expand their social network. I am glad to see that we are on the right track. When we set up the SAF Volunteer Corps, it attracted a lot of interest. I recall a Singaporean PR who wanted to sign up as a volunteer. Why? Because he “get(s) a little jealous of the common bond that Singaporean males share as national servicemen”. So even as we welcome new PRs and new citizens, we are already creating bonds.

Way Forward

6.  We will continue to refine our Singapore approach to diversity. It is not just through government policies, but through inclusive politics as I said earlier. Every Singaporean will have a part to play. Our community will have a part to play. In the true spirit of drawing strength from diversity, I would very much like to hear your views: Conversations about “diversities” can be emotionally-charged, especially among those who view it as a zero-sum game, how can we have these conversations in an informed and constructive manner, where viewpoints - whether one is in the majority or minority - are respected and properly considered? In some sensitive areas, there may be no definitive consensus today even as we recognise that a new equilibrium may be needed in the future. What do we, as a society, need to do, in that process of evolution and transition? How can we be more resilient as a “One United People”, harness strengths from our diversity, and not let it pull us apart? How can we galvanise individuals, including all of you in the audience today, in our call to action to help society find balance amidst the diversity in views?

7.  I look forward to hearing your views. Thank you very much.

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