Speech By Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister For Education (Higher Education And Skills) & Senior Minister Of State, Ministry Of Defence At The Mesra Youth Seminar 2016

Published Date: 23 April 2016 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Singapore's Hinterland

Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim,
Adviser to MESRA

My parliamentary colleague Mdm Rahayu Mahzam

Mr Ang Hak Seng, Chief Executive Director, People’s Association

Mr Omar Bin Ismail, PBM, Chairman of MESRA

Mr Izzudin Taherally, President, Malay Youth Literary Association

Ladies and Gentlemen

Boys and girls

1. It is my pleasure to be here today with so many youth leaders from various organisations, Malay-Muslim Organisations, Secondary Schools and Institutes of Higher Learning at this inaugural MESRA Youth Seminar.

Your concerns, Singapore’s concerns

2. A few weeks ago, I was at a similar seminar – the Women’s Integration Network, a congregation of all the women volunteers across the People’s Association’s Women’s Executive Council. I spoke about the progress women have made, the challenges women are still facing, especially in juggling between family and career, as well as some of the ways society can help to support women.

3. While we may say these are issues concerning women, they are really issues for the Singaporean society. If women cannot juggle their careers and families, husbands and children will suffer too. The issues are not for women to address, but for men, women, children – everyone – to work on together.

4. Today, it is a privilege to be at this seminar, by MESRA which is the coordinating body of 98 MAECs in Singapore. MESRA is in a unique position, to feel the pulse and understand the emotions, challenges, opportunities that the Malay-Muslim community is facing, and to communicate and discuss these issues with the wider society.

5. Likewise, at a seminar such as this, we can think of the issues we have discussed as “Malay-Muslim” youth issues, but really these are issues that the whole society ought to care about. The challenges are shared, as are the opportunities, and we must adopt the same spirit – that we are in this together.

Optimism for SG100

6. We chose an ambitious theme today – Towards SG100. It is always good to have such big visionary themes for an inaugural seminar.

7.What will SG100 be like? Some things will not change – Singapore will still be in Southeast Asia, we will still be a little red dot, and we have no hinterland within our country. But many things will change too, and for the better.

8. I will be in my 90s and my children in their 60s. Science and technology will have taken many leaps ahead; we would have found solutions to famine, droughts and maybe even climate change; we would probably be harvesting solar, wind and tidal energy and move away from dirty fossil fuels. Those who take responsibility over their health, I think, will lead longer and better lives.

9. In 100 years, the sea levels would have risen at least by 50 centimetres. These are some of the problems we would have to solve in the next 50 years.

10. In SG100, with 50 more years added to the history of nation states, I think the concept and respect for nation states will be a lot stronger. Democracy will be pervasive throughout the world, but there will be greater understanding that our cultures and histories are different. Democracy will manifest itself differently across the world. But one principle will not change – that democracy is about Governments serving the people and can be replaced in a peaceful, democratic and legal manner.

11. I think 50 years from now, cities will become a lot more important. When there are no roads or connections, we all live in our own kampungs. When we start to connect the kampungs by roads, we build a town. When towns are connected, we build a city. When cities are more connected we will have global cities.

12. In these global cities, we find the best opportunities, the most interesting people to meet, the most exciting places to visit, the most intense connections to ideas, people and places. But if mismanaged, we may also find the dirtiest roads, the most polluted air, maybe even the most ruthless criminals. When we open our windows, we let in the flies together with the fresh air.

13. Where will these global cities be in SG100? Very likely – New York City in America, London in Europe, Shanghai in China, probably Mumbai in India. Each serves a huge hinterland and continent with populations in the hundreds of millions. But continents are in turn connected by sea, through the Indian and Pacific oceans, intersecting in Southeast Asia. This is where major civilisations of the world, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and later the Western civilisation, left deep historical imprints.

14. Here, we can have a special city – global and dynamic, multicultural, diverse, and also a bridge across different civilisations. We can have a city with a people confident of their place in the world, enterprising, resourceful and generous in spirit. That place will be Singapore.

Evolving City

15. But the big difference between Singapore and New York, London, Shanghai or Dubai is this – New York has America, London has United Kingdom, Mumbai has India, and Shanghai has China. Singapore has, well, Singapore. This is all that we have. It is unlike Americans who do not like New York and can move to San Francisco. Within this 700+ square km, we are both a city, as well as a country, and an entire nation’s emotions are invested here. Singapore has just Singapore – and Singaporeans.

16. Singapore cannot exist in the same mould as London, New York, Mumbai or Shanghai. We cannot be merely a global economic centre. We must also build a nation’s history, and people’s memories and identity.

17. This is our collective national project for future decades and centuries. I doubt it will be realistic to have a plan. We can only evolve with the times and the circumstances surrounding us. We adapt, and with each adaptation we become more distinctively Singaporean, yet more relevant to the world around us.

18. Over time, our city will build upon what it has today, to have a stronger character and a richer soul. In that sense, cities are like people. No matter how successful a career a person has, if he has no love; no family to dote on; no one to care for him; no favourite music nor books; and no favorite football team nor movies; he is not whole as a person.

19. Similarly, a country or a city is also our home, and where our hearts are. Singapore must be an emotive evocative idea, a city rich with inspiration, spirit and feeling. Let me talk about three emotions which I would like to see in Singapore in SG100.

Attachment to Sacred Places

20. First, a strong sense of belonging to the place. Our city is alive, shifting and changing constantly. But even as it changes, there will be memories, history, nature, and heritage – places we knew when young, food we first tasted as children, dirt roads that we once trampled on, or sounds we hear constantly, that give us a sense of home. When we develop a place, we cannot just bulldoze and build. We need a piece of old Singapore infused with the new.

21. That is why Kampong Glam is one of my favorite places in Singapore. It is full of Singapore’s history, its development dating back to the early years of colonial settlement, and then becoming an emporium in the Far East, where traders from all over the world come to trade. Today, the names of all the lanes there hint at this interesting and vibrant past, and the monuments standing there – Sultan Mosque and Sultan Gate – are important markers of this history. Along Haji Lane, you will see numerous quirky shops and eateries selling very Singaporean things and local flavours that are presented differently. When you cross the next street, you will see amazing colours of different fabrics. I need to go back there with my wife one day to make my batik shirts. This is a place I am proud to show off to my foreign friends, not because it is a swanky building, but because it is so authentically Singapore.

22 . One of the biggest privileges of being a Member of Parliament in Sembawang GRC is the opportunity to develop the Sembawang Community Hub. This is at Canberra, where the rubber and pineapple plantations used to be. The old Chong Pang market used to be there, and the older folks in Sembawang will tell you that it was famous for its fried fish head and the mutton soup. Today, it is a forested hill where the Admiralty House continues to sit atop. This was the home of the British Admiral that oversaw the Sembawang Naval Base – the largest British naval base east of the Suez Canal. Today, it has been gazetted as a national monument.

23 . We are working with various agencies to carefully develop the area. It will be a mistake to clear the entire hill and build it up – it will be full of facilities, convenient and utilitarian but it will have no character. So we have the National Parks Board to be the project leader because they have an instinct to preserve greenery. They immediately counted the number of trees – 761 – and the plan is to keep close to 600, and plant another 1,000, using seeds of trees that are long gone in Singapore.

24. We are regrowing old Singapore. We will carefully insert facilities into the greenery. Facilities that we are familiar with but yet differently. One of the key pieces is what the Ministry of Health calls a primary care clinic. It will not just focus on treating illnesses, but is one that focuses on treating and encouraging health. Along with the clinic, we will see various health programmes, activities and exercises. SportsSG will work with us to ensure that the exercises and activities will have maximum physiological benefits to the residents.

25. To do this well, there should be a wellness swimming pool, where exercises and water therapy can take place. So we are also planning such a pool and trying to tap on the rain water collected by the hill.

26. We are also planning on a hawker centre. We will try to make it healthy. We can even have a community garden nearby, where you can harvest the organic produce to use at the hawker centre.

27. And the forest will remain, for residents to stroll, climb, and visit the Admiralty House. The House is a monument, and in time to come it can be an attractive and distinctive event venue where significant life moments can be celebrated, as well as a historical location that tells the story of Sembawang.

28. So this is really not just a community hub. It is a wellness hub because health and wellness permeates the whole site, across different facilities. I am determined not to build a community centre as the whole hill is a community centre.

29. I should not forget that nearby, there is also a very special feature of Singapore, which is the one and only hot spring in mainland Singapore. I was recently told that there is another one in Pulau Tekong. I never knew that. I always thought that the Sembawang Hot Spring is the only one. Today, the hot spring sits in a military camp. But MINDEF has made sure that public can access the hot spring. This is really a hot spring, with volcanic water. You can smell the sulphur. But the place is small. It is rustic but small. It is also very charming but desperately lacking in amenities. For example, there is no toilet there. This is a problem when you go and soak yourself in, and there is no toilet. So after some discussion, MINDEF has agreed to give up the land, that piece of land where the hot spring is, and return it to the State. From there, we are going to run to National Parks Board again and say, “Can you then take over? Then help us maintain it, improve the facilities and maybe beautify it a bit.”

30. Putting a place under a public agency such as National Parks Board – what does it mean? It means that the land of the hot spring need not be tendered out. It need not be tendered out to the highest bidder and then become commercialised. We can keep the charm and the rusticness of the place while putting in small conveniences, more greenery, for the benefit of the residents.

31. I tell all these stories, because many of you are like us – volunteers on the ground. Together, I am working with volunteers in Sembawang, and we can all put in a bit of effort to keep those special memories alive for Singapore.

Spirit of Generosity

32. Second, more important than an emotional attachment to places is the emotional attachment to people – beyond family members, relatives and friends, but also fellow countrymen.

33. A parliamentary colleague of mine described Singaporeans as having a ‘spirit of generosity’. I like that phrase, as it describes how over the years we have reached out and embraced each other, across communities, race, language and religion. Big-hearted and open minded. We share common experiences, and develop strong emotional bonds.

34. I witnessed such a spirit of generosity recently when I attended the Indian Cultural Festival last week. As you know there are many Indian communities living in Singapore – Tamils, Singhalese, Punjabis, Sindhis, Malayalees, Telugus, and even Tamil Peranakans. They follow the solar calendar, but have different new years. For the past seven years, the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association organised a combined New Year celebration for all the different Indian communities. You don’t even find this practice in India – you can only find it in Singapore.

35. Further, with the support of the Singapore Tourism Board, the Association identified various vacant land in Little India, and staged cultural performances from all communities – Chinese, Malay, and Indian – throughout the year. They call this initiative POLI – Project Oasis Little India. POLI has been successful in adding more live and buzz to Little India, and is expanding to more sites.

36. Building Singapore as a nation is similar. We are a young nation. As we live together on this island we will also discover many vacant spaces – physical, spiritual and emotional - yet to be filled. And we will have to fill them up together, with every community’s input, with all we have got. These will become our common spaces and our shared experiences – schools, National Service, cheering for our sportsmen, celebrating festivities together, overcoming crises together, and living side by side in the same community.

37. Over the years, whether it is the MAECs, Mendaki or 4PM, you have been reaching out to the wider Singapore community, creating common spaces, helping those in need, building bonds of friendships.

38. Today, there are about 3,800 volunteers throughout the MAECs all over Singapore. In 2015, you organized over 4,500 events, attracting over 400,000 participants. Examples of these outreach programmes include Cultural Performances, health checks and porridge distribution and breaking of fast events during Ramadhan.

39. As for the MESRA Council, in 2015, it spearheaded 44 events, reaching out to some 14,000 participants. This includes the Gentarasa, as well as the Malay Cultural Contingent at the Chingay Parade.

40. The numbers are encouraging and impressive. But there has however been some decline in activity and participation level over the past few years. The People’s Association has been looking into this, and felt that one reason could be that there are now more activities by Malay-Muslim Organisations and also the Mosques, which have taken the place of some activities by the MAECs.

41. If that is indeed the case it is not a significant problem. In fact, it presents a good opportunity for MESRA and the MAECs to work with the MMOs and mosques to create joint programmes. This Youth Seminar is one good example of such a joint collaboration. What is important is not who organises the events, but the purpose and meaning for the wider Singapore community.

Sharing of Fruits

Finally, the final set of emotions is the national team spirit – to go through difficulties together, and to share success and prosperity together.

43. So when we grow our economy and create jobs, it has to be for everyone, or as many Singaporeans as possible. We do not grow the pie just for 1% or 5%. Inclusive growth is a deep philosophy that underpins the development of modern Singapore. It is reflected in the way we implement our fiscal and social policy, in Tripartism, in the way we open education opportunities to all, and in our pledge “sebagai rakyat yang bersatu padu” (pledge ourselves as one united people).

44 . Some Singaporeans are worried about technological disruption – robots replacing workers; computers replacing human beings. The truth is that we have been living through this for the past 200 years. Steamship, automobiles, airplanes, exploitation of oil and gas to power machines, computers, Internet, smart phones – have been transforming our lives and the economy for a long time. Nokia went down and Apple went up. Yahoo is struggling, but. Google and Facebook are rising.

45. Today we see a shared economy, and people are very excited about that. This is because of two companies – Uber and Airbnb. But these companies do not appear to have reached the stage and have quite the same impact and influence as that created by Exxon Mobil, General Motors, General Electric, Daimler, Apple, Google, Alibaba and Facebook. The impact is far less. Even when they do, it is not something we have not encountered before.

46. Each time old jobs are destroyed, many more new jobs are created. To illustrate, when the Internet of Things becomes prevalent, there will be greater concerns about cybersecurity and protection of privacy. That is why cybersecurity is such a fast growing sector.

47. As important as technological advancement is the growth of our region. Asia is the region where the whole world is looking at and excited about. Foreign students are vying to study in Asia, to get to know the region and seek career opportunities here. That is why at the Ministry of Education, we are trying hard to expose our students through internships, student exchanges and community exchanges to the region. Our campuses must also have diversity of nationalities and cultures, because this is one part of education that is as important as the academic component.

48. The consumer markets around us are booming. Some analysts say China is slowing and looking gloomy. It is a mistaken view. In 2005, China’s GDP was US$2.3 trillion and was growing at about 12% at the time, which is about US$270 billion. Today, its GDP is US$11.3 trillion. It is growing slower at 7% growth, but this translates to about US$800 billion.

49. Also look at our immediate neighbours. 30 million people in Malaysia, 250 million in Indonesia. These are huge markets we can tap on, and with language and cultures that we are familiar with. More Singaporeans need to learn the languages of the Southeast Asian archipelago in order to operate in this region with greater ease.

50. The President of the Singapore Institute Technology, Professor Tan Thiam Soon, wrote to me recently, urging the Government to recognise the tremendous opportunities in tapping into the markets around us through high touch services. They can be professional services – legal, finance, consulting, healthcare, tourism. This includes being authentically Singaporean, by developing our food scene, preserving our heritage and developing the historical narratives, growing our park space and connectivity – these distinguish Singapore as a tourism spot from everywhere else in the world.

51. To ride on the growth brought about by technology and rise of consumer markets, we need good companies and businesses. We cannot ride on a big wave as individuals. People need to form teams, we enter companies, we work as a team. If the companies do well, they will make profits, grow, share their fruits, and create more jobs for more people to do well. Companies and businesses can do a lot of good for Singapore.


52. I hope everyone here today will share my optimism of SG100. But the architects of SG100 will not be the adults of my generation, but the young people from yours. Singapore in SG100 – in 2065 – will be shaped by your vision and moulded by your will and hard work.

53. Why am I optimistic about SG100? Because I know that your generation is better educated, more technologically savvy, and more exposed to the outside world compared to all generations before you. I know it is a generation with a strong sense of fairness and justice, and is prepared to help those who are in greater need. I know it is a generation which will not judge the success of a person just by the income earned, but by the impact you make to the people around you. This is also a generation who cares about authenticity and honesty more than ever. This is a generation who feels most strongly about Singapore and is prepared to stand up for Singapore. Because you are mostly born and raised in Singapore, by parents who are mostly born and raised in Singapore.

54. I started this speech with a comment that some things would not change in SG100, one of which being that Singapore will still not have a hinterland. But if you look up the meaning of hinterland, it has many definitions. The British use the word to describe a person’s depth and breadth of knowledge, specifically of cultural, academic, artistic, literary and scientific pursuits.

55. If our young generation can discover and pursue your interests and aspirations, develop mastery in what you do, develop special places where we have emotional attachments to, embrace all cultures and build common experiences, share our fruits of success and overcome challenges as one people – you know what, in SG100, Singapore will have a rich hinterland.

56. I wish all of you a fruitful seminar.

Thank you.

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