Keynote Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education And Skills), at an Interfaith Festive Gathering - Reunion and Reflections, at Furama Riverfront Hotel

Published Date: 05 February 2017 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Mr William Ng and Mr Noor Marican, Co-Hosts for today’s Interfaith Gathering

Senior Minister of State Dr Maliki Osman

Esteemed Venerable Master Chin Kung

Distinguished Guests and Religious Leaders

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Thank you for inviting me to this very special gathering, at this very auspicious time of the year. First of all, I wish everyone a Happy Year of the Rooster. I wish everybody good health and happiness. I would like to thank the Venerable Master Chin Kung, an exemplary champion for racial harmony, for giving the talk today. I look forward to learning from your vast wisdom.

Countries Build Values from Young

2. Occasions like these are when families and friends come together to celebrate cultural festivities, which in turn embed and reflect time-honored values that society upholds. In MOE, parents will always ask us to teach more values in class. We agree, but values are caught, not taught. They are transmitted more often from families and community through day-to-day activities, and to a much lesser extent, through classroom lessons. They are not developed overnight nor through the sprinkling of festival joy, but imparted through practices and traditions, passing from generation to generation.

3. Every country and every culture has developed their own ways to impart values, but inevitably everyone has to start with the young. Japan’s rice-planting month is in the month of June. Many schools, if not all schools in Japan, require students to go out to the fields to plant rice in the month of June. It is not to grow more rice, but to impart values. This is the Japanese way to inculcate in their young to respect nature, appreciate hard work and discipline – all of which are strong characteristics that we often associate Japanese culture.

4. I visited the Australian Parliament in Canberra two years ago. When I was there, I saw five to six groups of students coming through the halls of Parliament, many sitting in the galleries, attentively listening to a rowdy Parliamentary debate. My host told me that this was the Australian way of teaching their young the need to respect the diversity of views, and the values of democracy.

5. We must have also all heard about the tradition of Thanksgiving in America. It is a major holiday, and also a time-honored tradition to recall the story of how Native Americans shared their fall harvest with starving Pilgrims. Underpinning this story, told year after year at Thanksgiving dinner, are the values of generosity, gratitude, kindness, and setting aside differences for a better humanity.

6. In China, there is a strong tradition of codifying and transmitting values through the teachings of Confucianism or its derivative - Di Zi Gui, which stipulates the standards for being a good pupil and child. One example of the Di Zi Gui is – “A young man should be a good son at home and an obedient young man abroad, sparing of speech but trustworthy in what he says, and should love the multitude at large but cultivate the friendship of his fellow men. If he has any energy to spare from such action, let him devote it to making himself cultivated.”

Our Core Value is Racial Harmony

7. I was having a conversation with a group of youths recently. A few of them started to lament that in Singapore, we have yet to become a totally race blind society, and our schools should do more to teach students to respect and treat all races equally. That is how the young people felt. Putting aside the fact that values are caught and not taught, I quickly interjected and reminded them that there is National Education, and they said “Oh, those boring lessons”. National Education is really about a curriculum, embedded with respect for other races and religions. In fact, far from not being taught, National Education is perceived as being too ‘in your face’ by many students. But perhaps such is the nature of values education – often subconscious, and may even be dry and repetitive when you are going through it.

8. I asked the youths if they recite the Pledge in school every morning, which they said they did. So I reminded them of the line “…regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality…”. I am of the belief that if we say something frequently enough, and from young, there is a good chance that when we grow up, we will live by those words. Perhaps that is why the youths I met felt that way in the first place.

9. Indeed, if there is one value that our education system focuses on imparting – it is appreciation and respect for other races and religions. The emphasis goes way beyond reciting the Pledge and going through National Education lessons. It is also the numerous learning journeys to temples, mosques, churches, Chinatown, Little India, Arab Street; the observance of Racial Harmony Day; celebrating major festivities of all major religions; and learning of our Mother Tongue, because without knowing our own culture we have no mental and emotional foundation to appreciate the cultures of others. These activities are probably not enough but it provides the foundation for every pupil to discover and appreciate Singapore’s diversity further later on in life.

10. The sense of being a Singaporean cannot be divorced from being multicultural, and celebrating the fact that we are so. For we are a small island in Southeast Asia, a region which does not have a unifying culture, unlike the Arabian, Indian, European or Chinese civilizations. Southeast Asia is diverse because it is at the intersection of major civilizations. Major religions, from Hinduism and Buddhism, to Islam and Christianity, precipitated thick layers of identity traits in the region throughout history. And Singapore is at the center of it all.

11. Not to embrace diversity is to turn our backs on the realities of geography and history, and to deny being our true self. Diversity is what makes Singapore unique, and it is what makes us Singaporeans. It is thanks to the myriad of influences from different cultures and beliefs – Singapore is like a 百家被, or in English, a “100 good wishes quilt”, where many pieces of cloths are stitched together into a blanket to protect a newborn, and passed to future generations.

Standing Firm on Our Values During Uncertainty

12. Today, around the world, there is a growing trend of religious extremism. The acts of extremists aim to harm what is most precious to our societies, which is the mutual trust and cohesion between communities. There is also worry of a rising political rhetoric that feeds on the insecurity of communities, and propound a more insular worldview and less tolerance for diversity. As a small country open to the outside world, we are susceptible to such trends. What is happening in other countries can also affect sentiments in Singapore.

13. At this time, it is all the more important that we reaffirm our Pledge, and remind ourselves of our shared values. We are a multi-cultural society, a country for every community, with meritocracy as one of our key organizing principles. The majority do not overrule the principle of equality, and the minorities do not exclude themselves. After fifty one years of independence, I believe these values and ideas have sunk deep roots in our collective consciousness.

14. And we must continue to work to strengthen them. Our children go to the same national schools and undergo the same curriculum so that they build up shared experiences from a very young age. During National Service, servicemen from all backgrounds serve together, doing their part to protect Singapore. In the community, our ethnic integration policy in public housing ensures that all races live side by side, creating opportunities for everyone to better understand each other, and practice the give-and-take needed to share the same living space. Community volunteers and grassroot leaders organize a wide range of activities to bring all residents together to mingle and forge new friendships. I also hope that in time to come, sports can play a bigger role in uniting Singaporeans, in the same way that all of us, all Singaporeans, cheered for Joseph Schooling when he won an Olympic gold medal.

15. Building a cohesive society and one united people is an endless journey. Countries with far longer histories are still grappling with this challenge, what more Singapore. It is a difficult and delicate task. We need to uphold the principle of equality, and build a shared sense of being as a nation, but without going overboard or adopting an extreme ideology, to the extent of disregarding or becoming disrespectful to the identities and cultures of individual communities. We, after all, as human beings, we have the need for multiple layers of identities. But this is a topic for another day. We do not profess to be perfect or an example for other countries to follow, but we will always strive for a more equal, just and cohesive Singapore society. Religious and community leaders have always played a significant role, to lead by example, and to promote interfaith understanding and tolerance, and as a Singaporean I thank all of you.

16. Once again, Happy Year of the Rooster, and I wish everyone good health and happiness.

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