Press Release

Speech by Minister Desmond Lee at IPS 30th Anniversary Conference 2018

1 Good morning. I thank IPS for inviting me to join this panel, and look forward to a good discussion.

2 Contrary to what Prof Eleanor has said, I see myself as a student. I am here to learn from all of you on social issues we need to look at. As far as I seek to share some thoughts on social identity on Singapore, I am more keen to listen to you.

3 Our focus is on emerging forms of social identity, and what this means for our identity as a nation.

4 A few weeks ago, I participated in a work-plan seminar. During the warm-up, we played a game called “Diversity Circles”.

5 Indeed, identity is as much a decision as a matter of fact. The circles have colours but it was a decision to let colour matter. This awareness about identity is critical for our cohesion in Singapore, because with globalisation and the increased permeability of ideas, beliefs and practices across borders, Singapore has become indeed more diverse, more colourful.

6 Diversity, however, is not new to us. It has always been core to our national identity. As a society, we are multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual. But beyond race, culture, language and religion, people also wear multiple other identities – such as:

7 If we group tightly and exclusively along our own set of identities, it can segment and stratify us. Diversity becomes a method for division. But if we establish a broader, common identity, and also draw strength from our differences, diversity can be a method for addition and cohesion. We have framed our overarching national identity along principles like meritocracy, fairness, cohesion and trust.

8 What this means is that we recognise our diverse heritage, while working towards a common future. Singapore achieves progress, which in turn brings benefits to every citizen. In the same vein, we maximise common space through shared experiences, such as in our schools, National Service and more, which help strengthen our sense of national identity and being.

9 There are also common, enduring values that underpin the story of Singapore.

10 Building common space is an ongoing, conscious and active endeavour, as each new generation of Singaporeans seek to renew the social compact. The common spaces of today may not be enough. We need new spaces to dialogue. In the real world and the virtual space.

New Social Forms and their Implications on National Identity

11 Let me move on to some brief observations on race, nationality, family, religion and class.

12 Our families are becoming more culturally diverse. More Singaporeans are marrying partners from a different race or nationality.

13 Religious identity has also evolved. One aspect of this is increasing religiosity, and secularism too.

14 Religious extremism is a particular concern, as problematic or exclusivist doctrines from elsewhere are imported into Singapore.

15 More recently, the class divide has been drawn in sharp relief. Much of the discussion last night and in fact this morning was along the lines of inequality and poverty. Some have argued that it is the sharpest social division; not race, and or religion. IPS released a study last year that showed how many Singaporeans do not have diverse social networks with people from a different class. And this is something the Government has been concerned with, and is committed to working with the community to address. Inequality is a global phenomenon, and the realities of economic and technological disruption will affect our social mobility. Professor Walter Theseira and my colleague, Minister Josephine Teo, had discussed this with all of you earlier in the morning.

17 Family continues to be a fundamental pillar of society. The social norm in our society is that of a couple marrying, and bringing up children. Indeed, Singaporeans continue to have strong aspirations to get married and have children. Today, as families get smaller, we also see the extended family coming in to provide meaningful relationships and support. Every individual is still very much a part of a family, regardless of their age, marital status, or living arrangement.

18 More types of family forms have been emerging over the years, and gradually shaping our conception of Singaporean families. These are not forms that have risen overnight. They have evolved over years and decades.

19 First, as mentioned earlier, transnational couples form a significant part of our marriage cohort. This has led to greater ethnic and cultural diversity in our families.

20 Second, we have seen a rise in the number of reconstituted families.

21 Third, there is a growing number of people who are delaying marriage, or not marrying at all.

22 The fourth observation is on single parent households, which are about 7% of all resident households. These households are mainly headed by widowed, divorced or separated parents, but they also include unwed parents, unwed mothers, unwed fathers

23 The final observation is that, besides the family and its variant forms, there are also other social forms in Singapore society that we should be aware about:

24 Our social policies balance between maintaining strong support for marriage and family, while making space for the increasingly prominent diversity in family and social forms. But it is not government policy on its own that decides the future of society and family forms and social forms. Societies themselves, communities, families are what shape social discourse and the direction in which society evolves.

25 Diversity will always be central to the Singapore story.

26 But to draw strength from diversity is not always natural and cannot be left to mere instinct, as the diversity circles sample shows. We tend to go towards what is safe and familiar, which tends to pull in the other direction. We need the community to provide counterweights. So the Government is partnering the community to create more spaces and platforms, and newer spaces and plarforms, for people of different backgrounds to come together. I will just highlight two. You may know of them:

27 Identity constantly evolves, changes and forms and reforms. It is not immutable. Our Singaporean identity also has to be constantly formed and re-formed as society and its aspirations change.

28 Society in ingapore must continue to celebrate diversity and strive for inclusivity. We must remember the idea of Singapore – that we may all be different, but yet, in many important ways – we are the same. We love our food, we do NS, we speak Singlish, we drink recycled water. We are all the same in the broader circle of things. And we must continue to feel this way, to do this is in spite of the challenges and trends that are pulling in different directions. There may be calls towards exclusive identities that pull away from the broader Singapore narrative. More than ever we have to put our heads together, and retain our commitment to work towards a common future. This is our responsibility and duty to one another and the future generations.