Why and how we must remain an open city
This is an excerpt of a speech I gave in Parliament in 2009. This issue remains ‘live’. We must acknowledge the valid concerns of Singaporeans about the pace of immigration and whether our infrastructure development has kept pace. We must reaffirm that Singaporean will always come first. We need an open constructive discussion about this and other sensitive issues. But we can do so in a civil and constructive tone.
Speech on National Integration in Parliament on 11 February 2009 “I totally agree with Mr Heng Chee How. He has hit the nail on the head when he said ”Singapore must remain an open city and anchor itself at the crossroads of talent, ideas, and commerce, if Singaporeans are to have good jobs and a good living." I think this is a fundamental question facing us.
Let me pose this question to Members today. What is the difference between Temasek, the fishing village with about 500 orang laut, and modern Singapore, a bustling metropolis with 4.8 million people? What is the key difference? It is one word – it is called “immigration”.
We are here, today, because Singapore was a beacon for hardworking, disciplined people who were prepared to make great sacrifices for their families. We were built by the pioneering spirit of our forefathers who came from different parts of the world with different languages and different religions. They came here, they worked hard, they made a living for themselves, they built roads, they built schools and started their families. Ironically, they did not even need to be born or raised here to find a common stake. In fact, they did not even plan – probably, for most of them – on living and dying here. Nevertheless, through decades of hard work, and living side by side in a fair and just system, we have created modern Singapore, and there is now a common Singapore identity. Yes, it is hard to pin it down – whether it is the accent, the food, the lifestyle, the work ethic or kiasuness. But we know it when we see it. And so, today, we all proudly call ourselves Singaporeans regardless of race, language or religion.
But it is worth reminding ourselves that if we do not maintain our status as an immigrant society, many things will be at risk. Our natural trajectory is either to be a fishing village or perhaps a trading outpost in South East Asia. That is our natural, geographical, historical trajectory. If we are to avoid regressing to that state, then we need to remind ourselves that we need to remain open to hardworking talented people from all over the world.
But it is not enough to just be open. Because if we are just open and people do not integrate or people are divided and there is tension, then it will actually cause more problems. So we need to make sure that even as we remain open, the newcomers will be integrated into our society, just as our forefathers coming from different places with different languages and religions could learn to live with each other.
Newcomers must also learn to live with people today who are already called Singaporeans. Because one difference between Temasek and Singapore is that we are not working with a blank slate – an empty forest – anymore. Today, there is already a tribe of people call Singaporeans.
So, integration is a real issue and as DPM Wong said, “integration is a two-way street”. Precisely at this time when we are facing tension due to economic pressures and when we have had unprecedented levels of immigration – precisely at this time – this is an area that is too important to ignore.
Let me share some of my preliminary thoughts and offer four cardinal principles which, in my mind, should undergird our efforts at integration.
The first is that we must first put Singaporeans first – and I say this very carefully and I say this over the advice of my staff. Let me explain why. Singapore must always be for Singaporeans. It is almost self-evident. Singapore must be a home for Singaporeans. And without Singaporeans, there is no Singapore. All Singaporeans have a birth right. Only Singaporeans get to vote and choose the Government. That is why this Government’s sacred duty must always be to preserve and safeguard the long-term interests of Singaporeans, not the long-term interest or even short-term interest of foreigners. And we need make no apology for that. But this is also why subsidised housing, healthcare, education and other essential services must be slanted in favour of Singaporeans. We cannot shield Singaporeans from competition but we can try to give Singaporeans a headstart. And we must allow our children, native born Singaporeans, to get a headstart by nurturing them to allow them to fufil their potential, and picking up Singaporeans when any of us stumble.
I said, “put Singaporeans first”. But do it in an enlightened way. And the reason I said that is because I believe an insecure population will not be able to accept foreigners in our midst. If people view the newcomer as a threat, no amount of persuasion and fancy speeches and meetings on integration will work. So, the first cardinal principle is that Singaporeans must understand that they will always come first. There is another reason why we must put Singaporeans first – that even newcomers who are considering joining us, even they will want to know whether membership has privileges. So I feel quite confident in saying that we can accept, as a first principle, that we will put Singaporeans first.
The second principle is that we must reaffirm that Singapore got here by, and that Singapore’s future trajectory depends on, us remaining an open society. We are all caught up with how to get out of this current economic crisis, and we are all caught up with how to solve the multitude of current social problems. But, sometimes, we miss the big picture. This island has got no natural resources. We cannot even grow enough food to feed ourselves. Yes, we can solve the water problem, but we can never be a self-sufficient country hiding behind a bamboo wall and depending on agriculture or even a commodity-based economy. Whether we like it or not, our karma is to survive and thrive by servicing the world. And servicing the world in the future means only one thing. It means having value-added services and value-added products that the world needs or wants to buy. And the only way to produce value-added services and these new products is by depending on human minds, human ingenuity and hard work. In other words, living talented human beings. I said earlier that almost half of the budget of MCYS is spent on promoting families and supporting fertility. But I will be very honest with Members and say that all the money that we spend, and all the efforts that we embarked on fertility, will not work quickly enough to give us enough people – to have the critical mass of people capable of creating new products and new services that the world will depend on.
The third principle is that even as we remain open, we must find effective ways to integrate people. Everyone who lives, works and plays in Singapore must feel that they are welcome here, and that Singaporeans not only have open doors, but also open minds and open hearts. Integration requires both the local-born Singaporeans as well as the newcomers to realise that it does not come about naturally. Yes, many of our events in our community, such as a multi-cultural show in our community centres, invites comment from people that it is so contrived. But behind the attempts at contrived shows is a more important message – the commitment that we are trying to build bridges, and that we are trying to remind everyone that it is important to welcome, integrate, and create a team Singapore out of the disparate members.
The fourth cardinal principle perhaps is the most important, because without that I think that everything else will come to nothing. We must uphold the Singapore system. What is the Singapore system? The Singapore system is encapsulated by our pledge: that we have built a united people, who are committed to a democratic society based on justice and equality. A fair and merit-based society and a system where hard work and talent is rewarded because that is the best spur to get the best out of our children, and to also enable talent from overseas to see that this is the best place in the world for their talent to be recognised and fulfilled. It is worth reminding ourselves that we have to come back to the basics and understand that the fair and just society which recognises talent, that is based on meritocracy, is what has brought us here so far. These are the same values and attributes that we need to bring when we talk about integrating newcomers.
We will, basically, look at first promoting mutual trust and understanding and fostering a common sense of belonging, developing physical spaces and social platforms for meaningful interactions to occur, and, of course, monitor the progress of integration, share best practices and also deal with problems as some will inevitably arise.
And how to make both the newcomer as well as the local Singaporeans understand that the citizenship ceremony is a sacred moment, that it is a moment of commitment and that the commitment works both ways. For a newcomer to commit to an existing country and an existing people, and for us local-born Singaporeans to say, “We are now collectively responsible for you and your children”. We have not yet found the right formula.
Our schools are another area where young children, students or undergraduates from different parts of the world come together, study together, compete together and work together. And we hear anecdotal stories of people eating in separate enclaves or studying in separate groups. We need to break through these and get people to feel comfortable and truly mix and integrate in our schools and institutes of higher learning.
The way we communicate and our public messaging are very important. Sometimes, prejudices, insecurities and anxieties can so easily slip out, and get misconstrued or poison the atmosphere and relationships. But we do need people to think before they say something, and think before they write or publish something. Ultimately, I hope even the dialogue in cyberspace will also move up one notch, beyond just a zero-sum game to seeing what our long-term interests are and the critical importance of integration to us. But we will see how that evolves with time.
We all know that the workplace is another area where there is inevitable foreign worker and local interaction. And, again, managing this combination of competition, cooperation and teamwork needs to be done appropriately. So, there will be much work to be done in the future. It will definitely be complicated by our economic challenges, but perhaps this is the best time for us to remind ourselves what are the fundamentals that we need for our survival in the future and what are the politically incorrect or unpopular things and difficult messages that we need to consider carefully."
We need civil discourse based on mutual respect and a collective commitment to a better future for all of us.