Every August, after the hype and excitement of the Singapore National Day Parade has died down, our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong makes the National Day Rally speech.
Of course, there were the easily predictable buzzwords. Even before a single word was uttered on live television we all knew that there would be mention of increased engagement between the government and the people, and of course, almost excessive use of the word “inclusive”.
This year, three ministers – Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob and Senior Minister of State for Education and for Information, Communications and the Arts Lawrence Wong – gave speeches before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took centre stage.
Promises were made about a “national conversation”, an attempt to include Singaporeans more in building the future of the country. There was a marked emphasis on hope and heart. The Prime Minister also indicated that the government would be ready to introduce paternity leave, and that more attention would be given to pre-school education. He announced that the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and UniSIM would become the fifth and sixth universities in Singapore, expanding to provide more spaces for young Singaporeans, and that there would be more opportunity for adults to take on part-time study.
As expected, an appeal was made to Singaporeans to deal with the growing anti-foreigner sentiment in the country.
“Singaporeans must show a generosity of spirit to one another, including new arrivals. New arrivals must also embrace our values, commit themselves to Singapore and integrate into our community. We will welcome you into our midst, into our family, but you must make the effort too,” Lee said.
He then encouraged all Singaporeans to join in on the effort to write the “next chapter of Singapore’s story”.
All in all, the rally speeches came across as sincere efforts to bridge the rift between the government and the populace. Rather than focusing solely on economic prosperity and progress there was more talk about people. There were promises of better social safety nets for those in need of help, something that Singapore has been in need of for a long time. Although it would have been even better if the Prime Minister could have tackled the systematic issues behind many Singapore’s problems (rather than just ascribing it to individual behaviour), there are at least signs that the government is trying, and therefore the possibility of moving towards a better Singapore.
That said, I’m not convinced by the appeal to get Singaporeans to accept foreigners, or to encourage foreigners to “integrate”.
Singapore, a tiny city-state with an extremely high level of connectivity to the rest of the world, is often found at the forefront of globalisation. Our people are some of the most plugged in in the world. Many Singaporeans are becoming increasingly well-travelled, studying, living and working overseas. At the same time, people from all corners of the world come into our country on a daily basis, bringing their own cultures, languages and values.
The signs are all pointing towards Singapore becoming a global city. There is almost no other choice; how can we withdraw from the world now, when so much of our progress and development is tied to it? In this light, it seems foolish to preach integration. Integration suggests that foreigners will only be accepted into our society if they assimilated so much so that they begin to talk and act like us. In fact, that was precisely what the Prime Minister suggested when he raised the example of a Vietnamese lady who had come to Singapore as a 15-year-old and adapted so much that she now cannot be identified as a foreigner.
Is it really helpful to suggest that foreigners need to adapt to such a level that they become indistinguishable from locals before they are accepted and embraced? Is it even possible for this to happen, especially when the very Singaporean identity that they’re meant to be integrating into is constantly in flux?
The mark of a successful global city is not one where everyone has adapted or assimilated so much so that everyone becomes the same. A successful global city is one where diversity is recognised and accepted. Instead of going, “We must integrate!”, a global city says, “We’re different, but that’s great!”
It’s not going to be easy to be a truly global city. There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and an identity crisis we’ll all have to deal in the journey to finding out feet. If the National Day Rally is anything to go by, this is a reality that the government has also acknowledged, and even though we may not all agree on many things, there is still the potential of us moving forward towards a better Singapore, together.