Singapore Government Media Release
Media Relations Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts,
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- Singapore’s Tomorrow, Tomorrow’s Singapore

Whither Singapore?

I asked the organising committee what subject you would like me to talk about. They asked me to talk about the future – your future, Singapore’s future. It is a natural topic. You are standing on the threshold of adulthood, about to leave the comfortable life of being a student, and to fend for yourself in the wide world. Hence my title tonight – "Singapore’s Tomorrow, Tomorrow’s Singapore".

Graduation is an important milestone in the life of every student. But for your generation especially, this is not just a personal milestone, but one that coincides with a turning point for Singapore. The next 20 years will be very different from the last 20. For the two decades and more, we have enjoyed peace and prosperity. Life has improved steadily, year after year. Singapore has been transformed, through the efforts of Singaporeans, from a third world country to a developed nation.

The Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 broke this trend. A prospering Asia suddenly went into spasm. In many countries currencies collapsed, confidence evaporated, growth stopped. The crisis is now past, but the picture has changed drastically. Singapore has been less affected than the others, but in the last five years we too have been on a roller coaster ride. Going forward, we can expect to grow and make progress, but the climate will be less predictable, and the competition will be much fiercer.

On top of this, Sep 11th changed the world we live in. This is not just because we all saw the twin towers collapse in flames on television, but because we live in a globalised world, and terrorism is a global problem. We realised how close to home this problem is when we discovered the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group right here in Singapore.

Quite apart from external developments, Singapore is going through a generational change. In terms of political leadership, we are planning for a transition from the second to the third generation. But it is not just a changing of the guard at the top. The change is taking place throughout our whole society. More than half of Singaporeans are like you, born after independence. Can we pass the baton to the next generation, without fumbling?

Will Singapore’s success outlive its founders? Will we be an exciting, vibrant cosmopolitan city, fully of opportunities, where talented people congregate, and arts, culture and sports flourish? Or will Singapore melt away in the sea of globalisation, and revert to being a sleepy town, or a fishing village?

The direct way to answer these questions is to guess the future, and predict what Singapore will be like in 2010 or 2020. But the future is not fore-ordained. We do not exist in a vacuum, nor in paradise. We are intimately linked to the outside world, and dependent on it. What Singapore will be like depends very much on what the world will be like. Our prosperity, and our very existence, is affected by global trends and regional developments which we do not control. These powerful external forces shape our environment and influence our destiny.

How these larger forces work out is beyond anybody’s ability to predict. So instead of trying to forecast a specific outcome, what we can do is to identify what these forces are, and what are the critical uncertainties – the key issues – on which the outcome depends, so that as events unfold, we can interpret the developments, and understand how they will affect us.

So today instead of a crystal ball, I have brought along a set of questions. As their answers unfold over time, they will influence the world we live in, and so Singapore’s future.

What will the world be like in 10 years?

What will the world be like in 10 years’ time? What are the key uncertainties, from Singapore’s point of view? At the grave risk of oversimplifying a complex world, I will focus on three questions:

Will globalisation bring prosperity, or disorder?

Will Southeast Asia stabilise and grow? And

Where will the war on terrorism lead to?


First, globalisation. Singapore is totally dependent on the global economy. You all know – or should know – that we are a small city-state with no natural resources, that we import all our food, and export most of our products. We make a living by tapping on world markets, and attracting international investments. Without the global economy, we would not survive.

One thing we can be certain of is that over the next decade, globalisation will progress faster than ever. Technology is advancing apace. Every few months young people buy the latest handphones. China and Eastern Europe are opening up their markets, and plugging in to the world economy.

Globalisation will create many opportunities for us. Our exports to China are growing rapidly. As world trade increases, so should PSA’s container business. But at the same time, globalisation creates new and fiercer competition. China is not only a market, but also a competitor for investments. And PSA will also find new regional competitors trying to take away its business, including PTP.

Furthermore, with globalisation, shocks and crises are transmitted around the world faster than ever. This brings disruptive change, which countries can find difficult to handle. The more plugged we are, the less insulated we can be. When share prices on Wall Street fall, shares in Singapore follow down the very next day.

Globalisation is the way for Singapore to prosper. We have no other choice. But will the new opportunities outweigh the fiercer competition? Will globalisation bring prosperity, or disorder? That is one key uncertainty.

Southeast Asia

Next, Southeast Asia. Will our region stabilise and grow? Singapore is linked up to markets in the US, Europe, and Northeast Asia, but we are still located in Southeast Asia. The stability and prosperity of our neighbours are important to us. If the region is doing well, we too enjoy a lift, as we did in the boom years before the Asian Crisis. But if the region is unsettled, it casts a pall over us too, just like the haze that blows across our borders from our neighbours.

Economically, Southeast Asia is not doing too badly. Confidence has not yet returned, but the region is not in crisis, unlike in 1997. Southeast Asia has a population of 500 million, half the size of China’s. So if the countries can get their act together to co-operate economically, they will offer a very attractive market rivalling China’s. MNCs will invest in China, but they will also want to be in Southeast Asia.

But the region’s future also hinges on political developments. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir is doing everything he can to develop and modernise the country. He is pushing hard to have science and mathematics taught in English in schools, against considerable resistance. The opposition Pan Islamic Party (PAS) is fighting Dr Mahathir’s secular, progressive approach. PAS stands for an Islamic state, including hudud laws like chopping off hands for theft and stoning to death for adultery.

The struggle between UMNO and PAS for Malay support is a hard fought one. Recently two by-elections were held in Kedah. The seats had been held by a PAS leader who had died. It was a tough fight. UMNO made a maximum effort to win back the two seats, but got back only one. Many rural Malay voters staunchly supported PAS, despite all that UMNO did. After the by-elections, PM Mahathir said:

"It is not easy to convert people who refuse to think or evaluate but merely follow what (their leaders) tell them to do..."

"…For the opposition (PAS), even if they put a wooden stump, they would still win. They (the opposition supporters) don’t think. They see the moon (the PAS symbol), they will support..."

Whether Malaysia develops along UMNO’s secular, modern approach, or goes in PAS’ religious and conservative direction, will have an impact on Singapore.

A stable Indonesia is even more important to Southeast Asia. Should Indonesia become divided, politically unstable and economically weak, it would have deep and broad repercussions for Singapore and the region.

President Megawati has brought about greater economic and political stability for Indonesia. The Indonesian people are hoping to see continuity to the current policies. They are looking forward to a strong and effective government, one which generates international confidence, sustains the momentum of economic recovery, brings in investments and creates jobs. But they also wonder, will things change in 10 years, or even after the Presidential elections in 2004?

There will always be a tension between secularism and political Islam in Indonesia. The Indonesian Constitution is based on the five principles of Pancasila, which have kept Indonesia united in spite of its diversities. The first principle of Pancasila is belief in One God, i.e. Indonesia is not an Islamic state. But the Muslim parties want to change this. At the MPR sitting in August, several Muslim parties tried to amend the Indonesian Constitution, to introduce the Syariah – Islamic law – to Indonesia. They failed; but had they succeeded, we would have seen the birth of a very different Indonesia.

So the next key uncertainty is: How will Southeast Asia develop? Will we have the right political and economic conditions to stay on the radar screen of foreign investors? How will developments in our neighbours impact our relations with them?

War on Terrorism

Finally, the war against terrorism. This will be a long drawn out struggle. Where will it lead? Toppling the Taleban in Afghanistan was just the start, not the end. Tens of thousands of Muslim fighters from many countries had gone to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets with the mujahideen. Later thousands trained in Al Qaeda camps, and returned home to their countries. A fair number of the Afghan-trained fighters are in Southeast Asia. They are fanatical and eager to die for their cause.

The terrorists cannot win, but eliminating them will be a very difficult task. The US is determined to defeat terrorism. It has emphasised that it is against terrorists, and not against Muslims. But the terrorists fighting in the name of Islam will try their best to make this a conflict between Muslims and the infidels. As the fight goes on, including in Iraq, it may well have repercussions on relations between Muslim and non-Muslim countries. How will Muslim countries in Southeast Asia be affected? How will our multi-racial, multi-religious society be affected?

What will Singapore be Like in 10 Years?

Fundamental Realities

Against this external backdrop, what will Singapore be like in 10 years? Certain fundamental realities will not change. We will continue to be a small city-state, vulnerable to external threats. We will still live in Southeast Asia. We will inevitably be affected by what happens to our neighbours – we can’t raise anchor and sail off to the South Pacific! The basic principles and ideals of our nation will remain, unless the world has really turned upside down, i.e. independence, meritocracy, equal opportunities for all, racial harmony and cohesion, being friends to all countries of the world, and earning a living from the global market.

Key Uncertainties

But just as we need to understand the major external forces that will affect our destiny, we also need to identify the key domestic factors on which our future depends. Let me propose four questions:

Can we stay competitive and vibrant, while broadening beyond material pursuits?

Can we strengthen our social cohesion, especially between different races and religions?

Will the next generation rise to the challenge? And

Will Singaporeans be rooted to the country?

There is one key difference between these issues and the external forces. The external forces are largely beyond our control. But we can do a great deal about these domestic issues. Our fate is in our hands.

Staying Competitive and Vibrant

The first prerequisite for Singapore to continue succeeding is for us to stay competitive and vibrant. With a strong economy, we can generate the resources to meet many goals and solve many problems. But if we become a poor and broken-backed country, Singapore will have no future.

I emphasise staying competitive because we have reached our present high level of development through the hard work of the older generation. Now that we have got here, some Singaporeans argue that it is time to ease off, to shift to a less intense pace, to lie back and smell roses. That would be a grave mistake.

Our standard of living may be high, especially compared to other Asian countries. We may speak disdainfully about the 5Cs. But we cannot afford to dismiss material well-being. For the vast majority of Singaporeans, a better life means securing a better paying job, the chance to upgrade to a bigger flat, having a bit more left over at the end of the month to save for a rainy day, or to spend on a family outing. That is well worth striving for, and it calls for sustained effort, both individually and collectively.

In the race of nations, we must not think that we can maintain our position without doing anything. Other countries are driving hard to upgrade themselves. If you visit Shanghai or Ho Chi Minh City or Bangalore, you will find the pace every bit as intense as Singapore, and the people even more driven to get ahead. So if we slacken, others will certainly overtake us. This is one consequence of globalisation.

Young people may have this is one unspoken fear: the competition is formidable. Can we stay ahead, even if we work hard? I am convinced that we can. We have not been standing still. Over many years, we have built up many strengths and a good lead – in our people, in our physical infrastructure, in our economic policies, in the whole way Singapore works. We are responding to the new challenges proactively, introducing changes as quickly as Singaporeans are able to cope – GST, CPF, even bus fares and hospital charges are part of these adjustments. Some of these measures may be painful, but they will help us to stay lean, efficient and competitive. Very few other countries can do what we are doing, much as they wish they could. This is one of our key strengths.

Analysts and investors know and appreciate Singapore’s advantages. Foreign investments in Southeast Asia have shrunk since the Asian crisis, but not foreign investments in Singapore. We have maintained the same level of foreign investments as before – about $9 billion worth per year. We may not have the cheapest land or lowest wages, but we offer value for money. An investor building a $2 million shoe factory may opt for the cheapest location. But if he is building a wafer fabrication plant costing $2 billion which takes 10 or 20 years to pay back, he wants to choose a place where the politics is stable, workers are hardworking, intellectual property is protected, and everything works and will continue to be so. This is what Singapore offers. So while we must not underestimate the challenge ahead, neither have we any reason to be pessimistic.

Maintaining A Balance

The Arts

While we continue to build our economy, we should not focus exclusively on material success. We must maintain a balance in our lives. Arts and culture, nature and the environment, civic society, should all be part of life in Singapore.

It is beginning to happen. We have many talented Singaporeans who pursue their interest in the arts. The arts scene has become quite lively. I was present a fortnight ago for a concert by the NUS Symphony Orchestra – it was a most impressive performance. Your President told me that this NUS Cultural Centre is fully booked for all sorts of activities. I also visited the Esplanade, where they were trying out the halls. I popped in to find a Teochew opera performance by the Chinese Opera Institute. But instead of a traditional piece they were performing a Teochew opera version of the Ramayana! The performers were not old folks, but included some students. So we are fully capable of producing arts with an Asian flavour, which our audience can connect to and appreciate.

Art need not only be for art’s sake; it can also become economically important. A growing middle class in Asia is yearning for Asian arts. I am told that Stephanie Sun’s album sold very well in Taiwan. Her song "We will get there" stayed on the Top 10 Pop Chart for several weeks. That is why the Economic Review Committee has been looking at the potential for the arts and the creative industry. One of the recommendations is to set up a specialised Arts School. MOE is keen to support this idea, provided parents and the arts community will support the school.

If we can raise interest in the arts, we should improve the souvenir T-shirts for tourists. On the back they can still say "Singapore is a fine city", but in front they should say "Singapore is a refined city".

The Environment

Besides art, we must also pay attention to environmental issues. As a small island, the needs of human beings must come first, but we should preserve some of the natural habitat that remains. It is part of our quality of life. This is why we decided to preserve Tanjong Chek Jawa, when we discovered its rich flora and fauna.

It makes a difference. I recently learnt about a successful MNC executive in his late 30's, who had been a Singapore PR for some time but has only just made up his mind to stay in Singapore. When asked what motivated him to stay, he said it was the Government's decision on Tanjong Chek Jawa. To him, this showed that Singapore had moved from a crass, materialistic society to one that valued other aspects of life – the kind of society that he wanted his children to grow up in.

Civic Society

Another important aspect of a complete, fulfilling life is involvement in civic activities. Singaporeans often express keenness to take part in what is going on in their community. There are many opportunities for them to do so – whether in advisory committees and feedback groups, community and social organisations, or Town Councils and grassroots bodies. Over the last decade more Singaporeans have come forward to serve. But we still need to do better.

Racial Harmony

The second prerequisite for a successful Singapore is racial harmony. This is vital not just to our success, but to our very existence as a nation. We have been strengthening our racial harmony over many years, but even as we make progress integrating our different communities, new threats arise to our multi-racial, multi-religious society.

Developments in our neighbouring countries will significantly influence our racial relations. Another, more immediate threat is the war on terrorism. You know about the recent arrests of the Jemaah Islamiyah group, who were planning terrorist attacks against American and also Singaporean targets, including the US embassy, the water pipeline and MINDEF. Their purpose was to cause conflict between Malaysia and Singapore, and religious strife between Muslims and non-Muslims, so as to bring about a Daulah Islamiyah, or Islamic state in Southeast Asia. Had they succeeded, the harm to Singapore would have been enormous.

How do we strengthen our racial harmony, in the face of such a threat? To start with, we have to see this as a national problem, and tackle it together, Muslims and non-Muslims. The extremists want to destroy the trust and confidence that we have built between the communities. We must not allow them to do so. Non-Muslims must understand that the problem is caused by a tiny handful of extremists, who do not reflect the attitudes of the Muslim community here, the vast majority of whom are rational and moderate. They should therefore not let the discovery of the JI group affect their attitudes to Muslims in general, or their trust in their fellow citizens.

At the same time, Muslims need to take a clear stand, to disavow and condemn the extremists, and show beyond doubt that the terrorists do not enjoy the sympathy or tacit support of the Muslim community. This is in fact the case. An overwhelming majority of Singapore Muslims support the arrests of the JI members. They are concerned that the group has brought shame and disrepute to the community and tarnished the image of Islam. Understandably, they also worry that the arrest will affect the way other Singaporeans perceive Muslims here. This situation is quite unlike that in some other countries, where the government hesitates to act against small extremist groups, for fear that in doing so they will anger a much broader group of sympathisers.

Community leaders have important roles to play. They must speak up, to make their own stands clear, to set the tone of the debate, and to reassure their own communities. The more Muslim voices speak up against the JI group’s actions, and for moderation and good sense, the broader and stronger the consensus will be. The more non-Muslim voices speak up to acknowledge that this is an extremist minority, and that they will not allow the incident to affect the way they treat Muslims in general, the less defensive Muslims will feel, and the better we can maintain trust and confidence among Singaporeans.

Sometimes I am asked how we can go beyond preventing racial riots, to promoting integration between the races. We have to accept that this is a gradual process, which will take many years. We are a diverse society, and will always be, because the world’s great religions are all present in Singapore. Race and religion will always be potential fault lines of our society. We will never be as homogenous as the Japanese. But we have managed to live together in harmony for four decades since independence. We have done so by keeping this a secular society, where each group is free to practise its own religion, but none try to impose their beliefs on others. The different faiths have made practical adjustments to accommodate one another, whether it is Taoists refraining from burning enormous joss-sticks during seventh moon dinners, or Muslims lowering the volume of the azan – the Muslim call to prayer – from mosques and replacing it with radio broadcasts. We have encouraged greater interaction between the communities, in HDB estates, schools and workplaces, to counter the natural tendency for the different communities to go their own ways. So over time we hope to maintain and very gradually widen the common ground, and realise more perfectly the words of our National Pledge, to be one united people, regardless of race, language or religion.

The Next Generation

The third important question which will determine our future is whether the next generation will rise to the challenges ahead. What are young Singaporeans like? Can they equal, and outdo, their parents?

In terms of knowledge and ability, the younger generation are much better educated and equipped than the first generation of Singaporeans. Most young Singaporeans know at least two languages. Internationally, our students rank near the top, in terms of mathematics and science. Far more of your cohort have made it to university than your parents. Singaporeans who study abroad in top universities like MIT, Princeton or Cambridge often graduate among the top students.

Many young Singaporeans are enterprising and energetic, eager to try out new things. I met some of them recently when I did a TV programme with Junior College students, "Footprints of the Nation". They were mature, knowledgeable young adults, with views of their own which they argued with self confidence and aplomb.

They also had varied interests outside school. One told me that he collects watches as a hobby, and finances this hobby by trading watches over the Internet. Apparently he has gained a cyberspace reputation. When other watch-traders see his name on a website, they know he is trustworthy. They are willing to send him the money first, confident that the watch will arrive later. I doubt the buyers know that the seller was a young JC1 student, but over the Internet you can remain faceless. I hope he will become an entrepreneur when he grows up.

Our young people are also idealistic, and spend much time and effort on good causes. Recently I met a group from the NUS Students’ Union Volunteer Action Committee. They had won a Singapore Youth Award. The Committee was founded in 1990 to get NUS undergraduates to participate in social service and volunteerism. The students help the disadvantaged, tutor the residents at the Boys' Town, work with patients of the Institute of Mental Health, and visit the elderly and intellectually disabled residents at the Moral Welfare Home. The Committee has kept its members together over the years, and brought in new blood year after year.

However, our young people have grown up in a very different environment from the older generation. If you are born in 1980, your life experiences are likely to have been year after year of peace, stability and economic growth. There were no riots, no life threatening experiences, and none of the uncertainties of a newly independent nation. As a result, many young Singaporeans have not been exposed to the vicissitudes of life. Most have not had to worry about having rice on the table and roof over their heads, because these have been well taken care of.

This is not your fault. In fact your parents and the Government have strived mightily to build such a stable environment in which to bring you up. They have succeeded well – perhaps too well.

The Straits Times [20 Sep] published an interview with Mr Michael Chua. He is an IT consultant who left Singapore 20 years ago to live in Europe to fulfil his dream of immersing in foreign cultures. Recently, he decided that he missed his parents and the Singapore sunshine, and so returned to set up an office in Suntec City. Asked what adjustments he had to make when coming home, he said:

"…Singapore is probably the easiest city I have lived in…You wake up in the morning and there’s a new covered walkway. The next day, without you protesting or petitioning, a flower bed sprouts up. Overnight, a posh-looking community club and bus stop are built."

So when a PRC journalist asked me what I thought of the younger generation, I explained to her how the younger generation had grown up in different circumstances, and why I worried that they did not always appreciate how lucky they had been. She replied that maybe the problem was that I had grown old. Probably so, but if we compare Singaporean students with foreign students, we do see the effect of their different backgrounds.

MAS offers scholarships to both Singaporean and foreign students. I asked the officers who interview the candidates whether they had noticed any differences between the local versus foreign A-level students studying in Singapore. They told me that while both local and foreign students had very good academic results, the Singaporeans came across as more sheltered and less street-wise. When asked about setbacks in life, almost without exception they cited below-expectation exam results.

Foreign students, on the other hand, generally have more varied life experiences. A good number have come to study in Singapore alone, without family and relatives. They read from a variety of sources, debate issues robustly and form their own opinions. Many have become accustomed to disappointments and difficult situations and learnt to deal with them. They recognised that they have to make things happen for themselves, and that success in life depended on their own efforts.

One girl came from China speaking no English, and with no kin here. But she was hungry to learn and grateful for the opportunity to study in a good school in Singapore. Within two years, she emerged as one of our top O-level students. She told her interviewers how she juggled between school in the day and self-learning at night. She spoke passionately about her teachers’ help, her new friends here and the desire to contribute back to Singapore while remaining proud of her roots in China. She had clear plans for herself, in terms of her next steps in the university and her career pursuits.

Another foreign student, a young man from India, related a story of how he wanted a telescope when he was a boy. Instead of buying him an expensive telescope, his father bought only the raw materials and suggested that he build one himself. He had to sand and polish a piece of glass into a lens usable in a telescope. This man learned from a young age that nothing should be taken for granted. He had to think about what he wanted, find ways to get it, and explore better ways to do things.

These stories should be a wake-up call for Singaporeans. Brilliant academic performance alone cannot guarantee success. We need the courage to dream, the willingness to try and the determination to succeed. We must recognise that all around us, there are many for whom life has not been so comfortable. But this has given them a tremendous "fire in the belly" and eagerness to learn. Singaporeans have to compete against them, and had better prepare themselves for the race.

We cannot recreate the uncertainties and hardship which your parents’ generation experienced, just to educate you. But as you grow up, you have to learn about the world around you, and acquire the survival instincts as well as the "fire in the belly", if you are to prevail against the odds. One approach that we are trying is to promote international volunteerism. The Singapore International Foundation has a Youth Expedition Project, which in two years has launched 90 expeditions involving 2,500 youths. In Cambodia they helped refurbish classrooms and build IT labs for children; in China they helped repair village roads and upgrade community facilities; in Vietnam they helped make well water available for agriculture. After the expeditions, many participants said that they felt inspired to do more, and appreciated Singapore more.

The Youth Expedition Project is valuable, but real life is the most rigorous test. The present challenges are the most serious that Singapore has faced since independence, and that many young Singaporeans have faced in their lives. It is not just a live firing exercise, but our first battle testing. Not surprisingly, we feel some apprehension going in to combat for the first time. But I am confident that we will emerge successfully, and that the experience will toughen and fortify us, and prepare us for many future challenges.

Sinking Roots

The final issue to ponder over is whether Singaporeans will sink roots in Singapore. This question did not arise in the previous generation, because for them which country to belong to was not a matter of choice. They either were born in Singapore, or had come here out of economic necessity. They could not easily uproot themselves and their families and go off to some other country.

But young Singaporeans these days have many options. There is a global contest to attract talent. For people with education and skills, the world is their oyster, particularly if they speak English. Many Singaporeans study abroad. After they graduate, or sometimes even before they graduate, they may be offered opportunities to live and work in London, New York, Silicon Valley or Shanghai. It is not longer individuals seeking to work overseas, but companies knocking on your door to headhunt you.

Even I was recently made an offer. I received an email from a company called Migration Expert Australia. It asked me if I knew that Australia is currently looking for Skilled and Business migrants, and whether I am interested to become an Australian PR. It invited me to visit their website, and to try out a free virtual points test to see if I would qualify. If I was not interested, never mind, please help forward the email to someone who I think may be interested.

In a globalised world, it is not realistic to expect every citizen to stay all his life in Singapore. Some will leave, whether in pursuit of careers or for personal reasons. If Singaporeans get the opportunity to work abroad, I would encourage them to take them up, to learn about the world and expand their horizons. But I hope that while overseas they will maintain their links back home, and after spending time overseas, they will return to Singapore. Not everybody will return, but if too many leave, and not enough come back and strike roots here, Singapore will be in trouble.

We only have 3 million people. If we lose too many of them, especially the talented ones, we will become like Ireland used to be. For several hundred years Irish people emigrated in large numbers, all over the English speaking world. The Irish prospered in the US, in Australia, in Britain, but Ireland itself remained poor and backward. Only in the last two decades has the Irish economy started to take off, and some of the overseas Irish have started to return.

The diaspora of overseas Singaporeans is growing. We need to maintain links with them, make them feel part of the Singapore family, tap them for their contacts, their network, their knowledge of the countries they live and work in. At the same time, we must of course work hard on the Singaporeans who have not gone overseas, to root them more strongly in Singapore. We need to engage their energies, help them fulfil their aspirations, and get them to realise that they play important roles in building Singapore. The Remaking Singapore Committee chaired by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, is collecting views and ideas on ways to do this.

We can ask ourselves: why should I be rooted in Singapore? and then look for rational reasons why staying here makes sense. And rational reasons are indeed relevant, because if conditions are hard, life is miserable, and there is no future in the country, then people will leave.

But rational reasons alone can only make fair weather citizens. There also has to be a sense of moral commitment. You grew up here, drew sustenance from this society, and gained opportunities to advance yourself. Had you been born in almost any other country in Asia, you would not have enjoyed the same opportunities, and your life would have been quite different. Therefore you have an obligation to the country and the system that gave him the chance to succeed. You need to contribute back to the society, and help others succeed as you have done.

But even more than moral obligations, the fundamental glue that binds a people together is a deep emotional commitment a person has to his family, schoolmates, NS buddies. The friends he grew up with, the experiences he shares with them, the places he knew, the memories – these make him what he is and root him to his country.

No Japanese can leave Japan permanently without feeling deep pain at cutting his ties with all that it means to be a Japanese and parting from things he holds dear, especially the respect and esteem of his family, friends and peers.

Look at the Jews in Israel and all over the world, with their powerful sense of a shared history and a common future. Or take the Palestinian Arabs in refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon; they are all fighting to return to villages that no longer exist.

Singapore’s weakness is that our history of being a nation is too short. It is only one generation since we became a distinct and separate society. Singaporeans do not share an ancient past, unlike the Japanese or Jews. Nor do we start off with a common language, culture, or religion. We have made English the common ground between the different communities, but this has accentuated the sense of not being rooted. The Taiwanese are attempting to create their separate and distinct identity by de-emphasising Mandarin and promoting the use of Min-nan Wei, their brand of Hokkien. But if Singaporeans fell back on Singlish, nobody else in the world would understand us!

So we have to see the problem of identity and rootedness against this historical background. We are embarked on a long and an unending quest in search of nationhood. In 37 years, we have started to form a national identity, but it is by no means complete. Our society is still evolving. Going forward, as we experience new challenges and overcome new problems together, we have to strengthen this shared identity, and most important our sense of common destiny. If we succeed in that, then we can deal with all our other problems as one people.


We are navigating Singapore’s future in stormy waters. How severe the storm will be is beyond our control, but however high the waves, we have every confidence that with determination, skills and agility, we can overcome the difficulties, and navigate through to safety.

In the next few years, all of you will leave the comfort of university lives to enter the real world. It is an exciting world out there, and you will be well equipped for it. So go forth, pursue your passion, take the leaps of faith, try out new things, start a new business, contribute to the arts, go on a Youth Expedition, and in time get married, have children and experience the joy and anxiety of watching the kids grow up. Your parents made all these opportunities available for you, but you need to ignite the ‘fire in your belly’, and grab them.

So as you ponder what the future has in store for you, remember that you are not just watching a movie of Singapore’s tomorrow, wondering what will happen next. All of us are actors in the movie. How we act makes a difference to the story. We may not be able to tell exactly what the ending will be – in fact the whole idea is not to have a final episode, but always to have a sequel to look forward to. But if we keep our spirits and confidence high, and commit ourselves to this enterprise, we will together create something special and precious, and make tomorrow’s Singapore better than today’s.