SINGAPORE: Last year was one of celebration, sorrow and promise for Singapore as it marked half a century of independence. But most memorable were the flashes of national solidarity, said members of a panel for Channel NewsAsia’s Singapore Review 2015 special.
“We hadn’t seen such solidarity among Singaporeans since perhaps the Kallang Roar and I thought that was really encouraging,” said lawyer Chia Yong Yong, referring to the patriotic fever during Singapore’s football matches at the National Stadium in the early 90s.
The discussion at the National Gallery Singapore included Dr Janil Puthucheary, a People’s Action Party Member of Parliament, Mr Leon Perera, non-constituency member of Parliament from the Workers' Party, Dr Tan Lai Yong, lecturer at NUS’ College of Alice & Peter Tan; and Ms Selena Ling, Head of Treasury Research & Strategy at OCBC Bank.
Moderated by debating expert Gaurav Keerthi, founder of Dialectic.sg, the panel looked back on major events for Singapore last year, including the SG50 celebrations, the passing of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the General Election, and changes to health, education and manpower policies.
Panellists also debated Singapore’s new cabinet and ministerial portfolio splits, and leftward leaning policies with the introduction of MediShield Life, SkillsFuture, the progressive wage model and the Pioneer Generation Package.
RESILIENCE, A COMMON CULTURE, SHARED HISTORY
But it was the sense of unity displayed amid jubilee celebrations and national sorrow from the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew to the Sabah earthquake that the panel kept going back to. The year lent itself to the discourse around national identity, one which has been rooted in resilience, a common culture, and shared histories, said panellists.
“I think 2015 certainly gave us a lot of cause to reflect on what it means to be a Singaporean but I think there is a Singapore identity. I do not think it is a case of whether there wasn’t an identity or the identity wasn’t clear before 2015. I think it made us reflect on what that identity is,” said Mr Perera.
The Singapore Review 2015 panel show, held at the National Gallery, invited audience members to participate in the discussion. (Photo: Kane Cunico)
“One of my abiding memories of 2015 was taking my dad to Parliament House to pay his respects to Mr Lee lying in state. As you know, they were originally comrades and friends and then opponents divided by political positions," Dr Puthucheary shared.
“(If you asked them about memories of 2015) I know what my dad would say and I suspect Mr Lee would say the same thing, that for all the differences, (Singaporeans) press on and look forward. We are forward-facing people,” he added.
Agreeing, Ms Ling, who emphasised a need to focus on shared heritage, said: “I think we basically are in a post-Lee Kuan Yew era. So we should be looking forward rather than looking backwards.
“What probably was most memorable to me about 2015 is not the economic part of it. It is not the technical recession, and it is not really these events. I think it is really that oral part of the history and the dialects. It is that familiar family bonding and we need to have the confidence to move on.
“You really need to talk about Singapore as a mature society; to have the confidence to go out and say what are the values that we want to triumph beyond economics.”
LET'S TALK RACE AND RELIGION
The panel said that in moving forward with a sense of unity in the air, it is time for Singapore to begin a new discourse about race and religion.
Said Ms Chia: “My one burden actually is the fact that we seem afraid to talk about racial and religious differences and I think that if we really are a mature society respecting one another, then we should not be afraid to speak openly.”
Dr Puthucheary concurred: “We are the most religiously diverse country in the planet. The fact that we can have those difficult discussions and we have the space and the confidence to do so I think speaks to the thriving nature of our nation over the last 50 years.”
Dr Janil Puthucheary, who called for continued solidarity in challenges ahead, meeting audience members after the recording. (Photo: Kane Cunico)
Mr Perera said Singapore’s diversity is its hidden strength. “Identity is something that has to be allowed to be organically evolved. It cannot be shaped in the top-down kind of process and what I would like to see in that process of identity formation is that we celebrate diversity as a source of strength. I think too often in our country, we talk about religious diversity, racial diversity, political diversity, other kinds of diversity as a source of vulnerability and weakness but it can be a tremendous source of strength that can be a catalyst for innovation. So we should celebrate diversity in that sense.”
Looking ahead, the panel emphasised a need to tap on the renewed sense of solidarity to withstand challenges even in bad times.
Said Dr Tan: “Do we have a solidarity among people and Government to just do it (make tough decisions)? This is the need to keep looking ahead for Singapore to thrive.”
“What I would like to see actually moving forward is that the solidarity that we have built over the last 50 years and which we demonstrated this year will see us through the next amid differences,” said Ms Chia.
“We’ve demonstrated that unity as Singaporeans, but will we do so when things get really bad?" asked Dr Puthucheary.
“When we don’t have an external thing that defines us, whether it is Mr Lee’s passing, or whether it is the Tanjong Katong Primary School disaster, if life goes on without these momentous things and we have a tough year in 2016, my wish is that we stay together with that same spirit.”