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NDR 2021: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's English speech in full

NDR 2021: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's English speech in full

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks in English at National Day Rally 2021. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about a range of issues in his National Day Rally speeches on Sunday (Aug 29).

Read his English speech in full:

COVID-19

My last National Day Rally was two years ago.

Since then, COVID-19 has changed our world. Globally, it has taken millions of lives, sickened many more and disrupted countless jobs and businesses. In Singapore, each time it looks like we have beaten the virus, it breaks through in a different place and forces us to tighten up again.

But we have done better than many countries. We have kept our people safe and protected our livelihoods. I thank you all for your trust and cooperation. Your discipline and resilience have made all the difference in the fight against COVID-19.

I want to especially thank all those on the frontline, Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans, who have fought so hard, for so long. Some of you are here at the Rally. Others are joining us virtually. Welcome again and thank you all!

Many of you have gone beyond the call of duty. Like Aisha Abdul Rahman, a passenger service agent at Changi Airport. After passenger flights were sharply cut, Aisha was redeployed as a cargo agent for cold chain logistics. She learnt to operate a forklift, and now handles temperature-sensitive goods, including vaccines. Roslina Toh is a student volunteer. In March last year, when Malaysia closed its borders, many Malaysian workers were stranded here. Roslina marshalled a team of 200 volunteers, to organise food and shelter for them. Priyaa Mohena is a senior physiotherapist at Woodlands Health. She has expertise in respiratory problems, lung problems. So she was deployed to look after COVID-19 patients. I met her recently and asked her – how did you feel? Were you afraid? She said. “I was not afraid. I am proud to give back. I am proud to be Singaporean”.

There are many more like Aisha, Roslina and Priyaa – contact tracers, swabbers, ambulance drivers, workers running quarantine facilities and vaccination centres. Because of people like them, we held together in the face of COVID-19 and brought the situation under control. Thank you all!

Our vaccination programme has been very successful. Singaporeans came forward readily to get jabbed, confident that they would be in safe hands, including Mdm Chew Huat Mui. She is 92 years old. Here, she is getting her jab, not just from any nurse, but from her daughter Alice. 

Now, 8 in 10 residents are fully vaccinated. We are in a new situation. Vaccination has slowed the transmission and spread of COVID-19. But the virus has also mutated. The Delta variant is much more infectious. It is no longer possible to bring COVID-19 cases down to zero, even if we lock down for a long time. Therefore, we must prepare for COVID-19 to become endemic, like the flu or chicken pox. Fortunately, with vaccination and added precautions, we can live with the virus and become “COVID resilient”. We may have to tap on the brakes from time to time, but we want to avoid having to slam on the brakes hard. So in the next phase, we will move step by step. Not in one big bang like in some countries but cautiously and progressively, feeling our way forward.

Over the last week, the number of COVID-19 cases has gone up. But the number of seriously ill has remained stable. It is important to maintain this, so that we can continue to ease up, and especially to reconnect Singapore with the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, we continue to make every effort to reach the remaining unvaccinated population. We are trying to reach you before the virus reaches you. With endemic COVID-19, sooner or later everyone will meet the virus. If you are vaccinated, you may not get infected. But if you are not vaccinated, you will almost certainly get infected, and may well become very sick. For children, COVID-19 is often a mild disease. But for the old and not vaccinated, it can be very dangerous. That is why mobile vaccination clinics are going around HDB neighbourhoods so people upstairs can come down for their vaccinations and volunteer teams are going house to house, a doctor and a nurse, to vaccinate those who are immobile at home, one by one.

If we all do our part in the months ahead, then we can keep our situation stable, and gradually return to a more normal life. Go back to work or school, meet family and friends, gather for religious services, celebrate birthdays and weddings, watch live shows and sports events and come together for National Day!

Economy

With COVID-19 under control, we must now refocus on the future.

Singapore has survived its worst economic crisis since independence. We drew on every available resource, to support workers and companies and emerge stronger.

Now, we must change gears. It is no longer about drawing down reserves to keep ourselves on life support. It is about generating new growth, new jobs, and prosperity for the future.

The global economy is picking up. The US and China are growing strongly. Europe is also recovering. These are our major markets. That is why MTI is more confident that Singapore will also do well and has raised our growth forecast to 6% to 7%.

Beyond this year, to sustain longer term growth, we need to do three things: Preserve our status as a business hub, attract more foreign investments and grow Singapore companies and entrepreneurs.

First, we must preserve Singapore’s status as a business hub. Many MNCs use Singapore as their regional base. Their staff, both local and foreign, need to fly in and out of Singapore to visit operations in other countries. So too do our own businessmen. If our borders stay closed for too long. MNCs will find us less useful. Singaporean businesses also will suffer and our economy will be permanently damaged. So it is important for us to open up soon and allow more people to travel in and out of Singapore, in a safe way.

Second, Singapore must remain attractive to investors. Even during the pandemic, EDB persuaded major companies to invest here. You have heard of Pfizer, the company that makes the vaccine, Pfizer has been in Singapore for a long time. Now, BioNTech, Pfizer’s vaccine partner, will also be setting up shop here. GlobalFoundries is a semiconductor manufacturer. It already has five wafer fabs here and now it is building its sixth one. Two years ago, I did not know what Zoom was. Zoom has opened a new R&D centre, their first in Southeast Asia. EDB has more projects in its pipeline. All these investments will create many good jobs for Singaporeans.

Third, Singapore companies must make their mark in the new economy. A few have become global names, like Carro, SecretLab, and Carousell. Enterprise Singapore is supporting more entrepreneurs to follow in their footsteps, go out into the world, seize new opportunities and grow their businesses.

Yvon Bock founded Hegen, a company selling baby-feeding bottles and equipment.

It is a tough business to be in, because Singaporeans are making too few babies. So from the start, Yvon expanded into other markets. Hegen products are popular in China, Korea, and even Israel. When COVID-19 hit, many of Hegen’s physical retail channels shut down, so Yvon shifted to marketing online. She improved her websites, conducted livestreams in multiple languages, and hired more staff to fulfil orders. Now Hegen’s main engine of growth is online sales.

The government will create the conditions for entrepreneurs like Yvon to start and grow their companies. But subsidies and grants only go so far. Ultimately, it is their own resolve and resourcefulness which will secure their success.

Society

Economic growth is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It must be inclusive growth that benefits all Singaporeans, so that we can all fulfil our aspirations, and see our children live better lives than ourselves. This is how Singaporeans have been uplifted, generation after generation.

To keep this up, we have to tackle our social challenge, COVID-19 has sharpened fault lines in our society, and made some difficult issues more urgent. Tonight, I will talk about three of them. First, supporting lower wage workers (LWWs). Second, addressing anxieties over foreign work pass holders. Third, managing race and religion.

Guests in attendance listen to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech in English at National Day Rally 2021. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

Lower Wage Workers

Let me first talk about supporting LWWs. During COVID-19, many LWWs were on the frontline. Singaporeans saw the importance of jobs like cleaning, food delivery, and security. We gained fresh respect and appreciation for these workers.

LWWs and their families receive significant support from the Government. In housing, through HDB subsidies, rental flats. In healthcare, through hospital subsidies, the CHAS scheme, and MediFund. In retirement, through CPF top ups and Silver Support and in education, through a huge effort to support lower income families, to help their children do well in school and beyond.

Despite this, LWWs are more stressed than others. Their jobs are less secure. They are more likely to be laid off. They have less savings to tide over hard times. In the pandemic, their situation has been precarious. That is why in every COVID-19 Budget Package we included extra help to lower income households.

Beyond emergency assistance, LWWs need longer term support. In many countries, the earnings of such workers have stagnated. But in Singapore, the lives have improved as the country progress. Because the government has helped them upgrade their skills, use machines and technology, and become more productive. We also have specific policies to raise their income. One important policy is the Workfare Income Supplement (Workfare) Scheme. Workfare is effectively a negative income tax. Instead of taxing the incomes of LWWs, the Government tops up their salaries in cash and CPF contributions. Almost half a million workers benefit and it costs the Government $850m a year . In two years’ time, we will increase this to $1.1b. This allows us to raise payouts for all Workfare recipients and to help younger LWWs, by starting Workfare younger, from age 30 rather than 35.

Another key policy is the Progressive Wage Model (PWM). The PWM now covers cleaners, security guards, landscaping workers and lift maintenance workers. It has raised their skills and productivity, and boosted their incomes and job progression.

Today, with Progressive Wages, every cleaner earns at least $1,200. In two years’ time, they will earn at least $1,500. After another two years, this will go up further, to at least $1,900. By then, the cleaners would also have picked up new skills and become more productive. The story is similar for security guards, landscaping workers and lift maintenance workers.

SMS Zaqy Mohamad chairs a Tripartite Workgroup studying how we can help LWWs more. The Workgroup has recommended three strategies to uplift LWWs.

One, to extend Progressive Wages to many more workers. We will cover more sectors, starting with retail next year, and later food services and waste management. We will also cover specific occupations, across all sectors simultaneously, starting with administrative assistants and drivers. In other words, at some point, sector by sector, horizontal. Slicing vertically, across all sector at once.

Second, we will require companies hiring foreign workers to pay all their local employees at least a Local Qualifying Salary. Today, these companies already have to pay this Qualifying Salary ($1,400) to some of their local employees, depending on how many work permits or s-passes they require.. We will tighten this to require these companies to pay all their local employees this Local Qualifying Salary if they wish to hire any foreign employees and this Local Qualifying Salary will also be adjusted from time to time.

Three, to introduce a PW Mark – Progressive Wage Mark. We will accredit companies that are paying all their workers Progressive Wages with the PW Mark. We don’t have an official logo yet, but I asked Nanyang Polytechnic students, to design something for the Workgroup to consider and this is what they have come up with. The PW Mark will tell consumers which companies are paying all their workers decent wages. The public sector is a major buyer of goods and services. It will take the lead, and purchase only from such businesses.

The Government accepts the Workgroup’s recommendations. The extended Progressive Wages plus the tighter Local Qualifying Salary will cover 8 in 10 LWWs. If we include the Workfare enhancements, almost all LWWs can look forward to higher incomes within the next two years.

The Workgroup has done its best to understand the aspirations of workers, the concerns of employers, and the objectives of the government. I met them virtually on Monday to thank them. Their proposals are a tripartite consensus, carefully negotiated and balanced between all stakeholders.

The cost of higher wages for the LWWs will have to be shared. Workers have to reskill and become more productive. Employers have to absorb part of the additional wage costs. The Government will help them with transitional support but businesses will still have to pass on some of the costs to their customers .

So all of us, as consumers, must also chip in. Pay a little bit more for some of our favourite things, like bubble tea or bak chor mee to help the shop cover higher cleaning and waste collection costs.

I am glad that many Singaporeans are willing to support LWWs in this way. It will not only enable the workers to keep their jobs at higher pay. It will also show that as a society, we value their work and contributions, and that they are part of us.

I am especially concerned about a specific group of LWWs. These are the delivery workers. They work with online platforms, like Food Panda, Grab or Deliveroo. They are a familiar sight, especially during COVID-19, delivering our orders day and night. It is hard work, and most earn modest incomes.

Let me show you a clip from a short film by Mohammad Ruzhael bin Marwazi. Ruzhael is a talented second year student at ITE Central studying film. He made this prize-winning film based on his own experience as a delivery worker. Let’s watch it.

“Kejar” – it means to chase, in Malay. This film captures the pressures on delivery workers, chasing the target and earning their daily keep. Under constant stress for reasons beyond their control: bad weather, scary dogs, motorcycle breakdowns, trying their best to hit their daily targets, and not always succeeding.

Delivery workers, are for all intents and purposes, just like employees. The online platforms set the price of their product. They determine which jobs are assigned to which workers. They manage how the workers perform, including imposing penalties and suspensions.

Yet delivery workers have no employment contracts with the online platforms. Therefore they lack the basic job protection that most employees enjoy, like workplace injury compensation, union representation and employer CPF. Besides delivery workers, there are also some LWWs in other jobs who have an employee-like relationship with platforms. They too will find it harder to afford housing, healthcare and eventually, retirement.

More people are taking up this type of work, so this problem is growing. MOM is studying it and will be doing consultations. We must address the issues to give these workers more secure futures.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong waves during National Day Rally 2021. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

Work Pass Holders

LWWs are not the only ones feeling job anxiety. Middle income Singaporeans are also feeling the pressure. We see this in the growing restlessness over foreigners, particularly work pass holders. This unhappiness was already present before COVID-19, but the economic uncertainty has intensified it.

Work pass holders are here to complement our workforce and grow the economy. In good times, this attracts investments, which in turn creates more jobs for locals. In bad times, like last year, the foreign workforce shrinks, and this shields locals from worse job losses.

Most Singaporeans understand these economic arguments. But there is another set of arguments based on individual lived experiences, which are more personal and emotional. It is about competition for jobs and opportunities at the workplace. Is my employer hiring work pass holders at my expense? Is he treating me fairly when it comes to postings and promotions? Is he developing and preparing me to take on bigger responsibilities? These are valid questions, which we must address.

First, we must assure Singaporeans that Employment Pass and S Pass holders are of the right standard. A practical and reasonable indication of quality is how much the employer is prepared to pay for the work pass holder. This is why to qualify for an EP or S Pass, there are salary cut-offs.

As Singaporean wages rise, we have raised these cut-offs in step. Last year, we raised the cut-offs twice. For the financial sector, where salaries are higher, we set a higher cut-off.

We will continue to tighten the criteria for EP and S passes over time. Not suddenly or sharply, which would hurt businesses, but gradually and progressively. This will ensure that work pass holders come in where we most need them. And we won’t be flooded with more than we can absorb, doing jobs for which Singaporeans are qualified and available. Second, we must assure all employees of fair treatment at the workplace. We often hear complaints about financial institutions and IT companies hiring too many foreigners. Both these sectors indeed have a large share of work pass holders.  This is because we are a business hub. The finance and IT companies here perform regional and global functions, which require both local and foreign talent and expertise. Plus, finance and IT are growing sectors, where the skills are in short supply not just in Singapore but in many countries. But these companies have also recruited many Singaporeans, and groomed the promising ones to take on senior and international positions not just in Singapore, but all over the region. Had we not allowed them to import the EPs they needed, the companies would not have come here, and Singaporeans would have had fewer opportunities.

Of course, not every company plays ball. A few have not been fair employers. They hire from their own countries, using familiar links and old boys’ networks, rather than on merit. And they give foreigners the jobs and opportunities, and only make token gestures with locals. That naturally causes problems.

Government agencies deal with these transgressions firmly. For example, when the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) receives a complaint about HR practices in a bank, it investigates thoroughly. If the complaint is valid, MAS will speak to the bank, at a senior level. When MAS raises an eyebrow, the banks take it very seriously.  They report back to their HQ, and make adjustments. When IMDA does the same with IT companies, they too take note. The interventions by our agencies are quiet, but effective. I once met a CEO in Davos. We said hello and chatted. On his own accord, he told me that his IT subsidiary in Singapore was doing its best to improve local recruitment and talent development, and to be a good corporate citizen. I knew why he said this and thanked him politely.  Later I cross-checked with IMDA, and was happy to confirm that the company had indeed made an effort and improved.

To deal with workplace discrimination more broadly, we have TAFEP – the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices.  TAFEP has laid out clear guidelines on fair treatment. Most companies comply. If a company falls short, TAFEP will counsel it and if it still fails to get its act together, MOM can impose administrative penalties, including restricting it from hiring foreign workers.

This has generally worked quite well. But over the years, the government has received repeated requests to toughen up TAFEP. In particular, the Labour Movement and NTUC MPs have pushed for anti-discrimination laws that carry penalties. The government has held back, because we did not want the process to become legalistic or confrontational.  It is better if disputes can be resolved amicably, through persuasion or mediation but after consulting the tripartite partners, we have decided to adopt the Labour MPs’ suggestions. We will enshrine the TAFEP guidelines in law. This will give them more teeth and expand the range of actions we can take. We will model our approach on how we deal with another class of disputes: those over salaries or wrongful dismissal. In such disputes, conciliation and mediation are tried first. Only when those fail, does the matter go before an Employment Claims Tribunal, which will arbitrate and decide the case. We will create a similar Tribunal to deal with workplace discrimination. This will protect workers against discrimination based on nationality whether you’re Singaporean or non-Singaporean. It will also prohibit other kinds of discrimination covered by TAFEP. Women will get better protection and discrimination based on age, race, religion, and disability will also be disallowed. Philosophically, writing TAFEP guidelines into the law is a major move. It signals that we do not tolerate discrimination at workplaces. But in practice, we hope to operate in a similar way as today, except better. We should still resolve workplace disputes informally and amicably, if at all possible.

The legal redress should be a last recourse but whose existence will cause the parties to work harder to settle the dispute, through conciliation and mediation.

While we deal with workplace issues arising from large numbers of work pass holders, we must also pay attention to their social impact. Work pass holders come here to work. Some stay on, eventually becoming PRs and naturalised citizens. But most do not stay long enough to integrate fully into our society.

Social frictions arise because culturally, work pass holders are different from us

Even if they are of Chinese, Malay or Indian race, they are different from us. In fact, sometimes frictions arise, precisely because they are racially similar to us

They look like us, yet they don’t act like us.

I once tried to explain our multi-racial society to a foreign leader.  I said, Singaporeans are racially similar to people from China, India, or Southeast Asia.  But after two generations of nation building, Chinese Singaporeans have become different from Chinese-Chinese, and Indian Singaporeans have become different from Indian-Indians, and so on. The foreign leader understood English but he looked at me, bewildered. Then he turned to his interpreter to ask, “What is this Chinese-Chinese and Indian-Indian?”. I tried to explain again. I said we have all become Singaporeans, more than we are Chinese, Malays or Indians. I am not sure he fully got it because his country did not have this problem. But Singaporeans will understand. Compared to the non-Singaporeans, we are “same same but different”

We need to ease the social frictions that arise from being “same same but different”. Both sides need to make the effort. Singaporeans must be open to living with and accepting others who are not exactly like us. Non-Singaporeans here must accept the ethos and norms of our society, and make the effort to fit in. For example, with our immigrant roots, Singapore is generally an egalitarian society.

But some work pass holders and their families bring with them social practices and class distinctions from their own countries.  These run counter to the informal and equal way Singapo­reans interact with one another, and that causes frictions.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh listens to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at National Day Rally 2021. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

Non-Singaporeans must understand how Singapore is, so that they can fit in better. Actually, most work pass holders and their families fit in quite well. After living here for some years, some speak Singlish, others enjoy sambal belachan, and even durian!

Quite a few have set up family or have children here. Like Kai Kai and Jia Jia, our two pandas at the River Safari. Their cub was born on the 7th Day of the 7th Month, after the 7th try. Made in Singapore!

Concerns over work pass holders are a very delicate subject for a National Day Rally but I decided I had to talk about it. We have to acknowledge the problem, so we can address Singaporeans’ legitimate concerns, and defuse resentments over foreigners. Only thus can Singapore remain open and continue to grow and progress.

The reality is that our competition is not only from foreigners who are physically here, we are competing with people who are all over the world in Europe, Canada, America, China and Australia. COVID-19 has taught many companies that “working from home” is just one step away from “working anywhere”. They and their staffs no longer need to be all in the same place. All they need is a good internet connection.

Foreigners who are here in Singapore strengthen our team. They are our colleagues, and our neighbours and friends. During COVID-19, some have endured personal hardships, perhaps separated from families who are abroad, or stuck outside Singapore and unable to return home here. Many worked on the front line, shoulder-to-shoulder with Singaporeans. They too have contributed to Singapore.

We must not turn our backs on them, and give the impression that Singapore is becoming xenophobic and hostile to foreigners. It would gravely damage our reputation as an international hub. It would cost us investments, jobs and opportunities. It would be disastrous for us and most of all, it is not who we aspire to be.

Instead, we must make it crystal clear to the world that Singapore is determined to stay open, in order to earn a living for ourselves. It is not just our policies which have to be outward and forward looking, but also our mindsets and values as a people, to look beyond our shores, to welcome ideas and talent and to accept competition and change. These values helped transform a population of immigrants into a cosmopolitan and vibrant country. We must uphold them, as we continue to build our home and nation.

Guests attend the National Day Rally 2021 virtually via Zoom. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

Race & Religion

My third topic tonight is race and religion. During COVID-19, race relations have come under stress. There have been more racist incidents, several of which were widely publicised on social media. One happened just before National Day. Tanjong Pagar Town Council displayed banners to celebrate, featuring Singaporean families of different races. Unfortunately, netizens picked on one banner showing an Indian family, as though there were no other banners of other races. They made very nasty comments, accusing the government of being pro-foreigner and pro-Indian. Actually, the family is Singaporean, and the son, Thiruben, is a national athlete.

In another incident, a polytechnic lecturer, a Chinese Singaporean, accosted an interracial couple on Orchard Road. The woman was Thai-Chinese, and her partner was Indian-Filipino. Both were Singaporeans. The lecturer berated them, saying that they should date someone of their own races. He apologised later, but the damage was done. Several of these incidents have specifically targeted Indians, both work pass holders and citizens. One reason could be the large number of Indian work pass holders here. Another factor could be the Delta variant of COVID-19, which first emerged in India. I understand people are frustrated the Delta variant managed to get into Singapore. But it is illogical to blame this on Indians. Just as it is illogical to blame the Alpha variant on the English, the KTV cluster on Vietnamese, or the initial outbreak in Wuhan on the Chinese. We must address the real issues – manage the work pass numbers and concentrations, and improve border health safeguards. But we should not let our frustrations spill over to affect our racial harmony.

These racist incidents remind us how fragile our harmony is. But they do not negate our multi-racial approach, which has worked well for us. Racial harmony did not happen spontaneously in Singapore. It took hard work, sacrifice and wisdom. Our founding fathers resolved to forge one nation from the different races. They made multi-racial equality and harmony a fundamental principle of nation building. They did not suppress the distinct identities of each group. Instead they acknowledged and accommodated them. Everyone in Singapore could practise their own beliefs, festivals, religions, and cultures. English, not Chinese, became our working language, so that no race would be privileged over the others.

At the same time, we preserved the mother tongues. We retained Malay as our national language and continued singing Majulah Singapura with gusto in Malay. Over time, the different ethnic groups reached a balance. We did this not through push and shove, but through mutual compromise and give and take. No group got everything it wanted. Each gave up a little in order for all to live harmoniously side by side.

As a result, Singapore is one of the few countries in the world where people of different races and faiths live peacefully together and have done so now for more than half a century. It is a rare and precious achievement but it is also a delicate balance because a harmonious, multiracial country is not a natural or stable state of affairs I does not happen by itself and it does not stay there by itself.

Look around the world. Many countries set out professing the same noble ideals

But over time, their race relations and politics polarise. Often, the majority group asserts its power and sidelines the minorities. The minorities find themselves with less and less space, and feel no choice but to push back hard. Sometimes, the minorities pursue aggressive identity politics  and the majority group feels pressured and threatened, and rallies around hardline chauvinist leaders. It happens to countries much older than Singapore. Either way, the outcome is unhappy, for both majority and minorities. And once a country has gone down that path, it is very difficult to turn back.

Fortunately, right from the beginning, Singapore chose a different path for ourselves.

Nevertheless, 56 years is a very short time in the history of nations. Our racial harmony is still work in progress, and will be so for a long time. We all take pride in Singapore’s multiracial identity but all of us still retain at least some racial or religious preferences. We make friends more easily with others who are of the same race, or share our own religion. We mostly choose life partners who are the same race, although that is changing. All this is human, and natural in every society.

But sometimes, it goes beyond racial and cultural preferences to become biases and prejudices. Then it is a problem. Some job advertisements require people who speak Chinese, yet it is not always clear whether this is a genuine necessity for the job or a polite way to signal that the employer is more comfortable with Chinese workers. Or you are looking to rent a flat, you call the property agent, he finds out you are not Chinese, then he says sorry, the owner doesn’t want to rent to you after all. If he is polite he stops there. If he is direct, he will tell you why.

These things do happen here. The minorities experience it more acutely, because they are the ones most affected by such racial discrimination. They feel angry, hurt, disappointed that the words in our National Pledge are still an aspiration, but still not fully achieved. I know it is harder to belong to a minority race than to the majority. This is true in every multi-racial society but it does not mean we have to accept this state of affairs in Singapore.

We must keep on working at it, to become one people, regardless of race, language or religion. The majority must be more sensitive to the concerns of the minorities and we must also have the moral courage to take a stand against racist behaviour. To express clear disapproval of racist incidents when they happen. That is not so hard but what is harder,  to call out deliberate racist agitation that masquerades as something else. Like the campaign against CECA, which claimed to be about putting Singaporeans first, but had a strong racial undertone.

The real solution to racism is to change social attitudes. Individual and social attitude, This takes time and effort. Legislation can play a role. Laws may not by themselves make people get along with one another or like one another. But laws can signal what our society considers right or wrong, and nudge people over time to behave better.

Today, we have various laws dealing with serious racial offences, like hate crime or causing racial enmity but these laws are scattered in different places, like the Penal Code and the Sedition Act and they focus purely on crimes and punishments, rather than persuasion and rehabilitation.

We intend to pass specific legislation on Racial Harmony. We will call it The Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act. It will collect together in one place all the Government’s powers to deal with racial issues. It will also incorporate some softer, gentler touches. For example, the power to order someone who has caused offence to stop doing it, and to make amends by learning more about the other race and mending ties with them. This softer approach will heal hurt, instead of leaving resentment and if he complies and does it, that is good and we will move on. If he does not comply or continues to do wrong things, of course legal consequences follow.

We already have a similar law for religious harmony - The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. We have never needed to invoke any of the punishments under this Act but just the existence of the law has had a salutary effect. It has helped to restrain intolerance and promote religious harmony. Similarly, a Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will encourage moderation and tolerance between different racial groups. It will signal the overriding importance of racial harmony to Singapore.

Besides pushing against discrimination and racist attitudes, we also need to keep our policies on race and religion up to date because racial and religious harmony is not just delicate, but also dynamic. It changes over time. Our values and beliefs as a society shift over time. Each new generation has its own perspective on racial issues.

Older Singaporeans lived through Singapore’s independence journey. They think: discussions can become disputes, disputes can become quarrels, better don’t talk about such things too much. Younger Singaporeans did not personally experience the racial tensions and riots of our early years. Their lived experience has been largely racial peace and harmony. They believe we are mature and stable now. We want to improve the status quo. We must talk about racial and religious issues more openly and relook our policies and assumptions afresh. These generational differences in views are perfectly understandable and should be accommodated. That is within Singapore.

Meanwhile, the world around us is changing. Singapore is highly exposed to external political developments. We are moved by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, or the violence between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. Our own circumstances and context are completely different, and these are not our quarrels but they do affect our people.

We are influenced by external religious trends too. Many Christians think of themselves as members of a worldwide communion. Similarly, Muslims consider themselves to belong to a global ummah. So when religious norms elsewhere shift, norms and practices in Singapore are also affected.

Therefore, from time to time, we must adjust our policies on race and religion. But we should adjust based on our own needs and circumstances, and not just because of trends abroad and we should do so with caution,  because race and religion will always be highly sensitive issues. We have to take the time to discuss respectfully, make sure everybody understands, and build a consensus before we make any move.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong drinks from a cup during National Day Rally 2021. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

The Tudung Issue

One example of how we do this is the tudung issue. Wearing the tudung has become increasingly important for the Muslim community. It reflects a general trend of stronger religiosity in Islam, around the world, in Southeast Asia, and in Singapore. For many Muslim women, it has become an important part of their faith, and an expression of a deeply felt identity.

Over the last few decades, more Muslim women in Singapore have worn the tudung, both in social settings and workplaces. Year to year, the change is gradual but over a generation, the shift is quite obvious. The government fully understands the desire of more Muslim women to wear the tudung but we are cautious about how non-Muslims will react to the visible change, and how that could affect relations between the communities. Will it be seen as more “inclusive”, or will it highlight and accentuate differences?

Today, the tudung is commonly worn in most settings without restriction – in public places. In workplaces, in Parliament, attending the National Day Rally. However, in some places where uniforms are required, the government has not allowed the tudung to be worn. This particularly applies to school uniforms, to uniforms in the SAF and Home Team, and also to nurses’ uniforms in public hospitals.

Generally, the Muslim community has understood and accepted the government’s stance on the tudung. But they still hope that over time, things can change. In particular, allowing nurses to wear the tudung has become a focal issue for Muslims here.

In 2014, when there was intense discussion on the tudung, I had a closed-door meeting with Muslim leaders . We spoke candidly, heart to heart. They explained to me why the tudung was important to the community, and what they hoped the Government would allow. I told them I understood how strongly they felt, but I also explained the Government’s perspective, and the reasons behind our policies.

I said that for school uniforms, the Government had overriding reasons for the current rules. In national schools, all students wear the same uniforms whether they are rich or poor, and regardless of race or religion. We need to emphasise their similarities and minimise their differences so that students can build bonds in their formative years that will shape their attitudes for life.

For different important reasons, we must maintain the status quo for the SAF, Home Team and other uniformed services. They are impartial and secular arms of the State. They wield armed force, and enforce the laws of Singapore. They must always be seen to be doing so without fear or favour. Therefore, everyone wears the same uniform.

Then, we have the nurses in hospitals. Here, the opposing considerations are more finely balanced. On the one hand the community’s desires. on the other hand the government’s concerns, both national and specific. Patients in a hospital are often anxious, and sometimes very ill. So it is important that they see all nurses as the same. On their part, nurses must feel equally comfortable caring for all patients, regardless of race or religion. We don’t want a visible distinction in the nurses’ attire to make this harder to achieve.

I told the Muslim leaders in 2014 that government policy in the health­care sector was not set in stone. We would monitor the situation. If and when we changed our position, we would first make sure that everyone – Muslims and non-Muslims – understood and accepted the change because the tudung is not just a matter for Muslims. It is a national issue.

Since then, the government has been watching the situation closely. We observed that by and large, interactions between the races remain comfortable. Non-Muslims have become more used to seeing Muslim women wear the tudung. Muslim women wearing tudung are generally also quite at ease interacting socially with non-Muslim men and women, in most settings. Specifically in hospitals, some of the non-uniformed staff do wear the tudung, and we saw that their relationship with patients and colleagues was alright. Furthermore, younger Singaporeans are more accepting of racial and religious differences.

So a few months ago, I met Muslim leaders again. I thanked them for their help managing this sensitive issue all these years. I told them we were now ready. We would prepare the ground and tee up for a decision by the National Day Rally.

So tonight, I am making the announcement. Starting in November, Muslim nurses in the public healthcare sector will be allowed to wear a tudung with their uniforms, if they wish to.

I spoke about this in the Malay speech earlier, but did not make the announcement then. So let me announce it again in Malay, for our Malay friends.

Biar saya ucapkan sekali lagi dalam Bahasa Melayu buat rakan-rakan Melayu kita.

Pemerintah telah ambil keputusan mengenai soal tudung. Mulai November nanti, jururawat Muslim di sektor kesihatan awam akan dibenarkan untuk memakai tudung dengan seragam mereka, jika mereka mahu.

Saya harap keputusan ini akan diterima semua pihak  dengan semangat yang betul, dalam usaha untuk memperkukuh iltizam bersama kita  bagi masyarakat berbilang kaum dan agama Singapura.  Terima Kasih.

I hope everyone will take this move on the tudung in the right spirit. We are making a careful adjustment to keep our racial and religious harmony in good order. This approach has worked well for us for many years and we should celebrate what it has achieved: a truly multiracial, multireligious nation, where many heart-warming interactions happen every single day.

For example, this friendship between Mr Mohammed Khairul and Mr Toh Ah Chye.  Mr Toh suffered a stroke two years ago. Recently, he needed help to get his COVID-19 vaccination. Khairul learnt about Mr Toh’s predicament, and volunteered to bring Mr Toh to the CC for his vaccination. Now, they have become good friends, and spend time together when Mr Toh goes to exercise at the Senior Activity Centre.

Another instance is this group of three neighbours - the Gohs, the Rajendrans, and the Tans. They have stayed together on the same corridor of their HDB block in Whampoa for many years. Before COVID-19, they held frequent potluck parties together. Now, they are helping one another through the pandemic. “Da baoing” food, watering each other’s plants or washing the lift lobby floor daily for everyone’s benefit. They are there for one another, in true high-rise kampong spirit.

Such positive stories seldom go viral. People of different races interacting daily at coffeeshops, in community centres, or on the sports field. People of different religions respecting one another’s beliefs, sharing spaces, worshipping in temples, mosques and churches all along the same street. People falling in love across racial and religious lines, getting married and setting up families. These things happen daily. They are the norm in Singapore, and they are precious. Long may that continue.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gestures during National Day Rally 2021. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

One Singapore - Our Home, Our Shared Future

Tonight, I have talked at length about our society and people because Singapore is more than just a place to live, work and play. This is home, where we care for one another, where we are all equal and have our voices heard. Where we share a special bond with one another, where we all belong. As a country, we have many strengths to be proud of - our healthcare system, our civil service, our public infrastructure, our national reserves.

But our greatest strength is our people - united and resilient, steadfast and resourceful, in good times and bad. During COVID-19, we stepped up in so many ways to support one another, making hand sanitisers, sewing facemasks, delivering food to the quarantined, refurbishing laptops for disadvantaged kids, caring for migrant workers, vaccinating the elderly or showing a little extra kindness to one another, starting young.

In this moment of crisis, Singaporeans have continued to look ahead, and to pour heart and soul into our hopes and dreams.

Like Joan Poh. She is a nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. She is also a national rower. She has just returned from the Tokyo Olympics, where she represented Singapore for the first time. For years she trained hard, preparing for this once in a lifetime opportunity. But when COVID-19 hit, she heeded the call for medical reinforcements, and returned to work without hesitation. It compromised her training, but she never gave up her dream to be an Olympian. She said "When I am at work, I am 100% a nurse; when I am at training, I am 100% a rower". Joan, you represent the best of being Singaporean.

In ordinary times, we may not realise how strong Singaporeans can be. Now, in the crisis of a generation, we have shown ourselves and the world what Singaporeans can do. Aarman, Samsiah, Meng Yu. Aisha, Roslina, Priyaa. Yvon, Ruzhael, and Joan. They are our everyday heroes, and they are us.

I thought of them, and the many other everyday heroes among us, at the National Day Show last weekend. Some were there with me at the Floating Platform. Many more were watching from homes across the island. I thought of what we have gone through in these last two years, what we have done together, what we hope to achieve for tomorrow’s Singapore. Our people, our unity, our shared dreams – they give meaning to our National Day.

Many others watching the Show must have been thinking and feeling the same as I did. When we sang Majulah Singapura, the MC didn’t remind us to do it silently. I couldn’t help myself singing out aloud, and I could hear everyone else singing too. At that moment, we knew what makes Singapore special.

COVID-19 will not be our last crisis. We will surely encounter more trials on the road ahead. We will be tested again, sometimes severely. Each generation will wonder, as their parents and grandparents did: Will we survive? Will Singapore prevail? Will Singaporeans stay together as one people? My answer: We have done it before. We will do it again.

Majulah Singapura!

Thank you, and goodnight!

Source: CNA/jt/ec

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