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Parliament reopens: More needs to be done to build a 'good home' together

Published on May 16, 2014 10:24 PM

Midway through the re-opening of Parliament on Friday, a line in President Tony Tan Keng Yam's address struck a chord with me.

It wasn't about Singapore's education policy or the Government's moves to strengthen social safety nets or promote home ownership, although these bread-and-butter issues are important if Singapore is to keep its place in the world after 49 years of hard work.

Instead, at a time when the influx of foreigners and new citizens has led to feelings of disenchantment and displacement among Singaporeans, it was Dr Tan's point that "Singapore cannot be just a marketplace in the global economy" that stood out.

The city-state must, in other words, be a place with soul.

Singapore's city skyline photographed from the Economic Development Board's office located at Raffles City Tower on Jan 28, 2014. Midway through the re-opening of Parliament on Friday, a line in President Tony Tan Keng Yam's address struck a chord with me. -- ST FILE PHOTO:  NEO XIAOBIN

Singapore is first and foremost our home, where we sink our roots, raise our families and share life's ups and downs together, Dr Tan said, adding: "Singapore must be a home that endears, with an active citizenry dedicated to creating our shared future."

What makes a country endearing to its inhabitants and, in the President's words, a "good home"?

He offered two definitions, each of which pertained to different sections of Singapore.

First, a good home "reflects the best of its people".

He called for graciousness and kindness to be shown to new immigrants and foreigners, "even as we expect them to respect our values and our Singaporean way of life".

In this aspect, Singaporeans and foreigners can do better.

Xenophobic rants have become commonplace online, and the anti-foreigner tirade has turned ugly far too often, most recently when organisers of a Philippines Independence Day celebration were harassed by vulgar phone calls.

Sure, citizens may not agree with an event of such nature in a bustling part of town, or a particular government policy concerning foreigners. But to react with derision and ungracious behaviour only speaks badly of ourselves.

Foreigners, on their part, will have to understand that what may be socially acceptable in their country may not be acceptable here.

A good home also provides an environment for people to thrive, Dr Tan said in his speech.

This can be improved through government policy, and he pledged that Singaporeans can expect a better quality of life in various ways.

The Government will devote money to upgrade Housing Board estates, connecting them to a more extensive transport network, and integrating them with sports and leisure facilities.

Apart from the two aspects of a good home he outlined, I would suggest another necessary ingredient.

A good home should be one where its dwellers feel a strong sense of belonging and security.

For Singapore to be a good home, citizens must be confident that the government has prioritised their interests above a foreigner's.

There have been moves to do so in recent years. The authorities have sharpened the benefits that citizens can get in education, healthcare, housing and jobs.

Still, for all those efforts, memories of last year's Population White Paper, which led to much discussion over the erosion of the Singapore core, linger.

Foreigner issues are likely to continue dominating the national discussion for some time to come.

So even as the Government emphasises social policy and does its best to spread the fruits of economic progress, I would argue that the intangible goal of growing Singaporeans' rootedness and national identity is just as important in this second term of Parliament.

The Government has already stepped up integration efforts through its grassroots network, and provided more common spaces such as sports facilities for neighbours to interact.

But steps have to be taken to continue to soothe the Singapore soul, which has been frayed at the edges in recent years.

This, I would argue, is a tougher task than addressing a social or economic issue. The latter can generally be fixed by a top-down approach, with the authorities taking the lead in finding a solution to the problem and devoting resources, whether in the areas of money or manpower, to it.

For example, to give Singaporeans peace of mind as medical costs rise, a substantial war chest can be set aside to subsidise premiums for universal healthcare coverage.

But the larger goal of building social cohesion takes much more than a substantial budget or a big policy announcement by the Government.

It will instead require everyone to do his part by, as Dr Tan said, Singaporeans working together for a common purpose and shared future.

That is where ordinary folk have to do their bit. After all, a good house can be built but it is the people who ultimately live in it that decide if it is a good home.