Treasure the Singapore Character

This is an excerpt from a speech by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat at an award ceremony of the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme on Wednesday.

In a few days' time, we will be celebrating our 50th year of independence, so this is our Golden Jubilee week.

This is a week for us to reflect on what brought us here in the last 50 years and what will take us forward into the next 50 years.

When we look back, I think there are many things that have contributed to our success over the years - good governance, strong education foundation, our sense of identity, the conditions in the world that allow us to thrive, and some amount of good luck.

But underpinning this are other key traits - integrity and incorruptibility, industriousness, strong ethics, and indeed many of these key traits can be captured in one word: Character.

A Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: "Character is destiny." This is true for individuals, and equally true for a society.

Singaporeans must remember that the path we took was never easy, and never forget the sacrifices of our pioneers in the pursuit of better lives for everyone. ST FILE PHOTO

In the last 50 years, our pioneers have shown resilience and character. To secure our destiny in next 50 years, we must hold on to, and grow, that character. Not just any character, but our "Singapore Character".

What is this Singapore Character? It is shaped by our collective memories, and our shared hopes and dreams.

In our shared short history, we have shown Character born of:

•The determination to do our best,

•To pursue excellence,

• Hard work and thrift,

•An emphasis on meritocracy and on creating opportunities for all,

•Integrity and incorruptibility,

•Our racial and religious harmony, and

•Our sense of fairness and justice.

During Our Singapore Conversation, we heard our aspirations, the aspirations of fellow Singaporeans - Opportunity, Purpose, Assurance, Spirit and Trust. These are our shared aspirations for the future.

So what kind of Character must we have, as a society, for us to reach this future? I believe we must preserve the elements that brought us to where we are today, and at the same time strengthen other aspects. What are the elements that we need to preserve?

I spoke about the determination to do our best, to pursue excellence, to undertake hard work, to be thrifty, the emphasis on meritocracy and creating opportunities for all, integrity and incorruptibility, racial and religious harmony, and a sense of fairness and justice - the core elements of Singapore's Character.

What do we need to strengthen? A number of areas.

For example, we must broaden the definition of success from grades, money, status, to other aspects - community, meaning and purpose. We must also nurture the sense of empathy and a healthy respect for diverse views, to build trust, togetherness and the spirit of community.

Based on our shared history, and our shared hopes for the future, I see the Singapore Character as having the following facets:

•Choosing to do what is right, not what is easy.

•Possessing that rugged instinct to survive, despite the odds.

•Putting our people first.

•Having a sense of rootedness and the heart to build a better home.

This is not an exhaustive list. This is meant to trigger conversation .

Why is having Character in our society important? Because success calls not only for skills, talent, or even experience, but also character.

This was true in the past, and will remain true in the future. Looking to the future, we have tough choices as a nation, as the trade-offs sharpen for both the people who make policies and the society they serve.

In this, as in the past, we have to be guided by values and a strong moral compass. We must act with honesty and integrity, choosing to do what is right by the people, rather than what is easy.

It is only with this integrity and incorruptible spirit that we can build trust, and make things better for all. We must also continue to have that survival instinct that has brought us so far.

As a small country, we must never lose our sense of vulnerability. You just look around the world today.

Larger countries with long histories, such as Greece, the birthplace of modern democratic ideals, and corporate giants, that used to create the jobs and branding for their country, like Nokia, have been felled by accelerating forces of change in the world. So, we must not be complacent. We need to adapt, embrace change and turn it to our advantage.

As a people, Singaporeans have not only endured and survived change, but also learnt to embrace and master it. We can do it once more, together. We are the new pioneers; be resilient in the face of new challenges.

Ultimately, Singapore is founded on the singular belief in making the lives of our people better.

We are independent so that we can shape our own destiny, and we must continue to put the people first in all that we do.

We want to build a society, not just a business or an economy. To safeguard the well-being of the people, there must be the courage and humility to change where circumstances change. We must not be followers of ideologies, but be clear-headed about what works, and what will not work, so that we can do the right things.

We must also know and remember where we come from to preserve our strength and unity. We must remember that the path that we took was never easy.

We must remember the sacrifices of our pioneers in the pursuit of better lives for all. We must never forget these or let ourselves slip into complacency.

And we must love our home, what we grew up with, our values, culture and history. If we do, we will always seek to give back, and make sure that this place will survive and thrive for the years, decades and centuries ahead.

This year has brought our Singapore Character to the fore. There have been situations that required us to pull together, to care for one another, and to remember the sacrifices that have been made to bring us here. Singapore Character has been foundational to Singapore's success. We care for one other, we have a quiet strength.

It is a Character that has grown out of Singapore specifically.

We don't have Character that draws on the great natural wealth or long history. We have Character that grows out of the ingenuity, dedication, resilience, compassion for one another - and that's how our character has formed.

We need not be boastful about this, but we should recognise it, and recognise that this is a part of us that we treasure, that we want to see live on in Singapore.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2015, with the headline 'Treasure the Singapore Character'. Print Edition | Subscribe