Speech of the day

Tackling fault lines, through words and actions

MP Janil Puthucheary says that if we are to build a Singapore with a unity of purpose, a nation that sees our diversity as strength, it is our deeds and words, spoken and held back, that will matter most.
MP Janil Puthucheary says that if we are to build a Singapore with a unity of purpose, a nation that sees our diversity as strength, it is our deeds and words, spoken and held back, that will matter most.ST FILE PHOTO
MP Janil Puthucheary says that if we are to build a Singapore with a unity of purpose, a nation that sees our diversity as strength, it is our deeds and words, spoken and held back, that will matter most.
MP Janil Puthucheary says that if we are to build a Singapore with a unity of purpose, a nation that sees our diversity as strength, it is our deeds and words, spoken and held back, that will matter most.ST FILE PHOTO

Minister of State for Communications and Information and Education Janil Puthucheary said Singapore's acceptance of one another, regardless of race, language or religion, can also apply to other differences. Here is an edited extract:

One Saturday in July 2015, I was at the Padang, as I had the privilege to be the reserve commander for the PAP Community Foundation's marching contingent for the National Day Parade.

Just in front of me, to my left, were three young soldiers, also on reserve duty. They were joking and poking, pushing and shoving, enjoying each other's company.

Then the music started, the first few bars of Majulah Singapura. We began to sing as we had done many times before.

But something was different that afternoon. Maybe it was the excitement of the dress rehearsal, or maybe it was just a sense of whimsy or foolishness, but these three young soldiers started to sing as loud as they could.

Whatever the reason, the aunties and uncles around me also raised their voices. In my mind's eye, the enciks behind us began to sing even louder.

So louder and louder we sang, until it was a roar full of pride (and) passion. When the last notes faded, we looked around and smiled; we all agreed we had felt something special that afternoon.

When I left the Padang, I was rushing back to my constituency for an SG50 celebration.

As the night came to an end, we were in the multi-purpose hall. I found myself standing in front of a stage filled with kids. The last song was to be Majulah Singapura. I turned around and found a small boy on the stage behind me.

"We're going to sing Majulah Singapura, are you going to sing?" I asked him.

"Yes Uncle."

"Do you know the words?" I said.

"Yes Uncle, I know all the words," he replied, full of excitement and energy.

We began to sing, he did not know the words, not at all. As the first verse finished with "Berjaya Singapura", you could hear him trying loudly to sing, but you couldn't really hear the words. He was completely out of time.

His parents began to have a worried look on their faces. I smiled at them and shrugged, it was okay, he was doing his best, a little child trying his best to sing our Majulah Singapura. Throughout this song, we heard his little voice trying harder and harder to get it right. When we finished, we all laughed and high- fived and hugged.

I have told this story many times. After a while, I began to think about how people would respond, what questions I might be asked. And there was one question that occurred to me that would be very natural in many parts of the world, and maybe would have been very natural in the Singapore of 50, 10 and perhaps five years ago. I was never asked this question.

In the six months I have been telling the story, I have never once been asked about the race of the soldiers and the little boy.

What does that say? Because it doesn't change the story. The story is about Singapore and Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion.

Our country is not a utopia and I am under no illusions about the reality of race relations in our society. There are difficulties and frictions, tensions and troubles. There remains much work to be done. But we all recognise the need to do the work together, we all want the same thing and we will deal with the problems together.

We sing the same songs, eat the same foods, wear the same uniforms, believe in the same values that drive our country. We, together, will stand shoulder to shoulder, face the future and all that the unknown may bring, regardless of race, language or religion. And listening to my story, you understand this, you embrace this.

But what if one of those boys is a new citizen? Or gay? Or an atheist? Or maybe he is someone who takes his religion very seriously? Or maybe he embraces a different set of political views? Or is very conservative?

Does the story change? Is he less Singaporean? Listening to my story, are you still convinced that he will stand beside you as a comrade and brother? Will you stand beside him as a fellow citizen?

What does it mean "regardless of race, language or religion"? In those six words, are captured thousands of years of history, hundreds of wars and conflicts, blood shed between races, fights between other countries and other religions. In those few words are described hundreds of millions of people outside our borders with whom we share history, heritage, ties of ethnicity and culture.

We don't ignore all this, we don't pretend it doesn't exist. But we look ahead and imagine a future where we have unity regardless of our history. If we can do this for race, language or religion, why not for other fault lines, other divisions among us? We will always have differences among us and between us. I am not going to suggest we can pretend otherwise. Often, these things that I described, these are factors that determine our personalities, our world views. We need to embrace this, we need to work through this together.

How we deal with fault lines of division depends less on the Constitution or our Pledge and more on our deeds, actions and words. Words that are said, words that are held back. For sometimes, the things that are not said have a deep impact.

My story began as a warm fuzzy tale about National Day and the Anthem, then became an example of the extent of our racial integration. I spoke only a few more words and it became a platform for some difficult and contentious questions.

If we are to build a Singapore with a unity of purpose, a nation that sees our diversity as strength, it is our deeds and words, spoken and held back, that will matter most.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'Tackling fault lines, through words and actions'. Print Edition | Subscribe