OUR SINGAPORE CONVERSATION

Calls to rethink 'sacred cows' in nation-building

Notion of nation's size and fragility, and definition of merit challenged

The repeated refrain that Singapore is small and fragile, with no natural resources of its own, has become the stuff of "nation-building myth", according to some participants at an Our Singapore Conversation session yesterday.

And harping on it would curb Singaporeans' imagination and ability to think big and out of the box, they pointed out.

Similarly with meritocracy, which has contributed significantly to Singapore's progress. But it is time to move the definition of merit away from academic achievements.

These were among the suggestions from about 30 people at the session, organised by Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, as they called for a thorough rethink of the "sacred cows" in Singapore's approach to development. As one participant put it: "Behind these sacred cows are many nation-building myths which may need to be relooked... What's behind the sacred cows and why did they become sacred?"

Responding to their concerns as he wrapped up the three-hour session, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat stressed the need for Singaporeans to be clear about the realities that could not be changed. He noted that even as Singapore faces the reality of being small, its size has not been portrayed as a restriction in recent years.

"In many ways, we have been able to surpass being small," said Mr Heng. "What we have to think about next is how to continue surpassing our size."

However, he cautioned that people should be clear-eyed about Singapore's advantages and disadvantages and not be too inward-looking. For instance, Singapore's destiny cannot be decoupled from the global economy, which is becoming more complex and unstable, and from changes in technology.

The participants also called for greater transparency and freedom of information, including access to history archives, to boost citizens' trust in the Government.

On meritocracy, the subject of much discussion lately, Mr Heng said he agreed with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who had called for a broader and more continuous meritocracy.

Said Mr Heng: "Our life journey is a fairly long one and at different stages, we need to be prepared to recognise everyone for his intrinsic worth and help everyone achieve his best."

He stressed the importance of continual learning and laying the foundation for lifelong learning in students as "one key area that we will work on".

Several participants, who were Zaobao readers ranging in age from 20 to 47, also asked for a relaxation of the rules on the use of Chinese dialects in media.

They also said the utilitarian approach to teaching Chinese would strip away the beauty of the language.

Mr Heng noted that the gradual decrease in dialect speakers can be seen even in Chinese cities like Shanghai.

Singapore already has a "complicated language environment" with its current focus on English and the mother tongue "first and foremost", he said.

Those keen to learn dialects can do so at a later age, he added.

Zaobao editor Goh Sin Teck said a younger group of bilingual readers were specially invited as their views would add value to the national conversation. For instance, they feel more strongly about language and the humanities, he added.

andreao@sph.com.sg

goyshiyi@sph.com.sg