'Important to bridge differences' as Singapore turns more diverse, says PM Lee

A mother reading And Tango Makes Three, a book NLB had pulled, to her child at a reading event.
A mother reading And Tango Makes Three, a book NLB had pulled, to her child at a reading event.ST FILE PHOTO

Bridging differences between people who may not see eye to eye is important as Singapore becomes more diverse, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He cautioned against society becoming polarised over new fault lines like differing values, and advocated moderation and restraint.

"We have to set a tone where everybody converges to a middle, and not have politics where I represent this group, you represent that group, and let me get what I can and you will fight for what you can, which I think will be very bad for Singapore," he said last night on a live television forum titled Ask the Prime Minister.

As society becomes more diverse, people are expressing themselves more passionately and assertively, trying to push society the way they prefer, he noted.

In this situation, the Government has several roles to play, he said in response to researcher Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, who asked about dealing with emerging tensions while keeping Singapore inclusive and ensuring diverse interests are represented.

First, the Government must hold the reins so people play within the rules. There must be moderation and restraint because "if you go beyond a certain limit... in a multiracial, multi-religious society, you are going to have very serious tensions and strains".

Next, the Government must be able to set a culture in order to moderate strains not just along traditional fault lines like race and religion, but also new ones that can centre on values and culture.

He cited tensions arising from the "very strong difference in views between those who are gay activists and those who are anti the gay lifestyle in Singapore".

"Both sides are pushing. You have the Pink Dot movement. You have other people who describe themselves as pro-family," he said, referring to the pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender mass picnic in June, and the Wear White campaign by religious groups in response to it.

The pulling and subsequent reinstatement of two controversial children's books by the National Library Board (NLB) in July was an example of these new tensions.

"It is not the only one, and I am sure it is not the last one. There will be these incidents coming up from time to time, and each time I think different groups will get engaged," he said.

But these and other incidents that arise have to also be seen in perspective, he said.

"We are never going to be a single-valued, single-cultured Singapore. We are diverse. That is one of our strengths, provided we can have the diversity moderated and not pull us apart," he said.

On whether Singapore and the Government were ready and could cope, he said: "You have to be... Social media is changing the way we communicate, the way issues come up, the way we can have emotions engaged. And we have to cope with it, whether we like it or not."

charyong@sph.com.sg