Unity key to the future, says PM Lee in National Day Message

PHOTO: PM LEE

He outlines three challenges and the ways they can be tackled

Singapore's national unity is under threat from global forces, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is confident that Singaporeans will "hold together and succeed".

In a solemn yet hopeful National Day Message on TV yesterday, he underlined how Singapore's harmony was hard-won, set out three new challenges it faces and ways it can resist the forces and be different.

"Half a century ago, when we embarked on our nation-building journey, we could not yet call ourselves 'one people'." But despite the odds against going it alone, Singapore made it, he said.

Perhaps to underscore the point, Mr Lee delivered his message from the new Safra clubhouse in Punggol, Singapore's newest Housing Board estate, providing a visual emphasis of the tremendous progress made.

Citizens now enjoy homes of their own, growing incomes, good education and - most importantly - racial and religious harmony, he said.

"Never forget how rare and precious this harmony is, how much courage and toil went into creating it, and how much effort it takes to sustain this miracle.

"What we have here is remarkable, especially considering the state of the world today," he added as he outlined three challenges ahead.

First, extremist terrorism could tear Singapore apart, he said, noting recent attacks in Europe, the United States, Malaysia and Indonesia by terrorists inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Singapore is being targeted too, he added, asking if Singaporeans can stand together if an attack occurs.

Second, globalisation and technological change require industries to innovate and worry workers facing competition not just from abroad, but also from computers and robots. Can Singaporeans continue to progress together and share widely the fruits of growth, he wondered.

Third, societal changes are putting pressure on Singapore's political system, which "has thus far delivered good government, stability and progress". His question: How to ensure Singapore continues to have clean and constructive politics, and avoid populism or political gridlock.

Other countries with similar challenges have seen politics turning divisive, said Mr Lee. Extreme parties have gained support "by expressing voters' anger at their leaders, and frustration with the way things are", he said, citing Britain's vote in Juneto leave the European Union.

Despite the upheavals in these countries with more resources and longer histories, Mr Lee is confident Singapore can be different.

"First, with terrorism, we acknowledge the threat honestly," he said.

Muslim Singaporeans are unafraid to take a stand against terrorism, and non-Muslim citizens distinguish between " peaceful Muslim fellow citizens and jihadist terrorists".

Second, the Government invests in Singaporeans, supports companies' efforts to compete and strengthens social safety nets.

"Finally, to ensure good government, we are keeping our politics constructive and updating our political system," he said, pointing to the move towards smaller group representation constituencies and single-seat constituencies, as well as making the elected presidency "a more effective unifying institution and a stabiliser".

Still, the most fundamental factor in keeping Singapore exceptional is a shared resolve to stay united and tackle challenges together, he said.

He pointed to reasons for his optimism. Last year's Jubilee celebration, he said, strengthened a sense of identity. The Government, unions and companies are working together to uplift workers and the economy, and Singaporeans are doing their part to care for one another.

Unity, concluded Mr Lee, is "more than a warm, fuzzy feeling". "It is the iron resolve to hold together, despite the challenges, despite the sacrifices we have to make."

He urged people to reflect on what this unity means this National Day. "Let us renew our commitment to Singapore and to one another."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Unity key to the future, says PM Lee'. Print Edition | Subscribe