The People's Association (PA) was set up in 1960 to build a tangible bridge between citizens and their new government. Those were difficult times, when a poor society was divided, sometimes violently, between traditional communal groups seeking to pull Singapore in their preferred directions. These centrifugal forces would have subverted the national agenda of self-governance moving towards independence. The PA was formed to create a viable basis for nation-building through the promotion of racial harmony and social cohesion, while acting as a channel for the transmission of policies to the people and for gathering feedback. These roles converged to make it the country's premier grassroots organisation. Almost six decades later, it has the task of continuing to find fresh responses and applying new approaches to multiple modern-day challenges. PA deputy chairman Chan Chun Sing, who is Minister for Trade and Industry, highlighted several challenges last week. For one, the alarming spread of fake news, which divides people by destroying bonds and trust and is egregiously symptomatic of fissures that can spawn more fundamental threats. This is where grassroots and community leaders, who know the ground, play a vital role by stepping in.
Religious exclusivity is another challenge. It goes against the grain of a multi-religious society in which a secular state keeps the playing field level among adherents of all faiths or those who have none. Religion is a potent social force, and adherents who choose to mix more with their own kind than with others, can eventually erode societal cohesiveness - and need to be drawn out and encouraged to adopt a broader, national view. Another test is the myriad of causes supported and championed by different groups, who may, in the process forget or ignore the larger reality: that the greater common cause is the survival and progress of Singapore. Yet another challenge is to unite people, regardless of their background, around a common purpose of what is necessary for the development and growth of the country.