Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's comments at Sunday's National Day Rally, on the gradual formation of the Chinese Singaporean identity, draw attention to the evolution of a national consciousness generally over the past 200 years and more. That story is one of how Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians kept their larger cultural identities alive even as they learnt to live together on a small island that became a state in 1965. This co-existence was not an easy task, given the centrifugal attraction of the ancient civilisations from which the communities had come. However, tolerance and integration became a way of life which was cemented after Independence by the nation-building efforts of the new state.
That record of turning cultural heterogeneity into social cohesion cannot be taken for granted. One reason is that all countries which have an ethnic connection with Singapore will leverage naturally on that link to enhance their influence on a strategically situated city-state. No community in Singapore is immune to the foreign quest for influence. Also, no community is invulnerable to a desire to affiliate itself with a larger group for reasons of race or religion or both. The rise of China, India and transnational Islam are facts of contemporary Asian life. There is nothing inherently threatening in them, but they will exercise a powerful influence on the development of the Singapore identity.