Singapore needs to keep reviewing its policies to accommodate people and families in different circumstances, from single-parent homes to never-married singles, Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee said yesterday.
Also, as society becomes more ethnically diverse, the country has to find new common spaces and ways to sustain social cohesion, he added.
These two strands of societal change were highlighted by Mr Lee when he spoke about diversity at a conference held at Marina Bay Sands to mark the Institute of Policy Studies' (IPS) 30th anniversary.
The concept of the Singaporean family now includes reconstituted families formed by divorcees who remarry, and people who delay marriage or do not marry at all. Their numbers are going up, he said.
He also cited the emergence of non-traditional households, such as cohabiting heterosexual and homosexual couples, and families in which older siblings take on the role of parents to their younger siblings.
"Our social policies balance between strong support for family and marriage and making space for the increasingly prominent diversity in family and social forms.
"We must continue to review our policies to accommodate families in different circumstances," Mr Lee said.
The other change is that Singaporean families today are more culturally diverse as more citizens marry people of a different race or nationality. "With this, there are more inter-ethnic babies, more young people growing up with diverse cultures and mixed-race identities," he said.
Immigration is also adding to Singapore's cultural diversity, he added.
Singapore Management University professor of sociology Paulin Straughan, who spoke after Mr Lee, asked if Singapore's "Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others" (CMIO) model will soon be irrelevant. She noted that more than half of the marriages last year involved transnational and inter-ethnic couples, and the children of these bicultural households may eventually form the majority in Singapore.
"So, moving forward, we need concrete plans as we curate the Singapore identity, to remember that we have bicultural families and new citizens."
Mr Lee agreed, but added that the CMIO construct has served Singapore well by enabling conversations among large community groups that did not originally see themselves as a united society.
Over the years, it has helped the country build a national identity.
But as each new generation seeks to renew the compact, the common spaces of today may not be enough, he said, adding: "We need to find new common spaces, new ways to dialogue in the real world and virtual space."
Another topic discussed was 377A, the Penal Code section that criminalises sex between men. People arguing for its repeal may want it to happen sooner rather than later, but substantial social change takes time and needs persuasive discussions, Mr Lee and Professor Straughan said.
Mr Lee said: "In issues such as this - fraught with emotion, personal values, very contrasting visions of what the future will look like - the dialogue must continue, be robust and respectful. Our children must decide for themselves."
Prof Straughan added: "No one should feel they have to live with less because they are born different."
The question, she said, is what the best way forward is: "Is it charging head-on and disrupting everyday life, or is it through persuasive engagement? I don't have the answer, but I do think... we should leverage the gains we have made so we can climb higher together."