Singapore's approach to diversity has created a distinctive identity across ethnic groups: PM Lee Hsien Loong

PM Lee Hsien Loong at the official opening of Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, on May 19, 2017. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

SINGAPORE - Singapore is not a melting pot, but a society where each race is encouraged to preserve its unique culture and traditions, and appreciate and respect that of others, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (May 19).

No race or culture is coerced into conforming with other identities, let alone that of the majority, he added.

In fostering such an approach for a multiracial, multireligious society rooted in its Asian cultures, Singaporeans also need the arts and culture "to nourish our souls", Mr Lee said.

"We certainly don't wish Singapore to be a first-world economy but a third-rate society, with a people who are well off but uncouth," he said.

"We want to be a society rich in spirit, a gracious society where people are considerate and kind to one another, and as Mencius said, where we treat all elders as we treat our own parents, and other children as our own."

Mr Lee was speaking at the opening of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC) in Shenton Way, during which he noted that Singapore's diversity is a fundamental aspect of each group's identity.

"Our aim is integration, not assimilation," he said.

"Being Singaporean has never been a matter of subtraction, but of addition; not of becoming less, but more; not of limitation and contraction, but of openness and expansion."

Over time, each race has retained and evolved its own culture and heritage - but has also allowed itself to be influenced by the customs and traditions of other races.

"The result has been distinctive Singaporean variants of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian cultures, and a growing Singaporean identity that we all share, suffusing and linking up our distinct individual identities and ethnic cultures," he said.

He noted that Singaporeans travelling overseas can identify one another just by the way they speak and act.

And when Singaporeans deal with citizens of countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, China or India, "we are confident of our own Singaporean cultures and identities, even as we are conscious that we are ethnic Chinese, Malays, Indians or Eurasians".

Said Mr Lee: "Thus the Chinese Singaporean is proud of his Chinese culture - but also increasingly conscious that his 'Chineseness' is different from the Chineseness of the Malaysian and Indonesian Chinese, or the Chineseness of the people in China or Hong Kong or Taiwan."

Singaporeans now speak of a Singaporean Chinese culture, and, in the same way, a Singaporean Malay and Singaporean Indian culture, he noted.

"For a country that is just over 50 years old, which is a very short time compared to the ancient civilisations from which we spring, this is quite an achievement," he added.

And while cultures evolve naturally and cannot be planned or directed, this does not mean the Government has no role.

Mr Lee said it can encourage gracious behaviour and foster positive social norms, as well as recognise cultural achievements and support the arts through facilities like the National Gallery and Esplanade, and backing the activities of arts and cultural groups.

And when the Chinese community proposed setting up the SCCC, the Government was happy to support the endeavour.

He hopes it will strengthen the Singapore Chinese arts and cultural scene, make it accessible to all races and appeal to all ages, and ensure Singaporeans remain rooted in their multicultural identity.

Continuing his speech in Mandarin, Mr Lee said the 11-storey centre represents the affinity and confidence Singaporeans have in their own culture.

The centre was initiated by the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, and was completed in December last year.

"When we set up the SCCC, we reflected on what the Singapore Chinese culture should be and how we should develop it," Mr Lee said.

Singaporean Chinese have developed a distinct cultural identity, he noted, citing three key factors.

- Pioneers have inculcated positive traditional values, such as hard work, supporting education and charity, respect for the elderly and looking after the young and weak.

- They have also embraced multiculturalism, an ideal also supported by the other races. "Although Chinese were the majority, they did not demand minorities adopt the Chinese culture or way of life, or speak Mandarin," Mr Lee said.

Over time, Singapore Chinese culture has developed its own unique multicultural traits, and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's repertoire includes Malay favourites such as Singapura, Chan Mali Chan and Rasa Sayang.

- A globalised economy and the bilingual education system mean Singapore Chinese can access cultures of the East and West, interact with friends from different cultures, and understand their perspectives.

"When defining the Singapore Chinese culture, it is important to note that our collective experiences and memories over the last 50 years of nation building have strengthened the Singapore identity," Mr Lee noted. "We would therefore call ourselves Singaporean first, before identifying ourselves by our race."

"SCCC can become an important hub where people can learn and appreciate Singapore Chinese culture. It is an important bridge between our past and the future," he added, saying it will require continued support from the Chinese community and those who support Chinese culture.

The $110 million centre, sited next to the Singapore Conference Hall, includes a 530-seat auditorium, a multi-purpose hall, a recital studio and a sprawling roof terrace garden.

SCCC chairman Chua Thian Poh noted that since January, the centre has hosted more than 50 events, including concerts, dance performances and lectures, and reached out to nearly 30,000 people. "The auditorium that we are in right now has already received advanced bookings till the end of this year," he said.

He said the centre also looks forward to working with schools and arts and cultural groups, on new initiatives to foster greater appreciation of Singapore's unique Chinese culture.

"The Centre will also become a platform for new immigrants and other ethnic communities to appreciate our local Chinese culture. By encouraging interaction with other races, we hope this will inspire more creative works and contribute to the richness of Singapore's multi-cultural society,"Mr Chua added.

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