SINGAPORE - Society today is much more cohesive than 50 years ago, when Singaporeans did not live in integrated Housing Board townships or go through national service together.
But the tidal pulls that could exploit enduring fault lines like race, language and religion and pull Singaporeans away in different directions have also grown stronger, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Parliament on Wednesday (May 16).
He stressed that Singapore must work at building bridges between different groups in society, beyond race, language and religion, to counteract these forces.
PM Lee listed two groups: between management and unions, and old citizens and new.
On the forces tugging at Singaporeans, he cited the rising influence of regional powers such as China and India as an example.
"These are two vast nations, even civilisations. They are growing in strength and confidence. It will be a very long time before we become immune to their ethnic, cultural or economic pulls," said PM Lee, speaking on day three of the debate on the President's Address.
Singapore's relationship with these nations is further complicated, as the Republic has ethnic links, cultural ties and an inside track with China and India.
Yet, at the same time, Singapore wants to maintain its separate identity as an independent, sovereign and multi-racial country, added PM Lee.
The situation is similar for Malay Singaporeans, he said. Despite the clear emergence of a Malay-Singaporean identity, it still overlaps with the Malays in Malaysia, both in terms of race and religion.
The call for a global Islamic ummah, or community, also has a "powerful appeal", he noted.
Furthermore, Singapore is exposed to extremist and exclusivist teachings which can lead individuals astray. In the event of a terrorist attack, it will sow great fear and distrust between Muslims and other Singaporeans, PM Lee said.
He noted that the tripartite partnership between businesses, the labour movement and the Government is a vital element of Singapore's social cohesion.
However, in the new economy there are fewer workers doing jobs that are traditionally covered by the trade unions - more are becoming freelancers and professionals.
"If these new groups are left out... it would weaken tripartism, and our social compact," said PM Lee, adding that it is better for the labour movement to embrace them and adopt their concerns.
He pointed out that as labour chief, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing had expanded union membership beyond trade unions, to include professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), as well as freelancers.
NTUC Deputy Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng will carry on this work, he added.
Singapore also has to build a bridge between old citizens and new ones, PM Lee said, adding that the country needs a steady flow of immigrants to boost its population.
First generation immigrants will always take time to settle down and understand the nuances of Singapore culture and character - just as previous waves of first generation Singaporeans did over the last 200 years, he noted.
Stressing that there is much work to do to maintain social cohesion, PM Lee said: "The new arrivals have chosen to make Singapore their home, and will contribute to our country and society... On our part, we should welcome them, and support them in their journey to becoming Singaporeans, as others have helped us and our forefathers."