SINGAPORE - A caring Singapore is "the new glue that will bind our society", said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Edwin Tong, as he urged youth to embody the spirit of resilience and innovation as the nation forges ahead.
Race, inclusivity and future-proofing Singapore were among the top issues raised by the 90 young people who attended a virtual ministerial engagement session on Saturday (July 3).
It was organised by the National Youth Council (NYC), in line with Youth Month which falls in July.
Mr Tong also addressed questions on hot-button issues such as the Housing Board's Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) and the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) model of ethnic classification.
Themed around youth embodying the Singapore Spirit through the pandemic and beyond, the panel discussion included attendees from madrasahs, the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics, other institutes of higher learning and young working adults.
In his closing remarks, Mr Tong, a father of three, asked: "What will be the qualities I want my own children to have as they face the future, 10 to 20 years from where they are now?"
Apart from being resilient, adaptable and innovative, he feels that a caring Singapore is particularly important because it will be "the new glue that will bind our society. It will make us stand united as a society".
Mr Tong said that while Singapore has got it right in the areas of housing, healthcare, education and defence, "a key priority will be to consider what the 'heart of Singapore' actually stands for".
"I think in many ways, it stands for being inclusive. It stands for being accepting of diversity. We used to use the word religious or racial 'tolerance'. I'd like us to move beyond that and to use the word 'embracement' instead," he said.
Mr Tong's comments come in the wake of a spate of racial and religious incidents in recent months that have continued to generate conversations on Singapore's multicultural identity.
Race and discrimination will be on the agenda when Parliament sits on Monday, with several questions raised on the EIP. Ms Cheryl Chan (East Coast GRC) and Mr Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) have asked if the policy can be reviewed.
Finance Minister Lawrence Wong also addressed the state of race relations on June 26 in a forum on race, organised by the Institute of Policy Studies and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He said that Singapore's multiracial society is a work in progress, with all races having to make efforts to accommodate and engage one another.
This sentiment was mirrored by Mr Tong when he responded to an attendee who asked if the Government has been lacking in explaining policy rationale, especially those related to multiculturalism, such as the CMIO model, the EIP and Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools.
The minister said that policies like the EIP are to ensure a structural outcome, so that Singapore does not end up with precincts that are ethnic enclaves.
"I find that it's important that we don't just talk about integration, but we make it a lived experience daily... There's nothing more intimate, in a sense, than living on the same floor as someone of a different race and you see them all the time," he said.
"When we are able to ensure that our lived experiences are like this, we will come closer and closer to our aspirations of being a real post-racial society."
Mr Tong also expanded on a suggestion by a fellow panellist, actress and singer Annette Lee, on embracing diversity in a tangible way, and encouraging people to be "a little bit less insular".
"Take, for example, if we had a friend who was from a different race, different gender, different age profile or different sexuality... If we each had a personal friend like that, and we understood and knew that person better, I think we will find ourselves a lot more tolerant, a lot more accepting, and eventually a lot more embracing of these differences," he said.
The other panellists in the session, which was moderated by comedian and host Rishi Budhrani, were NYC council member and senior vice-president (people) at Lazada, Mr Brian Liu, and influencer Fauzi Aziz, who is also the marketing lead for media company TheSmartLocal.
Some attendees also welcomed the availability of a safe space for dialogue.
"A lot of youth are very vocal now, especially with the series of racial incidents that have happened... They know avenues are available, and are having conversations to address this instead of sweeping it under the rug , or going to social media and ranting about it," said Mr Mohamad Arshad Khaja Moinudeen, 24, the president of student government at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
Mr Arshad, who also facilitated a smaller group session before the panel discussion, added: "There is this safe space for everyone to express their views and for us to understand each other better in terms of where they are coming from, instead of just speculating that a person is racist... Through this avenue, I can see that people want to learn more, and they want to talk about it more."
NYC chief executive David Chua later told the media that platforms for youth engagement also have to evolve accordingly and involve a broader segment of society, including civil society, youth groups, academics and not just policymakers.
"The pulse on the ground needs to be brought into these safe conversations - not just among youth, but across other age groups as well - so that the discussion is informed by a broader segment of views, so that we avoid an 'echo chamber' of ideas," he added.