A major task for Singapore in its next 50 years is to build a lasting national identity Singaporeans can be proud of and this does not have to be at the expense of the cultures and traditions of each race.
"As such, a rich and solid Singaporean identity can be built only by allowing each race to preserve its own cultural identity," said Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung yesterday at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
But this must come with an attitude of restraint and compromise towards race and religion, he said in a speech in Mandarin at a fund-raising event at the Chinese Heritage Centre at NTU.
Mr Ong noted that different groups have made different compromises throughout history.
He cited how mosques here have their loudspeakers turned inwards and not outwards, how the playing of music is limited during Thaipusam processions and how the Chinese burn incense paper away from residential blocks.
"The biggest compromise made by the Chinese community is in the area of education and the biggest sacrifice is none other than that of the closure of Nanyang University (Nantah)," he told an audience of Chinese academics, Nantah alumni and business leaders.
The former Nanyang University, Singapore's only Chinese-medium university, closed in 1980 before merging with the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore.
Mr Ong noted that the move caused one generation of students "to feel anguished and lost" but said the decision arose from the need to plug into the global economy and establish English as a common working language here.
These sacrifices and contributions contribute to Singapore's cultural tapestry, he said.
He said the new generation is searching for its own soul in a globalised world, and places such as the Chinese Heritage Centre - once the administration building of Nantah - have a role to play.
On that front, the centre's director Zhou Min said its existing Nantah pictorial exhibition and Nanyang University history museum will be revamped to better tell the story of Nantah.
The $2 million makeover, to be funded by its new Nanyang Heritage Fund, will likely include multimedia elements and artefacts such as textbooks from former students and staff.
The Chinese Heritage Centre building, gazetted as a national monument along with a memorial and its original arched gateway in 1998, gets an average of 35,000 visitors each year. The revamp could double this figure, said Professor Zhou.
The centre held its third fund-raising event yesterday as part of its ongoing three-year-long fund-raising effort. The plan is to raise its existing endowment fund of $7 million to $25 million to help it become self-sustaining in the long run. The fund will also support the establishment of endowed professorships, a resident scholar programme, and graduate and undergraduate research fellowships.
Yesterday, 22 oil paintings by artists were sold, raising $145,000 in total.
In a speech, NTU president emeritus Su Guaning said the centre must become the one-stop centre for studying the Chinese diaspora. "This research would cover not just culture or education, but also the evolution of the Chinese in various societies, their linkages to China and the fascinating interplay of the cultural and societal characteristics among all these countries," he said.