In his own words: 'Equality is an aspiration, it is not reality, it is not practical'

In a motion to continue to affirm the tenets in the National Pledge when debating government policies, Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan questioned if it was time for Singapore to move beyond race and treat everyone as an equal. The next day, Mr Lee Kuan Yew delivered one of his last major speeches in Parliament and took it upon himself to "bring the House back to earth". He argued that equality of men is an aspiration rather than the reality.

AUG 19, 2009


"Sir, I had not intended to intervene in any debate. But I was doing physiotherapy just now and reading the newspapers and I thought I should bring the House back to earth.

Mr Rajaratnam had great virtues in the midst of despondency after a series of race riots when we were thrown out during Independence.

And our Malays in Singapore were apprehensive that now that we were the majority, we would in turn treat them the way a Malay majority treated us.

He drafted these words and rose above the present. He was a great idealist.

It came to me; I trimmed out the unachievable and the Pledge, as it stands, is his work after I have trimmed it.

Was it an ideology? No, it is an aspiration. Will we achieve it? I do not know. We will have to keep on trying. Are we a nation? In transition.

I want to move an amendment to this amendment that "acknowledges the progress that Singapore has made in the 50 years since it attained self-government in 1959, in nation building and achieving the aspirations and tenets...". These were aspirations. This was not an ideology.

Sir, reference was made to the Constitution. The Constitution of Singapore enjoins us to specially look after the position of the Malays and other minorities. It comes under Articles 152 and 153...

We explicitly state in our Constitution a duty on behalf of the Government not to treat everybody as equal.

It is not reality, it is not practical, it will lead to grave and irreparable damage if we work on that principle. So this was an aspiration.

As Malays have progressed and a number have joined the middle class with university degrees and professional qualifications, we have asked Mendaki to agree not to have their special rights of free education at university but to take what they were entitled to; put those fees to help more disadvantaged Malays.

So, we are trying to reach a position where there is a level playing field for everybody which is going to take decades, if not centuries, and we may never get there.

Now let me read the American Constitution. In its Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776, adopted in Congress, the Declaration read, in the second paragraph:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."...

Nowhere does it say that the blacks would be differently treated.

But the blacks did not get the vote until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s with Martin Luther King and his famous speech "We Dare to Dream". An enormous riot took place and eventually President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act, and it took many more decades before the southern states, which kept the blacks in their position, allowed the registration of black voters and subsequently even after that, to allow black students to go into white schools.

It was 200 years before an exceptional half-black American became president.

So, my colleague has put it: trying to put square pegs into round holes. Will we ever make the pegs the same? No.

You suggest to the Malays that we should abolish these provisions in the Constitution and you will have grave disquiet.

So we start on the basis that this is reality. We will not be able to get a Chinese minister or an Indian minister to persuade Malay parents to look after their daughters more carefully and not have teenage pregnancies which lead to failed marriages; subsequent marriages also fail, and delinquents.

Can a Chinese MP or an Indian MP do that? They will say: "You are interfering in my private life." But we have funded Mendaki and Muis, and they have a committee to try and reduce the number of such unhappy outcomes.

The way that Singapore has made progress is by a realistic step-by-step forward approach.

It may take us centuries before we get to a similar position as the Americans. They go to wars - the blacks and the whites.

In the First World War, they did not carry arms, they carried the ammo, they were not given the honour to fight.

In the Second World War, they went back, they were ex-GIs - those who could make it to university were given the GI grants - but they went back to their black ghettos (in 1945) and they stayed there. And today there are still black ghettos.

These are realities. The American Constitution does not say that it will treat blacks differently but our Constitution spells out the duty of the Government to treat Malays and other minorities with extra care.

So the basis on which the Nominated Member has placed his arguments is false and flawed. It is completely untrue. It has got no basis whatsoever.

And I thought to myself, perhaps I should bring this House back to earth and remind everybody what is our starting point, what is our base, and if we do not recognise where we started from, and that these are our foundations, we will fail.

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