YOUNG Singaporeans need not worry that they will have a tougher time than their parents because they were born too late and have missed out on opportunities, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday evening.
"I wish I were born 50 years later," he told over a thousand university students at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). "The opportunities in front of us are plentiful, we have so many more resources at our disposal, and we are starting from a much higher base."
He urged students to seize the day, chase their dreams and build a better future for Singapore. But Mr Lee emphasised that the country's continued success hinges on it remaining united in the face of three faultlines.
The first is race and religion, where he urged a "gradual and quiet evolution" from the status quo rather than sudden change after heated public debate.
He highlight recent incidents, like the petition for Muslim women to be allowed to wear the tudung in uniform, and the criticism that the Mediacorp countdown show had too much Mandarin.
Newcomers to Singapore don't often fully realise how much accommodation and adaptation has gone into three racial communities living peacefully together, he said. "We need to get along with one another, living side by side in same blocks, housing estates. If you cook curry, I enjoy the flavour. If I burn joss-sticks, you get it for free," he quipped.
To maintain this state of affairs, he said that personal disputes must not be elevated to national issues, and that instead of looking at each demand or incident in isolation, Singaporeans should "take an overall perspective to race relations."
Later, he was asked by a student why there was a need to stop people from wearing religious dress or symbols which do not impose on others.
PM Lee responded that while ideally, people are seen for who they are, "it means something" when someone is in religious dress, especially among children.
"If somebody wears something different from everybody else, you can say it doesn't mean anything because actually we're the same, we just wear something different. You might be able to do that with adults, in certain contexts, but with children in a school, I think it would be hard."
He said that rules to have the police, for example, wear the same uniform is to ensure that "there is absolutely no misunderstanding that the police are completely impartial." For example, there may be a dispute between a Chinese family burning joss sticks and their Malay neighbours. What if the policewoman tasked to stop the Chinese family was wearing a tudung, he asked.
When the student responded that it would make no difference to her, Mr Lee said that the reality is that it would make a difference to many. In the case of a race riot, he added, this is even more crucial: "there are realities, we must be grown up enough to understand them."
The second faultline he highlighted was the income gap. While all Singaporeans' incomes are rising, those of the rich would continue to grow more quickly, he said, due to the forces of globalisation and technology.
Those who have done well must give a leg up to the less fortunate, rather than "look at them with disdain," he said. Importantly, the social norm of "ping qi ping zuo" - sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in Mandarin - must continue.
"Boss or worker, you sit equal, comfortably, no bowing or scraping, we're able to interact, feel we are able to interact as Singaporeans together," he said.
Finally, Mr Lee brought up the faultline between local Singaporeans and new arrivals. If foreigners make the effort to understand local norms and integrate, Singaporeans will help them do so, he said.
But social media is complicating already-sensitive relations, he lamented, noting recent ugly episodes like that of Briton expatriate Anton Casey, whose remarks disparaging Singaporeans who take public transport sparked an uproar and led to him losing his job and leaving the country with his family.
The "pack of hounds" dynamic online risks vicious over-escalation, Mr Lee said. "Yes, someone has done something wrong, repudiate it, condemn it, but do not lower ourselves to that same level to behave in a way that really makes us ashamed of ourselves."