Speech by President Halimah Yacob at the Institute of Policy Studies 35th Anniversay Gala Dinner

26 June 2023

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, Founding Patron of Institute of Policy Studies (IPS)


Mr Janadas Devan, Director of IPS


Distinguished Guests


Ladies and Gentlemen



Good evening. I am pleased to join you today to mark the 35th anniversary of the IPS. The theme of the IPS Conference this year was “Revisitings”. Since I am approaching the end of my term, I will revisit the three shared values of multiracialism, meritocracy, and stewardship which I had outlined when I was sworn in as President and reflect on where we are today.


First, multiracialism. Multiracialism has been Singapore’s reason for existence since our independence and is an important component of our National Identity. When we resolved that Singapore will be a multiracial nation, we also accepted and celebrated our differences as a source of strength, and not a cause for division. We valued diversity, which meant guaranteeing that each race and creed would have a space and place as contributing members of our society. Multiracialism has served us well, and today Singapore enjoys relative harmony and cohesion.


There are, however, real, and ever-evolving threats to multiracialism. Across the world, increasing polarisation and divisions among different communities are tearing societies apart. One example is the rise of extreme right-wing nationalist movements with disturbing ideologies stemming from the belief that they are superior to others and do not need to accommodate other communities. Speaking at a recent Howard University Commencement Ceremony in the US, President Joe Biden described white supremacy as the greatest terrorism threat. He said that US history “has not always been a fairy tale” and urged unity against racism. Radicalism and extremist behaviour are reinforced by group psychology where people subordinate their own discretion and thoughts to the identity of the group that they belong to which places little restraint on conduct deemed offensive to others. Identity politics is on the rise and is a real threat to society.


Singapore too has had our own cases of extremism, and it is especially worrying when it is the youth who are involved. Given the porosity of the digital space, we must safeguard and protect our society from such dangerous and damaging influences. One incident may be all it takes to disrupt this peaceful social fabric which we have painstakingly built over the decades. Racial and religious conflicts are like the genie in the bottle. Once opened, it is difficult to put it back.


We must also be cognisant of subtler threats to multiracialism, which may chip away at our cohesion and stability over time. As a small and open economy, Singapore has remained open to foreign talent, as they contribute strengths and expertise that enable us to remain economically competitive. However, living cheek by jowl on such a small island means that it is crucial for them to be able to socially integrate into our local communities. They must recognise that they are part of our society too, and in Singapore we interact with, and live among people who are different from ourselves. Left unaddressed, sentiments among Singaporeans that foreign talents play by different rules, and stick only to their own, may fester. We often cite our origin as a migrant society, to reassure ourselves that we have enough bandwidth to adjust to the challenges of sharing our small city with newcomers. That may be so, but we should not overlook the difference between the two periods of migration.  

In the earlier years, we were all practically in the same boat. Singapore was at a very nascent stage of its development, and everyone pitched in to grow this country from a low base to what it is today. In the process, people of different races and religions gelled together and integrated with each other, forging common hopes and dreams for the future. While each community keeps its cultural and religious practices, we are also acutely aware of the need to contribute to and forge a common National Identity anchored upon values that we hold dear as a nation. I would like to believe that this is happening too among the new migrants, but there is growing concern that not all consider it necessary to integrate with Singaporeans as they can manage quite well and are very comfortable in their own exclusive social circles.  


Singaporeans generally understand the fundamental importance of upholding the values of mutual respect, understanding, and tolerance. We have made relentless efforts to strengthen multiracialism in Singapore but we need to examine carefully whether the existing structures are effective at integrating migrants and what more can be done to improve the situation before the polarisation worsens and disaffection festers and affect our social harmony. Our efforts should also cover schools, workplaces and community spaces occupied by foreign talents to ensure effective engagement.


Second, meritocracy. The raison d’etre for meritocracy is clear.  The economic advantage that accrues to a person should depend on capabilities and effort rather than family background. Meritocracy allows the most talented to succeed through equality of opportunities and fair competition leading to a more equitable distribution of income and wealth. Meritocracy facilitated social mobility in Singapore, enabling the growth of an expanding middle class. We now agree, however, that the very conditions that contributed to meritocracy can also result in inequality. As someone said, “Inequality along meritocratic lines in education fed into meritocratic inequality in the workforce, which produced incomes in the new meritocratic workers that enable them to buy even more unequal education for their children, which fed into the next cycle of the workforce, and inequality got worse and worse.”  


The concern is that parents who have risen through meritocracy can now entrench their position because they have the means to provide the very best for their children. We agree that there is a need to go beyond academic qualifications alone, as such a narrowly defined indicator of success only rewards those who excel in this aspect. For those not so academically inclined, or come from poor families with less resources, significant hurdles remain.


We agree that education is still the key to social mobility, but we must ensure that it continues to benefit everyone regardless of their parentage and that different types of abilities are recognised.  Meritocracy will continue to function as a filter to identify those who are gifted early and reward them with opportunities which is good for Singapore as we cannot adopt an attitude of pulling everyone down to the same denominator. Our approach must instead be to try and pull everyone up by providing them with the opportunities to do so.  At the same time, we need to ensure that the path developed for those who have benefitted from meritocracy does not stifle the growth of late bloomers or those who excel in non-academic areas. We must make meritocracy inclusive and one that does not inhibit social mobility. Some initiatives are already in place such as reserving one-fifth of places in secondary schools for students not from affiliated primary schools.


We also see more efforts introduced at the workplace to better recognise and reward those without academic qualifications but are skilled workers needed by the economy. Ultimately, however, the labour market is the test. The effectiveness of these efforts, that is, whether they will lead to good jobs, better pay and careers depends a lot on employers playing their part too. If little change and employers still seek academic qualifications, then the inequality will continue.


Social mobility is at the heart of Singapore’s model of growth and nation-building. It is an important element of the social compact forged with Singaporeans. It is part of the Singapore Dream where you strive for a good education, work hard and are rewarded with a good life. We need to keep that hope alive.

Third, stewardship. Stewardship means recognising that we are accountable to one another and to our future. COVID-19 put this to the test. The pandemic disproportionately impacted disadvantaged groups, with most having limited resources to buffer against the impact of the pandemic. However, we left no one behind. Through my engagements, I met many ordinary Singaporeans who stepped up to help those in need by distributing groceries and cooked food, including a family in Tampines who set up a table outside of their home providing daily essentials. I also visited organisations which were part of the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (PEER) Network and Safe Sound Sleeping Place (S3P) which provided temporary shelter spaces during the Circuit Breaker. Overall, I am glad to have witnessed the strong spirit of care and togetherness among Singaporeans in the face of tough challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic.


The Forward Singapore exercise launched by the Government last year, to revisit our social compact, is also a good example of stewardship. The needs of Singaporeans will become more diverse as our population ages. Younger generations of Singaporeans have different ideas of what they envision our society should be and want greater say in shaping Singapore’s future. Through these Forward Singapore conversations, Singaporeans have been able to share their aspirations and build consensus on our priorities moving forward.


To conclude, let us commit to strengthening our shared values of multiracialism, meritocracy, and stewardship. Let me also take the opportunity to congratulate IPS on celebrating 35 years of robust research. The work of IPS in social perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours provides useful insights into the shifts in Singapore’s demographic trends and emerging socio-economic challenges. IPS has also provided various platforms to discuss these policy issues, providing policymakers with richer perspectives to improve the lives of Singaporeans. I encourage IPS to continue its data-driven approach. Public policy must be grounded in good data so that we can be responsive to the challenges that Singapore will face in the coming years.


I look forward to a fruitful conversation with you. Thank you.

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