Mon, 06 Mar 2000

Singapore seeks more cohesion

Brig. Gen. (ret) Lee Hsien Loong is almost certain to become Singapore's next prime minister, replacing Goh Chok Tong after the next general election which is likely to take place late this year or early in 2001. In this article, BG Lee, as he is popularly called, talks about his vision and the challenges facing his country. Following is an excerpt of the interview with a group of Indonesian journalists in Singapore on Saturday:

How do you sustain racial harmony in Singapore?

We have to build on what we have achieved. We have not done badly. When we started it off, we have three separate, very distinct communities and not very much interchange. We had some race riots in the 1960s. From that base, we have been able to build up and achieve some integration of the different communities, not an assimilation into one, but an integration in the sense that we are mixed together; we go to the same schools, we serve national service together, we live in housing estates which are integrated and we have friends among the different ethnic groups.

Would the racial and ethnical tensions in Indonesia and elsewhere in the world affect that harmony?

Our race relations are inevitably influenced by events outside. It's not just race relations but also religious relations. In Singapore, race coincides with religion with the Malay Muslim community. We have to be cognizant. Each of the different communities has got some reference points outside. The Chinese with China, the Malays with Indonesia, the pribumis particularly in Riau and Malaysia; and the Indians with events in South Asia.

Inevitably there are some relationships which you cannot completely detach. It is discernible. With the Chinese community in the old days, the Chinese-educated in particular would have identified strongly with what happened in China. There was one famous occasion when there was a pingpong team which came down (to Singapore), with the Singaporeans cheering the Chinese side instead of our own players. That was about 20-odd years ago.

Today, this has changed because there's a new generation and people have visited and know what China is like, and we're different. But these ties of race and religion cannot totally disappear for any of the racial group. You have to accept that and at the same time we have to build up within Singapore to widen the areas of overlaps and common ground between the communities. That's what we're trying to do.

What do you consider as the biggest challenge facing Singaporean society?

The challenge is to strengthen our cohesion beyond the first generation in the face of a globalized environment. When talent can go anywhere, if many of our bright people travel overseas, and work overseas and become entrepreneurs, and you don't have enough staying in Singapore to form the core of our society and our political system, then the quality of Singapore will go down. We have three or four million Singaporeans, but you depend on a few hundred people to maintain the system and to bring out the best in all of our population. In this global environment, to keep our best and to commit them, to feel that sense of responsibility, I think that's a big challenge.

A society is cohesive enough when you feel you're a part of one society, whether you're very very successful and you made it big starting a company, or you are just an ordinary worker, doing a job. You feel you're one society in a certain personal link between one with the other. If the successful only feel for themselves, and the workers say that he doesn't care for me, then you don't have the base for one society, then you will divide and split and you'll have problems. But if we can get people to feel together as a Singaporean community, then you can react cohesively.

If we are unable to manage, society will divide. Also in Singapore, if we're not careful, it may divide along racial lines, which will compound the problem.

Do you consider cross marriage as a means to strengthen cohesion?

It's not for the government to encourage these things. These are very personal decisions.

There is some cross marriage but there are three ethnic groups and each wants to retain its identity. The government's policy has been integration, which brings them close together, and not assimilation which means mixing them all up into one. I think if we went for assimilation, we would have a lot of trouble and resistance and it would be quite a disaster. We're not trying to make everybody one. It's not possible. We just accept that these are differences. We're not totally the same but we're all Singaporeans.

Are you preparing your next generation of leaders?

We have to find people. We have some young people in the Cabinet. But we have to continue to bring people in, because regeneration is never a one-off. Every year that passes, we have a bit more gray hair. And after five years, there's a lot more gray hair. In every election you must have a substantial number of new faces from the next group which are coming along.

It is one of the major preoccupations that we have in between the elections in preparations for the next one to find these people, to test them out and be able to field and present them to Singaporeans: Here are some potential reinforcements to the team.

Who are they? They will have to be people in the late 30s or early 40s, if we can find some even younger that's better but it's not easy to find people even younger than that. Because they don't feel that they're ready in their careers, and looking at them we also cannot tell yet because they have not been tested in a broad enough range of jobs or senior enough positions for us to know enough about the person. (emb)