Singapore Government Press Release
Media Division, Ministry of Information and The Arts,
36th Storey, PSA Building, 460 Alexandra Road, Singapore 119963.
SPEECH BY PRIME MINISTER GOH CHOK TONG AT THE MAJLIS PUSAT 30TH ANNIVERSARY DINNER ON SATURDAY, 30 OCTOBER 1999, AT ORCHID COUNTRY CLUB BALLROOM, AT 8.00 PM
ROLE OF COMMUNITY ORGANISATIONS IN BUILDING THE SINGAPORE NATION
Thirty years is a relatively long time in the context of Singapore's short history as an independent nation. When Majlis Pusat was founded in 1969, the tumultuous events that had led to Singapore's separation from Malaysia were still fresh in people's minds. Singapore was struggling to survive economically. Malay Singaporeans, like other Singaporeans, were worried about their future. By helping the Malay community to change and adapt to the new circumstances, and at the same time preserve its culture and customs, Majlis Pusat gave Malay Singaporeans comfort and confidence in our fledging multi-racial country.
Majlis Pusat has lived up to its mission of promoting Malay cultural activities. Tonight, you celebrate this significant achievement. But it should also be an occasion for you to set new goals. The time has come for your organisation to go beyond its traditional role, just as Singapore is preparing itself to meet the new challenges of a technologically-driven globalised economy. I suggest that for the next 30 years, Majlis Pusat pursues an additional goal of widening and deepening the Malay community's relationships with other Singaporean communities. This way, it will increase the community's presence in mainstream Singapore.
Lowering the Racial Divide
When debating the Singapore 21 vision in Parliament in May this year, I pointed out that while Singapore may be a sovereign state, it is not yet a nation. The task of building a nation out of different races, or tribes as anthropologists would call them, is not easy. The experience of many other multi-tribal countries has shown this to be so.
We have taken a realistic and practical approach to build the Singapore nation. We accept the natural and understandable divide between the races, and focus on the areas where we share common interests for national cohesion. As I explained in Parliament, this approach is best illustrated by the imagery of four overlapping circles representing the four major ethnic groups in our society.
The overlapped area is the common field where all Singaporeans, whatever their race and religion, work and play together. This area is where we must do more in future. We should enhance the quality of interactions between the different communities. Here, we can bond Singaporeans of all races by a common working language (English), a national education system, and core national values like consensus, meritocracy and tolerance. Here, we share the same experience of attending the same schools, reciting the national pledge, singing the national anthem, and serving national service together.
Outside this common area, where the circles do not overlap, each community has its own separate field. In this distinct area, each community can be itself, speak its own language and practise its own culture and customs. But it is still a Singaporean community. And what we do in our separate area must still contribute to a better and more cohesive Singapore.
This practical approach of two playing fields - a common playing field for all and a separate playing field for each community - has worked for us. It has enabled us to build a harmonious country out of many races and religions.
Over the years, the overlapped area has gradually widened. But it will never reach a situation where the circles overlap completely and become a stack of four circles. Most of us would not want them to, for if they do, we would have lost our respective ethnic identities. It is also not the Government's policy to have the four overlapping circles merged into one. Singapore is unique because of its multi-racial and multi-religious character. We should preserve this valuable attribute.
What we must do then is to strengthen the common elements that bind us together as a Singaporean people. And this is where community-based organisations can play a major role. This applies to all ethnic-based organisations, not just Malay organisations like Majlis Pusat.
The strength of Majlis Pusat and other Malay community organisations lies with the network and support from their affiliates and members. They are effective in mustering Malays from all walks of life to support national development and nation building. They should continue to explain national goals and policies to the community and provide feedback on the community’s concerns to the Government.
These organisations are part of the people sector that we are building. They should work closely with each other as well as with non-Malay organisations to further the interests of the community and the country.
For example, in the past, Majlis Pusat played an important part in creating awareness of the importance of education and economic upliftment amongst the Malays. You have traditionally focused your effort on promoting the culture, traditions and values of your community. Carry on with this. But you should, as I said earlier, take on the additional role of strengthening ties between the Malays and other Singaporeans in the common playing field. You should help the Malay community expand and strengthen its interactions and ties with other Singaporeans.
Indeed, Majlis Pusat can make a significant difference to Singapore if it takes a proactive role in developing cross-ethnic networking and relationships. I understand that Majlis Pusat is working with the People’s Association to organise a conference on how to advance the ideals of the Singapore 21 vision. This is a good step forward. How and what else Majlis Pusat should do are questions for you to consider.
Strengthening Ties Between Different Races
One specific suggestion for cementing the bonds among our people came from Yatiman Yusof. During the debate on the President's address two weeks ago, he proposed setting up a policy research agency under the Prime Minister's Office to study how the various races in Singapore could be brought closer together in a more systematic way. He was concerned that while the gap between the races had narrowed, there were still fault lines.
The fault lines in our multi-racial, multi-religious society will narrow further as we progress in nation building, but they will never disappear altogether.
For example, recently, in one of our polytechnics, a Malay staff complained about someone placing a bowl and chopsticks in a container of crockery for Muslim food stalls. This created a controversy, giving rise to an email debate among some staff members. It was a storm in a teacup. But it showed that even a minor incident could upset race relations if we are not careful.
The People's Association is tasked with building community bonds. I do not think there is a need to set up a separate policy research agency on racial ties. I will ask the People’s Association to study and recommend what more we could do to cement the fault lines between the different races.
Here, I believe education plays a critical part. If all of us go to national schools, participate in sports and other activities together, acquire the same social vocabulary and norms, we can reduce the fault lines of our multi-racial society to hair-line cracks. We can then work to stabilise the "bedrock formation" of Singapore's multi-racial society.
It is partly with this in mind that I had asked the Ministry of Education to consider introducing compulsory education, up to at least Primary Four. In addition to having all Singaporeans at the same starting point, we also have them in the same common playing field for at least four years. This will have beneficial long-term results on building the Singapore nation.
I am aware that the Malay community may worry over the implication of compulsory education for the madrasahs. I understand its concern. Let me make it clear that there is no intention to close the madrasahs. But the madrasahs may have to adjust their teaching hours should compulsory education in national schools be introduced. We have not taken a decision yet on compulsory education. We will factor in the concern of madrasahs when we do.
Madrasahs fulfil an important role in the Malay/Muslim community. They produce asatizahs, ulamas and imams which the Muslim community needs, besides providing an Islamic education for those who want it. But we have to find the balance between achieving this and optimising our manpower resources for a knowledge-based economy.
We have to study how to get the students who prefer to go to madrasahs to also attend the national schools. The Ministry of Education will consider this issue carefully together with leaders of the Malay/Muslim community, and the madrasahs, before making any decision. We understand the importance of madrasahs to the Muslim community and I believe that when the community considers the benefits of compulsory education to our country as a whole, and to the Muslim community in particular, a win-win solution can be found.
Tackling sensitive issues
Some of you may wonder why I am raising again a sensitive subject like the madrasahs.
My reason is simple. I am concerned for the welfare of the Malay community and I want to help to accelerate its progress. I want to make sure that every child, whatever his race, is given the best education to equip him or her for life. As the Government has no intention to close the madrasahs, I feel confident that the subject can be discussed openly and honestly without misunderstanding. The objective is to see how madrasahs can complement national schools while retaining their role. I speak with your interest at heart and I want to help your community do even better. I believe the steady progress of the Malay community is best sustained through the education route.
I have also discussed the impact of compulsory education on the operation of madrasahs with the Malay MPs and other Malay opinion leaders. Their view is that so long as there is a place for madrasahs in Singapore, they support compulsory education in national schools.
I want to add here that our Malay community can be proud that it has already made big strides in many spheres over the past four decades, particularly in education and economic well-being. All these achievements are possible only because the Malay community has tackled its problems head-on, collectively and resolutely. Whether it is school dropouts, drug addicts, or other social problems, what has made the crucial difference is the preparedness of the community to face problems squarely, and its will to solve them. It is your positive attitude which convinces me that the Malay community will make further progress, no matter how competitive the 21st Century may be. I am confident that the Malay/Muslim community leaders, working closely with the PAP MPs, will succeed in preparing your community for the challenges and opportunities of the new millennium.
Majlis Pusat and other Malay community organisations have contributed significantly to Singapore’s progress, racial harmony and social cohesion. They have mustered the Malay community to support the Government. Malay Singaporeans have stood by Singapore. As Singapore progresses into a knowledge-based economy, the Malay community is changing and adapting itself. Majlis Pusat must redefine its role and help this process. Steadily and patiently, I believe we can do much more for the best interest of all our children. Let us together build the Singapore nation.
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