Speech by Mr Janil Puthucheary, Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Education, at the debate of President’s Address
27 January 2016
Madam Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to join this debate. I'd like to tell about the events I experienced one Saturday in July 2015, six months ago. I was at the Padang, as I had the privilege to be the reserve commander for the PAP Community Foundation (PCF) Marching Contingent of the National Day Parade (NDP). On this particular day, Ms Ellen Lee as the contingent commander was on the parade square, the parade had already started, it was one of our dress rehearsals, and I was at the reserve form-up point with the other reserve commanders. The reserve form-up point was at the entrance to a tunnel through the stands, above us were the seats with thousands of Singaporeans, behind us were rows of portable toilets. Around me were the medical teams and stretcher bearers, other members from the community contingents, what has been called by one observer, the ‘Aunty-Uncle’ contingent. A little bit further behind was a group of warrant officers. The Enciks who had trained the various groups out marching on parade, they were relaxed, this was something they had done many times before. Many of us were engrossed with our mobile phones.
2 Just in front of me, to my left, were three young men, soldiers, also on reserve duty, ready to go onto the parade square if needed. Their uniforms white and starched, their boots shined to a mirror finish, the brass all buffed and polished. I was reminded of my three sons, especially as these three in front of me were engaged in the very familiar mix of bravado, aggression and camaraderie that seems to strike any group of young men away from the influence of mothers, girlfriends and wives. They were joking and poking, pushing and shoving, enjoying each other's company.
3 Then the music started, the first few bars of ‘Majulah Singapura’. We all turned to face the flag that we could not see. Ahead and above and around us were the stands, full of people, who could not see us. We began to sing, we began to sing as we had done many times before.
4 But something was different on that afternoon, maybe it was the excitement of the dress rehearsal, or maybe it was just a sense of whimsy or foolishness on the part of one of the soldiers, but these three young soldiers on my left started to sing as loud as they could, pulling all their energy, not shouting, but putting every ounce of effort into singing, using every fibre of their being, all the passion and pride they could muster, maybe they were egging each other on. Maybe they thought they would try and drown out the thousands of spectators that they couldn’t see. Whatever the reason, the aunties and uncles around me wouldn't be left behind and we also raised our voices, and although I couldn't turn around to check, in my mind's eye, the Enciks behind us all began to sing even louder. And if you’ve sung in a choir, there is a special feel in the air when everyone gets it right, and the timing is just perfect with everybody in step. It’s the same feeling when you’re paddling a boat and suddenly, all strokes fall into perfect time and the boat surges forward. The choir lifts their voices a little bit more, not because of any effort, but because everybody has fallen into step perfectly. The moment doesn’t last long, but it feels special, almost magical. So louder and louder we sang, until it was a roar, a roar full of pride, a roar full of passion. Unseen, perhaps, unheard.
5 When the last notes faded away, we all fell silent, looked around and smiled, we acknowledged, with a combination of joy and awkwardness that you get when you share a public experience with strangers, but we all agreed we had felt something special that afternoon.
6 When I left the Padang later that evening, I had an extra spring in my step and a song in my heart. I was rushing back to my constituency to join the Punggol Damai resident's committee for a SG50 celebration. They had worked very hard for many weeks decorating the estate, building a little kampong, putting up flags everywhere, some big, some small. It was a great event, huge event with several hundred families enjoying themselves.
7 As the night came to an end, we were in the multi-purpose hall singing. I found myself standing on the floor in front of the stage, and the stage was filled with kids. The last song, of course, was going to be ‘Majulah Singapura’. As the committee was getting ready to play the music, I turned around and found a small boy just on the stage behind me, with his head just behind my ear.
8 "We're going to sing Majulah Singapura, are you going to sing?" I asked him.
"Do you know the words?" I said.
"Yes Uncle, I know all the words!" he replied, full of excitement and energy.
9 We began to sing, he did not know the words, not at all. You could vaguely make out a tune, but that was about it. But even worse, he didn't know the timing. As the first verse finished with "Berjaya Singapura", and there’s a pause, into a short silence between the verses, you could hear this young voice, with all his energy and gusto trying loudly to sing, but you couldn’t really hear the words he was singing. He was completely out of time. His parents were standing in the front row of the seats, facing me, they began to have a worried look on their faces, looking like they wanted to do something, fix the problem. I smiled at them and shrugged, it was ok, he was trying his best, he was doing his best, and everything was ok, a little child trying his best to sing our ‘Majulah Singapura’. We all smiled and sang and throughout this song, we heard his little voice trying harder and harder to get it right. Maybe he thought that if he sang a little bit louder, all the Aunties and Uncles would finally follow him! So we also sang louder and louder! When we finished, we all laughed and high fived and hugged.
10 On my way back home, I was thinking about the two versions of the song, one in perfect time, synchronicity, one completely out of time, chaotic. But all sung with passion and pride, celebrating our National Day.
11 I have told this story many times, to family, friends, my students and my residents. After a while, I began to think about how people would respond to the story. Their expressions, their emotions, what they said and in particular, I wondered about what questions I might be asked when someone heard my story. And there was one question that occurred to me. One particular question that would be very natural in many parts of the world if you heard the story, and maybe it would have been very natural to ask this question in Singapore 50, 10 and perhaps five years ago. I began to look out for this question, telling the story and watching, waiting to be asked. I was never asked this question.
12 In the Singapore of today, in the six months I have been telling the story, I have never once been asked about the race of these boys. The soldiers and the little boy. I have never been asked what race they were.
13 What does that say about the Singapore of today, that when such a story is told, it doesn’t occur to anyone to ask, because it doesn’t change the story. The story is about Singapore and Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion.
14 We have a unity of purpose to build the Singapore we imagine. Our country is not a utopia and I am under no illusions about the reality of race relations in our society, there are difficulties and frictions, there are tensions and troubles. There remains much work to be done. But we all recognise the need to do the work together, we all want the same thing and we will deal with the problems together. This started as a simple but important story about our National Anthem, but by highlighting a question that was not asked, everything has changed. The words left unspoken have had a profound effect.
15 You can listen to the story, imagine these young men singing the ‘Majulah Singapura’, imagine their pride at being part of the NDP, imagine the excitement of the little boy on stage.
16 They will be alive at SG100, the soldiers will be approaching 70, maybe thinking about the next generation, the little boy in his 50s maybe thinking about his second career. Between them, they will build the next 50 years of our country. They are Singaporeans. Listening, you embrace them as Singaporeans through and through. We sing the same songs, eat the same foods, wear the same uniforms, believe in the same values that drive our country. We, together, will stand shoulder to shoulder, face the future and all that the unknown may bring, regardless of Race, Language or Religion. And listening to my story, you understand this. You believe this, you embrace this.
17 But what if one of those boys is a new citizen? Or gay? Or an atheist? Or maybe he is someone who takes his religion very, very seriously? Or maybe he embraces a different set of political views? Or is very conservative?
18 Does the story change? Is he less Singaporean? Listening to my story, are you still convinced that he will stand beside you as a comrade and brother? Will you stand beside him as a fellow citizen?
19 What does it mean “Regardless of Race, Language or Religion”? In those few words, those six words, are captured thousands of years of history, hundreds of wars and conflicts, blood shed between races, fights between other countries and other religions. In those few words are described hundreds of millions of people outside our borders with whom we share history, heritage, ties of ethnicity and culture.
20 We don’t ignore all this, we don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. But we look through, look ahead and imagine a future where we have unity regardless of our history. If we can do this for Race, Language or Religion, why not for other fault lines, other divisions amongst us? We will always have differences among us and between us. I am not going to suggest we can pretend otherwise. Often, these things that I described, these are factors that determine our personalities, our worldviews. We need to embrace this, we need to work through this together.
21 Over the next 50 years, what will be the new fault lines? How will the old divisions of race, language and religion be interpreted? And potentially, how will these basic differences be exploited by those seeking to sow strife and divide us?
22 How we deal with fault lines of division depends less on the constitution or our pledge and more on our deeds, actions and words. Words that are said, words that are held back. For sometimes, the things that are not said have a deep impact.
23 To create a division, to create a proverbial line in the sand, is very easy, all it takes is a few words. Them and Us. It is easy to separate people, all it takes is a few words and the line in the sand is drawn. Sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately.
24 Every line in the sand is a problem, every line in the sand can become a gulf too large to cross if given enough words, enough malice. A wall is created when before, there was just space. All it takes are a few more words and then there’s no going back. It becomes impossible or difficult to forget and forgive.
25 But every line in the sand, every potential division, is also an opportunity and a chance. A chance to reach across and offer the hand of friendship, to face another across the line and speak words of unity.
26 Every difference amongst us is an opportunity to show the world and each other that our diversity is our strength.
27 Fifty years ago, our nation was founded in troubled circumstances. Events that highlighted an important principle that the founding generation took to heart, and used to write our pledge and build Singapore. The idea that in our country, there would be no second-class citizens. We would all be equal.
28 No child in Singapore should grow up believing they are a second-class citizen. And that will take work to ensure that we get it right now, and prevent it from ever happening. There must be no second-class citizens. Whatever the future, we must hold to that idea.
29 After a short 50 years, we are one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. Our racial harmony and integration is celebrated and something to be rightly proud of.
30 Returning to my story, it began as a warm fuzzy tale about National Day and the anthem, then became an example of the extent of our racial integration. I spoke only a few more words and it became a platform for some difficult and contentious questions. But I hope we can return to the first chapter, that initial frame, that with the right circumstances, with the right drive and passion, we can roar ‘Majulah Singapura’ and that we must do so as one united people.
31 If we are to build a Singapore with a unity of purpose, a Nation that sees our diversity as strength, it is our deeds and words, spoken and held back, that will matter most.
32 There is still much to be done and many challenges ahead, but we are a forward-facing purposeful people. We are a people that want unity and harmony and are prepared to put in the hard work to make this happen. We are a people that understand our diversity is our strength.
33 Together, and only together, we will prevail.
34 Madam, I support the motion.
35 Thank you.