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Resisting one-horse town traits in big city

Publication Date : 31-01-2014

 

Insular and less tolerant attitudes, usually associated with small towns, flare up even in cities with big ambitions during a phase of accelerated globalisation. One division is caused by the income gap between those with the skills to inhabit the international economy and those whose fortunes are tied closely to the heartland economy.

A corresponding divide exists between born-and- bred citizens and new arrivals. Combined with the indigenous fault line of race and religion, exacerbated by international developments, these divisions do threaten national cohesiveness.

But since the first step towards resolving a problem is to recognise that it exists, it is heartening that political leaders here are focusing on these issues frankly and openly.

In highlighting them at a forum with undergraduates on Tuesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asking younger Singaporeans to take a hard look at where the country stands, while being confident of its future in the next 50 years.

On a similar note, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has called for Singaporeans to handle differences by understanding their nature, using them as a source of creative strength, and coming to terms with the fact that not all differences can be settled once and for all.

Divisions, then, are a fact of life, but they should not be allowed to calcify into divisiveness, a habit of the mind.

Some solutions for divisions are administrative or legislative, such as rejuvenating the role of education in social mobility, fine-tuning the entry of foreign workers, or ensuring that cyberspace does not become lawless.

But other issues, such as the feeling of dislocation in the new Singapore, cannot be managed through policies alone but require collective effort. So long as citizens understand what is the right path for Singapore, they will find it easier to adjust mindsets to accept the inevitability of change.

A society that tries to meet challenges collectively empowers the individual to acknowledge his place in the larger scheme of things.

It is in this deeper sense that the national consensus must be sustained today. In the formative years of independence, the drive for consensus was a top-down strategy pursued unapologetically by an interventionist state.

A maturing polity and the growth of an educated younger generation demands that consensus now be developed from below and among the broadest swathe of society.

What people need to guard against is the divisiveness that takes the form of interest groups, ethnic lobbies and culture wars. The social fragmentation these cause is difficult to fight because it is often seen as natural. Singapore needs to avoid that perversity not just in the Horse Year, but year in and year out.

 

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