As the mass precision drills of National Day Parades past were emblematic of the ethos of a once nascent polity, the variety and spontaneity of youngsters alongside an animated Merlion last year reflect the beat of a different drum today. Such change is also evident in how younger generations are responding to the challenge of nation building in a new environment - a running theme of President Tony Tan Keng Yam's address at the opening of Parliament yesterday.
While it is de rigueur at anniversaries to recall the success achieved by pioneers, against all odds, the President emphasised that the Singapore Story was far from over as the "best years lie ahead". It falls upon the young to be stewards of that legacy, take it forward in their own style and "leave behind a better Singapore than we inherited".
In a fast-changing world, the young represent the new pioneers who stand to gain much from seizing fresh opportunities on the horizon. Thus, Singaporeans will be well served by keeping alive the pioneering spirit of their forebears - the dare to dream big, unstinting effort, sacrifice, and self-effort.
While fundamental social goals, as reflected in the National Pledge, have not changed, strategies to achieve them must, as President Tan noted. These must take into account a society that has become more segmented than the simple divides of the past, like haves versus have-nots and cosmopolitans versus heartlanders. Crucially, the presence of foreigners in the mix has created tensions that can ease only when mutual regard becomes a way of life.
That mutual respect ought to be reflected in the public discourse as well. The Government on its part has pledged to be more responsive to diverse views, said President Tan. Alongside this is the need for "constructive politics" that arises when all sides can argue their positions energetically while not being blind to what is the larger public interest. Without common agreement on what matters most to the nation, ceaseless contention and bitter recrimination can lead to policy paralysis. While debates are vital to test ideas, they should not continue ad infinitum. To achieve anything useful, all sides must be prepared to hunker down to the work at hand once the talking is done.
The social focus of the President's address underscores the crucial balance that is needed to the considerable legislative efforts made in the earlier session of Parliament in housing, transport, health and wages. The more that these programmes are taken for granted, the greater the risk of a transactional tilt to people-government relations. Nation building will be incomplete if citizens are not moved to look out for one another, and work together to tackle the challenges to come.
This article was published on May 19 in The Straits Times.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.