DPM Teo: We need to be mindful of tensions and fault lines in society

DPM Teo: We need to be mindful of tensions and fault lines in society

One of the ways to do so is to be mindful of the tensions in our society, and learn how to deal with them as public officers, he said. "Race and religion remain sensitive, and other possible fault lines have emerged, including citizenship, sexual orientation, and social values," he added. He also spoke of the dangers of social media, in terms of its ability to "reinforce and entrench" polarising views.

Get the full story from The Straits Times.

More information can be found in DPM Teo's speech below:

Good morning. I am happy to join you here at the 11th National Security Seminar. Hardly a day passes when we don't see news on turmoil, terrorism, fear or breakdown in social order in one country or another around the world. We have to deal with these situations, but it is also important for us to create circumstances in which these situations do not arise.

Societies around the world are being disrupted by social tensions

In the past year, we have seen several societies disrupted by social tensions, even in some surprising cases.

In May, riots broke out in a suburb of Stockholm and spread to half a dozen other cities and towns The Economist called it "a blazing surprise", disrupting "a Scandinavian idyll". Over a period of 9 days, the rioters, who were mostly youths, set fire to some 150 vehicles, and two schools 1 causing some US$9.5 million of damage.

The riots were attributed to a host of issues, including youth unemployment, especially among immigrants; widening income inequality; and tensions between native and immigrant populations. While the violence was an expression of discontent rooted in real socio-economic issues, the Swedish PM's remarks were noteworthy. He said, "It's important to remember that burning your neighbour's car is not an example of freedom of speech, it's hooliganism."

Even in tolerant Sweden, there is a limit to the form that public expression can take.

In June, Brazil saw its largest nationwide protests in two decades. These were triggered by an increase in bus fares, but demonstrators were also angry about corruption, poor public services and a heavy tax burden.

The protests surprisingly in football-crazy Brazil denounced the billions of dollars used to host the World Cup next year and the 2016 Olympics; and called for the money in this resource-rich country to be spent on better hospitals, schools and transportation instead.

In July, riots broke out in a suburb of Paris after a man was arrested for assaulting a police officer. The officer had tried to conduct a routine identity check on the man's wife, who was wearing a facecovering veil.

Cars and bus shelters were burned, and a police station was attacked. The burqa ban which has been in place since 2011 was intended to maintain French secular values. The riots were all the more ironic as the French state downplays race and religion, and emphasises the common values of being French. Unfortunately, not recognising such differences does not mean that they simply go away.

Closer to home, there have been bloody clashes between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar, and between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka, in recent months.

Harnessing diversity and differences for good

These incidents are sobering reminders that social stability, in particular racial and religious harmony, cannot be taken for granted, even in developed countries, ostensibly stable societies, which espouse tolerance and universal values. There are many triggers which can set off unexpected events, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Singapore has enjoyed social harmony and stability for many decades, but we are not immune to such challenges. Technology and globalisation have brought advances and progress to countries around the world. Riding on these global forces, emerging economies in our region are developing rapidly, boosted by their energetic and increasingly well-educated populations.

But no country which wishes to reap the benefits from these global forces can shelter itself from the competitive pressures and social changes that come with them. In Singapore, we too face these pressures, coupled with important new dynamics from an ageing population and the integration of new immigrants, and compounded by rising aspirations, income inequality, and rising costs.

Our economy is going through a period of transformation. We are building on our strengths, exploiting new opportunities to create good jobs, jobs-of-the-future for Singaporeans, and shedding those areas where we no longer have an advantage. Government is also taking active steps to address some of the key domestic concerns and friction points. PM Lee Hsien Loong spoke about important new initiatives in housing, healthcare and education in his National Day Rally speech last month, to address the changing demographics and changing needs of Singaporeans, and charting out a new way forward, as we seek to maintain a fair and just society.

But we also need to be mindful of tensions in our society, and learn how to deal with them and manage them as public officers. Race and religion remain sensitive, and other possible fault lines have emerged, including citizenship, sexual orientation, and social values.

There are now many contending voices and views, amplified by the widespread use of social media. Social media can help those with a common interest to come together, but it can also reinforce and entrench polarising views. Groups on opposing sides have sometimes sought to import causes, attitudes and values from other societies and countries and super-impose them on our social fabric.

How do we harness these diverse views, and wherever possible, build greater understanding, mutual respect and trust? How do we place the interests of individual groups in the context of the betterment of our society as a whole? How do we channel the energies of different interest groups for the greater good of Singapore and Singaporeans? We should endeavour to create more room for individuals and groups to contribute to the society around them.

Through "Our Singapore Conversation", some 50,000 participants expressed themselves, and also heard for themselves the different and sometimes opposing views that others hold on various issues. More importantly, participants realised that we cannot always each insist on having our own way; and these diverse views have to be reconciled in order for us to find a way forward as a cohesive society. We may each play different roles, but we need to work together to achieve a shared objective.

Sometimes this means tweaking the balance - for example, the relative weights borne by the Government, the community and the individual, to ensure that all Singaporeans share in the benefits from Singapore's development. And we hope that Singaporeans will be prepared to work for the common good, even though our own individual preferences may not be fully catered for in every situation.

Then, there are some instances, where we just have to agree to disagree, respectfully, and without pushing issues to the point of polarisation. As we have seen in France, issues of race and religion in particular cannot be wished away easily, even if they are not officially acknowledged by the state.

Working together to strengthen resilience

How can we help to build a more cohesive society, and a more resilient Singapore, especially as members of the national security community?

Working together, as one Government

Many of our agencies and organisations have robust plans to tackle crises and manage unexpected incidents. We should examine our plans to ensure that we can work effectively as one Government, particularly in times of crisis. The response by Boston authorities and the public to the marathon bombings offers many positive lessons.

In Singapore, the 23 agencies in our Inter-Agency Haze Task Force have met ahead of the dry season each year since 1994 to review their plans and processes. When the haze this year became more acute than usual, the Task Force assessed the situation and swiftly adapted their plans.

They built on existing resources such as the Ministry of Health's stockpile of N95 masks, the Singapore Armed Forces' logistics and manpower, and the People's Association's ground networks and local knowledge.

With this joint effort, one million masks were distributed to 200,000 low-income households overnight, and another three million were distributed to retailers within a few days after that.

We must continue to oil the machinery, improve processes, and practise together. And we also have to get the public involved, so that during times of crises, they also know how to respond. For example, we have tested contact tracing and inter-agency processes should we have to deal with a case of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

Partnering the public, as one Singapore

But resilience is about how our society responds, and not just about how the Government responds. So our society has to understand how to deal with a crisis, and how to respond in a crisis situation. Two aspirations which were raised during Our Singapore Conversation are to have a strong "kampong spirit", and to have more meaningful citizen engagement, to build trust - among people, and between Government and the public.

Our work in national security should recognise this desire among people to play a bigger role in shaping the future of Singapore. We need to harness these energies so we can work together for a more resilient and safe society.

We are building on what we have already achieved. There are now more people from different backgrounds taking part in Citizens-on-Patrol and Neighbourhood Watch Groups, to keep their own surroundings safe from crime.

Our Home Team Volunteers help out in different ways including crime prevention, road safety, and rehabilitation. We are training more members of the public to use Automated External Defibrillators and to perform CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation) so that they can be the first responders to provide community first-aid in times of need.

So one need not be a helpless bystander, calling for help from one agency or another, but be an active member of society, able to provide assistance when needed. We have also set up the Information Exchange Forum which encourages owners of Critical Information Infrastructure to share information and lessons on cyber threats and attacks. This is an area where businesses can work together to protect their customers as well as themselves and others in their community.

Such groups do not just serve a specific purpose, that is, the purpose stated in their title - whether to prevent crime, provide first aid, or enhance cyber-security. The on-going interactions are also important to build networks of familiarity and trust among people, and between public officers, their various agencies and the public.

So that when a situation arises, such groups can rally their members together quickly.

What they do in that particular situation may not be exactly the same as what they had practised to do. But because the members know one another, they have networks, they have experience working as a team, they have experience working with the community around them, it is easier for them to come together to tackle a new situation and help others.

For example, members of a Citizens-on-Patrol group who are familiar with local surroundings could be activated to help with antidengue checks.

There are also many good instances of ground-up initiatives which exemplify the kampong spirit. We saw a good example of this during the haze with people distributing masks to others. We also have other interesting volunteer groups. For example, volunteer group, Food from the Heart, distributes unsold bread from bakeries and hotels to welfare homes at the end of each day.

Volunteers from the Waterways Watch

Society patrol and clean our rivers and canals by boat, and teach people how to care for our waterways.

It is particularly heartening to see groups working together for good causes, and building social capital and a sense of common purpose. For example, Jamiyah Singapore and the Singapore Buddhist Lodge work closely with each other, and with other religious organisations to serve the needy, regardless of race or religion.

With the Taoist Federation Singapore, these two groups distribute hong baos during the Lunar New Year to the needy, elderly and disabled.6 And together with the Hindu Endowment Board, they distribute bursaries to needy students each year, with contributions from a diverse range of individuals and organisations.

We hope to see more of such examples of the kampong spirit, where the purpose is not just the specific cause at hand, but working towards building social capital, a common purpose and destiny

Government may also not have the best answer or the perfect solution to every issue. Sometimes, our most important role is simply to bring different groups together to find a common understanding, or to channel their energies in a constructive direction. For example, many people have put forth ideas for the Green Corridor along the old KTM railway line. While we will not be able to address every concern or fulfil every wish, there should be room for all Singaporeans to be heard, to contribute, and to help build a better Singapore for the majority of Singaporeans.

As PM said in the National Day Rally, "the community can and must take more initiative, organising and mobilising ourselves, solving problems, getting things done." We must welcome people to step forward to share in the work of building a resilient society and a safe home. The journey itself is worth taking, and that journey helps us to build social capital and face the future with confidence. This is the essence of community spirit and trust. This is what it means to stand together, as one community, one Singapore.


As members of the National Security community, all of us can play a part to work with Singaporeans, to galvanise community support, and enhance Singapore's resilience. So in each of the things that you do in your own specific domain, in your own specific field, think about how you are contributing to social resilience of Singapore and how that helps to build a stronger society.

I encourage all of you to think about how you can contribute to this effort as public officers, and also as Singaporeans.

I wish everyone a fruitful and stimulating seminar. Thank you.

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