Being Singaporean is not a matter of subtraction, but of addition: PM Lee

Being Singaporean is not a matter of subtraction, but of addition: PM Lee
PM Lee viewing an artwork by Hwa Chong Institution students at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. PHOTO: Wee Teck Hian
The Chinese Singaporean is proud of his Chinese culture — but also increasingly conscious that his ‘Chineseness’ is different from the Chineseness of the Malaysian and Indonesian Chinese, or the Chineseness of the people in China or Hong Kong or Taiwan.
Published: 10:55 PM, May 19, 2017
Updated: 1:35 PM, May 20, 2017

SINGAPORE — The different races have evolved uniquely Singaporean variants of their various cultures, and this is quite an achievement in a scant 51 years, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday night (May 19).

Speaking at the official opening of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC) along Shenton Way, Mr Lee said being Singaporean has “never been a matter of subtraction, but of addition; not of becoming less, but more; not of limitation and contraction, but of openness and expansion”.

The Government, he said, has encouraged each of the four major races – Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian – to preserve its own unique culture and traditions, while respecting that of the others.

This culture of integration, not assimilation, means no one group has been forced to conform to another’s “cultures or identities, let alone that of the majority”. Instead, they have allowed themselves to be influenced by others, Mr Lee said, adding: “The result has been distinctive Singaporean variants of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian cultures, and a growing Singaporean identity that we all share, suffusing and linking up our distinct identities and distinct ethnic cultures.”

Often, this distinctness is instantly recognisable when Singaporeans run into each other overseas, whether in neighbouring countries or further away – someone speaking or acting in a certain way is instinctively pegged as a fellow Singaporean, he said.

“When we deal with nationals from these countries, we are confident of our own Singaporean cultures and identities, even as we are conscious that we are ethnic Chinese, Malays, Indians or Eurasians.

“Thus the Chinese Singaporean is proud of his Chinese culture – but also increasingly conscious that his ‘Chineseness’ is different from the Chineseness of the Malaysian and Indonesian Chinese, or the Chineseness of China, Hong Kong or Taiwan,” he added.

In his 20-minute speech before a 530-strong audience, which included representatives from clan associations and arts and cultural organisations, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, Mr Lee pointed out technology, power, and prosperity alone are not the only measures of a civilisation.

Important as it is to create jobs, bring in investments, upgrade workers and maintain competitiveness, arts and culture to “nourish our souls” are just as essential, he added, citing an old adage – “man does not live by bread alone”.

Singapore, Mr Lee said, should aim to be a society that is “rich in spirit, a gracious society where people are considerate and kind to one another, and, as Mencius said, treat all elders as we treat our own parents, and other children as our own”.

Mr Lee noted that while Singapore has progressed in this regard, “we are far from perfect”, with ungracious behaviour seen from time to time.

He singled out the young couple that behaved “deplorably” recently by hurling abuse at and shoving an elderly man at a Toa Payoh hawker centre.

If Singaporeans had regarded such behaviour as normal, it would have been concerning, said Mr Lee, who expressed relief that people were outraged instead.

He added that in many countries, if one does not jostle to get to the front of the queue, one will simply be elbowed aside, noting that it was not too long ago when Singaporeans did the same.

“We certainly don’t wish Singapore to be a first-world economy but a third-rate society, with a people who are well-off but uncouth,” said Mr Lee.

That journey has been made possible because Singaporeans have been rooted to their various Asian cultures, which gave them identity and confidence, he said.

“Cultures,” Mr Lee said, “reflect and express a people’s deep values as well as their collective experiences; individual talent as well as tradition; the old and the new merging to create fresh forms and new recognitions”.

And while cultures develop and evolve naturally and organically, the Government still has a role to play, including by encouraging positive social norms, recognising cultural achievements and supporting the arts, as well as expose children to subjects such as literature, drama and music.

These, indeed, were why the Government had created facilities such as the National Gallery, and supported institutions like the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, among others.

Hence, the Government was happy to support the cultural centre when it was proposed by the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations five years ago

Completed last December, the 11-storey SCCC cost about S$110 million to build. It houses a 530-seat auditorium, 500-seat multi-purpose hall and 200-seat gallery space for the visual arts.

While largely government-funded, the SCCC was supported by more than S$29 million in donations from clan associations, foundations, companies and individuals. This drew another S$15 million from the Government’s Cultural Matching Fund, which provides dollar-for-dollar matching for private contributions to cultural institutions capped at S$15 million.

Speaking at its opening ceremony on Friday in Mandarin, the centre’s chairman, Mr Chua Thian Poh, said the SCCC will “become a platform for new immigrants and other ethnic communities to appreciate our local Chinese culture”.

The venue “would complement existing large-scale performing arts venues, like Esplanade Theatres on the Bay and Victoria Concert Hall, to cater to the diverse needs of performing arts and culture fraternity”, he added.

Since January, the SCCC has hosted more than 50 events, including concerts, dance performances, plays, lectures, exhibitions, which attracted nearly 30,000 people.

On Saturday (May 20), an eight-day Cultural Extravaganza 2017 will kick off at the centre. The cultural showcase includes an opening performance by filmmaker Royston Tan, who is also the Extravaganza’s director, which will see Chinese art forms and traditional values being presented through the use of 3D projection mapping with holographic imagery.

The work of five budding local film directors – Eva Tang, He Shuming, Kirsten Tan, Liao Jiekai and Jun Chong – will also be featured as they explore what makes Singapore home by tracing their cultural roots.

Two people will also be conferred the Singapore Chinese Cultural Contribution Award, an award that will be presented for the first time on Saturday, recognising the contributions of individuals and organisations in the development and promotion of Chinese culture in Singapore.