Former foreign minister and current Kerry Logistics chairman George Yeo gets so excited to talk about foreign policy that his wife keeps reminding him not to go in a spiral when he speaks with clients.

He said this while opening his speech at the recent S Rajaratnam Lecture last Friday. His speech, “A Sense of Self in an Age of Globalisation”, touched on a topic that has been recently brought up – the idea of race relations and multiculturalism in Singapore.

He spoke about these five points at length:

#1: It’s ok to have multiple identities – but deeper identities resonate more

Are you a student? An NSman? A voter? A Singaporean? A gay man? All of these at once?

Yeo posits that all these identities are valid and must be respected (“they are not to be trifled with”) but a person’s intrinsic self will always surface even though we live in an age where groupthink remains strong, exacerbated by echo chambers such as social media.

“When we want individuals to have a strong group identity, we make them… suppress their other identities (but) this imposed discipline is not natural. Once the discipline is taken away, or in a context where the higher identity is unimportant, the deeper identities assert themselves,” said Yeo, referring to how National Service forms a strong group identity but does not replace inner identities.

#2: To be Singaporean is to work together with China…

China as the world’s superpower has great impact on a majority-Chinese country, and Yeo believes Singapore’s long relationship with its “Chineseness” from Britain keeping Singapore out of the Malayan Federation to the country’s independence from Malaysia.

“One senior Chinese diplomat once noted to me that “there is considerable mutual affection between the people of China and the people of Singapore,”” said Yeo in his address.

The cross-section of superpowers China and India intersects in Singapore, where a One Belt, One Road initiative is set to take the country further as both countries rise in their status among the world. However, with Singapore facing a mounting debt crisis due to fluctuations in trade, it remains to be seen how the country will sweeten its trade deals and survive a global slowdown.

#3: …but to be Singaporean is to work with the Malay archipelago as well

It’s important to note how important Singapore’s position is to its development – a sea of majority Chinese located in the middle of the Malay archipelago. With a sizeable Malay population as well, working with counterparts in neighbouring countries is key to our survival, as can be seen in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s retreat with Indonesian president Joko Widodo in Semarang this week.

“After 51 years, we are still very much one people separated in two countries. In a group, it is difficult to distinguish Singaporeans from Malaysians,” said Yeo, referring to the separation of Singapore from Malaysia.

In an era where our next president will be Malay, the links between Singapore and its neighbours look set to sweeten which will hopefully assist the country in settling immediate issues such as the development of the high-speed rail connecting Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and the Iskandar development.

However, the country’s links to the Muslim world would mean that Singapore is “ineluctably affected by the turmoil in the Middle East including the challenge of Jihadi terrorism”, according to Yeo.

#4: To be Singaporean is to use inclusivity to tackle issues such as the new presidency bill

Despite current discourse on the new Elected Presidency bill, Yeo argues that issues surrounding culture and identity will continue to be brought up as long as the nation’s countrymen identify with their various identities.

“The Singapore identity is complex and dynamic.  This complexity is part of our everyday life.  We will never stop worrying about it,” said Yeo.

However, he urged the nation to use the higher Singaporean identity to tackle issues concerning identity while “being always sensitive” to such matters.

“The Singaporean has to be big-hearted and broadminded in order to embrace others not like himself. This is the Singapore idea which is worth living and fighting for,” he said.

#5: In a world with deep divides, it’s important to remember what unites us

Yeo cited growing discontent in places such as the United States and Britain as reminder of the power of technology to break up countries and undermine hierarchies by giving a credible voice to those who have not been heard by the rulers of government.

However, Yeo believes that fragmentation means stronger communities – for good or ill – largely facilitated by the power of people to mobilise and group with those of similar interests. This creates a challenge in which new schools of thought may emerge, differing from the narrative of the rulers of the day.

“Those who have a deep interest in particular subjects are fed more material on the same subjects and encouraged to network with others who share them.  That’s how self-radicalisation happens,” said Yeo.

Yeo stressed how Singapore’s unifying aspect is its ability to place the country first and accept that in order for the nation to move forward, its countrymen need to accept that divides will not push forth growth and inclusiveness in a society.

“Indeed it is an idea the world desperately needs. Singapore is only Singapore if it has this universal appeal,” said Yeo.

Featured photo: YouTube screengrab/Lippo Group

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