Developing Singapore’s national identity by knowing our roots

Interview with Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Transport

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By Han Yong Hong

Singapore’s Minister for Transport Ong Ye Kung, who was interviewed while he was then Minister for Education, said that nearly a decade ago, local students had shown little enthusiasm towards exchange programmes or internships in China, and would rather go to New York, London, or other major European cities. Today, the situation has changed completely. Local students are competing for a spot in exchange programmes in China.

Mr Ong said, “The size of the Chinese market, the rise of China, and its stunning scenery have made it appealing for many students yearning to go to China. The demand now exceeds the supply.”

In recent years, the multi-faceted exchange and engagement between the youths of Singapore and China have broadened and deepened. Thousands of primary and secondary school students head to China on exchange programmes arranged through the various Chinese language and cultural courses and programmes such as the Special Assistance Plan schools and the Chinese Language Elective Programme in our schools. However, the Ministry of Education is not resting on its laurels, facilitating more in-depth contact and engagement opportunities. Both governments have jointly launched the Youths Intern Exchange Scheme (YES), an internship programme for the youths of both countries.

Mr Ong believes that one can only truly feel the energy of a place, experience the local culture, and build up their network of contacts after having lived in it for a year or so – something that is impossible to achieve if one were to visit as a tourist.

He described it vividly, “When you grow up, you’re not going to remember China only through a nice photo on your phone; for the students from China, memories of Singapore would not just be about how they had posed for photos with the Merlion. Instead, it would be about the friendships forged in the other country. When there is a business opportunity in future and you are looking for a partner, you will know that you have friends in Singapore, and our young Singaporeans, too, will know that they have friends in China. Or what we refer to as a ‘lobang’ (colloquial term to describe an opportunity). And this makes all the difference.”

An agreement was signed in October 2019 by the governments of Singapore and China to facilitate internship exchanges for up to 500 students and recent graduates each from both countries’ Institutes of Higher Learning every year . While the arrangements are already in place, the pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works. Mr Ong said, “Hopefully, when the pandemic is over, we can proceed with this programme.”

Back to the key question of why it is so important for young Singaporeans to understand China and why the government is investing effort into this, Mr Ong systematically broke it down in his analysis.

On a pragmatic level, China’s market and business opportunities present significant job opportunities and career development prospects for young Singaporeans.

In addition, he analysed this issue from a historical and international relations-perspective, “From our parents’ generation, our generation, and to our children’s generation – across these three generations, what has been the biggest thing that has happened in the world?”

Mr Ong’s answer - China’s development which is something that all three generations are experiencing and is a continuous, over-arching theme in all of our lives. The international order, the relations between big nations, and the circumstances of small nations have all been affected. As such, it is necessary for Singaporeans to understand China, the United States, and other major nations, and understand our neighbours in Southeast Asia.

On a deeper philosophical level, Mr Ong believes that Singaporeans can develop a stronger sense of national identity through understanding China.

He pointed out that even though the majority of Singapore’s population are Chinese, Singapore is also a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. Being a relatively young nation, we will need some time to cultivate the Singaporean consciousness; but as to what exactly the Singaporean consciousness is, and what it means to be a Singaporean – the answers to these questions will continue to evolve.

“National consciousness is multi-layered. First comes the flag, then the national anthem; as a race that has established itself in Singapore, what do we represent? Where are our roots? Our roots have been moved to Singapore, and we have planted new roots in Singapore; we have evolved into a unique race of our own. This is a matter that requires in-depth understanding by all the different races in Singapore.”

Mr Ong stressed that, “If you do not know your roots, you will not be able to develop this consciousness. Where would you start otherwise? This is not just something that is made up.”

As the co-chair of the Singapore-Guangdong Collaboration Council, Mr Ong has had many opportunities to visit China, and has kept a keen eye on different innovative practices in China. One example he raised was a primary school in Hangzhou which required students to wear “one-metre hats” during the COVID-19 pandemic to teach them how to maintain safe distancing. He also recalled a visit to the “Classroom of the Future”, which was being experimented in a primary school in Shanghai, where interestingly, not a single computer was spotted. Instead, an integrated approach was used to guide students in problem-solving.

Mr Ong concluded by sharing that the development of relations between Singapore-China is a result of the tacit understanding reached by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Deng Xiaoping, under which both countries have established a multi-faceted cooperative partnership. The core of the partnership is this – with the rise of China being a major change in history, Singapore, as a small city-state in Southeast Asia, can offer a testing ground; at the same time, as a regional and international hub, Singapore’s experience can also serve as a useful reference.

Right now, Mr Ong hopes that youth in Singapore and China can engage in deeper exchanges. He said, “Our ties and friendship are not limited to official exchanges and business dealings; bonds of friendship take time to build. If the younger generation can get to know each other and form a deeper understanding, it will help to establish future ties between both countries.”