25 Aug 2016

Fellow Singaporeans and Friends of Singapore,

1          Thank you for being here to mark Singapore’s 51st anniversary of independence.  I would also like to welcome the 57 new Singaporeans students to Cairo. Please give them a round of applause. Tonight, we also pay tribute to Singapore’s Former President Mr S R Nathan who passed away on 22nd August 2016.

2          Much has been said over the last four days about Mr Nathan and his sterling contributions to Singapore. One anecdote that stood out for me was when Mr Nathan insisted on reviewing an OCS Commissioning Parade in 2011 despite the heavy rain. Refusing an umbrella, he got “absolutely soaked”. But he felt that “if the cadets who give their lives in service of our nation can stand in the rain, the least I can do is stand with them”.  This was Mr Nathan, a leader with empathy who always stood with his men.

3          I was privileged to know Mr Nathan personally and to work with him over the last 18 years. He personally nurtured many young Foreign Service Officers, including me, and instilled in us a “Singapore First” mindset. One year after the 1998 Asian financial crisis, he visited Jakarta as the Director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. I was then a young diplomat on my first posting in Jakarta.  Despite his full schedule, he spent six hours discussing the ramifications of post-Soeharto Indonesia with me. He was worried about how the situation in Indonesia might impact Singapore and its wellbeing.  In the process, he taught me how to deal with fluidity, unpredictability and uncertainty in politics, and how to stay anchored in the fundamentals of Indonesia-Singapore relations.

4          Mr Nathan was very kind-hearted and personally generous. He quietly stepped in to help those in financial need and even paid school fees of their children from his own pocket.   Not once did he speak about who he had helped, and these stories emerged from those he helped years later. As President, he supported numerous charitable causes. He seldom turned down an invitation to a charity event if his presence could help raise more money for the disadvantaged. Mr Nathan remained the same person when he was a social worker 40 years ago, a civil servant subsequently and as President from 1999 to 2011.  He was a servant leader through and through and did all he could to benefit Singapore and Singaporeans.  

5          Mr Nathan was also a strong advocate for a harmonious multi-ethnic and multi-religious Singapore. He wanted every community to see themselves as part of a broader Singapore, sharing common goals and fostering mutual respect.  He was however concerned that the younger generation may take this for granted and assume that this will always be so. In his National Day speech this month, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke frankly about three challenges that could affect our national unity. First, if and when a terrorist attack happens in Singapore, will we stand together to protect our way of life, or will we fall apart? Second, in light of rapid economic change and economic competition, will we share the fruits of growth more evenly? Third, given how our society is changing rapidly, will our government be able to avoid the pitfalls of populism or political gridlock?  These are issues concerning the future of our homeland and I hope all of you will spend some time thinking about them.  

6          External influences are unavoidable in the Internet age of openness. The positive outcome is that we can transcend our boundaries and learn from other cultures and civilisations and be enriched by them. The negative outcome is that some of us can be quickly and easily influenced by identity politics and go down the path of exclusion. Last month, my embassy colleagues and I visited Al Azhar’s Observatory for Foreign Languages, and we learnt that the bulk of the radical ideas in the world are coming from certain groups in the Middle East.  These ideas are translated from Arabic into different languages to woo supporters from other parts of the world. No wonder the “Daesh” or the “Islamic State” is still able to recruit foreign fighters from all over the world, including from our region and from Singapore. We cannot stop the flow of radical ideas but, as a people, we can strengthen our defenses against them. When we adopt a “Singapore First” mindset and commit to our shared values, we can protect our homeland against any challenge or harm that comes our way.  

7          Mr Nathan embodied the Majulah Singapura spirit. This is the spirit that built up Singapore. It is about having aspirations that go beyond the ordinary, and having the grit to persevere against the odds. Our Olympic gold medallist, Joseph Schooling, our Team SG that has represented us and Paralympic gold medallist, Yip Pin Xiu have this spirit too. With Majulah Singapura in our hearts, we will stand together as one, and build a better, stronger Singapore for us, our children and our grandchildren.   

8          Thank you very much. 

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