President Halimah Yacob told Singapore’s newly sworn in parliamentary members yesterday they should prioritize improving race relations and rebuilding the ravaged economy during the next few years.
Addressing 93 members elected under the “shadow” of the pandemic, Halimah seized on the issue of fraying social harmony to say that economic distress arising from COVID-19 or social inequality could breed insecurity among Singapore’s different demographic groups.
“Multiracialism will always be a core element of our Singaporean identity. Everyone, regardless of race, language or religion, must have an equal place in our society,” 66-year-old Halimah said in her 30-minute speech.
“Each successive generation will bring different life experiences and perspectives. In each generation, some will want to discuss sensitive issues afresh. Younger Singaporeans prefer talking about these issues more candidly and openly, which is a positive development,” she said.
Conversations about race surged earlier this year on the back of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and came into stark relief with the plight of tens of thousands of migrant workers virtually incarcerated as the pandemic burned through shoddy housing.
But she called for “restraint” in those discussions “because race, language and religion will always be visceral subjects.”
“If each group pushes its own agenda to the extreme, we risk eroding the common space, and fracturing our social cohesion,” Halimah added, noting that competition for jobs from foreigners could further divide people. She’s served as president since 2017.
With Singapore in the midst of a record-breaking recession, Halimah said parliamentary members must focus on rebuilding the economy and providing jobs.
“Jobs will remain our top priority for the next few years. Keeping people in work is the best way to help them take care of their families, and to keep their skills current until the economy improves. We are doing all we can to help,” she said.
A fifth rescue package announced last week was aimed at supporting businesses and older workers.
Thirty-one new members, a record number of women and the most opposition members comprise the new parliament. For the first time ever, an official opposition leader has been named: Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh, who is expected to propose policy alternatives.
Halimah encouraged the MPs to work together and build consensus when their opinions differ, particularly on “issues core to Singapore’s survival and future.”
“How we respond to the pandemic and economic crisis will define Singapore for many years to come,” she said. “We must continue to command confidence and respect in the world, and emerge a stronger and more united nation.”
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