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On Total Defence Day, ask yourself, ‘What does it mean to be Singaporean?’

14 Feb 2017

  • Bowen_It takes a village_Keeping the elderly at Sunlove company with an intense game of chess_07

    Total Defence is as much about building bonds: Students of Bowen Secondary play chess with residents of Sunlove Home. (Photo credit: Bowen Secondary School)

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    Going to the heart of the matter: When our kids love Singapore, that love will show in their actions. (Photo credit: Orchid Park Secondary School)

  • Junyuan Secondary School_A Day in School_Trailblazers_01

    Total Defence is more than defending our borders or civil defence. At school flag-raising ceremonies, students recite our Pledge, reaffirming our national values. (Photo credit: Junyuan Secondary School)

Trust, fairness and peace: Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng shares his personal journey to understand what it takes to defend Singapore's future.


I was recently asked this question and it made me stop and think. My initial instinct was to mention all that is great about Singapore, all that Singapore has done for me, and how sincerely grateful and proud I am to be Singaporean.  However, I had a nagging dissatisfaction with this answer, that it didn’t fully reflect my thoughts.  I mulled over this for quite a few days.

Finally, in an early-dawn moment of wakefulness, I recalled former US President John F Kennedy’s words “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.  This is a quote I had memorised back in my university days. It still resonates.

My ‘final’ answer to what makes me Singaporean is more than my love and appreciation for my country; it is as much about what I can do for my country, Singapore. That’s what makes me Singaporean.

As we mark 75 years of the Fall of Singapore and 50 years of National Service this year, let us ask ourselves, what each of us, Singaporeans of all ages, can do for our country as we evolve towards SG100, so that our children and grandchildren love Singapore as much as we do. And what can we do to energise our youngsters to want to do their part, too?

Total Defence is often seen as protecting our borders or civil defence, but it is much more than that. It is as much about building relationships among people, nurturing our youngsters, instilling in our kids a sense of their history, sharing our value system with them, encouraging them to think deeply, encouraging them to follow their passions. This is how we keep our society whole and vibrant in the years to come. The aim is to secure the peace so Singaporeans can go about their lives, follow their aspirations and dreams. 

We have had 50 years of peace and when we talk to the young – whether as a teacher, parent or a friend, philosopher and guide – about the Fall of Singapore or the race riots, they may roll their eyes and tune out. To me that is a happy problem – they have grown up in peace. That is a priceless gift. But we know that peace is not a natural state. It needs effort. It needs investments of people and money. There is a reason why we invest more than two years of the lives of Singapore’s sons in National Service.

So, if your youngster looks bored with what you are saying, remember this: Think of the young not as single snapshots in time but as a journey of 10 years through our schools. And beyond that. We sow the right seeds of our values now. We talk to them. We share our stories. Will they take it on? Will they modify it for their own context? We will have to wait another 10 or more years to find out. But that’s ok. We know that we did our part.  We did the right thing. After all, who knows what our fathers thought of us when we were 18. Just as my forebears gave me the space to grow, give them time to figure out what they believe in. How one behaves at 16 is very different from how one behaves at 26.

So, don’t underestimate our young. We all go through different phases of life. We often think our younger generation is not as tough as us. But I have met many 18-year-olds who are feisty and up for challenges. I am optimistic about the young. In fact it is up to us to do our part to strengthen them. And we are doing that through programmes, like Outdoor Education, to let them test their wings, develop greater resilience and tenacity. 

If I look back on my life, I realised how unique Singapore was when I went to study in the US on a scholarship. I was 19 years old. I started discovering my identity and understanding of the wider world. Once when driving through San Francisco at night, we took a wrong turn and a gang of ruffians came at us and pelted us with eggs and other objects. Another time, on a bus in the US, a man pretended to draw a gun out of a trench coat and everyone dived for cover. It was the first time I had ever feared for my life.

Those years I started realising how unique and special Singapore is. The very fact that I was in the US on a scholarship was special. I come from a middle-class family, one of five boys. Without this opportunity, I could not have studied overseas. It was a gradual process of appreciating what Singapore is. There was no moment of epiphany. 

So let us each do what we can to keep safe the Singapore we love. We are here today thanks to the trust that exists in our system. There is fairness in the system and the people know that. But the world is increasingly more divisive of late. The threat of terrorism is real. A multi-racial, multi-religion society is at more risk. How can we protect ourselves? Externally, keep the SAF strong.  Internally, build trust between Singaporeans, get to know our neighbours, build up friendships and a kampong spirit, and encourage our children, our students to do the same.

So let us give our kids the guidance they need and the time they need to find their way to express their love for Singapore. It may look a little different from your way or mine, but as long as they stand up for Singapore, I will be standing alongside.