Speech by Minister Desmond Lee at the Groundbreaking Ceremony of Anjung@WGS

Jul 16, 2021

Dear agency partners, community leaders, distinguished guests, ladies, and gentlemen, good morning once again and I am glad to be here. It is indeed my pleasure and privilege to join you today to witness the ground-breaking ceremony of Anjung@Wisma Geylang Serai and the announcement of the winners of the Geylang Serai Cultural Precinct Design Competition.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Minister Maliki Osman, the People’s Association, and our many agency partners on reaching yet another milestone to enhance the Geylang Serai Cultural Precinct.

Once completed, I am sure that Anjung@Wisma Geylang Serai will become a valuable and important community space to host all sorts of events, from cultural ceremonies to social gatherings and sports activities. And we look forward to the day where reaching a steady state, we can once again open up to the cultural vibrancy of our communities and invite people to mix, to learn from each other and to celebrate each other’s cultures. 

I want to also congratulate, in advance, the winners of the Geylang Serai Cultural Precinct Design Competition. A big thank you not just to the winners, but to every single participant, for your hard work, for the investment of your energy and creativity in this endeavour. You have all made very important and innovative suggestions that reflect a deeper appreciation and understanding of the social and cultural importance of Geylang Serai, and of places like Geylang Serai. 

In fact, this is not just an infrastructure project, it is not just about the buildings or the architecture or the place. It is about a place reflecting culture, heritage, history, roots and identity. That makes projects such as these, that much more demanding, challenging, requiring lots of sensitivity, empathy, and understanding of the deeper DNA that drives the spirit of a place. 

And your efforts also embody what the Singapore Together movement is all about – all of us pitching in, doing our part, taking real action; rolling up our sleeves to shape our future Singapore, and all the places around this island, as one team.

Such community involvement is especially valuable in the preservation and rejuvenation of cultural precincts such as Geylang Serai. Geylang Serai is one of the oldest Malay settlements in Singapore, and it has a long and rich history. I am told that it got its name from the Malay word “serai”, meaning “lemongrass”, because of the Alsagoff family who started cultivating lemongrass here in the 19th century. Today, it is an important symbol and celebration of Malay heritage and culture. As well as a diverse and vibrant commercial centre, a popular destination for both our Malay community, as well as visitors of all cultural backgrounds.

Places like Geylang Serai, as well as Little India, Chinatown, and Kampung Gelam, and others, are important cultural anchors for the identity and heritage of our different ethnic communities here in Singapore. These places remain and continue to be important cultural anchors as a result of the integrated approach we take towards our city planning. But beyond the hardware and the planning, we also want these places to capture the vision and identity of our local communities. And that is why we invite members of these communities to step forward, work with all of us to continually refresh these places, and keep them vibrant and yet continue to express our cultural identities, be true to our heritage, even as they evolve overtime.

At the same time, even as these places embody the unique cultural heritage of our different ethnic communities, we also take care to make sure that they are inclusive and accessible to everyone, regardless of their backgrounds. We keep most of these areas open for public access, with lots of communal spaces that everyone can use – our parks, our food centres, our markets, our shopping areas and so on. We make sure that these places are also well-served by public transport to make them easy for anyone to come and visit. 

This is the outcome of integrated, long-term planning, where inclusive neighbourhoods and communities are built, where the diverse heritage of our nation is valued, and where everyone is welcome. And this is the approach that we take when planning for land-use in Singapore.

Our urban spaces therefore reflect the Singapore brand of multiculturalism. Where we celebrate the unique identity of each of our ethnic communities, while ensuring that all our communities get plenty of opportunities to live together, interact with each other, forge strong bonds, and foster mutual respect and understand and appreciate, yet still embracing our cultural differences.

As you do a project like Anjung@Wisma Geylang Serai, and as we continue to enhance, refresh, update, revitalise, each and every one of our cultural heritage nodes, continue to reflect on why we are doing this, how we go about doing this and the long-term outcomes that we seek to achieve. It is really about that rich multiculturalism which recognises that each of our cultural and ethnic identities – our food, our language, our architecture, the way in which we interact with family, with neighbours, with friends, each bearing the hallmarks and DNA of our long cultural and ethnic histories. But yet, they come in collectively that rich fabric of multiculturalism that holds Singapore together. Not to divide us, nor should we seek to taper away all these cultural distinctiveness in the pursuit of what some may perceive as the goal of a race-blind society. 

Our approach is fundamentally different and has served us well. It continues to be refreshed and updated, and as younger generations come onboard, applying their innovation, creativity and their ideas of what the multicultural society should be. I think we bear in mind that this cultural ballast or this approach of multiculturalism keeps us rooted in our past, allows us to interact in harmony with the present, and gives us that diversity and strength to look to the future. 

Apart from cultural nodes like Geylang Serai and other places, I think that multiculturalism also runs through the lifeblood of our homes and our housing estates. We plan them carefully, to try to provide services and amenities for each ethnic community – to provide for the diversity that we hope will embody in these estates, from food options in our hawker centres and eating houses to places of worship. 

We also provide plenty of common spaces, from our Community Clubs to our playgrounds and void decks, where neighbours of different races get to mix. Sure, from time to time there will be friction, there will be misunderstanding, but this approach of carefully planning, coordinating, making sure we keep our places diverse, providing as much as we can to foster that diversity, allows overall for harmony; for people to understand and appreciate each other, to meet, to greet, to learn, to earn each other’s respect, to celebrate each other’s culture. 

But equally too, we have longstanding policies like the Ethnic Integration Policy, or EIP, which caps the maximum proportion of flats in each of our HDB blocks and estates that can be owned by each ethnic group. This ensures that our HDB blocks and neighbourhoods, where the majority of our people live, have a balanced racial mix that reflects our multicultural society.

You may have heard about our debate on this in Parliament last week, after questions were raised by MPs Mr Chong Kee Hiong and Ms Cheryl Chan. It is always good and opportune to continue to reflect, pause and ask ourselves about the relevance of many of these policies and how they anchor Singapore, Singaporeans, and how we continue to refresh, update, and keep public support for important policies that form the bedrock of multicultural Singapore. 

It was a robust debate, with a good sharing of ideas. And I am glad that at the end of it, there was affirmation or bipartisan support by both the Government and the Opposition for the EIP, as an important way to promote racial harmony by preventing the formation of ethnic enclaves. 

We also acknowledged that the implementation of the policy has its rough edges, particularly for flat owners from minority ethnic groups, who may face difficulties selling their flats when the Chinese EIP limit has been reached, for example. This group may also be financially disadvantaged, and may feel that they are bearing an unfair burden, for a policy that benefits every one of us and keeps us stable and multicultural for the long term. We recognise these concerns. HDB looks into each of these cases carefully, considers the specific circumstances, and exercises flexibility for those in difficult circumstances. And we are studying what more we can do to further smoothen these edges. 

With proactive policies like the EIP, and thoughtful design and planning of our estates and neighbourhoods, we can encourage much more interaction amongst people of different races. Do not pretend there are no differences. But recognise them, allow us to interact, create the opportunities to ask questions, to be able to live and work in harmony. And I think that overall allows us to keep our cultural identity, while ensuring that the races continue to work together. 

All of us, particularly our children, can grow up living with our neighbours from different backgrounds, all around our estates – and as young as in our preschools, to our schools, when you take the lift, when we walk at the void deck, common corridors, when you visit the market and when we eat at the hawker centres, when we exercise at our parks, when we follow our children to playgrounds and when we interact at sports facilities. These go a long way towards fostering mutual understanding and respect among our different ethnic communities. Especially when coupled with our many other efforts to promote racial harmony, such as through national education and proactive community programming and activities to bring people together.

Conversely, without such deliberate efforts to encourage mixing among people of different communities, we could end up separating ourselves over time, with each community living in different parts of Singapore, and having a different lived experience of Singapore. We would not get to see each other so often, and would have far fewer opportunities to build that micro-personal connections with each other, or to learn first-hand about each other’s cultures. It would be much harder to build trust across the races, and serious misunderstandings may then flare up more often.

I think we are all glad that we have not chosen this path here in Singapore.

Places like Geylang Serai are not just spaces where certain ethnic communities thrive and flourish, but also spaces where different races can interact, and learn to appreciate each other’s cultures.

So a very big thank you once again to all our partners who are helping to keep Geylang Serai lively and vibrant – from our community leaders and heritage groups to landowners and merchant associations. Your efforts contribute not just to the success of Geylang Serai, but also to the diversity and harmony of our multicultural society. Congratulations again on today’s milestone, and I look forward to even more exciting things to come. Thank you and have a good day.