Speech by Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, at The Network Conference 2003, 03 May 2003, 9.30 am

Singapore Government Press Release
Media Relations Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts,
MITA Building, 140 Hill Street, 2nd Storey, Singapore 179369
Tel: 6837-9666



Learning and Living the Singapore Story


The National Education (NE) Programme was launched in May 1997. That was just six years ago, but it was a totally different world.

In 1997, Singapore had been experiencing a long period of stability and high growth. We worried that the younger generation of Singaporeans, having grown up in such a benign environment, had little knowledge or appreciation of how Singapore overcame the odds to arrive at where we were. Their reference point is different from the older generation. The older generation went through turmoil, poverty and hardship. They witnessed racial riots, lived through the Separation with Malaysia and Konfrontasi with Indonesia, or endured the suffering and the atrocities of the Japanese Occupation. Their children and grandchildren would know this at best vicariously, second hand.

NE seeks to provide a common reference point for all Singaporeans. Its objective, at the most basic level, is to tell younger Singaporeans the Singapore Story. This will help deepen their understanding of Singapore’s constraints and vulnerabilities, and imbue them with the values that make Singapore tick. Eventually, we hope that Singaporeans will develop the right instincts and attitudes, which will help us cope with the new challenges of a different era. By strengthening our shared cultural DNA, we will bond more closely together as one nation.

Achievements and Limitations of NE Programme

So how have we done in the last six years?

We now have a systematic process for exposing young Singaporeans to NE, via schools, the Civil Service College, and grassroots organisations, through formal and informal curricula. Surveys show that young Singaporeans by and large have understood the importance of NE and its key messages. There is greater common understanding of what Singapore stands for.

But surveys also showed that 40% of Singaporeans perceive NE as government propaganda. Such a reaction is not surprising. If they had the life experiences to appreciate the messages of NE and not dismiss them as propaganda, then we would not have needed NE. So this is an inherent problem in trying to teach a subject about life and its hardships.

NE is unlike any other school subject. It is not about remembering facts, acquiring analytical skills or drumming in campaign messages. It is about engaging hearts and minds. It takes rare skill and sensitivity to expound the Singapore Story, convey its meaning and emotional content, and put the messages across in an appropriate manner, without making the audience feel that it is preachy or propaganda. And even with the most skilful delivery, there is a limit to how much NE can be taught.

Ultimately, NE is best learnt not in the classroom but through real life experiences. We launched NE in May 1997 out of concern that more trouble-free years would deprive younger Singaporeans of the very necessary learning experiences they would need to prepare them for the vicissitudes of life. Little did we expect that less than two months after that, the Asian Crisis would break, and that in the six years since then, we would experience some of the most significant developments in Singapore’s history. These developments offer the most vivid real-life lessons in NE that we could have imagined.

National Education in Real-Life

The Asian Crisis

Firstly, Singapore’s economic transition. The Asian Crisis was a turning point for Southeast Asia, and Singapore. It ended two decades of remarkable growth in the region, disrupted many economies, and triggered off far-reaching political changes in Indonesia. The aftermath of the Crisis is still being felt today, as Southeast Asia struggles to come back onto investors’ radar screens.

Superimposed on the Asian Crisis is the rise of China as a major force in the global economy. China has become the world’s most attractive destination for foreign direct investment. India too is an emerging player. Both countries offer promising new opportunities, but they also pose major competitive challenges to Southeast Asia.

These tectonic changes made Singapore’s old strategy for economic growth obsolete. We cannot depend on Southeast Asia prospering, and simply ride on its success. We need to cast our net wider, tap into the growth of China and India, and strengthen our links with major trading partners through free trade agreements. We can no longer rely so heavily on investments by MNCs to create jobs; we need to promote innovation and entrepreneurship among Singaporeans, grow new businesses, and constantly be on the lookout for new opportunities and threats. We need to change mindsets of Singaporeans, to be more self-reliant, to depend more on our own wits and resources, to be prepared for surprises and upsets in a more unsettled world than we had become used to.

We set up the Economic Review Committee to fundamentally rethink our economic strategies. The Committee has completed its work, but our rethinking cannot stop there. Over the next decades, we will need to update and revise our strategies over and over again, as the world changes.


Suddenly, we are no longer learning NE lessons in the abstract, to prepare us for possible problems in a distant future. The problems are right before us, and the lessons they held for us are unambiguous.

One key lesson is that Singapore is vulnerable, and our economy is dependent on the outside world. Another is that nobody owes us a living, but if we are nimble and swift-witted, we can still make a very good living for ourselves. These are timeless truths for Singapore. During the long years of steady growth, many Singaporeans began to doubt them. They thought that growth would happen automatically, and could not imagine how our livelihood could be seriously threatened.

The Asian Crisis has dispelled any doubt that we are vulnerable to external developments, and that we need to be vigilant and quick witted to survive and prosper. But it is equally important for Singaporeans to be convinced of the positive side of our strategic position: that despite the enormous uncertainties and challenges, there is still a wealth of opportunities that we can seize and exploit, provided that we have the dynamism and sense of venture.

Fight Against Terrorism

Secondly, terrorism. Just as the Asian crisis is a turning point in our economic landscape, September 11 is the turning point for our security landscape.

A few months after 11 September 2001, the Internal Security Department (ISD) arrested members of a radical Islamic group called Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). The JI members were planning a series of bomb attacks in Singapore. If they had succeeded, they would have killed hundreds of innocent citizens and caused a calamity for Singapore. Although we pre-empted and broke up their plot, the wider region could not escape their acts of violence. In October 2002, two bombs exploded in a crowded nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, killing nearly 200 people.

JI’s objective is to use violence to topple the Governments of Southeast Asian countries, to create a Daulah Islamiah (Islamic State). The group is directly linked to Al Qaeda, which carried out the September 11 bombings.

In Singapore, our response has been swift and decisive. After the arrests of the JI members, we stepped up security measures and surveillance to make Singapore a "hard" target. We explained the problem to our multi-racial population, to prevent any division or distrust between Muslim and non-Muslim Singaporeans. Religious leaders of all faiths unanimously and publicly condemned the September 11 terrorist attacks and the JI group.

The JI group is not a one-off problem. Our actions have crippled their network and their plans in Singapore, but their organisation elsewhere in the region remains intact. Some of the Singaporean JI members are in hiding, and can still regroup to take revenge against Singapore.

More fundamentally, around the world racial and religious conflicts are becoming increasingly disruptive forces. And although Al Qaeda has been crippled and its base in Afghanistan destroyed, groups linked to it continue to operate around the world and in our region. Their hatred for the West, especially the US, has not diminished. They are still fully capable of perpetrating murderous acts of terror, and will want to target Singapore.


An obvious lesson to draw from this episode is that Singapore faces genuine security threats. We were lucky to have arrested the JI members in time and averted a serious loss of lives in Singapore. We have the capabilities to safeguard our security, but we must keep up our guard and not let any terrorists slip through.

Our experience with terrorism highlights another clear lesson – the continuing critical importance of maintaining racial and religious harmony. This is not a theoretical problem, nor a problem of the past that only the older generation is paranoid about. Racial and religious strife is a clear and present danger.

Southeast Asia has become a major theatre of operation of Al Qaeda, because the large Muslim populations here provide the terrorists with political cover and concealment. The vast majority of Southeast Asian Muslims are peaceful and moderate in their beliefs. Nevertheless, the extremists will try to justify their actions in the name of Islam, and exploit ethnic and religious fault lines to sow hatred between our races.

We therefore have to take extra and urgent efforts to strengthen our racial and religious harmony. If a terrorist attack ever happens in Singapore, there is a grave risk that the non-Muslims will mistrust all Muslims, and Muslims in turn will feel insecure and afraid to put their safety in the hands of the majority non-Muslims. These sentiments will feed on each other, worsening matters further. At the very least this would leave us with a polarised society, but it could easily lead to racial strife. By strengthening our racial and religious harmony now, we make it easier to manage problems after any incident, and minimise the risk of a disastrous rupture in our society.

Bilateral Relations

Thirdly, developments in our bilateral relations with our two closest neighbours – Indonesia and Malaysia.


Because of its sheer size and its proximity to Singapore, Indonesia’s stability is of critical importance to Singapore. If Indonesia is in chaos, we will be engulfed by their situation. If Indonesia is hostile, we will have a problem.

For nearly thirty years we enjoyed a constructive bilateral relationship with Indonesia under the leadership of President Suharto. He decided that Indonesia’s development would only be possible if Indonesia had good relations with its neighbours and the region was peaceful and stable. His leadership paved the way for Asean and regional cooperation. However, the political and social unrest during the Asian Crisis eventually brought down Suharto, and set in train a series of changes in Indonesia’s political leadership. Not all the new leaders were as well disposed towards Singapore as was Suharto.

Most notably, Prof B J Habibie, who succeeded Suharto, held a totally different attitude towards Singapore. In his now famous interview with the AWSJ (4 Aug 98), after saying that he did not have the feeling that Singapore is a friend, he pointed to a map and said ‘It’s OK with me, but there are 211 million people (in Indonesia)…All the green (area) is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore."

From the point of view of NE, this was a vivid and valuable reminder that we are indeed very small and very vulnerable. The little red dot has entered the psyche of every Singaporean, and become a permanent part of our vocabulary, for which we are grateful.

After Abdurrahman Wahid took over from Habibie, relations became somewhat better, but remained very unpredictable.

Now, under President Megawati Sukarnopurtri, relations have stabilised. We have regained some of the constructive co-operation before the Asian Crisis. But we are now dealing with a different Indonesia. The old Indonesia will not be recreated.

One key change is the rise of political Islam. Previously restrained under Suharto, political Islam now features prominently in the Indonesian polity. Its rise reflects both domestic political forces let loose after Suharto, and also the worldwide Islamic revival. Indonesian politicians, regardless of their personal beliefs, cannot ignore the Islamic constituency as they prepare for the 2004 Presidential elections.

Indonesia is not an Islamic state. President Megawati stands for a secular-nationalist Indonesia, and so do the majority of Indonesians. Since independence, Indonesians know that if religious fanaticism gains ascendancy, it will tear apart the social fabric and divide their diverse and pluralistic nation. If the worldview of Indonesia or its leaders shift, it will have profound implications for Singapore and the region.


Our relationship with Malaysia is one of our most important and complex foreign relations. In recent years, relations have gone through sharp ups and downs due to various issues – water, land reclamation, the Points-Of-Agreement, and Pedra Branca. Malaysian leaders have made extremely hardline statements on water. In the November 2000 issue of Strategi, a journal of the Malaysian Armed Forces College, a senior military officer wrote:

"Malaysia should take full advantage of water as a strategic weapon to counter Singapore’s military advantage over Malaysia."

We tried hard and in good faith to resolve the water issue with Malaysia, but many complications arose and ultimately the effort was in vain. The ins and outs of this saga have been fully explained by the Foreign Minister in Parliament, and have now been set out in a book which offers rich material for NE.

Concurrently, since the late 1990s, we have developed a new source of water for Singapore – NEWater. We harnessed the technology, educated our public and persuaded them that NEWater is safe and clean even for direct human consumption. NEWater enables us to continue to meet our water requirements when the 1961 Water Agreement lapses. With further breakthroughs in water technology and developments in our local catchment areas, we can if necessary be self-sufficient after 2061, when the 1962 Water Agreement expires.

Water is a manifestation, but not the root cause of Malaysia’s unhappiness with Singapore. The key issue is not what we do, is what we are.

Our ethnic mixes are almost mirror images of one another – for us, majority Chinese with a minority of Malays; for them, majority Malays with a minority of Chinese. Our systems are based on diametrically different fundamental organising principles. This was indeed the basic reason for Separation in 1965.

The Singapore and Malaysian governments deal with each other as do all countries: that is on the basis of our respective national interests. But until today, 38 years after Separation, some Malaysians still do not accept the existence of independent Singapore. In August 2002, a writer in Berita Minggu (Malaysia) made the point that:

"The Malay Archipelago is the world of Malay stock. Hence, the emergence of a country ruled by Chinese in the midst of this Malay world is something that should not have happened for whatever reasons."


These experiences with Indonesia and Malaysia underscore the complexity and importance of maintaining sound relations with our immediate neighbours, in a changing environment, and despite awkward issues that crop up from time to time.

A key challenge is to maintain good relations with a more complicated Indonesia. Indonesia is still evolving in the aftermath of the Asian Crisis, and it will take some time before the political situation stabilises. Developments in Indonesia will continue to be a major factor in the stability of Southeast Asia and the security of Singapore.

Another important lesson is that a fundamental basis for sound relations is for us to be able to stand on our own as equals with other nations. Commenting on Singapore-Malaysia relations, one Singaporean in a letter to the Straits Times (27 Jan 03), said that:

"It has been said that Singapore is often treated as a little brother by Malaysia and, hence, is bullied. …Perhaps we have not behaved as a good adik should. Maybe we should be humbler about our achievements."

The writer is naïve and mistaken. Sovereign countries cannot behave like this. If we do as the writer suggested, we will not survive as a nation. We must approach bilateral issues in a constructive but not subservient manner. We will stand firm on fundamentals, while seeking win-win solutions. We will respect the differences we have with our neighbours, but defend what we stand for, so that we can live at peace, co-operate and prosper together.

War Against SARS

Fourthly, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. SARS is an enemy of an unprecedented nature for Singapore. It cannot be arrested or combated visibly and physically. Yet it is virulent, and will exploit lapses in personal precautions and our collective vigilance, to find new hosts and spread itself within the community.

The Government has implemented prompt and comprehensive measures to deal with the outbreak. Every ministry has been mobilised to tackle this national challenge. We ‘detect, isolate and contain’ those infected or are at risk of infected. We disinfect public areas, schools and public areas and take precautions to protect those who are healthy. We have implemented measures at border entry points, to filter out travellers with SARS coming into Singapore. We have provided relief to the most badly affected parts of the economy, and helped affected Singaporeans to cope financially.

But Government action is not enough. Everyone must do his part in the war against SARS. Taking sensible precautions to protect oneself is only one part. We all depend on others to protect us, and we are responsible to protect others. If we are on quarantine but decide to wander out into the streets, we are not protecting others. If we have taken all the daily precautions to minimise the chances of contracting the disease, but yet someone at work decides to come to the office even though he has a fever, we are still at risk.


The war against SARS is a test of our Total Defence capability. No military troops have been deployed, but our people are at the frontline of the public health, economic, social and psychological battles. Like in any war, our best chance of winning is for all Singaporeans to stay united, and to show strong social discipline.

At the same time, while we are conscious of the danger to our lives, we must have the tough-mindedness to live our lives normally, and to carry on with business as usual.

In the fight against SARS, a whole new generation of Singaporeans is being battle-tested and tempered for many more challenges ahead.

Conclusion - An Education About Life

NE seeks to teach Singaporeans the fundamental principles that underlie the existence of Singapore. The last six years have offered Singaporeans a course on NE that is more intensive than we would have desired. This is not just an exercise for practice, but a real operation where our lives and welfare are at stake.

As NE practitioners, you must guide and help younger Singaporeans to hoist in the lessons of these real life experiences. They cannot afford simply to ride along passively as passengers, leaving the problems to their parents and the Government.

You are therefore pivotal in bringing these lessons across effectively and vividly to Singaporeans. You are the trainers of many players in the next Act of the Singapore Story.

The results of your effort can only be seen over the long term, but they depend critically on your attitude and commitment. You must be personally committed to and passionate about Singapore. Only then can you help galvanise Singaporeans for our journey of nationhood.

The need for National Education is therefore stronger than ever. These challenges that we now face are amongst the most difficult that we have met as a nation. By tackling them successfully, we will not only resolve the immediate problems, but also imbue a whole new generation of Singaporeans with the shared attitudes and the social cohesion that will see the nation through for many years to come.