NTU students: Singapore should be open to non-Chinese PM

2 Apr 2019

By Rexanne Yap

Finance Minister Heng Swee Kiat spoke at NTU on Apr 1 about being open-minded and learning from other cultures while also commenting that the older generations of Singaporeans are not ready for an ethnic minority prime minister, a point some students disagreed with. PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

After hearing Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat emphasise the need for open-mindedness and social interaction, students here expressed their surprise when he said that Singapore is not yet ready for a non-Chinese prime minister (PM).

Mr Heng was speaking to more than 700 students and staff at the annual ministerial forum organised by the NTU Students’ Union on 28 Mar at the Lee Kong Chian Lecture Theatre. He was responding to Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah from the School of Social Sciences, who had asked whether it was Singapore or the People’s Action Party that was not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister.

While a majority of the audience, when polled by Mr Heng, expressed that they would be happy to have a non-Chinese prime minister, the prime minister-designate said that his interactions with Singaporeans have shown that such views “would not be as common” among older Singaporeans.

Goh Aik Chuan, a final-year student from the National Institute of Education, was surprised at Mr Heng’s comments.

“I feel it’s important to learn about the different mindsets and views of people of all age groups. I believe education is the key in encouraging Singaporeans to be more open to have a minority PM,” said the 27-year-old.

Mr Heng credited the students’ progressive views to the success of the policy of “regardless of race, language or religion”. To emphasise racial inclusivity at the institutional level, the Singapore government had to take steps to reserve the presidential elections for the minority.

“I do think at the right time, when enough people think that way, we may have a minority country leader. And that’s something we can all hope for.”

Violet Phua, 24, a final-year student from the School of Materials Science and Engineering agreed with his observation and wishes that more can be done to represent the needs of minority races.

“Singaporeans are getting more concerned and open about micro-racism. Perhaps we can be more patient and hopeful that we would be able to bridge that gap. We should take initiative to befriend people who come from different backgrounds,” said Phua.

But some students are not so quick to place the blame on older Singaporeans.

Ng Kai Xiang, 24, a third-year student from the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences said: “I think the ruling party should be more accountable to the people on how they choose their prime minister and if needed, give a clear reason why the prime minister is not from a minority race.

“They should also do a statistical analysis of why the older generation thinks this way before coming to a conclusion. I don't know how true it is that the older Chinese think that way.”

Immigration and multiculturalism

Mr Heng also stressed the need for an open mindset toward immigration and population.

Damian Koh, 23, a second-year student from Nanyang Business School asked if the White Paper projection of 6.9 million residents still stands, stating that citizens’ quality of life could be maintained if the population was smaller.

Mr Heng responded by saying that Singapore has the physical capacity to hold more than 6.9 million, but acknowledged that social space and the sense of togetherness is a difficult issue to tackle.

He encouraged students to interact and understand others, including new immigrants, immediate neighbours, and students from other universities.

In his speech, he reflected upon the Singapore Bicentennial - the commemoration of British arrival in 1819 - that bilingualism and openness were the secrets to Singapore's economic success when ASEAN was still developing economically.

He encouraged students who went on overseas exchange programmes to take the opportunity to learn about another culture and judge for themselves what is worth emulating.

“We don’t want a world where people build walls around themselves,” he said, making a reference to US President Donald Trump's campaign promise on building a wall, and garnered laughs from the audience.

Radhika Gupta, 21, a second-year student from the School of Social Science thought that local students can do more to include international and exchange students in NTU.

“There's a psychological impact of immigration on Singaporeans apart from economic advantages. A lot of us are just stuck in our own bubble in NTU -- we don't really go out of our way (to include them). With more exchange students coming in, I think they can really refresh our perspectives,” said Gupta.

Job security in an age of automation

On the technological front, establishing an open attitude towards digital innovation is also important. Mr Heng addressed concerns that students had about automation taking over potential white-collar jobs for graduates.

He said that Singaporeans need to be the masters of technology and not the slaves to it.

“Our education system must allow us to learn the skills needed for more valuable tasks where human creativity and empathy can do better (than robots),” said Mr Heng.

Additionally, he added that more employers are hiring based on interpersonal and leadership skills rather than academics and IQ alone.

“Our companies must think very hard about redesigning jobs and reskilling our workers. We, especially the young people in this room, cannot take graduation as the end of learning.”

Mr Heng added that through e-commerce, we should be thinking of how we can provide a unique product not just for Singapore, but for the world.

Tan Jun Xiang, 27, a graduate from the School of Computer Science and Engineering agrees we should build functionality, especially in digital technology, and impact others beyond our shores.

“We have to market ourselves as a value asset to the world to stay relevant,” said Tan.