It Takes Two Hands to Clap. Singaporeans Need to Play Our Part: Singapore Government Says So Again, and Again

In two separate interviews today, two ministers both reminded and reinforced the government’s discourse on Singaporeans that it takes two hands to clap for Singaporeans to welcome migrants, and that we need to do our part.

Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen had said that, “Integration is a two-way street. It takes two hands to clap. And so we have to be open, for those of us who have been here longer. And I think for new citizens, they also have to step forward. So if one side remains open, the other side takes the initiative, both sides meet together, I think that will make it much faster.” Dr Ng had also “urged Singaporeans to play their part in helping to achieve such a balance… between economic growth and foreign talent.”

Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing had also “stressed that everyone needs to play a part… to integrate new immigrants in the coming years.” He also said that, “that will require two hands to clap, it will require fellow Singaporeans to remain open to people from different backgrounds.” Mr Chan also added that, “at the same time, it will require new immigrants, our new friends, to come on board and play a part in our society, to reach out, to understand our social norms and to reach out to fellow Singaporeans. Only so, will we be able to build an inclusive society for everyone.”

Separately, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, S Iswaran, had, today, also “urged new citizens to learn to integrate and be part of a larger society.” He had also said that, “we have got to make sure that we continue to keep that a very vibrant part of Singapore, where (when) people from very different cultural and religious backgrounds come here, they feel free to practise, pursue their faith, pursue their religion, but being a part of a larger Singapore society and integrate in that manner.

The new 2012 Singapore Government Discourse! It takes “two hands to clap” and everyone has to “play their part”. I am almost surprised that this isn’t the tagline for NDP 2012 – It takes two hands to clap to play our part. I will expect more ministers to start speaking about “clapping with our hands to play our parts” in the coming days, or something along this line, now that we know the plot.

See, I am not sure if the government has forgotten how the turn of events – that Singaporeans started being angry – came about.

Mid 2000s – Government opened doors without restrictions to foreigners to enter Singapore

Late 2000s – Infrastructure in Singapore not able to cope with sudden population growth, on the back on migrant influx

2011 – Singaporeans got really, really angry. Worker’s Party won Aljunied.

Singaporeans reacted adversely because we they weren’t prepared for what was to come. Without warning, the trains became packed overnight. All of a sudden, our streets became even more crowded. Overnight, we were faced with peoples of different cultures who had different cultural traits that Singaporeans weren’t used to, and had to get used to almost immediately.

Now, you tell me, which person can learn to adapt to all these changes, all at once?

Of course, the government can set its own discourse as to what it wants to tell Singaporeans. But let me remind our government of their role in our current predicament, and perhaps they would need to do more than just discourse on having to clap hands to do our part.

  1. From the early days of Singapore’s independence, the government has focused on the economic growth of the country, and one can argue that social growth was neglected. Singaporeans had to follow a discourse where public debate was not encouraged. Demonstrations and discussions against the government were not welcomed, and sometimes acted  upon, by imprisonment. Singaporeans were taught not to think.
  2. Mr Chan had spoken about how “Singapore still celebrates Racial Harmony Day, because it is easy to forget Singapore’s more difficult early years during times of peace and harmony like now.” Mr Iswaran had spoken about how, “people from very different cultural and religious backgrounds come here, they feel free to practise, pursue their faith, pursue their religion.” However, there are also strict laws governing the discussion of racial and religious issues in Singapore, such that Singaporeans have learnt not to express their viewpoints on these issues, so much so that these issues are swept under the carpet. Indeed, one might wonder if the government is the only one allowed to shape racial and religious discourse, such as when Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam had said that he believed that “Mr Seng han Thong is not racist” over a recent misunderstanding with SMRT. He had also said that, “he has known Mr Seng for many years, adding that he works hard on the ground and helps everyone.” Is it any wonder then many Singaporeans might not have the adequate skills to constructively and appropriately discuss racial and religious issues, and indeed, in the current climate, issues pertaining to foreigners? 
  3. Interestingly, even though the law caters for referendums, I have yet to see one in recent times. According to the Free Dictionary online, a “referendum allows the people to state their opinion on laws that have been enacted by the legislature, and the initiative allows the people to propose their own laws. Thus, in the states that have adopted the initiative and referendum, the people essentially form another branch of the legislature, having the ability both to enact laws and to overturn laws passed by the elected legislature but not yet in effect.” Singapore does not have any referendums in my current memory, nor are there any objective representative surveys which had been conducted to gauge public sentiments. 

Thus why are Singaporeans angry? Notwithstanding the sudden changes in population dynamics and infrastructural incapacity to deal with it, where the shock had resulted in a temporal inability to cope with the changes; Singaporeans were never allowed the opportunity to learn to cope cognitively, emotionally and psychologically to similar issues. Thus when issues such as this occur, and the government expects Singaporeans to be able to simply pick up, clap our hands and play our part, where do we get the skills to do this when we have been put on a dampener, in terms of our ability to manage these issues, for the large part of our lives? 

See, the government had caught itself in a conundrum. The institutionalisation of a lack of free speech, so to speak, has also stunted the critical thinking of Singaporeans, when it comes to social and emotive issues. If the government expects that Singaporeans are to also clap our hands and play our part, then the government cannot expect that we are like monkeys in a cage, which simply just clap our hands. Any primate can clap their hands. What separates humans from primates is perhaps our ability to critical appreciate circumstances and emotively, and constructively, manage them for the better good. And this ability needs to be given the space to grow. 

It is only now that the government realises that they need Singaporeans’ involvement to ensure that their policies work. They cannot implement policies at their whims and fancies, not when Singaporeans still make up 3.5 million people, or 60% of the people in Singapore. And it is thus now that the government hopes that they can encourage us to clap our hands to make things work for them. I would argue here too, that in order for us to clap our hands, we would need the government to open up space for us to allow our ability to think and critically appreciate social and emotive issues grow. And this would mean the following:

  1. Singaporeans need to have more space and freedom to critically discuss issues in the open – and not just at The Speaker’s Corner, or online platforms that the government thinks need not be taken seriously. The government needs to facilitate open discussions where Singaporeans are able to critically and constructively appreciate issues, and this means the government has to let go of the thinking that they cannot “lose face”. PM Lee had said sorry at the last general election and Singaporeans appreciate it. It is perhaps time that the government learns to admit to its mistakes and for Singaporeans to accept that things do not go smoothly sometimes, as NParks had recently did over the issue of their purchase of foldable bikes.
  2. Along with this, Singaporeans need to be given the opportunity to discuss racial and religious issues and not pretend that things such as racism and religious disagreements do not occur. They do occur, but how can we learn to deal with them in mature ways. Singapore is well-placed for discussions such as these to occur, in a multi-cultural society such as ours. How can we learn to say – you have your views and I have mine, and we will learn to respect one another’s views; and not to say that you have your views, they are wrong, but I will keep quiet about it even if I disagree.
  3. Finally, Singaporeans need to be given a platform where we are allowed to understand the prevailing sentiments among Singaporeans. Currently, the government gets to set the overall discourse. Singaporeans are conservative. Singaporeans are multi-cultural. Singaporeans are courtesy. But what is the truth? What do Singaporeans really think? We have reached a stage in our development where Singaporeans have reached an intellectual maturity to critically be able to appreciate issues, yet they are not given the space to do so. Many Singaporeans have thus chosen to be socially and politically apathetic, so much so that it has become a “natural” part of ourselves. Is this what Singaporeans want to be? Or is this what the government actually hopes to be? Singaporeans can be part of the solution. And to do so, we need the information, and we need the skills to critically appreciate and to come out with innovative solutions. Question is, can the government trust itself and trust Singaporeans that Singaporeans can be part of your solution – or rather, can we, the people who voted you in, trust you, to work with us for our interests?

So finally, I agree with our government – it takes two hands to clap and we need to play our part. But what it really means is that our government has to also clap on their end, so that we can clap with them. And the government needs to play its part. The prevailing discourse has been for Singaporeans to play our part, to agree with and to support the government’s policies and discourse. But the government cannot be the only one to set the discourse. Singapore has reached maturity where the government no longer has monopoly over solutions for the country. It needs its people to play alongside with it, and thus when we say it takes two hands to clap, the government has to clap alongside ours, and not just us alongside the government. 


  1. Pingback: Is the Singapore Government Listening? « The Heart Truths
  2. Pingback: Change Starts From the Top Part II: Can Singapore Govt Trust Its People? « The Heart Truths

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