Presidential hopeful Tharman to Singapore youths: Good to be socially aware but ‘make haste slowly’ when changing social norms

SINGAPORE— Being “woke” can be a good thing, if it means making people more socially aware of issues. But when it comes to changing social norms, it is better for the country to “make haste slowly” because “you never know what comes the day after”, said presidential hopeful Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.

“Listen to each other, respect each other, including respecting people with different views and different preferences for themselves.

“Respect that people should be able to live lives according to their own values. But when we think about the broader social norms of society, move carefully, move slowly. Be cautious,” said Tharman, who is a former Senior Minister.

Tharman was answering questions fielded by students from local secondary schools and tertiary institutions during a dialogue session at the’s HarmonyWorks! conference.


The annual conference, held at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College East this year, was attended by around 200 youths.

Over the course of an hour, students posed questions to Tharman relating to issues such as casual racism, woke culture in social media, integration between locals and migrants and the role of activism in creating civic discourse.

“I think there is a continuum between being more aware, advocating for safe space, and activism,” said Tharman, adding that being labelled an “activist” is not a bad thing and that he himself was one when he was young.

“Being an activist is an extension of being socially aware”, and that the new generation of young Singaporeans has the opportunity to develop social awareness across a whole range of issues — something the previous generation might not have been able to do as they were primarily concerned about “making a living”, he said.

He also pointed out that the “wokeism” culture in Singapore is not at all on the scale of what it is in some other countries like the United States and parts of Europe, but it is “something to be looked at”.

“If people are more socially aware of issues, I think that’s a good thing. (But) if people are wanting to stifle debate, or stifle responses, that’s not a good thing,” he said.

“So it goes back to the point I’m making about civic discourse — about being willing to talk to each other, listen to each other, find common ground and where you can’t find common ground, accept differences.”

On racial divides and race in politics

Turning to the topic of microaggressions — which refer to subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalised group — after a member of the audience asked why signs of a racial divide still exist despite a “constant reminder” that Singaporeans live in a racially harmonious society, Tharman was quick to stress that the situation had improved a lot since Singapore’s early years.

He recalled that as a student, it was a “daily occurrence” for buses not to stop for him because of his race.

“Now what we regard very quickly as a microaggression — we’re very sensitive to it, and rightly so. It was the norm all the time in the old days, not because people were being bigoted or unfriendly… people looked at each other as people of different races first and foremost,” he said.

“It is so different now, and now we can be rightly concerned each time there’s microaggression. And we want to roll it back and lean against it and then we’ll stamp it out. So we have progressed, (and) I think we can do more.”

Throughout the session, Tharman reiterated several times the important role that schools can play in creating a broader “comfort zone” pertaining to Singaporeans’ relationships with people of different races.

“There is a real opportunity now of having a broader comfort zone for people as they grow up — where they are comfortable with people who are different from them… not just race and religion, but also different social backgrounds,” he said.

“It has to start from young. Part of education has to be developing the ability to have civic discourse — listening to each other and understanding differences and finding common ground — and where we can’t find common ground… accepting those differences but remaining Singaporean together.”

Asked by another member of the audience how much race plays a part in politics or in holding important positions in national leadership, Tharman said that in Singapore, race might only be an issue if candidates for a position are equal in their experience and personal ability.

However, he said that this would not be an issue as “people are actually quite different in their abilities”.

“There’s no reason why, at some point in time, you (won’t) get someone to become a prime minister who’s from a minority race, or in holding any other senior positions as we already do. Race is an issue but it is not the only issue.”

”I fortunately have never been disadvantaged by race. Not that it is absent, but it is not the only issue by which people judge me, and it has never disadvantaged me.”

Tharman added that the same line of thinking might be applied to gender.

“It’s not just race, same thing goes for gender. Everything else being equal in many societies, for political leadership, people might prefer a man. Not all societies, but in many societies it’s unfortunately that way.

”It shouldn’t be, and we should evolve out of it. But it doesn’t mean a woman cannot become a leader because everything else is often not equal,” he said.

Several students that attended the conference told TODAY that they had gleaned important insights from the event and that they hoped to see more such dialogues in which they would be able to share their views on matters important to their generation and hear from public figures.

“In my experience, there’s a lot of people who think that everything can be made fun of. It is hard to find a conversation ground that says — hey, you know what, this is a place we can talk about it,” said 21-year-old Eunice Yap, who is a student from ITE College Central.

“At least now I have people around me — youths that are able to say, hey, you know, I also had this issue also.”

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