Transcribed by Jess C Scott from Not By Wages Alone (Selected Speeches and Writings of Devan Nair, 1959-1981).
Full article at Singapore Repository.
Excerpts from “What Singapore Means to Me” (1981)
by Devan Nair
(1) Presidents and Heads of State are expected to be nice and gracious to everybody. My doctors tell me that this will be good for my health. I have no doubt that it will also be good for my soul.
(2) I do not know what you feel when Majulah Singapura is sung on National Day. . .I struggle against tears of pride as I mentally scan the last 40 years. I know it is difficult for the younger generation of Singaporeans to appreciate the reasons.
(3) The difference between my generation and theirs is simply this: We were not merely ready to die for our beliefs. Many of us expected to die, whether in communal riots, or from the bullets and knives of communist assassins.
(4) Reading about hell, war, unemployment, imprisonment and riots in cold print is one thing. Living through hell, war, unemployment, riots and imprisonment is quite another.
(5) I remember how, during the bloody Hock Lee Bus riots in 1954, a student, hit by a stray police bullet, could have been saved. . .but communist united front cadres took the bleeding student on their shoulders and paraded him around the city. . .four hours later, [when] he was taken to hospital, he was already dead.
(6) It would be wrong to assume that there is nothing at all you can obtain from the founding generation of Singaporeans. There are certain constants in our collective social life, the preservation of which will ensure that the core of our society will not be corrupted by dry rot.
(7) These constants are the standards and values we rigorously subscribe to in our private and public lives, [which] include intelligence, [honesty] and integrity, social justice and fair play.
(8) More enduring and much harder to gain than popularity, is public respect.
(9) Moments of truth are devastating, for both individuals and nations, because they often come too late. The only way to avoid them, for leaders and citizens alike, is to try and be sincerely truthful all the time.
(10) I hope and pray [these standards] will remain some of the constants in our public life. You will jettison them only at grave social peril. You may exceed these standards and values. But it will be a betrayal of our people and their future if you settle for anything lower.
(11) If the future is to be secured, young persons of dedication, intelligence and ability should not shirk the responsibilities of leadership in the institutions of public life.
(12) In other countries, selfish clinging to power and office on the part of the ageing have been impediments in the path of able and intelligent members of the younger generation.
(13) The most obstinate stupidity in the world is that of old men who forget that they are mortal.
(14) The right to lead is not transferable. Leadership must be justified, deserved and won.
(15) In a democratic society, the instruments of leadership cannot be acquired through inheritance. . .the right to lead has to be fought for and won at the bar of public opinion.
(16) Our people are neither obtuse, naive nor gullible. They are a sophisticated lot. They have shown in the past that they can distinguish the genuine from the spurious, the sincere from the hypocritical. Their children will not be less discerning when they mature with experience.
(17) It is the sacred responsibility of able, intelligent, honest and dedicated members of the younger generation not to leave the leadership of the future to the vagaries of chance. If the best young people in our midst do not aspire to leadership roles, the field will be occupied by lesser persons. This would be a tragedy, for Singapore requires and deserves our best young persons to come forward.
(18) The lessons of history. . .remind us that where self-renewal is left to haphazard chance, the decision-making process in society [passes] into the province of fickle and irresponsible gamblers with destiny, [wastefully extravagant] with the nation’s wealth. They then proceed to mortgage the future, and generations to come will continue to pay for their follies of omission and commission.
(19) The greatest contribution you can make to the nation is to so constitute yourselves as to become a potent force for the national good. No individual can prosper if the society in which he lives and works goes down the drain. . .it is the quality and motivation of the individual which determines the quality of achievement of society as a whole.