Between Form and Substance

24 February 2006

Minister Mentor Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Chancellor Dr. Hu, Chairman Mr. Ho, President Professor Hunter, Distinguished Guests, Faculty, Staff and Students:

My warmest congratulations to you on the completion of the new campus and the new library of the Singapore Management University. It will certainly be another bright spot to the vibrancy of Singapore. I wish SMU every success in the years to come.

Today feels a great deal like a fond and endearing walk down memory lane for me. I can still remember vividly the year 1967, and the warm welcome you extended to me and my young family who sought calm in the looming threat of turbulence and uncertainty. I will always recall your kindness with great affection.

I am also happy that our part of the world is very different now than before; we have moved beyond the days when the rhetoric of ideological differences inflamed hatred, caused bloodshed and much heartbreak to its citizens. In Asia we have all benefited from a mass of change, under a new context of “reform and openness”, a wave so forceful in its sweep that it ushered in hope and optimism not only for the core nations but also the world around it.

Yes, we have achieved much but the harsh reality is that the world looks at us not by what we have achieved but by what we will continue to do.

The prime challenge as I see it today is how to nurture responsible citizenship, how to build in the hearts and minds of genuinely progressive young men and women the will as well as the means to carry our true hope for the future. Men and women who are balanced, informed, civil literate, capable of sound judgment and high ideals, who cherish not only the fruits of their labor, or are complacent in their new status as seasoned and opportunistic manufacturers, professionals or entrepreneurs, but the thinking, innovative and inspired men and women who feel a deeper sense of responsibility and public duty towards their world and beyond and care as much for individual dignity as for society’s collective honor.

It would be imprecise and overly simplistic for anyone to say that political structural reform will suffice as the antidote for all the sadness and sense of loss that permeates our history. While we need political institutions that are dependable, honest and built on the rule of law, a civil society must take place in the heart of the individual citizen. It is a commitment that goes far beyond equal participation, individual rights and economic opportunities, but must be attended by a spirit of public duty, a co-responsibility epitomized in the ancient oath of the Citizens of Athens, “We will transmit this city not only, not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

If we are to achieve the sustainable dynamism and the flexibility in other successful democracies which enable freedom of choice, breadth of opportunity and wide range of alternatives, yearning only for the democratic mechanism that serves the rights of their citizens is not enough. A flourishing democracy requires the parallel development of the underlying civic habitat that interweaves human mind and spirit, responsibility and reason.

I know it is fashionable to talk about rights, and the mention of personal duty, duty borne by order and virtue, will almost certainly be denigrated with a broad brush, some even consider the mention of duty and responsibility to be anti-democractic. But they could not be further from the truth.

The road to true liberalism is a long one. Freedom and democracy are values cherished by every nation. I love freedom, and I support democracy, but freedom and democracy must be built on a foundation of law and order, the most important cornerstone for sustainable development of any nation. Democracy is a most noble cause thus we must not succumb to the belief that by merely providing the mechanism of participation we have achieved our goal, after all approximated truth is not a species of truth but a species of falsehood; form is important, substance is all the more important; structure might hold us together but substance is the essence of a bright and transcendent future. I believe that this new library structure would find its beautiful soul if it inspires us to seek who we are, who we all are and where we shall be.

Ladies and gentlemen, the experience of age is invaluable, particularly for those who grew up in times of strife, as we can rightfully reflect on the past and be more vocal about our hope for the future. I am not certain whether Minister Mentor agrees with me here but I believe it is not suffering that brings us wisdom, although it will certainly broaden our experience and chasten our pride; in living outside the normal range we may escape from prejudices and received assumptions.

Minister Mentor, you particularly more than the others, you have put your heart and your will to elevate your country from strength to strength, through perplexing times and competitive challenges, unswervingly committed to the principle that progress gained through laying first constructive foundation is the best steadfast manifestation of all that we hope for and all that we hold dear, a true and ordered liberty, a humane and just society, fair and equal participation for all.

It has been a great pleasure and honour to be here. Thank you very much.