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Speech by Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at The Book Launch of "They Came From Jaffna" on 23 March 2019, at Grand Hyatt Singapore

23 Mar 2019

Mrs Indra Iswaran 

Ladies and Gentlemen

Good morning


1. I am happy to join you to celebrate the launch of Indra’s book, “They Came from Jaffna”.

a. This book documents the rich history, food, and culture of Singapore’s Jaffna Tamil community, or as they are known more broadly, Ceylon Tamils.

2. It is fitting to launch this book during Singapore’s Bicentennial year.

a. This year marks 200 years since Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore. As we commemorate our Bicentennial year, it is a good time for us to reflect on our rich history and learn from our past, so as to chart our future better.

b. “They Came from Jaffna” helps our younger generations to gain a better understanding of who they are and how Singapore got here. 

c. Best of all, Indra’s book tells this story in a language we can all understand – food!

Braving the winds of change

3. The book begins with Indra’s grandmother Meenachi’s journey to Malaya, and traces subsequent generations who settled in Singapore. Meenachi set sail on a boat from Jaffna, a city in Sri Lanka, in the 1890s. Her story, as Indra so eloquently puts it in her book, is a tribute to those “who braved the winds of change”.

4. I would like to pick up on this phrase today, and share about three themes that resonated with me:

a. The grit and determination which enabled our pioneers to overcome adversity;

b. Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-cultural society as a unique strength; and

c. The need for Singapore to remain open and be resourceful, in order to thrive.

The grit and determination of Singapore’s early pioneers

5. “Braving the winds of change” is, first and foremost, the story of Singapore’s early pioneers, whose grit and determination shaped our nation.

a. It is a story that resonates with me, and indeed many Singaporeans, of men and women like Meenachi, who set sail to Singapore as early settlers.

i. Many of them wanted to earn a living to support their families back home. However, as they worked over time to earn a living, they also decided to sink their roots here, bringing their families over to join them.

b. These pioneers faced many dangers and difficult times – the Japanese occupation, the anti-colonial struggle, racial riots, the fight against communism, and our separation from Malaysia. These experiences shaped our identity as a nation. 

c. Our great grandparents and grandparents accepted hardship, persevered, and built better lives for themselves and their families. In doing so, they put Singapore on a path of development, and transformed Singapore from a third-world country into a modern metropolis. 

d. They taught us the importance of grit and determination.  

i. In Ceylon Tamil culture, the Palmyra Tree is an important symbol of this. Its parts are used in many traditional recipes. The tree also connotes bravery in the midst of adversity, because it is a sturdy tree, able to withstand strong winds.

ii. I hope that Singaporeans can have the strength of the Palmyra Tree, and share the grit and determination of our pioneers.

Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-cultural society as a unique strength

6. Second, “braving the winds of change” is also about Singapore’s unique multi-racial, multi-cultural society. One of the most remarkable achievements of Singapore has been our racial and religious harmony over the last 50 years. 

a. The Ceylon Tamils were a minority within a minority in post-independence Singapore. But this did not stop them from integrating freely with other races. 

b. Over time, our different races and religions mixed with one another, helped one another, and forged a common understanding.  The circles of trust expanded. Our pioneers knew that for us to survive as a nation, we cannot be divided as a society. 

c. One of our Founding Fathers, S Rajaratnam was from the Ceylon Tamil community. He drafted our Singapore Pledge, with its call for “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion”. 

d. We built a fair and just society, where nobody would be favoured or disadvantaged because of the colour of skin. We reward talent and effort regardless of race. 

i. Ceylon Tamils understood this well, and thrived. Consequently, their contributions have been disproportionate to the size of the community.

ii. Many of our educators, engineers, medical professionals, academics, legal professionals, senior public servants, and members of the judiciary were – and are – of Ceylon Tamil heritage. 

7. We must ensure that Singapore stays multi-racial and multi-cultural, and retain this unique strength. 

a. We have seen tensions and fault lines such as religious polarisation, xenophobia, and social stratification growing stronger in some parts of the world. 

b. The Internet has also been used to spread misinformation and fake news and sow distrust between communities.

c. If the same happens to us, our society will fracture, and our economy and way of life will suffer. So, divided we fall, but united we stand. 

Openness and resourcefulness 

8. Third, “braving the winds of change” is also about Singapore’s place in Asia and the world. The economic and geopolitical landscape is changing. 

a. We are seeing a shift in global economic weight towards Asia. 

i. When Singapore first started on our industrialisation process, our link was to the G3 economies, the US, Europe, and Japan. Links to these advanced, growing economies allowed us to import the latest in technology, especially in manufacturing. 

ii. But now, if you look at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank projections of various economies, the fastest growing region is going to be Asia, in particular, the big economies of China, India, and Southeast Asia.

iii. Southeast Asia has 650 million people, and is projected to grow from the 6th largest economy in the world to the 4th largest by 2030.

iv. This is a huge opportunity for Singapore. 

b. At the same time, we are seeing a decline in support for globalisation.

i. Singapore has always benefited from globalisation, along with many other countries. The free flow of trade, capital, talent, and ideas have enabled countries to grow and prosper.

ii. But increasingly, people in many countries are questioning the value of globalisation. People feel that they are left behind. They are frustrated that wages are stagnating and lives are not improving. They lost faith in their political systems and governments. These have led to a weakening of social cohesion.

9. These winds of change remind us about the importance of remaining open to the world and being resourceful.

a. For a city-state like Singapore to thrive, the world must be our hinterland. 

i. As a multi-racial, multi-cultural society, our openness to diversity is our strength. It has inculcated a global mindset. 

ii. We must provide our young with the opportunities to be global-ready. This must be complemented with a deep knowledge of Asia, for Singapore to truly benefit from Asia’s growth.

iii. Our businesses must continue to innovate and internationalise, even as we develop our people to be able to thrive in this environment.

b. Singapore must also strive to be a place where talent and ideas congregate. 

i. No one group or country has all the ideas or expertise to tackle challenges. In a world that is rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected, we need to remain open and collaborate to achieve better outcomes together. 

ii. The recipes in Indra’s book illustrate this well.  Although these dishes originated as time-honoured family traditions, they were enriched as the Ceylon Tamil diaspora became open to new cooking methods and ingredients in Singapore and Malaya.


10. Allow me to conclude. Our strengths, built up over the years, stand Singapore in good stead to brave the winds of change, winds of tomorrow, and to be a Global-Asia Node of Technology, Innovation, and Enterprise. 

a. We must always respond to challenges with grit and determination;

b. We must remain a strong and united society. Our multi-culturalism and multi-racialism is a great advantage; and

c. We must continue to remain open and be resourceful, and build Singapore as a global city and home for all.

11. To draw on our strengths, we must first remember and preserve our heritage, as Indra has done by documenting the history and culture of the Ceylon Tamils.

a. To the young people in this room who are preparing for your futures, there is no better place to start by first understanding your grandparents’ stories, and your own heritage and culture.  

b. At the same time, let us remember how our pioneers of different races and cultures worked together to build Singapore. So long as we stay united and strong, we can continue to build a better future for Singapore, and Singaporeans. 

12. Once again, congratulations to Indra on the launch of your book.  

13. Thank you very much!